I love attending SXSW-Music every year. Like a four-day summer camp, you get to catch up with people you only see once a year, stay up late, and learn new skills; at SX, that's usually geography (finding your way around downtown Austin), race-walking (getting from one venue to another on foot in the least amount of time), and the art of balance (writing legibly in a notebook, while holding a camera AND a beer). Unfortunately for me, the subtitle to this this SX was, "If It Can Go Wrong, It Will." (My direct flight had issues-not the flight itself, but rather my place on it. Fyi, that "check in online in advance" suggestion for Southwest Airlines is not a suggestion but the way you ensure you have a seat.) So while my travelmates arrived in Austin at 11:30 am, I didn't get there until 4:30 pm, making me effectively miss all of Wednesday's day parties (a primo way you can ensure that you catch all of the bands you hope to see at SX). Because Southwest Airlines reaaally wanted me to see Kansas City and the tarmac of Dallas/Ft. Worth, missing these parties also meant I missed Zeus, Freelance Whales, Cymbals Eat Guitars, and Real Estate, grrr. (However, the upside was that Southwest refunded my flight in full, so, partial win...)
As such, I was stressed out when I arrived, but all of that fell away the moment I walked outside. DC had been cold and rainy and gross when I left, so taking in that gorgeous Austin weather was an immediate spirit lifter from the get-go. When I finally started my stroll down E. 6th Street to my first band of the day/night, I let out a deep exhale and shrugged the day's irritants off; "rock and roll spring break" was about to begin!
1. Ivan & Alyosha at St David's Bethel Hall
It seems that the easiest way to listen to the 1,000 or so submitted mp3s of bands who are attending SX is as a torrent on an iPod. Not only is it the easiest, but also the fastest and most objective way to make cuts. As the music at SX spans the genres, you do hear a lot of stuff that makes you go "meh," so when you come across those gems in the midst that still have you listening beyond the 30-second mark, you know you have a keeper. And that is exactly what Ivan & Aloysha's "Easy to Love" did, as well as warming my ears and filling my heart.
The lead singer has a voice that put me in mind of Jeff Buckley, ethereal, yet powerful, and filled with emotion. Theirs is a swelling and soaring type of indie rock poetry set to music, with lovely harmonies, and singed with singer-songwriter lyrics.
Sometimes the submitted mp3 is the best track a band has, with the rest more "filler." But live, Ivan & Aloysha, I'm happy to say, is full of aural amazements.
Give a Listen: Easy to Love-Ivan & Alyosha/Buy The Verse, The Chorus
2. The Walkmen at Stubbs
I've tried to see The Walkmen live about three times now, and each time, for one reason or another, I've been unsuccessful. (They originate from DC, so I had to show some love.) When I saw they were playing SX this year, I was determined to finally make it happen between me and them. So I ran over to Stubbs, which was, as usual, packed. I thought it odd when an employee told me the photo pit was "upstairs;" turns out she'd sent me to the VIP balcony instead (God, how I love SXSW).
The Walkmen were energetic as a whole, their sound reaching the far back of the circle that is Stubbs' outside area. The lead singer was prone to leaning mighty far back to belt out notes, and oftentimes, I wondered if he might fall over.
And then they brought out a group of horns. I'm a girl who loves herself some horns so The Walkmen's graceful swaying sound paired with horns? Grand, just grand!
Give a Listen: Another One Goes By (live at KEXP 2006)-The Walkmen/Buy A Hundred Miles Off
And then I received the text telling me Alex Chilton had just died. The highlight of this year's SXSW, and something many of us were looking forward to, was to recognize and celebrate the pop beauty and contribution to such that was Chilton's band Big Star, complete with a full reunion show to close out SX on Saturday. And Chilton was only 59. So sad...
3. Broadway Calls at Headhunters
During SX, I've noticed band venues are often in the last place you'd expect: pizza places, Mexican restaurants, art galleries...or, as was the case of Headhunters, a two-story walk-in closet that came with a bar. Ok, not really, but I've honestly never been in a place so small. And Broadway Calls has a sound so big it could blow the doors off a huge venue, so believe me when I say that between the band's sound, and the massive swarm of kids amped up and moshing on the floor that they shared with the band, the sliding wood door to the place almost came off its hinges. How instruments and band members didn't get knocked over in the process is surprising because when I say they shared the floor, I mean, literally just that: that was no stage, no platform.
But the band seemed perfectly happy being part of the melee, clearly enjoying the chaos that their powerful punk pop invoked.
Me, toting my Nikon, I was glad to be engaged in it all from the safety of the staircase. But just being in the room allowed you to experience what a joyful and exciting noise it was, the perfect antidote to the sad news of Chilton's passing. Broadway Calls takes three chords to make some great fist-pumping pop punk, complete with sing-along choruses. Green Day, Broadway may be calling you to its Great White Way, but don't be surprised if Broadways Calls takes over the reigning punk sneer while you're gone.
Give a Listen: Midnight Hour-Broadway Calls/Buy Good Views, Bad News
4. Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings at Stubbs
The Stubbs venue typically has the most popular acts during SX so the line to get in is typically long. But for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings the line wasn't just long, it was loooong (and for a comparison, it wasn't like that for The Walkmen-sorry guys). It seems soul may be taking (back) over because I'm sure every SX attendee was at, or trying to get into, Stubbs for her set. I definitely think every single photographer was, given the supreme jam-packedness of the photo pit.
This makes the second time I've seen Jones and the Dap-Kings, and it's such a great experience, they are so utterly bad-ass live. Jones seems to be almost single-handedly exposing a whole new generation to that wonderfully big, deep, and raw sound that was Stax and Muscle Shoals.
The Dap-Kings just kind of hung back and let Jones lead the charge (I love the lead-in by the band, playing for a few minutes, then introducing Jones, like they used to with James Brown. No cape, though she did sport a dress that would have made Tina Turner and Grace Kelly jealous). And though Jones may front the band, it's never just her in the proverbial spotlight. The bass and horns play off her voice as her soulful and emotive timber weaves around them, and both sides connect in a way that only experienced musicians and long time band mates can achieve.
While Sharon Jones may have been 20 years older than the average person in the Stubbs crowd, she definitively proves that age is nothing but a number, and some things, like grace, style, and good music, are timeless and only improve over time.
Give a Listen: I Learned the Hard Way-Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings/Buy I Learned the Hard Way (out 4/6)
5. Findlay Brown at Galaxy Room
I'd heard a bit of the Brit, Findlay Brown, and his slightly-twangy and smooth "Wall of Sound"-esque style, and live, he holds up.
But only getting 90 minutes of sleep the night before, I was starting to falter a bit. Yes Mr. Brown, everybody does needs love, but what I really needed about then was a more driving sound to keep myself standing vertical, so I had to go. However, I will be sure to see you the next time you're through DC. PS: Love the Elvis 'do, btw...
Give a Listen: I Had a Dream (acoustic)-Findlay Brown/Buy Love Will Find You
6. We Were Promised Jetpacks at The Parish
The Parish is one of the bigger venues at SX and this year, it housed the Scotland Showcase. One thing I love about seeing Scottish/English/Irish bands playing in the States is how excited and supportive their country's ex-pat brethern get during a show. Maybe it's because it's a little bit of home or something, but whatever the reason, their enthusiasm is always so darn infectious. This was the definitely the case for the latest indie darlings, We Were Promised Jetpacks.
The Jetpacks' music is quick and pulsating, and the crowd's reaction made their playing sharper (or so it seemed). Many of their tracks put me in mind of Boy-era U2 in terms of drums and thick guitar sequences.
And it was good-for a few songs. But after a while I noticed a definitive pattern and honestly, it began to sound like the same song again and again. But you couldn't knock the crowd's excitement; it was probably the most psyched-up group I saw all SX.
I've been listening to the blue-eyed soul of Fitz & the Tantrums since December when I got the info that they were opening for Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings on New Year's Eve here in DC. I loved what I heard, so when I saw they were on the SX schedule, they were marked as a definite must-see. The Stax label, including its house band Booker T & the MGs, was heavily influenced by the British version of "blue eyed soul" or "white soul," so whomever did the pairing of Jones and Fitz together was genius.
The Tantrums definitely give the Dap-Kings a run for their money style-wise, as well, being one of the better dressed bands I saw while in Austin. More on the pop side of soul, as opposed to Jones and the Dap-Kings' R&B side, if the Tantrums can rock a tent this well, I'd love to see what they do in a true nightclub. Many of the songs have these incredibly-hooky choruses that you'll find yourself mindlessly humming days later (and I was).
Though it did start 15 minutes late, I was pleased to see that their live show definitely holds up to the recorded version. Both Fitz and the female backup singer, who did not stop moving the entire time, have pretty incredible voices you just have to hear. You want energy? You want to dance? You want joy? Do not miss Fitz & the Tantrums. They were one of the most enjoyable acts I saw over my four days in Austin, definitely falling within my top 5.
Give a Listen: Winds of Change-Fitz and the Tantrums/Buy Songs for a Breakup
My 1am hour was supposed to be with Surfer Blood. But their venue was an uber bad choice for a latest "It" band (the second floor of a bar, the access to which was to the left of the band playing and its crowd on the first floor. "Clusterfuck" only slightly describes it correctly). So I joined one of my travelmates for a band from Spain, The Right Ons, and boy, was I glad I did.
8. The Right Ons at Barbarella
What was most apparent to me about this band from Spain who played American rock and roll, in English, was that they didn't do it halfway. Even at 1am on a Wednesday (well Thursday actually), they were playing like their lives depended on it. A little bit of garage punk merged with a heavy dose of soul, The Right Ons are like Wayne Kramer got a mohawk and started playing with Sly and the Family Stone at school in Spain. No way I could fall asleep on my feet with this band.
It was so cool to see this band wind up a crowd to the point where every person in the place was dancing. Did I mention it was 1am on a Wednesday (ok, Thursday)? If they can achieve that in such a setting, imagine what a regular venue setting would be like? Moral of the story-a) catch The Right Ons if they're playing the States, b) rest up, and c) bring your dancing shoes. At the very least, let yourself pogo. And don't be surprised if the lead singer jumps into the crowd and pogos right along with you.
Give a Listen: