Over the course of 4 days and nights, I managed to catch 54 different artists over a total of 61 different sets. For music fans, South By Southwest is the equivalent of Disneyland. There’s a lot of standing in lines, there’s lots of ups and down, you are exhausted at the end of the day and your feet hurt but you don’t care.
Lord Huron (Red 7 Patio) The California band had the poor luck to draw a noon set on Wednesday, playing one of the first sets of SXSW. While they were playing their first few songs, their audience remained lined up down 7th Street awaiting admission to the venue. What little there was to see was quite enjoyable.
JEFF The Brotherhood (Beauty Bar Patio) Getting their start in an early version of Be Your Own Pet, Jake and Jamin Orrall now work The White Stripes guitar and drums formula to perfection. Playing at a frenetic pace, the Orralls blew away a packed patio at the eMusic party, tearing through a tightly wrought set of guitar-heavy garage rock that was one of the best I saw at SXSW 2011. Caught up in the excitement, Jake Orrall tossed all the comp CDs into the crowd (after realizing that winging them one at a time could be a bit dangerous) before wandering into the masses without a stutter to his guitar riff and dropping to his knees in a Hendrix-inspired reverie. All the excitement, energy and freshness you look for in a band was on display here.
Ty Segall (Beauty Bar Patio) By the time Segall took the stage, the Beauty Bar had stopped letting people into the eMusic day party. A small group of intrepid kids made their way to the parking lot on the other side of the building and found a section of the chain link fence that offered them a nice view of the stage. This seems to be the same strategy used on Saturday night although a much larger throng pushed down back fence and started a riot during a Death From Above 1979 set. The Segall-loving kids were enjoying his set about as much as human beings can enjoy music. I hope to enjoy anything in life as much as these kids were digging Segall. In a cool move, the guitarist acknowledged the scene, angling to play in their direction and dedicating a song to them.
Nicki Bluhm & The Gramblers (Sony Lounge) The California based singer-songwriter got an early evening slot on a Sony showcase headlined by her husband’s band The Mother Hips. Tim Bluhm doubled as one of the Gramblers and they offered up a nice country-tinged set for a crowd that may have been equally excited to see the room littered with comfortable couches.
Suuns (Red 7) Monstrously loud and extraordinarily compelling. That is, when they weren’t working in the medium of feedback or shrieking guitars. On record, Suuns melodic tendencies come to the forefront. However, on stage, they are all about creating sonic walls of droning guitars. Given the volume, they might have been better served by the patio stage and not deafening the indoor crowd.
Tennis (Club DeVille) When Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore sat around their living room creating the songs that would result in Cape Dory, their Fat Possum debut, they must have sounded quite cute and lovable. On the stage in Austin, they sounded exactly like every other indie band, playing indistinguishable light rock with little flair. This may actually qualify them with The xx award for creating the biggest disparity between album and live performance.
Yuck (Club DeVille, Mohawk) Do you sit awake at night wondering whether the Silversun Pickups have become too mainstream? If so, Yuck is the band for you.
Shabazz Palaces (Klub Krucial) This was a forgettable rap act that was playing on the indoors stage before White Denim packed the patio. In fact, I had to look up who they were on the Gorilla vs. Bear site because I forgot who they were.
New Mastersounds (Rusty Spurs) At the close of their set, one of the few jambands to play SXSW announced that this had been their first appearance in Austin in four years. They then announced that they would return in another four years and play another half hour.
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit (Swan Dive, Barbarella Patio) Other than describing when Isbell & his band, the 400 Unit, took the stage, the former Drive-By Trucker’s two sets were like night and day. Previewing material from the upcoming Here We Rest, Isbell’s nighttime set at Swan Dive had a harder edge to it, featuring guitar-driven Southern rock that detoured into Houses Of The Holy territory. The next day, in the sun of the Barbarella Patio, Isbell touched on the new album’s more acoustic numbers while including “Decoration Day” and “The Outfit” from his Truckers days.
Middle Brother (Barbarella Patio) For all intents and purposes, Middle Brother is a supergroup comprised of John McCauley of Deer Tick, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Matt Vasquez of Delta Spirit. Closing one of the many Brooklyn Vegan fetes that anchored the festivities along Red River Street, their late afternoon set seemed to be a pleasurably enjoyable lark. McCauley leapt from the stage to play guitar amidst the crowd, Vasquez threw himself into the fray with a an energetic crowd dive and Johnny Corndawg and the other members of Deer Tick and Dawes periodically returned to the stage, ultimately finishing with a boozy version of “Bring It On Home To Me.” Where most sets at SXSW have a purposeful undercurrent, Middle Brother’s was a nice little change of pace.
Old 97s (Barbarella Patio) Prior to the Old 97s taking the stage, I casually mentioned that I had never seen them before. About 20 people in the surrounding area all turned to look at me as if I had just proclaimed a desire to see Men Without Hats. A Texas venue seemed to be the appropriate place to see one of the State’s great alt-country godfathers. I no longer have to be at the receiving end of the barbs and stares that apparently greet pronouncements to having never seen Rhett Miller.
Sgt. Dunbar & The Hobo Banned (Mellow Johnny’s) Using the Low Anthem motif of traditional instruments and a saw, the Albany-centered, Americana folk rock band battled the off-the-beaten-path locale of Lance Armstrong’s bike shop and a tent that seemed on the verge of giving in to the curiously strong winds. It would be more fun to see them play before a bigger and more appreciative crowd.
The Calm Blue Sea (Skinnys Lounge) Much like Explosions In The Sky and Cymbals Eat Guitars, the Austin based combo offer up walls of sound replete with surging crescendos and ebbing waves of majestic guitar scree.
The Bravery (Stubbs) At the end of the evening on Saturday night, I walked into Stubbs to catch The Bravery solely to pad my numbers. I remember the pulled pork sandwich more than I remember the two songs that I caught.
(Part 2 coming soon)