Wednesday marked the first full day of big unofficial parties at SXSW, and in true Texas fashion a previous forecast of rain actually became a perfect sunny day. Perhaps it was due to the fact that many people were still at work or maybe just weren’t dedicated enough to kick things off so early, but Wednesday consisted of friendly, manageable crowds across town and a handful of high quality acts that will be tough to top over the next few days. Personally, I managed to catch everything from the hillbilly ramblings of Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band – a set that ended with a washboard being lit on fire – to the Sesame Street meets rave of dance pop group Shamir, to heavy stoner metal bands at the Gypsy Lounge. All of that was enjoyable to say the least, but here are the five acts I caught that stood out above everything else…
Banditos at Gingerman
The six folks onstage on the back patio of Gingerman looked like the type of people you either might not want to mess with or might want to take acid with, like the bikers in Easy Rider who can get behind free love just as much as a good ol’ bar fight. In front of a crowd that included Seymour Stein, founder of the legendary Sire Records, Nashville’s Banditos ripped and roared through a set of the kind of tunes that’ll make you want to hop a train, playing songs about drugs, riff raff and ramblin’ of all kinds. With three talented singers – including the Janis Joplin-esque wailings of Mary Beth Richardson – kazoos (“poor man’s saxophone!”) and banjos, Banditos’ set had a communal campfire vibe as relaxed, warm and welcoming as passing a bottle around. Over their thirty minute set the band tapped into country, old time music, soul, and rock, but Banditos may just be a genre all their own.
For my money there may be no band making truer rock and roll than Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires. It made no difference that the Alabama quartet was playing on a Wednesday afternoon in front of a mostly seated crowd. They were there to make their presence known and kick some serious ass. Lee Bains himself is an outspoken rocker with relentless energy, taking the stage and boldly condemning Texas governor Greg Abbott and “all the politicians fucking over their own people” before playing a loud as fuck version of “The Company Man”, the first track off their excellent 2014 album Dereconstructed. Bains is a man who uses rock and roll as his soapbox, a Southerner down to the core who’s rightfully pissed off at injustice and just how fucked up we’ve let our world get. He makes this known with an almost intellectual description of each song before it’s played. That being said, seeing the Glory Fires play their politically charged Southern rock is nothing short of glorious. True to his message, Bains is a man of the people – literally – playing in their faces and on their tables and hulking through the crowd while shredding his ass off. Only after the Glory Fires closed out with “Dirt Track” was the crowd able to catch their breath and realize that they just saw a real life rock and roll show not to be reckoned with.
Jeff Austin at Dogwood
It was strange to see the charismatic former frontman of “jam grass” group Yonder Mountain String Band actually appear to be a little nervous in front of a dedicated audience at the Dogwood. On the one hand, Jeff Austin had just arrived in town and was experiencing the madness that is SXSW for the first time, and on the other hand he was not only playing some of his new material up close and personal, but doing it solo and on acoustic guitar as opposed to his mandolin. These factors made Austin’s short set more intimate and personal as he picked his way through tunes like “Ragdoll”, “Gatling Gun” “Half Moon Rising” (a longtime Yonder staple he said he was playing for the first time in a year), and “One More.” Though quick, for fans of Jeff Austin this set was a look at the new musical directions he is pursuing with his career.
Courtney Barnett at Stubb’s BBQ
You’ve probably been hearing a lot about this Australian singer-songwriter lately, and for good reason. Barnett’s new album – entitled Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit – has been winning praise across the board both for it’s sparse yet tasteful instrumentation and for Barnett’s detailed lyrical narratives. At the NPR showcase it wasn’t as easy to focus in on Barnett’s thoughtful lyrics, but her presence was infectious. Barnett brings to mind groups like the Hold Steady, whose songs take on a literary element with their specific descriptions and interconnecting stories delivered through an almost spoken word style of vocals. In the live setting Barnett played “nearly” her whole new album live, rocking out where appropriate and setting a mood that’s both comfortable and engaging. Expect to see her everywhere over this next year.
You can stream Courtney Barnett’s entire SXSW set via NPR HERE!
Natural Child at Hotel Vegas
I’ve been preaching the awesomeness of this band for a while, and based on the huge crowd at Hotel Vegas, it looks like everyone else is catching on. The four members of Natural Child make what I would call “lazyrock”, which is a compliment. Their tunes move slowly and casually, and tend to revolve around getting high with your friends, chilling out on couches, drinking beers, and just finding that groove to keep life happy. Almost like a countrified version of sludge metal, their music is slowed down to a tempo that only a really stoned person could write and play. Yet, as the friendly but rowdy mosh pit in front of the stage proved – there is a loose, punk rock spirit to Natural Child, a sort of freewheeling “Let the good times roll” (a line they often use) vibe that keeps the rock and roll just cruising along. Natural Child aren’t the best band ever – at least not according to the asshole standing behind me during the show – but their dedication to the lifestyle of chillin’ out and just groovin’ is hard to find authentically in music these days.
Photos by Arthur VanRooy.