Below, you'll find our 20 most recent new music reviews. Check out Bullz-Eye's CD review archive for a look at our past reviews, and head over to Eat Sleep Drink Music for more music reviews, commentary and opinion!
It's funny how we learn about new music today in the digital world. I haven't quite turned in my music journalism card yet, so I receive many pitches for new and established artists. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm a music publicist--so I won't pimp my own artists in this spot. So besides those press releases, I hear about new artists through my clients, through other taste makers like Val's List and Bob Lefsetz and Kings of A&R. I hear about great music from trusted friends. I hear stuff from colleagues repping cool new acts. I hear songs on TV shows or in movies, or on the radio through bumper music (but almost never from the actual radio anymore). And occasionally from online radio stations. That's it. It's amazing how music will find its way into our ears and onto our hard drives now. And speaking of that, I had better purge my iTunes a bit before my PC explodes. Meanwhile, here are some things I'm listening to that you should check out if you feel so inclined.
"Skeleton" by The Good Natured--If you're a fan of synth-driven '80's pop, this title track to the British group's 2011 EP will take you back to those days a bit, while sounding like it could work on today's Top 40 radio--whatever that may be. I found this group through a pitch from their publicist, who is pimping their new single, "Video Voyeur." Now, that video will surely take you back to the early MTV days.
"Celebrate Tonight" by Allen Stone--One of my clients opened for this kid, who really came out of nowhere. He's a scrawny Seattle-bred white kid with an old school R&B soul. Kind of like Daryl Hall, who took Stone in for a "Live from Daryl's House" session that literally gives me goosebumps when I see and hear it. The best part is seeing the unbridled joy on Stone's face as Daryl plays along and sings with him.
"Show and Tell" by Sugar & The Hi-Lows--Nashville singer/songwriters Trent Dabbs and Amy Stroup collaborate here for some pure magic--beautiful melody, arrangement, and a soaring yet lo-fi harmony drenched chorus. It also has a mild '70's vibe ala Josh Rouse's 1972 album (sorry, I have a penchant for music from past decades!).
"Almost Blue" by Joseph Arthur--This guy's music follows me around, and it's sheer brilliance. And this past week he released a new double album on his website, available for free download (though there is no way I'm not hitting the "donate" button--I want Joseph Arthur to make music until he's 80).
"Sweetheart Like You" by World Party--Their new Arkeology set (releasing next Tuesday April 10) is 70 tracks deep and features old songs, new songs, covers, live recordings and more. The World Party fan in your life just has to have this. This song is a Bob Dylan cover that singer Karl Wallinger spins his own way, and it winds up sounding like it jumped off of The New Radicals' only (and genius) album from 1998.
"Drumming Song" by Florence + The Machine--There is something purely intoxicating about Florence + the Machine, and this song embodies that desire to get drunk with her voice and music, as well as the booming percussion. That said, you just have to check out this acoustic video from KEXP--there is no auto-tune, no slick production--mostly Florence's positively sick vocals out front.
"Please Stay Strong" by Stolen Silver--I guess it's okay for me to talk about a band put together with members from a former client band of mine? Well, I just did. These guys have an incredible acoustically driven, harmony-rich sound with some killer songs.
"Forget the Diamonds" by Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer--Just like Sugar & The Hi-Lows above, this duo makes magic together. It's Americana, yet really it's just haunting and melodic music that you will find really hard to stop listening to.
"Wine Dark Sea" by Daniel Tashian--Tashian is one of those under-the-radar Nashville cats who I'm certain writes insanely sweet melodies in his sleep. The front man for The Silver Seas steps aside with a solo project here, but it's really an extension of his band, and something that will tide this big fan over until the next Seas release.
Okay, so I just realized that I could do this all day. But maybe I should save it and do this more often. What do you think? Hit me up here, or on Facebook or Twitter. And thanks for hanging out in my music room for a bit.
It makes perfect sense that a documentary about SoCal ska punkers Fishbone would follow in the wake of "Anvil! The Story of Anvil." Both bands were far ahead of their time, proved to be wildly influential - Gwen Stefani, for one, sings Fishbone's praises to the heavens - yet neither band could sell a record to save their lives. Slash offers a great quote about how several speed metal bands ripped Anvil off and left them for dead. Fishbone had a few more chances at the brass ring than Anvil did, but the end result proved to be the same. "Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone" explains, in often uncomfortable detail, several of the reasons why they were often their own worst enemies.
The structure of the story is not your typical 'analyze the band's career from album to album' approach. Unfortunately, that turns out to be a problem. The great Laurence Fishburne narrates the band's tale, but disappears for long segments at a time, and since the timeline jumps around a bit, the viewer never really knows when to expect his return. Also, several albums from the band's catalog, including 1986's In Your Face (which included minor MTV hit "When Problems Arise"), are not discussed at all, which denies anyone unfamiliar with the band any sense of momentum, or lack thereof, the band had as they soldiered on.
The first act of the film, though, is pure genius. As the band members recall the early days and their formation, the stories are backed with "Fat Albert"-style animation that both nails and works in stark contrast to the vibe of the band and the area in which they lived. David Kahne, the Columbia Records exec who produced Fishbone's first four albums, admits that their failure to reach the next level is his greatest career disappointment. There is a wealth of live footage from the early days. Most of the content, though, is a landslide of conflict and hard times; we see lead singer Angelo Moore get evicted from his place, and worse, we see him on video laying into Norwood Fisher, the only other surviving member of the group. Even the guy shooting the video is telling Angelo to stop before he's gone too far. Then you see Norwood talk about sharing a band with a guy who insists on being Dr. Mad Vibe on the Theremin in the middle of Fishbone gigs, and it's suddenly easy to see why the band is exactly where it is.
But hot damn, were they awesome at times, and in an industry where the pioneers are scapled a lot more often than they're rewarded, you can see why someone would want to pay their respects. We're betting that even the filmmakers did not anticipate the places "Everyday Sunshine" would go, and while that would occasionally lead to an eye-opening moment, the conclusion does not instill the sense of optimism that Anvil had when their credits rolled. Pity. (Cinema Guild 2012)
The big selling point of "Days of Our Lives," the exhaustive two-hour BBC documentary on epic rock quartet Queen, is the material culled from the band's very early days and their very last days. There are live performances from Smile, the group guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor formed before Queen, and some video of future singer Fredde Mercury singing "Big Spender." The later footage, shot on the sets of the last music videos Mercury would perform, his body slowly but surely being ravaged by AIDS, are at once heart-warming and devastating. Mercury was positively gaunt, yet he gathered every ounce of will he could muster to go out fighting.
May and Taylor are wonderfully candid in their interviews, as are fellow managers, producers, roadies, and side men they recruited. (They even brought in Ultravox's Midge Ure to talk about the band's legendary performance at Live Aid.) Everyone has good stories to tell, and there are no attempts at revisionist history. If an album didn't work - say, 1982's Hot Space - they own up to it, and May is the first to admit that some bad business decisions early on led rendered them financially destitute for years, and it was out of desperation from that that they made A Night at the Opera. Best of all, each album is given an equal amount of coverage, with the exception of the soundtrack to "Flash Gordon," of which the title track is played but never discussed.
The one unfortunate aspect of "Days of Our Lives" is that bassist John Deacon did not come back to do an interview, so the producers were forced to rely on archive interview footage for half the band. Yes, he's retired from performing, but this seems like as good an occasion as any to put the Queen hat back on for a day and talk shop. It's a small quibble, though, because the documentary hits all of the highlights of a truly remarkable career...with one small exception: there is no mention of the "Bohemian Rhapsody" scene from "Wayne's World." We would have loved to see them talk about that. (Eagle Vision 2012)
(*Spoken as Jimmy Fallon doing wacky FM DJ*) And we're back! Actually, we were planning on being back a few weeks ago, but Andrew McMahon, lead singer and songwriter of Jack's Mannequin, is a tough guy to pin down. Turn your back on him for a second, and he's peeled off in his tour bus to do another four months of dates. We caught his final show with Guster last month, and it was a blast, especially when the two teamed up for a cover of Peter Bjorn and John's "Young Folks."
The Mannequin's third album, People and Things, was released last week, and when McMahon finally decided to sit down and rest for a second, we were quick to strike: Tell us the 10 songs rocking your world at the moment, or your piano bites it. Surprisingly, there is little piano to be found here, but there are lots of happy techno beats. Rave on, rave on.
"Safe and Sound," Capital Cities
A great tune in the indie/techno vein.
"Our Hearts Are Wrong," Jessica Lea Mayfield
"The only time I miss you is every single day." That says it all.
"Heartbeats," Jose Gonzales
Hypnotizing guitars and vocals on this sad jam.
"I Think It's Going to Rain Today," Randy Newman
Randy's not normally my jam, but this is a haunting song.
"Wonderful The Way I Feel," My Morning Jacket
Damn, this dude can sing and the lyric on this tune is genius.
"The Day Is Coming," My Morning Jacket
Killer groove and production on this track.
"Holocene," Bon Iver
A truly beautiful piece of music.
"Patience Gets Us Nowhere Fast," Capital Cities
"Go Outside," The Cults
The song does the title justice, it makes me want to go party in the sunshine.
"Young Blood," The Naked and Famous
Reminds me of the "Breakfast Club" soundtrack, and that's hard to argue with.
It's clinically proven that the Beatles make life better. Combine the Beatles with the relaxing vibes of reggae, or more accurately reggae's trippy cousin dub, and it's quite possible that you could cure cancer. All right, perhaps some research is required before making a definitive statement, but it would not surprise us in the least to discover that a dub Beatles album serves as one hell of a placebo.
A quick Google search revealed a small army of reggae tributes to the Beatles, including another complete album makeover dub-style. Huh, who knew? But none of those other bands matter. We're here to talk about Yellow Dubmarine, which is comprised of seven of the the most Anglo white men you're likely to meet. (The only thing their press photo is missing is Damon Albarn, Graham Cozon, a monocle, and a Great Dane.) They sure don't play like uptight English white boys, though, as this version of "Something" will show. It's unclear where this will take them career-wise, but it's a pretty interesting detour at the very least. We bet the Quiet One would have gotten a kick out of it, that's for sure.
It's nice to see that '60s lounge cool has yet to go out of style. Heck, if anything, it's making a big of a comeback in the indie community. Jon Fratelli put his "Chelsea Dagger" day job on hiatus in order to make a boy/girl '60s pop record with his wife's best friend (they're called Codeine Velvet Club, and they're super cool), and let us not forget the ultimate hipster, slightly retro boy/girl duo the Bird and the Bee, whom the blogosphere keeps trumpeting, even though their tribute album to Daryl Hall and John Oates left us cold. More than cold, really. Frozen.
Enter the Moor, boldly going where, well, no one has made money in decades. This is to our immense gain, of course, not to mention some up and coming filmmaker who wants to use a Nancy Sinatra song without paying for a Nancy Sinatra song. "Warm Winter," the leadoff track to their self-titled album, actually brings to mind a couple of bands from across the pond, with an extra jump over a fjord - Club 8 and the Acid House Kings. Those bands, like the Moor, are boy/girl duos, and all three are suckers for the mellow '60s vibe, not that there's anything wrong with that.
Oh man, is this easy on the ears. Just when we're tempted to concede that new bands just don't know how to construct a song the way they had been built for, oh, 35 or 40 years, along come the Wandas, an east coast quartet (Boston, if you can believe it) with a serious West Coast fixation. And we don't say 'if you can believe that' in a derogatory manner; in fact, we lived in Boston for a couple of years, so we speak from experience when we say that the bands that made a name for themselves there, well, don't sound like this. The only person who comes close is Aimee Mann, and she's been gone for so long that she hardly counts as a Bostonian anymore.
The Wandas recorded their self-titled album in Montreal, and that makes perfect sense, since their sensibilities are similar to the bands who call Montreal home. In fact, several locals (Stars, the Stills, the Dears) play on the album, and while the Wandas don't sound exactly like any of those bands, they're in the same ballpark. Surrender to the mellow vibe. Everything will work out, we swear.
All right, so here's the pitch to anyone who was tuned in to modern rock when the scene first started coming together (that would be the late '80s, in case you weren't sure): "Cassette 2012," the new single by Finnish quartet Delay Trees, is the best song the Ocean Blue never wrote.
And now, lets put that into context for anyone who was born after 1982.
The Ocean Blue were a alt-pop band out of Hershey, Penn. They released their debut album in late 1989 on Sire Records -- back when, you know, the label you signed to made a very clear statement about what kind of band you were -- and they quickly became darlings of MTV's late-night modern rock show "120 Minutes." Their songs were dreamy, jangly, and melodic beyond words. Singer David Schelzel's low tenor was quite airy (possibly a precursor to the breathy Manchester bands a year or so later), and the musicianship was tight. Their self-titled first record remains a late '80s alt-rock gem.
And "Cassette 2012" sounds just like that album.
The rest of their self-titled debut isn't quite the dead ringer for the Ocean Blue, but it's in the ballpark. Atmospheric arrangements, songs steeped in melody...it's damn good. It doesn't stand a chance of storming the charts on this side of the pond, but ten bucks says this will make a few soundtrack supervisors very, very happy.
God love the Republic Tigers. Their insanely melodic, mid-tempo pop is delightfully out of time, but not in a 'let's cash in on this retro thing' kind of way. Think of them as a moder-day equivalent of a band like Bourgeois Tagg - thinking man's pop for teenagers. Is that the next niche market?
Sadly, probably not, which is why we love the Tigers for doing it anyway. Their 2008 album Keep Color still receives steady airplay on the iPod, and their new EP, No Man's Land, is more of the same, including a revved-up version of Keep Color track "The Nerve." Check out this new song, "Merrymake It with Me," which we're convinced is a tip of the hat to Swedish power popsters the Merrymakers. Well, the title is. The song, not so much.
New album coming out later this year. Hopefully this will tide you over until then.
This Irish dance-rock trio is fast climbing our list of favorite bands. The song "How Your Heart Is Wired," from their 2009 album Blue Lights on the Runway, was in power rotation at BE headquarters, so when their new album Bloodless Coup arrived in the mail, we popped that puppy right in the player. Before "Sugar High" was even over, it was our favorite song on the album.
Man, is it nice to hear two chords used so effectively. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit, and this song keeps it simple in all the best ways. Well done, lads.
Welcome to the final installment in our coverage of the South by Southwest Music Festival, where we decided to listen to some people talk along with continuing to listen to people sing. The free food and drinks weren't bad, either.
South by Southwest offers more live music than any other music event on Earth when you add in all the free day parties. Many of the the bands playing official evening showcases also schedule day party sets to maximize exposure and opportunity. But then you also have the panels at the Austin Convention Center, where industry veterans discuss a wide variety of music industry topics and concerns. It's great to be able to take a rest from the parties and soak up some knowledge in whichever areas are of interest.
The daytime showcases and panels
Ume, Lustre Pearl
Lustre Pearl was the place to be at 1 pm on Wednesday as Ume played a rocking set to get the beautiful sunny day going in the club's back yard. Ume was recently named by Rolling Stone as one of the 16 best unsigned bands in America, and it's not hard to see why. Singer/guitarist Lauren Larson is a dynamic force of nature, riffing and rocking out in high-energy fashion, while her husband holds down the alt-punk-grunge low end on bass. Tunes like “The Conductor” find the band putting it all together with great riffage, a catchy melodic chorus and then a big rock finish. The band sounds like they could fit right into the '90s Seattle scene. Could they be even better if they added a lead guitarist? Perhaps.
Leslie & the Badgers were due up at Lustre Pearl after Ume, but the Badgers were MIA as Leslie Stevens played solo acoustic. But with the day still young, it was nice for the ears to follow Ume's powerful alt-rock set with some acoustic Americana stylings and the sweet soprano voice of Stevens.
Steve Poltz, West Sixth
Steve Poltz and the Rugburns played the Dogwood on West Sixth at 2:30 pm and it was a great '90s flashback since Poltz usually tours solo these days. The Rugburns were a band that should have been big in the '90s, but they never quite got over the hump. But Poltz has carved out a career as an endearing singer/songwriter of catchy tunes with a great sense of humor. “Me and Eddie Vedder” was a highlight as always with Poltz, where he pays amusing tribute to Led Zeppelin, marijuana, LSD, the Brady Bunch and alt-rock dreams. Poltz also told an amusing story about riding his bike when he was a kid, running into a truck and needing 56 stitches in his head. He also then needed a retainer that he said became like a radio, which is what led him to start writing songs, including one about visiting Graceland and being willing to pimp out his sister to Elvis. Poltz remains one of the most unique and charming singer/songwriters in the business.
The Cloud Nothings, Mohawk Patio / Jessica Lea Mayfield, Radio Day Stage
Ohio musicians were down on the scene in the mid-afternoon as Cleveland natives the Cloud Nothings rocked the Mohawk Patio at 3:15 pm. The band has a high-energy
pop-punk sound, if that's your thing, though they could perhaps benefit from some more dynamics in their songwriting. It was Kent, Ohio's Jessica Lea Mayfield (below) who stole the afternoon at the convention center's Radio Day Stage in a 4 pm set. The 22-year-old singer/songwriter is clearly an old soul, emoting in a style that seems beyond her years. Her overall vibe is sort of Midwest Americana mellow, but her songwriting keeps growing and she's starting to incorporate a little more rock flavor into some of her tunes. She highlighted songs from her new album Tell Me, such as “Trouble,” which starts off slow but then picks up with a solid beat and some shimmery electric guitar elements. Lead single “Our Hearts Are Wrong” is a big winner, with Mayfield at her best on the up-beat yet still laid back groove. This is the kind of tune that could guide Mayfield toward stardom.
Music panel: Juggalos to Phish-heads
The 5 pm hour featured an intriguing panel titled “Juggalos to Phish-heads: Managing Fanatical Music Consumers.” The panel featured discussion about super fans and how they can at times be a double-edged sword. Amy Miller from Ticketfly moderated and related the tale of how Juggalos – fans of the Insane Clown Posse – had basically assaulted the notorious Tila Tequila when she tried to perform an opening set for the band. Fans had apparently vowed to abuse her and the Insane Clown Posse had even offered to pay her not to perform, yet she chose to risk life and limb. Andy Gadiel from JamBase, famous in the Phish community for his Phish site, was quick to point out how that would never happen at a Phish show. Stories were also related by panelists about fans of Jane's Addiction and R.E.M. In the end, it seemed apparent that Phish has the most active and benevolent super fans of all.
Eisley, The Stage
If you knew you couldn't catch Eisley in their at the Barbarella Patio, there was another chance to see them at Paste Magazine's party at the Stage on Sixth at 7 pm. The melodic indie-pop band from Tyler, Texas played a great set, mixing older tunes with material from their forthcoming new album The Valley. With girls on guitars and keyboards and guys on drums and bass, the band delivers a majestic sound. The harmonies on “Invasion” were a treat, with guitarist Sheri Dupree-Bemis and keyboardist/sister Stacy Dupree soaring on the haunting yet catchy song. “Ambulance” was another highlight, with Stacy shining in a Tori Amos type of way. The band has been signed since 2003 and are still fairly young, maintaining what still looks like a very high ceiling.
"Treme" party, The Ghost Room
Thursday afternoon offered a "Treme" party at the Ghost Room, featuring New Orleans jazz and funk and headlined by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Ace piano man Henry Butler also entertained the packed club, while fans enjoyed a New Orleans buffet on the patio out back featuring dirty rice and beans, jambalaya and Crawfish Monica (a spicy macaroni and cheese with crawfish tails, mmmm.) But attending the party required missing Guns 'n' Roses bassist Duff McKagan delivering a solo panel back at the convention center on financial advice for musicians. This was a really tough call if you're a fan of both G'n'R and New Orleans music.
The Joy Formidable, The Parish
English buzz band The Joy Formidable played the NPR day party at The Parish at 3:15, but the free party had a line down the street making late arrival impossible. You could still catch the band in the 5 pm hour in a party from Seattle's KEXP at Mellow Johnny's Bikeshop though. But for some reason, the shop had bands playing inside the shop with horrible acoustics and bad sightlines when they had an outdoor stage set up that they were only using for evening sets. The power trio did their best in a bad situation, and it was still apparent that singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan is a star on the rise. The band's guitar-driven sound recalls Tanya Donnelly's '90s band Belly, with a big sound and airy yet strong vocals from the diminutive but forceful Bryan.
Nicole Atkins, The Stage
Nicole Atkins entertained fans at the ongoing Paste party at the Stage on Sixth in a 4 pm set, with a bluesy melodic vibe highlighting songs from her new album Mondo Amore. “The Tower” closed the set in stylish fashion. Atkins started off the song singing in a torchy sort of style, before the tune evolved in a more powerful direction that saw her belting it out on the choruses and the ending jam.
Music panel: Writing about music in the 2010s
Friday had a 12:30 pm panel for the music critics titled “Writing About Music in the Twenty Tens,” where attendees could glean the wisdom of writers who have managed to make a living at the game. One tip was to save all your recorded interviews, because you never know when there could be a book deal down the line where the material could come in handy. Two o'clock featured a related topic with “Critics vs. Publicists: Why Must Things Be Contentious?” Moderator Heather West, President of Western Publicity out of Chicago, led a lively discussion on the relationship. The bottom line was that music critics and publicists need each other, so cordial and respectful behavior should be a two-way street.
The Radio Day Stage area continued to serve a key dual purpose. Bands had a chance to play afternoon sets at the convention center for badge holders who might not be able to catch them later. There were chairs up front for close-in viewing, but there was also a lounge area in the back with lots of big cushy pillows where attendees could relax and take a load off. The Felice Brothers played in the 3 pm slot and mixed a bluesy folk rock sound with a Dylan-ish vibe that was perfect for a lazy break time.
Rolling Stone party: Tennis, Surfer Blood, Stephanie Hatfield & Hot Mess
Saturday afternoon featured a Rolling Stone day party at La Zona Rosa, with barbecue, Stella Artois and tequila drinks. Tennis, Surfer Blood and the Joy Formidable all performed. Tennis had a melodic pop sound featuring waifish vocalist/keyboardist Alaina Moore. Surfer Blood out of West Palm Beach featured an anthemic guitar rock sound that recalled the Strokes to some degree, but not as hooky. It would have been great to see the Joy Formidable in a proper venue, but the 2:45 pm slot called for a trip over to Fuel on Trinity Street, where Stephanie Hatfield & Hot Mess were due. The Santa Fe band has a guitar-driven blues rock sound that serves as a canvas for the sensational vocal stylings of Ms. Hatfield, a rock goddess who can belt it out with the best of them. She went sultry, playful, mournful, anthemic; there seems to be no limit to her range. Guitarist Bill Palmer, meanwhile, was a master of six-string dynamics, always playing for the song. The band will soon release their second album and could be on the verge.
Madison House Breakfast Beats & Afternoon Treats party: Eliot Lipp, Toubab Krewe, Van Ghost, Lynx, Rival Sons
This was a treat indeed, held in the parking lot of Frontgate Ticketing's office on South Congress and featuring free vodka drinks and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. You don't get a lot of jam bands at SXSW, which are Madison House Publicity's specialty, as they tend to focus on relentless touring rather than aiming for industry connections. But Madison House put together a great little lineup for the jam crowd here. DJ Eliot Lipp threw down some tricked out funky breakbeats in the 4 pm hour to entertain the assembled. He featured analog synths and futuristic vibes that had the boys dancing and the girls hula hooping. Toubab Krewe appeared again and delivered another stellar set of groovy jams that were very well received.
Van Ghost out of Chicago mixed it up with an acoustic duo version of their bluesy Americana band, featuring singer/guitarist Michael Berg and powerful vocalist Jenn Hartswick (of Trey Anastasio Band fame.) The pair delivered some of the best harmonies of the weekend, leaving fans eager to hear the whole band. Lynx followed with her one-woman act that featured an amazing vocal jam where she beat-boxed in an impressive manner that recalled the skills of actor Michael Winslow in Police Academy. The Oakland-based artist said she developed the skill from too much time being grounded and bored. She also played some great tunes featuring call-to-arms lyrics like “Time to give the power back to the people.” She's got a great message- someone get this girl a backing band.
It was only too bad that the crowd had diminished by 7 pm because the best was yet to come in the party's final slot. Those who stayed were richly rewarded with an electrifying set by Rival Sons out of Los Angeles. The rocking quartet seems heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin and the Black Crowes, with an authentic blues rock sound that's hard to come by these days. Guitarist Scott Holiday oozes coolness and is a riff master who's obviously worshiped long and deep at the altar of Jimmy Page. Vocalist Jay Buchanan has clearly got the rare “it” factor that makes great singers so hard to find, bringing a vocal prowess and charismatic stage presence that stand out in a crowd of 2,000 bands.
Welcome to Part II of our South by Southwest coverage, where our tireless concert goer braves five straight days of live rock 'n roll. First we tackled the headliners. Here, it's showcase time.
The Evening Showcases
Official SXSW showcases took place each night, in six hourly slots from 8 pm to 1 am. So much music, so little time, so many choices. Here's some of the highlights.
Tristen, The Phoenix
Wednesday night featured an 8 pm set from Tristen at The Phoenix. The Nashville singer/songwriter/guitarist deals out an infectious brand of pop rock with a rootsy base and strong melodic hooks. She's got a great voice that at times recalls Jenny Lewis from Rilo Kiley. But “The Ringer” had more of a retro pop vibe a la She and Him, while “New Punching Bag” had a gloriously bouncy guitar shimmer.
Fifth Nation, The Tap Room
One of the most unique aspects/perks of SXSW is the potential to discover a great new band you've never heard of when your ear just happens to catch a compelling sound from the street. So it was after Tristen's set when a soaring voice from a nearby rooftop caught our ear. A quick scramble up the stairs at the Tap Room revealed Fifth Nation, out of Brooklyn. Singer/guitarist King Julia has a voice with some of the soul undertones of a Lauren Hill or Erykah Badu, but she puts it in more of a rock context. She and drummer/keyboardist Music Read are just a duo, but create a full sound. Just catching the last 10 minutes of the set revealed this pair as a talent to keep an eye on.
Immortal Technique, Mohawk Patio
Legendary underground hip-hop artist Immortal Technique played to a packed house at the Mohawk Patio at 11 pm. He certainly delivered a high-energy set, although it seemed a bit heavy on plain old anger and a bit short on the radical, left-wing political lyrics that he's famous for, such as a tune about 9/11 being an inside job. His message would also probably come across stronger if he had a band instead of just a DJ and four hype men.
Nico's Gun, Annie's West
We spent the whole evening at the ACL Live venue on Thursday, but Widespread Panic's set was over around 12:30 am, so there was still one more showcase to be caught in the 1 am slot. The perfect aftershow party was not far away as Nico's Gun out of Philadelphia threw down a raucous set at Annie's West on Sixth Street. The funky rock quartet got the party going immediately as girls were dancing onstage during the first song! The band sustained that high energy level throughout their set, mixing some psychedelic qualities in with the funk to keep the Spreadheads dancing the whole time.
Liz Phair, IFC House
Friday night saw '90s indie-alternative darling Liz Phair was in high demand rocking the intimate IFC House. Phair is 43 now, but she's a testament to human evolution because she doesn't look or sound a day over 28. She hit the stage rocking a short mini-skirt and her classic power pop jam “Supernova,” which elated the small but packed room. It's a strange venue since the concert area is so tiny, yet there are also widescreens showing the performance in the lobby where free drinks and pretzels were being served. Phair ran through a crowd-pleasing greatest hits set, but also tossed in a great new song and then closed it out in triumphant style with her classic “Fuck and Run.”
It was tempting to try and catch the psychedelic rock of Austin's own Black Angels in the midnight hour, but the Cedar Street Courtyard was a total crowd scene as Jeff Spicoli would say, so it became more appealing to check out Toubab Krewe at Copa. The Asheville jamband drew a festive audience and delivered the goods with some uplifting melodic jams that had the Copa crowd moving and grooving.
It was also tempting to catch Sharon Van Etten at the Central Presbyterian Church at 8:30 pm on Saturday, as her sweet voice would surely sound extra fine with those sensational acoustics. But the Bright Eyes set at Auditorium Shores was just too good to leave at that point. Afterward, it was over to the Belmont on West Sixth, a great little courtyard venue where Nico's Gun were playing again. The funk quartet were worth seeing again, especially with the improved acoustics and great light show of the classy outdoor venue. It was another great set as the boys showed themselves as a band to watch on the jam rock and festival scene.
Dawes, Lustre Pearl
There were lots of attractive options in the midnight hour with Austin power trio Ume (above) at Skinny's Ballroom, as well as Texican rockers Los Lonely Boys at the Phoenix. But with the Band's Robbie Robertson having recently tabbed Dawes to be his new backing band, catching them at Lustre Pearl seemed like the way to go. It didn't take long to see why Robertson fell in love with the band; They've got a compelling vintage folk rock sound coming out of LA's Laurel Canyon scene. They also have great chemistry, thanks to bassist Wylie Gelber, who was just flat-out amazing. His warm liquid bass runs showed a total mastery of the instrument and boosted every tune higher.
Coming up next: the day party sets and conference panels
“There's music everywhere you go, all the time, which is just a beautiful thing.”
The 25th anniversary edition of the South by Southwest Music Conference & Festival went down in Austin, Texas this month and it was one to remember. The festival once again featured everything from semi-secret shows by arena-level headliners to all the latest “buzz” bands, to '80s favorites looking to make a comeback. This wide mix of talent is exactly what makes SXSW so unique. With somewhere around 2,000 bands playing at roughly 200 venues over five nights, it was pretty much heaven on Earth for live music junkies.
The festival keeps growing in attendance every year, so the urban chaos factor has been increasing too, leading NPR to describe the massive city-wide party as seeming like “one big crowded bar.” It did have that vibe at times, but isn't that kind of fun? Indeed, it is. Traffic often did look like a nightmare (you gotta have a bike, people) and there were a couple unruly incidents this year. But if you're a party professional, there's really nowhere you can have a better time, not to mention being able to mix business with pleasure if you're a music industry pro. It's the influx of party amateurs that threatens to mess up a good thing.
Two incidents exemplified this: the gate crashing at Auditorium Shores when the free show by the Strokes on Thursday had filled to its 20,000 capacity, and the mini-riot that took place at the Beauty Bar on Saturday night after it had filled to capacity for Death From Above 1979, who were billed only as “special guest.” But there's just no excuse for such behavior. There's only, like, 200 other shows going on at any given time; if your first choice is filled to capacity, then go see someone else, This is why planning is key – you always want to have two or three potential choices in any given time slot, because you never know when your top show will either be at capacity or across town from where you've wound up and don't really care to travel to at that moment.
Bringing or renting a bike is key. A bike also allows you to zip back and forth to have maximum flexibility to see your most preferred shows. It's simple Vulcan logic. The other great thing about having so many choices is that SXSW can mean so many different things to so many different music fans. It's all out there, as every genre is represented. You can focus on one or sample them all like the massive musical buffet that SXSW is. If you're not having a great time, you're just not trying. Here follows one Gen-X rock 'n' roller's musical menu, broken down into headliners, other evening showcases and day parties.
Foo Fighters, Stubb’s BBQ
SXSW Music has traditionally run from Wednesday through Saturday. But this year they decided to add some showcases on Tuesday evening as well. Yet there seemed to be something missing compared to the past two years. There was no blank spot in the Friday night lineup at Stubbs BBQ for a semi-secret arena level headliner (which turned out to be Metallica in 2009 and Muse in 2010.)
But then something stood out on the Tuesday schedule for SXSW Film – the world premiere of The Foo Fighters' new rockumentary “Back and Forth” at the Paramount Theater, with the program stating that Music badges were good for admission to the screening. Then word came down through a local music blog's Facebook page early on Tuesday – a Stubbs employee said the the Foo Fighters would be playing a “secret” show at Stubbs that night. Was it invite-only, or would which badges would gain admittance? This was unclear. But applying Vulcan logic, it was easy to conjure a likely scenario – if you attended the film, you would get into the show at Stubbs, because wouldn't it just make sense to play the show for the people who were big enough fans to attend the film premiere?
The Paramount Theater on Congress Avenue was a hub of activity, with no less than four different lines stretching in various directions. Chaos ensued with SXSW staff at first being unsure of whether Music badges were valid and then declaring that they were not. A mini-insurrection ensued, with a small group of music badge holders pulling out the official program, where it clearly stated that music badges were acceptable in order to gain admittance. The situation was rectified several calls later when staff were instructed to place the music badge holders in line. The coveted yellow wristbands with the band's “FF” logo soon followed and so it was that heady Foo Fighters fans had the unique pleasure of viewing the film, followed by an after party at Stubbs featuring a smashing headlining set by the band, with open bar and tacos, no less (provided by a sponsor of SXSW Interactive for the closing night party.)
The film was compelling, tracing the band's origins from the shocking suicide of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain that sent Dave Grohl into an existential crisis, to becoming international stars, to the recording of the band's new album in Grohl's garage with Nevermind producer Butch Vig. Afterward, it was right over to Stubbs where a mob scene ensued as again there were no less than four different lines of people attempting to gain admittance. But it was the film attendees with the yellow wristbands who were admitted first.
The Foo Fighters also came on first and played a scintillating set that started off with a complete rendition of the new album Wasting Light, which definitely sounded like some of the band's best work. In the film, guitarist Chris Shiflett had commented on how “All My Life” from 2003's One by One was always a song that sparked a show higher. So it was again here as the song kicked off another electrifying 30-40 minutes of the band's greatest hits. Grohl was on fire, drummer Taylor Hawkins was an animal as usual, and there was no doubt this was one of the top performances of the week. And it was only the first night of the festival.
Queens of the Stone Age, La Zona Rosa
Wednesday night also saw a stellar headlining set from an alt-rock favorite, as Queens of the Stone Age took the La Zona Rosa stage at 12:15 am and delivered a straight-up smoking set that went right up until 2 am. QOTSA also delivered a complete album performance, but rather than highlighting a new one, they threw down their self-titled 1998 debut that's about to be re-released. The packed club reveled in every moment of the hard-hitting set, with Josh Homme and company in superb form on the tight, heavy material. Homme also put himself up for most rock star performance of the week by drinking straight from a bottle of vodka throughout the set.
The Strokes, Auditorium Shores/Widespread Panic, ACL Live at the Moody Theater
Thursday night featured hipster heroes the Strokes headlining the free show at Auditorium Shores, as well as jam rock titans Widespread Panic playing the first SXSW showcase that would also be a taping for the Austin City Limits TV show. The Strokes show was appealing, but the Panic showcase also had a strong conflicting undercard. The New Mastersounds and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band opened the show at the swanky new ACL Live at the Moody Theater venue. Fear of getting shutout led many Spreadheads to get there early, although the 2,700 capacity theater never did fill completely. Still, staying in one place for three great bands can be appealing, too.
Reports indicated that the Strokes delivered a high-quality show highlighting their new album to make up for two abbreviated sets at last fall's ACL Festival. It was however a great night at ACL Live. The New Mastersounds got things going with a funky set, followed by a great set from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who received guest assistance from bluegrass legend Del McCoury and the Traveling McCourys, as well as Jim James from My Morning Jacket.
Widespread Panic delivered a solid set, if not quite the full-tilt barnburner that some badgeless local fans feared they might miss. There were no special guests but there were plenty of highlights, such as a sparkling “Pilgrims” and the soul-soothing “Up All Night,” an appropriate anthem for the SXSW crowd. “Chilly Water” closed the set with a surging take on one of the band's jam staples, with bassist Dave Schools laying down a super-heavy low end. Some newbies and casual fans were probably surprised to find themselves getting wet from Spreadheads playfully shooting water from their water bottles up into the air, as is tradition during the song. A triple encore included a great “Dirty Side Down,” the title track from the band's latest album and a gem that shows the band is still cranking out great new songs 25 years into their illustrious career.
The Airborne Toxic Event, Stubb's BBQ
Friday night had a wealth of options in headliner slots, such as Duff McKagan's Loaded at the Austin Music Hall, but this reporter had to see the Airborne Toxic Event at Stubb's. A favorite new discovery at SXSW 2009, the band had graduated to a Friday night slot at Stubb's, and if you'd fallen in love with their debut album, you wouldn't want to miss the chance to see them make good here and check out new material from their forthcoming second album All at Once.
Singer/guitarist Mikel Jollett noted how the band wound up touring behind that first record for over two years, which meant he had to sing about his ex-girlfriend every night for over two years, which he doesn't recommend. A great new song touched on this theme with Jollett singing, “Two years away, now I don't miss home.” Many bands were clearly pacing themselves for a long week by drinking water onstage, but Jollett received party points when he toasted the crowd, saying “It is SXSW after all, and we are professionals,” followed by a slug from a Heineken tallboy. It was a zeitgeist moment for SXSW 2011 – you can party without having to be out of control. Another highlight of the week occurred when the band played their neo-classic, “Sometime Around Midnight.” The tale of heartache at seeing an ex that you're still getting over can induce a tear, but it's a cathartic song and it clearly struck a chord with the audience here. Violinist Anna Bulbrook drove the song to several peaks with her skillful work, and the set was a most triumphant SXSW homecoming for the band.
Men Without Hats, Club DeVille
There was also a major conflict in the closing slot, when rising Oakland buzz band Beats Antique were playing the Beauty Bar at the same time that '80s icons Men Without Hats were to play around the corner at Club DeVille. Many music fans under the age of 30 have probably never heard of Men Without Hats, but if you were watching MTV in the '80s, the Montreal band's smash hit “The Safety Dance” was huge. There was a real buzz in the crowd at Club DeVille because it felt like one of those special SXSW opportunities that just don't come around every day. When the group hit the stage with a charged cover of The Rolling Stones' “Jumping Jack Flash,” the party was on. Singer Ivan Doroschuk had his mojo working and this energy translated to the crowd as the group ran through all their best material. “Everybody's Happy” was interestingly dedicated to local radio talk show host and conspiracy theory icon Alex Jones. When the group triggered the opening synth run and beat for “The Safety Dance,” a jolt of electricity shot through the crowd with a wave of smart-phones rising in the air to record the moment as the crowd sang along. It was easily one of the most well-received songs of the week, as well as one of the most ecstatic moments.
Bright Eyes, Auditorium Shores
Saturday night featured another big free show at Auditorium Shores with Bright Eyes, where there was no trouble to be found, just great music. The only reason for anyone to be upset could have stemmed from spotting a huge prop Maker's Mark vending machine, only to find that no whiskey was available for sale - just beer and frozen margaritas. Conor Oberst and company delivered a sparkling and lengthy set that sounded great on the balmy spring evening under the rare super moon, which appeared extra large and bright as the moon made its closest approach to Earth in 18 years. The crowd seemed to recognize every song, with one tune after another being met with huge cheers. Oberst was mostly in high spirits as the band featured material both classic and new from their latest release, The People's Key. Oberst dedicated “Approximated Sunlight” to the super moon, while later noting that the US had just started its third war with the military action in Libya.
“It doesn't even matter any more, it doesn't bother anyone... I think it's worth noting that today we murdered children as a country. Sorry to bring it down like that, but that's what's actually happening,” said Oberst before soothing the vibe with “Old Soul Song.” But ultimately, the indie rock star was as much in the spirit of SXSW as anyone, saying, “There's music everywhere you go, all the time, which is just a beautiful thing.”
Deer Tick, Lustre Pearl
The evening ended with a bang too, for those who found their way over to Lustre Pearl for a 1 am set by Rhode Island's Deer Tick. The charming Rainey Street club had been packed for a great set by Dawes, where members of Deer Tick joined the band for their last song. Deer Tick had apparently advertised the fact that they were going to pull a special stunt here, but the crowd seemed taken unaware when the band came on and launched into Nirvana's “School.” It was just the beginning as the band played an entire set of Nirvana tunes, taking the audience on an exhilarating time travel trip back to 1993.
Deer Tick is known for a bluesy indie folk sound, but singer/guitarist John McCauley has a gritty voice that's right in Kurt Cobain's register. The band's powerful sound did great justice to the material, as they tackled it with a sacred reverence. They delivered some of the hits such as “In Bloom,” “Lithium” and “All Apologies,” all of which received raucous singalongs. But they also covered more obscure fan favorites like “Blew” and “Aneurysm,” and the delirious crowd was just as into those. If you were starting to feel a bit weary after raging SXSW for five nights, this set was just what the doctor ordered to re-energize both body and soul. The band even went so far as to smash their instruments after the set-ending “Scentless Apprentice,” going all in on the tribute to one of alt-rock's greatest heroes. What a way to close out the festival.
When a lone member of a band continues to tour under the name that made him famous, it's usually a sad sight. Infighting has led to acrimony, lawsuits and injunctions are filed, and worst of all, the last person standing, most likely the lead singer, is too proud to admit that maybe their songs and their singing or playing ability have just not held up well, and it's time to pack it in.
Then there's Dave Wakeling.
Wakeling is the leader of ska pop giants the English Beat, and rather than get into legal dust-ups with his former band mates, he and fellow singer Ranking Roger have worked out a deal where Wakeling tours as the Beat in the United States, while Roger, along with original Beat drummer Everett Morton, tours as the Beat in the band's native England. Everybody makes money, everybody's happy. How refreshing. Even better, Wakeling is not content to waltz into the sunset - the band he hired to round out the US version of the English beat are smoking hot, and the two-hour show they unleashed on the ecstatic audience at Skully's Music Diner was a textbook lesson on how to do a so-called nostalgia show.
We use that word 'nostalgia' reluctantly, but it must be said. Wakeling loathes the recording studio - his direct quote to us, when we interviewed Wakeling in 2009, was "I think the process of recording 12 songs in a row, at the same time, I used to find it interminably boring. I hated it. You know, you just listen to your own songs for three months, good God" - and hasn't released anything new under any name since 1995. Not surprisingly, the evening's set list contained the lion's share of the Beat's debut album, I Just Can't Stop It, with a few songs from Special Beat Service and Wakeling's spinoff band General Public mixed in ("Never You Done That" was a most welcome surprise), and by sticking with their best-known songs, Wakeling and crew had a mostly 40+ crowd dancing nonstop for two straight hours, which is no small feat. Wakeling's between-song banter is lightning quick and often hilarious, and his band, anchored by terrific drummer Rhythmm Epkins, were super-tight, with several songs stretched well past their album running times.
There are only eight dates left on the English Beat's current US tour. If they're playing in your town, or even within 50 miles of your town, go. The live show is sensational and the tickets are cheap, plus they still have the coolest t-shirts of any band alive.
Forgive the decision to use first person for this one, but the editorial 'we' just doesn't apply here.
I am not one for acoustic shows. Whenever I see a guy with an acoustic guitar anymore, I want to pull a Bluto and smash it to bits. This from a guy who did an acoustic gig with his brother the weekend of his wedding. I blame Jack Johnson, really. That whole surfer/hippie scratcha scratcha scratcha thing just bores me. Long story short, when I saw that my beloved Trashcan Sinatras were coming to Dayton to play the Canal Street Tavern, I was in. When I saw it was an acoustic show, I was slightly less in.
Boy, did they show me. Breaking the evening into two sets, and playing requests submitted in advance online by their fans, the Trashcans positively soared. The harmony vocals by the Douglas brothers (Jon on guitar, Stephen on drums) stood out much better in the acoustic setting, and the band shrewdly mixed in a few electric instruments to give the overall sound a little more thump. Smart move, that.
The set list was divine, showcasing each of the band's five albums relatively equally. From what my friends who saw them in Cleveland said, though, they're shaking up the set list drastically each night, so you might hear six of the songs they played here. The main focus, of course, was on In the Music, the band's newest album, from which they played six of the album's 10 tracks. Guitarist Paul Livingston sat in the back on a chair, staring at his (electric) guitar as if there wasn't anyone else in the room (think Johnny Greenwood, without the floppy hair), while drummer Stephen Douglas had the coolest "acoustic" drum setup you've ever seen. The kick drum was digital, just a pedal with a pre-amp that gave extra impact to the various shakers, bongos, triangles and snare hits (brushes, of course) that he mixed in. Also, he had a tambourine on his left foot. Very cute.
The star of the show, though, was lead singer Frank Reader, whose voice sounds just as pure as it did when the band dropped their debut Cake in 1990. And speaking of Cake, what a nice surprise to hear the band break out not just "Obscurity Knocks" and "Only Tongue Can Tell," the album's two singles, but also "Drunken Chorus," A B-side from the Cake years. The most pleasant surprise, however, was the inclusion of three songs from the band's rare 1996 album A Happy Pocket (which goes for upwards of 50 bucks on Amazon), finishing the evening with a rousing version of "The Therapist."
You have to hand it to bands like the Trashcans. The new album isn't selling because no one buys records anymore (though I saw them sell a few copies at the show), and the tickets were cheap ($12, holler), so they're probably not making much on those. I hope they're shifting a lot of merchandise - they were selling flash drives containing the evening's performance shortly after the show - because it would be a shame to see a band like this pack it in due to financial constraints, especially when they have proven time and again that they still have so much to offer. There are only a few dates left on the tour, so if you live in any of the following cities, go. You shannae regret it.
March 24 St. Louis, Mo Firebird (acoustic)
March 26 Minneapolis, Mn Cedar Cultural Center
March 27 Kansas City, Mo Knuckleheads (acoustic)
March 28 Denver, Co The Walnut Room (acoustic)
March 29 Salt Lake City, Ut The State Room (acoustic)
March 31 Los Angeles, Ca The Bootleg Theater (acoustic)
We were disheartened to learn that Warner Bros. would not be screening "Sucker Punch," Zack Snyder's "Alice in Wonderland with machine guns" fantasy adventure flick, in our market. Warners is usually very good about showing us their wares, and the last two times they passed us by, it was because they had something to hide ("Cop Out," "The Rite"). Which of course has us concerned that "Sucker Punch" is going to be a dud, even though it has the best title since "Hot Tub Time Machine" (or "Hobo with a Shotgun") and the trailers make it look, at the very least, like a total blast.
Further adding to our disappointment is the recent acquisition of the movie's (spectacular) soundtrack, which sports cover versions of modern rock classics (as well as two psychedelic standards) remodeled as widescreen epics. Actually, calling these tracks cover versions is patently unfair, given the work that went into their arrangents. These are mini-operas, where even the most straightforward of songs will bend, and swoop, or change speeds, until they ultimately explode. Check the positively chilling version of "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" that opens the album, or the heartbreaking, string-kissed version of the Smiths' "Asleep." The two '60s nuggets lend themselves the best to the style, though, and they chose two doozies in "White Rabbit" (yes, it's overdone, but it works wonderfully here) and the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows," which is stretched out to a full seven-and-a-half-minute freakout. If there is a misstep, it's the Queen mash-up. Yes, we get it, hip-hoppers love Queen beats, but the pitch shift they applied to "I Want It All" just sounds wrong.
Simply put, "Sucker Punch" is the ballsiest, most ambitious soundtrack since "Moulin Rouge." It's nice to see someone think of pop songs in a broader, grander sense than "Let's come up with the most hipster-y compilation ever assembled." We can't wait to see how these songs work as the backdrop to Snyder's visuals.
Ah, St. Patrick's Day, where everyone is Irish for a day. March seems to be full of days like that, since Fat Tuesday is the day where everyone is Catholic for a day.
Since we know many of you will be getting a full-fledged drink on this St. Paddy's Day, especially since it is also the first day of the NCAA tournament, we have provided a small list of songs about drinking, the effects of drinking, and the vow that many of you will make the following morning. Think of it as the bender that you never took; we love booze as much as the next guys, but sometimes those things are better lived vicariously.
"It's Time to Party," Andrew W.K.
With a whopping three songs about partying on his debut album, Andrew W.K. will forever remain our master of ceremonies when it comes to partying. Until we saw the grammar-challenged lyric video, though, we didn't know this song made a reference to a money shot. Yikes.
"Have a Drink on Me," AC/DC
The night is young. Everyone is flush with cash and feeling generous. Try and remember this moment when 1:30 rolls around and you're buying Natural Light pounders. For now, though, you're living on the top shelf.
AUSTIN, TX - The 25th anniversary edition of the SXSW Music and Media Conference is upon us this week and it's shaping up to be another gala event for live music junkies. The initial lineup may have looked a bit underwhelming, but that first announcement never shows the big picture. When you have around 2,000 bands from all over the world scheduled to play, there's going to be more bands that you don't recognize than you do. But the big name additions have been coming in over the past few weeks, as has the rising buzz on up and coming bands contending to be your new favorites.
Here's my top 10 “name artists” I'm looking forward to hopefully seeing (even a badge doesn't guarantee access if a venue has reached capacity, while a small handful of showcases are also private parties necessitating an invite.) Then I'll list five “buzz bands” I'm eager to check out as well...
Widespread Panic – ACL Live at the Moody Theater – Thursday, March 17 – 11 pm
The southern jam rock titans from Georgia are celebrating their 25th anniversary in 2011. They'll mark the occasion by playing the first ever SXSW showcase that will also serve as a taping for the Austin City Limits TV show. The brand new ACL Live venue – just opened last month – is a swank theater with a 2,700 seat capacity, although there have been rumors that ACL tapings will only take 800. Getting there early figures to be key, which is why Spreadheads may have to pass up the Strokes' 8 pm set at Auditorium Shores (a park on Town Lake on the edge of downtown that offers free shows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.) But Panic will also be preceded by some fine openers with the New Mastersounds at 8:15 pm and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at 9:30 pm.
The Foo Fighters – Austin Music Hall – Wednesday, March 16
The alt-rock icons will be in town for the premiere of the band's new rockumentary “Back and Forth” on Tuesday at the Paramount Theater. It was also recently announced that they'll play at “The 2011 mtvU Woodie Awards” on Wednesday along with Wiz Khalifa, Two Door Cinema Club, Sleigh Bells and more, which will air live on three MTV channels. But this is not listed as an official SXSW showcase, so badge holders apparently need to win one of 850 tickets MTV will be giving away. Fingers are crossed.
Men Without Hats – Club De Ville – Friday, March 18 – 1 am
Anyone who grew up with the dawn of MTV in the early-to-mid '80s will remember this Canadian band and their iconic video for their infectious smash hit, “The Safety Dance.” There's a lot of attractive showcases happening in this hour on Friday, but this Gen-Xer is not passing up his chance do the Safety Dance at one of Austin's nicest outdoor clubs.
The Airborne Toxic Event – Stubbs BBQ – Friday, March 18 – 10:30 pm
These Los Angeles indie rockers with the heartfelt sound were one of my favorite random discoveries at SXSW in 2009. I was walking out of the convention center when a girl connected with the band in some way said I shouldn't leave because a great band was about to play. She described them as having a Bowie-ish vibe with a female violinist. That drew me in to witness a scintillating afternoon set that was a triumph. They're about to release their second album and playing at Stubbs – ground-zero for SXSW showcases - means they're moving up to the big time.
Bright Eyes – Auditorium Shores Stage – Saturday, March 19 – 7:30 pm
Conor Oberst has put his Mystic Valley Band on hold to put out a new album with Bright Eyes and the band will headline the Saturday night show at Town Lake. You get an eclectic mix of people since it's a free show and it's a gorgeous location for a show with the Austin skyline looming in the background. The band got a lukewarm review on their Radio City Music Hall show from The New York Times, but hopefully they'll be ready to deliver the goods here. Oberst starred with Monsters of Folk at last October's ACL Festival.
Immortal Technique – Mohawk Patio – Wednesday, March 16 – 11 pm
One of the most militant and revolutionary MCs in the world, Immortal Technique is a role model for any artist that wants to do it their own way. He's remained steadfastly independent, refusing to allow major label control of his music or brand. It's hard to conceive of a major corporate entity that would let him do his thing though, due to his radical way he speaks truth to power. If you feel that 9/11 was an inside job, Immortal Technique is your man.
The Kills – Emo's Main Room – Thursday, March 17 – 11 pm
Singer Alison Mosshart's profile was raised to a higher level when Jack White teamed up with her in the Dead Weather. Now she returns to her previous band, where it should be interesting to see how charismatic dark angel incorporates her Dead Weather experience. I can't catch this set since it conflicts with Widespread Panic, but I'm hoping to see them at the SPIN day party at Stubbs on Friday or their appearance at the IFC House.
TV on the Radio – Stubbs BBQ – Thurday, March 17 – 12:30 am
SXSW will be booming on Thursday night as these trendy indie-pop rockers will be headlining Stubbs BBQ. They'd flown a bit under my radar until Phish covered the band's “Golden Age” at an Albany show in 2009, then played it again last fall in Colorado. The catchy tune and its uplifting message certainly caught the attention of the Phish Nation. Attendees of Widespread Panic won't be able to get here for this either, but the band is also headlining that SPIN day party at Stubbs the next day.
Beats Antique – Frontgate Tickets Party – 1711 South Congress – Friday, March 18 - 4:20 PM
This trio out of Oakland has been blowing up on the festival and jam-rock scene over the past year with a groovy vibe that features an Eastern sound with mystical overtones. Their official showcase is Friday night at the Beauty Bar at 1 am, but that's a conflict for anyone who wants to see Men Without Hats. But the band is also playing several day parties, as many younger bands do.
Liz Phair – IFC House – Friday, March 18 – 8 PM
The indie alt-rock princess of the '90s has gone through various phases of experimentation and flirted with commercialism, but it seems like she just wants to rock now. She's in her 40s, but she's still a total hottie and her 2008 tour featured her classic Exile in Guyville album in its entirety. Now she has a new album where she says she's letting it all hang out.
Most of these bands are playing multiple showcases and day parties, a common trend for younger bands looking to max out potential exposure...
This local Austin (by way of Houston) power trio features dynamic frontwoman Lauren Larson on guitar and her husband on bass. They were recently named one of the best unsigned bands in America by Rolling Stone. Larson's petite size is a red herring for what a force to be reckoned with she is onstage.
The Joy Formidable
Another female-fronted power trio, of which there are still too few. This trio is from the UK and was also recently cited by Rolling Stone as a “Band to Watch”, with angelic vocals from Ritzy Bryan that bring Metric to mind, but with maybe a bigger guitar sound.
Jessica Lea Mayfield
This young singer/songwriter from Kent, Ohio was sort of discovered by the Black Keys. Her earliest stuff was way mellow and kind of depressing, but the single from her new album, “Our Hearts Are Wrong,” is so good that Dave Letterman had her on to play it for the national TV audience last month.
A funky and psychedelic quartet of rockers out of Philadelphia. They have a diverse sound from groovy dance numbers like “Dirty Girl” to sparkling pop gems such as “We Are Fluorescent.” They apparently fancy themselves as a “punk rock Michael Jackson,” but they sure rock more than the Gloved One did.
Stephanie Hatfield & Hot Mess
Bluesy rock out of Santa Fe, New Mexico from another husband and wife team. Singer Stephanie Hatfield has a captivating voice that can really rock or go sultry, and guitarist/husband Bill Palmer is an ace bandleader who sets her up to win every time. The band burned it down at the Continental Club on their visit to Austin last year and will be showcasing tunes from their forthcoming second album.
The Joy Formidable are North Wales’ Ritzy Brian and Rhydian Daffyd with drummer Matt Thomas who clearly needs to change his name to keep up with his band mates. Like many of their contemporaries, they bring a great deal of post-punk and new wave influences to their electronic indie rock, but unlike most, they manage to transform it all into a fresh sonic experience of sublimely constructed songs that work on levels musical, emotional and technical.
Before signing with Atlantic, the Joy Formidable produced an excellent EP, A Balloon Called Moaning that demonstrated a true breadth to their song craft. At eight songs, this was a much more than a typical EP, feeling like a complete debut work. Such a solid collection drove anticipation for their full-length debut, but also created some questions. Would they simply add a few more songs and call it new? What would they do with the experience and added room? The answers are a bit surprising, challenging for the listener, and well worth listening to again and again.
Unabashedly, the Joy Formidable kick off the record with “Austere,” one of their most accessible and catchy songs, and one of four repeats from the EP. But calling them repeats doesn’t do the songs justice; from the deeper, more resonant production quality to the extended ending, they improved upon the lush, layered pop in every way. Impressively, and with no little risk, they went with a “bigger and more” theme throughout The Big Roar, perhaps to live up to the aggrandizing title. Whatever the intent, it works. They play with more echoing, ambient haunts on the original “Buoy” slowing down the pace and tone on track two, playing with expectations, not catering to them. When they rev it back up on “Chapter 2,” they throw pop pretentions out the door, using an old typewriter as introductory percussion, before slamming you with a wall of grinding guitars and drums.
Somehow, throughout the album, Ritzy and company move in unexpected directions, without ever going off the rails. The wash of distortion that never loses its pop roots in “Cradles” flows into a mix of Primitives-style pop rock and prog rock eclecticism. Here you also get the taste of their all-out jam sensibility, as the song goes on for several minutes of heady instrumental work, ending in a wash of white noise.
The entire album is one designed to sweep you up on to a constant ride through a very deliberately crafted joyous and formidable world. If the band was trying to capture their live experience on a studio record, it feels like they made that magic happen. At times channeling Siouxsie Sioux, other times the Cocteau Twins with some balls, Ritzy Brian skates across the breathy, frosty vocal spectrum, without slipping into coyness or frigidity. She lets the pulse of the music carry her voice, riding the crests, and providing some clear focus in the cacophony without corralling the rush. It all comes to a close with the last and greatest of their songs brought over from the EP. “Whirring” is the quintessential example of the “bigger and more” philosophy, double in length from the original, bringing together all the pop, rock, indie and progressive sensibilities into a perfect whole. “All these things about me, you never can tell,” sings Brian, and this is a good thing. The Joy Formidable hook you easily, without ever being easy to pin down, and this makes for one of the best records you’ll hear this year. (Canvasback/Atlantic 2010)
Big words, to be sure, but hot damn, listen to the title track from Matt Lowell's Swan Lake EP. It's four notes, the same four notes, carried across several different chords, but in an interesting twist, the song is largely bass-free, with those four notes hitting at an unlikely spot. Musically, it travels this strange land between Joseph Arthur and Guided by Voices, but doesn't really sound like either. Give it a listen, and see if you're as enthralled as we are.