Trunk Road at SXSW: Action Starts Early in Austin

With close to 1,000 bands playing the couple hundred official and unofficial SXSW showcases, there’s a certain amount of prep work that needs to be done before the festivities commence. The SXSW web site will lay out the schedule for the official shows and resources like the Austin Chronicle and Showlist Austin are invaluable for the unofficial day parties. Given the number of savvy concert-goers here for the week, it would be foolhardy to attempt an anal-retentive plan for all four days (which, with Tuesday’s official slate, has crept to a fifth night) and even dumber to try to stick to it. However, culling together a couple cheat sheets laying out who’s playing where and when gives you the flexibility of second, third and oftentimes fourth options should lines frustrate entry to your first. The Boy Scouts were on to something with that “Be Prepared” lingo.

[via @TheGrammys]

The range of artists in Austin this week skews as diverse as you can imagine . . . as long as your imagination can’t conceive jazz, classical, gospel and country (surprising given the locale). There are always relics from another age providing a certain nostalgic novelty and this year Thomas Dolby of science-blinding fame, Christopher Cross and Lionel Richie fill that role nicely. Nineties fossils Counting Crows and Train are in Austin this week. The Crows are playing a free show at Auditorium Shores in support of their new album and I imagine Train had nothing better to do this week.

SXSW doesn’t forget their own. Many Austin-based bands make regular appearances each year, taking advantage of the influx of people to expand their audience. For the first time in many years, Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears are nowhere to be found and with only a select number of sets, White Denim will not be as omnipresent as in past years. On the other hand, Ume, which features Lauren Larson, one the flashiest and more attractive guitarists around, will be relatively ubiquitous this year as will Austin bulwarks The Black Angels and And You Will Know Us By Our Trail Of Dead. After years of stasis as one of Austin’s worst kept secrets, Gary Clark Jr. sits poised to be one of this year’s breakout stars.

In contrast to many of the up and comers in Austin this week, Built To Spill (of whom I am criminally undereducated) will be playing numerous sets and Eighties-rockers The Cult will certainly give pause to anyone confusing them with New York indie-pop due Cults. The Cult may have a new album in the pipeline while Built To Spill may be down here just to show up Train. Bruce Springsteen may fill this year’s legend-in-residence role but should he be unable to satisfy those duties, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff should be able to amply fill his shoes. Also of note, after two years of guerrilla-style performances, Jack White will headline his own Third Man records showcase The Stage on 6th.

In the curio department, Creed Bratton will play a Saturday night set at The Palm Door. Many who know Bratton from his sublime acting work on The Office might not be aware of his tenure as the guitarist of The Grass Roots during their most successful period when they released Let’s Live For Today and Midnight Confession. Some shows just transcend hip and cool.

Before heading down to Austin, Scott Bernstein, Hidden Track’s managing editor, offered me access to the site’s Twitter feed. Given that I thought twittering was something the men did on America’s Next Top Model to show that were FABulous, I didn’t see what that had to do with sending missives from SXSW. In an effort to educate myself on this technology thing all the kids and stunted adults keep talking about, I walked into the SXSW Interactive Trade Show at the Austin Convention Center. I have no clue what any of these companies were selling and I have no clue what their salespeople were talking about. I do know how Bill Murray felt in Lost In Translation. My experiment in interactive technology education was aborted after five of the most baffling minutes I’ve ever experienced.

If artists playing South-By want to peruse the festival, they need to register and get a wristband that provides them access to the various showcases. This requires them to stand in line at the Convention Center like everyone else. Actually, they stand in a longer line than the people picking up badges. This may seem equitable for the unsigned band from the Midwest getting a nice break but I can’t quite imagine Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band standing in that line. Then again, what gatekeeper is going to ever utter the phrase “Sorry Mr. Springsteen. Badgeholders only.”

It appears that SXSW starts on Tuesday night this year. Up until last year, there were always some high-profile unofficial events – My Morning Jacket/Yo La Tengo at The Parish; Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears album release party – but never anything official. Mike Rocket & The Stars are the first official band to play SXSW 2012 with a 7:00 set at Trinity Hall. Playing an easy-going brand of rock, Rocket & The Stars have songs about going to the Jersey Shore and equate a great summer with tipping the bartender. If I had to wager, they are a University of Texas band that honed their skills in the bars that are currently playing host. I am completely guessing on that but don’t think I’m wrong. Doesn’t sound like a great formula. Then again, O.A.R sells out arenas so what do I know.

Two hours into the Bandpage showcase at Club 606 and Empire Automotive, a converted auto repair shop, that may or not be part of the final night of the Interactive portion of SXSWI I realize it is not a showcase for Bandcamp. Despite the presence of Bandpage logos everywhere, I feel my mistake is wholly their fault. How dare they concoct such a ruse to fool the most unqualified person to cover an interactive technology event. I’m unsure if it will remain this way for the rest of the week but the garage of Empire Automotive is set up like a lounge with couches and plush beanbags everywhere. It’s glorious in its moderate decadence.

Thomas Wynn and The Believers open the night in the converted garage. With their devotion to classic rock guitar riffs and song structure – not to mention John Popper quality harmonica, this is a band should be on your radar if you are reading this most worthy site. Little Black Crowes + a little Blues Traveler makes for a mighty combination.

In the much tinier (this is what people mean when they say intimate) Club 606, Joshua James held court before the packed room. Playing with a full band that gave heft to his carefully delicate words and melodies, he dipped into the same weighty medium as A.A. Bondy. By the end of his 40 minute set, I was still unsure as to whether this was the same Joshua James that opened the Earvolution showcase 5 years ago. If forced to wager, I’m gonna say yes. (Most probably)

There’s a mixed blessing to seeing a band like The Heartless Bastards in a room the size of Club 606. In the plus column, you are seeing them in an incredibly intimate room (nee tiny). In the minus column, you and way too many others are packed liked sardines seeing them in an incredibly tiny room (nee intimate). The mighty voice of Erika Wennerstrom comes from a tiny body and the guitar and bassist don’t quite look like your typical rock stars. Nonetheless, the Bastards are a pretty mighty force, chanelling the tenuous romanticism of Richard & Linda Thompson for a new generation.

Back out at Empire Automotive, Shinobi Ninja mashed together rap, hard rock riffs and some DJ scratching together and made noise that most people seemed to enjoy. To dead silence, the MC made a big deal of announcing that Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown opened for Aerosmith. After SXSW affirmed my faith in all that is rock and roll holy by finding that fact remotely interesting, Bryant and his band came out and sounded like a band that would open for Aerosmith.

One year, a journalist from England pointed out to me that many bands at SXSW sound indie-schmindie (I recall him referring to The Duke Spirit) and others as shouty (definitely Be Your Own Pet). This man was clearly a genius and I should have sat at his feet while he spouted more words of wisdom, one of which would have been “Claim these terms as your own, dumbass. No one will know the difference.” Beach Fossils from Brooklyn (always great to come 1000+ miles from New York City to see Brooklyn bands) are definitely indie-schmindie. They reverse the formula a bit, opting for crisp sunny guitar riffs and melodies and fuzzing out the vocals rather than vice versa. Bright little bits of psychedelia might not seem like the soundtrack for a mosh pit but the crowd at 606 went nuts. When it got out of hand and a fight was about to break out, lead guitarist Zachary Cole Smith (I’m pretty sure that’s his name) stopped the music and bitched out the guy getting out of hand. With all calm, he then jumped into the crowd to mosh about with his peeps. Forget the Brit, the Beach Fossils guy is a genius . . . and maybe Gandhi.

At the Bat Bar, Caveman, another Brooklyn band, not only entranced the full house but attracted a mighty crowd watching from outside through the plate glass. Moody, yet heavy ambient music punctuated with heavy percussion is a fine formula. This should be a good South By for Caveman.

Polica, who hails from the Brooklyn section of Minneapolis, followed and managed to keep the audience on the street ensconced in the window. Given the layout of the bar, many of the people watching from 6th Street probably had no clue there was oceans of room inside. Polica works a pair of drummer, one bassist and a compelling female singer to great effect. Soaring vocals, pounding drums, perfectly accentuated with simple bass lines and a rare light show made it clear why NPR snapped them up for their coveted day party.

Seems odd that this all took place on Tuesday night. Hardly the usual restful night before the SXSW storm.

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