The 2010 edition of the SXSW Music Conference & Festival proved once again that this is the greatest festival in the world. Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, Austin City Limits, High Sierra, these are all great events. But no other festival in the world immerses you in four non-stop days and nights of music in an urban setting where you are guaranteed not only to catch some of your favorite bands but also to randomly discover new favorites on pure happenstance because there is so much going on.
Check back over the next week or so as we continue to write about some of the festivals music highlights!
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 4: Pretty Lights
After Dengue Fever's hot set at Emo's, I was down to my final showcase of the festival as I pedaled over to La Zona Rosa on West 4th Street for a 12:45 AM set from Pretty Lights that I figured would close out the festival in maximum party style. The Colorado rock-tronica duo have been blowing up over the past year, winning raves while opening for Sound Tribe Sector 9 at Red Rocks last summer and becoming the hot new flavor in the livetronica scene.
The club was already hopping when I arrived, with the Crystal Method wrapping up what had clearly been a hot set of their own. Pretty Lights soon hit the stage and owned the crowd from the start, as DJ/synth master Derek Vincent Smith and drummer Cory Eberhard threw down one smoking hot groove after another with a spectacularly psychedelic light show behind them.
"Sunday School” was a scintillating jam, featuring a sampled vocal of “Fuck 'em, I didn't want to go to heaven anyway” over a big trippy groove that had the whole room moving and grooving. It was a 75-minute dance party of block-rocking beats whose energy never waned as the set went right up until 2:00 AM. Some of the songs tended to sound kind of the same due to similar beats and tempos, perhaps suggesting Pretty Lights could go even higher by adding a guitarist. But there's no doubt that this duo knows how keep a psychedelic dance party rocking.
“Finally Moving” closed out the festivities with a fresh bite on “All Along the Watchtower,” showing that there's always another way to use the same three chords. Pretty Lights transformed the three-chord progression into a psychedelic down-tempo dance groove tricked out with all kinds of sonic bells and whistles for a dynamic 21st century remake of the classic groove. It was an elated crowd that wandered out into the night afterward. SXSW 2010 had just gone by in a flash, but it was hard to imagine a better ending.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 4: The Watson Twins, again
I'd found The Watson Twins' Friday day party set at the Belmont to be somewhat disappointing, but was still intrigued to see their 9:00 Saturday headliner set at the Central Presbyterian Church on 8th Street. Boy, was I glad I made it. This is an incredible venue since it is, as it sounds, an actual church with otherworldly acoustics that were perfectly suited to enhance the Watson Twins' dynamic sound to a higher level. There's no booze for sale, but I took that as a sign from God that I should slow down on my drinking for an hour.
The Twins opened with “Modern Man” again, but I was now hearing the new material in a whole different light. I still find the new album to be missing the rich melodic hooks of some of their earlier material (“How Am I to Be,” “Dig a Little Deeper,” “Bar Woman Blues,” “Waves”), but hearing the new songs sparkle in this setting provided a new window into what the Twins are going for on , with jazzier and torchy soul flavors. "Harpeth River” took on a shimmering evening ambiance that was missing on Friday afternoon, and the sexy dancing between Leigh and Chandra Watson definitely enhanced the vibe. Chandra said she had enjoyed seeing Everest and Billy Bragg, as well as visiting East Austin, which she felt provided the “true Austin vibe” that some may find wanting on the more commercialized 6th Street. “Devil in You” also featured an extra shimmer with the brilliant church acoustics, with Chandra proclaiming the song as an exorcism.
Leigh donned an acoustic guitar on several tunes, including the melodic closer “U N Me,” which once again sparkled in a new way in this fantastic setting. The band jammed it out a bit and received a rousing ovation for what was most definitely a triumphant set and another top highlight of the week. The Central Presbyterian Church is a venue not to be missed at SXSW.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 4: She & Him
Rachel Ray's day party at Stubbs BBQ was on a roll from Jakob Dylan to Street Sweeper Social Club, then back to the main stage for She & Him. It was quite a change in vibe to downshift from the powerhouse rock of SSSC to the mellower vintage pop stylings of She & Him, but Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward rose to the occasion with a well-received set to close out the party.
The charming Deschanel has the voice of an angel and Ward seems like the perfect choice to orchestrate a band around her to maximize those talents. The Chapin Sisters were brought out to add extra harmonies as well, which was an extra treat. The band's sound pays tribute to a bygone era, but there's still a fresh vibe demonstrating that classic sounds never go out of style. Deschanel and Ward conjure a dreamy ambiance, making it feel as if the band has set up on a cloud somewhere. The final song even featured the band revving up for a big jam, with Ward rocking out some bluesy riffage on guitar, showing that the band has diverse skills at their fingertips. It's a rare actress that can hold her own musically as well as she does on screen, and Deschanel delivers.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 4: Jakob Dylan and Three Legs (featuring Neko Case)
This is where the weather gods ceased to cooperate, with a storm front moving in overnight that plunged Saturday's high temperatures into the low 50s. It was a chilly, windy day that felt more like a late autumn football Saturday in Columbus than spring equinox in Austin, but SXSW fans would not be deterred. Rachel Ray's day party at Stubbs BBQ was the place to be on Saturday afternoon. Free margaritas and bloody Marys were served, along with tasty chicken mini-quesadillas and meatball sandwiches.
Jakob Dylan played a half-hour set with the fabulous Neko Case accompanying him to create a bluesy sound with majestic Americana flavor that seemed to fit the gray afternoon perfectly. The sound was reminiscent of some of Dylan's father's recent work, blending a variety of retro flavors for an artful old-school vibe. The younger Dylan's distinctive rasp sounded great, and even more so with Case harmonizing.
The last song, perhaps titled “Shine Along,” featured some mandolin on a melodic major key tune for a more uplifting vibe. The harmonies between Dylan and Case were superb throughout the set, like two great tastes that tasted even better together. Fans can only hope that these two will continue to work together further.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 3: Girl in a Coma
After Muse's electrifying set, I rushed over to Buffalo Billiards on 6th Street, where San Antone's grrl power trio were rocking the upstairs hall with their trademark Tex-Mex grunge sound. Guitarist/vocalist Nina Diaz is a truly mesmerizing talent, while sister/drummer Phanie Diaz and bassist Jenn Silva form an increasingly strong rhythmic backbone behind her. The 22-year-old Nina has fronted the band since she was 13 and has added an increasing sonic complexity to her guitar playing, with some nice alt-grunge delay-harmonics on “Pleasure and Pain.” Another song was dedicated to Jeff Buckley and started off with Diaz emoting in a slow and bluesy way before the band moved into a swinging jam.
Another extra special SXSW treat occurred when the band welcomed girl rock pioneer Cherie Currie of the Runaways to the stage for a fabulous sit-in on “Cherry Bomb,” which saw the whole crowd singing along on the classic chorus. Currie looked and sounded fabulous, and the Coma girls were clearly thrilled at the chance to play with one of their idols (The Runaways' Joan Jett signed the band to her own Blackheart Records label.) “Static Mind” was also a major highlight, with the band rocking out on one of the best cuts from 2009's superb album, blending a Latina rock intro with an alt-rock surge that had the delighted crowd rocking out once more. Girl in a Coma remains a unique band poised for even bigger and better things.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 3: Metric
Canada's Metric kicked off the evening at Stubbs BBQ with an 8:00 set before a big crowd that reveled in the band's power-pop prowess. The group was filling the Friday pre-semi-secret headliner slot that Silversun Pickups had occupied last year when opening for Metallica, and Metric rose to the occasion with an entertaining set that never lagged while the crowd awaited the headlining set from Muse.
Vocalist Emily Haines exuded charm and charisma while dancing around and belting out high-energy tunes like "Sick Muse" and hit single “Help I'm Alive,” which rocked the assembled with its melodic hooks and hard rocking groove. Another tune featured Haines' teasing the chorus of The Beastie Boys' “You've Got to Fight for Your Right to Party” over a big beat that had lots of sonic space. "We're just a couple of kids from Toronto and a couple of hometown kids from Texas,” said Haines in the middle of the set. “We're all just trying keep the dream alive, we're all here for music... Every day I repeat this to myself and I hope that it's true.” Haines proceeded to a sing a bit of fellow Canadian Neil Young's “Hey hey, my my, rock 'n' roll will never die... rock 'n' roll is here to stay,” striking a chord with everyone in the crowd who felt saved by rock 'n' roll, which seemed like most of those in attendance. “Stadium Love” closed out the rousing set with a big arena rock sound, and it sounded like Metric are well on their way to achieving such status.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 3: Sass Jordan
After missing her the previous day, I caught up with Sass Jordan for a 5:00 set at the Canadian Blast party at Paradise on 6th Street. This was a cool little shindig with free enchiladas served up with rice and beans, and $3 drafts of Magic Hat. Jordan only had two acoustic guitarists with her as opposed to a whole band, but the rock goddess who hit it big in the early '90s did not disappoint.
Jordan sang and moved as if she had a full band behind her, making the hard rocking “High Road Easy” a definite treat. “What I Need” from Jordan's new album rocked as well, followed by breakthrough hit “Make You a Believer,” which rocked into a brief but tasty jam on Stephen Stills' “Love the One You're With” before segueing back into “Believer.” It was the type of cool musical curve ball move you might expect from Jordan and one can only hope she's back out on tour with a full band soon.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 3: Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles
I hightailed it over to The Belmont on West 6th Street for a day party featuring the Watson Twins. But the party was running behind, so I was fortunate enough to hear another band that caught my ear from the moment I heard them across the street.
Sarah Borges was on stage rocking out a melodic and bluesy sound to a good crowd at the Belmont's outdoor stage, an excellent intimate venue for such a party. Based in Boston, Borges looks a bit like comedian Sarah Silverman, but she's got a dynamite voice. Borges does humor too though, noting that she was glad to know her bassist because he “looks like he's holding.” Borges and the band veered from harder rocking tunes to bluesier Americana, and did both very well. She exuded a dynamic presence throughout the set that made it hard to take your eyes off her. The band closed their set with a great cover of Texan Doug Sahm's “Walking the Streets Tonight,” with Borges projecting a charisma and talent making her one to watch going forward.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 2: Grace Potter & the Nocturnals
I had one more to go over at Antone's, where Vermont's Grace Potter was scheduled to hit the stage at 12:20 AM. Things were running a little behind, but Potter and band hit the stage around 12:40 and threw down a triumphant set that went right up til 2:00. A variety of strong material from the band's upcoming new album was a treat, featuring tunes like melodic rocker “Oasis” and a reggae-ish break-up song. New single “Tiny Light” was a bluesy yet uplifting rocker and featured a huge jam powered by new bassist Catherine Popper (formerly with Ryan Adams & the Cardinals). Popper's dynamic skills provide an element that was missing from the Nocturnals before, taking the band's sound to a higher level that enables them to throw down a big jam whenever the mood strikes. This is like the Cleveland Cavaliers acquiring extra muscle with Shaquille O'Neal, and whoever spearheaded Popper's entry to the band should win an award for best musical trade of the year.
The gorgeous Potter dazzled on a wide variety of tunes, from blues to ballads to funk to full-on psychedelic jam rock. She also showed she's not just a pretty frontwoman, jamming out on both keyboards and a Flying V guitar. A cover of Jefferson Airplane's “White Rabbit” was a treat, especially following Krieger's appearance with STP. “I Got the Medicine” closed the set with another great jam, and there's no doubt that Potter's music does indeed possess medicinal properties. The encore closed out with “Nothing but the Water,” an infectious high-energy tune that rocked the packed house one more time and featured another huge jam that blew everyone away. What a killer set.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 2: Ozomatli
At 8:00 it was over to the Auditorium Shores stage on beautiful Town Lake, which annually hosts a series of free shows during SXSW. The headliner here was LA's Ozomatli, who entertained a huge crowd with their fusion of funk, latin rock, jazz, hip-hop and even a little bit of metal. An early song of tight funk paid tribute to the “City of Angels,” while another tune mined James Brown-style funk. It was a family-friendly atmosphere, as kids ran around playing with light sabers in the gorgeous setting as the Austin skyline loomed behind the stage. The highlight of the set occurred when a funky jam suddenly segued into a “Master of Puppets” tease that drove the crowd into a frenzy, with many bouncing up and down before the Metallica segue went back into a cumbia jam.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 2: Red Cortez
After a quick lunch it was over to Cheers Shot Bar on 6th Street, where Jambase was presenting Kayceman's Treehouse Day Party. This was a small stage, but out on a rooftop deck on a sunny day, very nice setting. Red Cortez out of Los Angeles rocked a two-guitar vintage sound, with vocalist Harley Prechtel-Cortez providing a gritty delivery that grabbed attention. One song sounded a bit like the Airborne Toxic Event, who Red Cortez are friends and former tour mates with. But Red Cortez has a darker and edgier overall sound.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 1: Spoon
I'd passed on Spoon's headlining set at Stubbs to see Nas & Damian Marley, but the Austin-based indie rockers were still playing when the Emos' show let out, so I went back in to catch the end of the set. I've been lukewarm on the band, although they have certain tunes I dig. I guess I just don't understand their formula of playing two or three songs that are kinda blah, then throwing down a hard-hitting rocker, then two more blah, then another rocker. So the set was kind of up and down to this reporter's view, as opposed to last year's Wednesday night headliner set at Stubbs when the Decemberists captivated the crowd with a full performance of their album.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 1: Broken Bells
I caught up with Broken Bells here at Stubbs since they followed Jones with an 11:00 PM set. The new band from the Shins' James Mercer and Danger Mouse was definitely one of the most buzzed about. This probably comes from the fact that the Shins have quite simply become one of the most influential bands of the 21st century's first decade. The Broken Bells sound a lot like the Shins, frankly, due to the distinctive voice and talent of James Mercer. But there's less guitar and more keys and samples, triggered by Mr. Mouse on drums. The band has a groovy if laid back sound that seemed to hold the crowd's attention fairly well. “Vaporize” and “Mongrel Heart” both have that classic Shins-y vocal from Mercer over a Shins-y type of groove, which seemed to resonate. The last two songs also featured more guitar, which helped build the energy some more, with Danger Mouse also playing guitar at the end over a sampled beat. It wasn't the dazzling set that SXSWers have come to expect from evening showcases at Stubbs, but this is a new band, so it's only logical that they might need some time to develop. There's definitely some potential here, though.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 1: Here We Go Magic
At 9:00PM it was up the street to Club Deville for Here We Go Magic, out of Brooklyn. It was another outdoor stage with Christmas lights, which provided a festive vibe, and the place was pretty packed. The sound was crystal clear but the first couple of tunes seemed like they were building up to something that never came. The third tune got a bouncy psyche groove going, though, which started to establish some more vibe. I couldn't stay until the end of the set, but was intrigued enough to want to check them out again some time.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 1: The Strange Boys
The evening showcases kicked off with Austin's own Strange Boys, who hit the stage at Emo's Jr., inside, at 8:00 pm. These guys (and one gal) have a very retro, '60s garage rock sound. They've been generating some local buzz and the room was full of onlookers. Singer/guitarist Ryan Sambol has a gritty rasp that fits the R&B-flavored tunes well, but this sound is going to be an acquired taste for some. I don't think it was quite my thing. I suspected this might be the case, so I had lined up a backup plan.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits, Day 1: The Eggmen
Walking back up Red River on this beautiful sunny day, my ear caught a Beatle-esque sound coming from Jaime's Spanish Village, a Mexican restaurant across the street from Stubbs BBQ. The Eggmen were set up on the tiny patio with a rotating lineup that included seven people at this point. The addition of fiddle and ukulele to the standard band lineup added a more exotic flavor to great renditions of “I'm Only Sleeping,” “Fixing a Hole,” “From Me to You” and “All You Need is Love.” Some kind of Beatles marathon was taking place and these tunes were a great fit on a balmy afternoon.
SXSW 2010 Quick Hits: "Successful SXSW," "Caution Before Signing" music panels
The weather was perfect for the first three days, with sunny highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s, making Austin feel like Rock 'N Roll Paradise Vacation Land. I started off with the opening panel, “Successful SXSW: The Tao of the Conference” with CD Baby founder Derek Sivers. The panel seemed aimed at the musicians themselves, with Sivers encouraging them to get out and network and promote themselves. Sivers said the most essential point in SXSW networking is the follow-up after the conference. “Persistence is polite,” said Sivers, citing the tale of one label rep who said they didn't respond to anyone who didn't call at least three times first.
At 12:30 pm, I checked out the “Caution Before Signing” panel with entertainment attorneys Brian Rosenblatt and John Strohm, who went over the details of what bands should be looking for before signing contracts. The panel was run as a hypothetical scenario for a band, and it seemed like a very useful panel indeed for musicians on the verge, but less compelling if you're not in that category. One example cited of how contractual issues can become pivotal down the line was Cadillac's use of Led Zeppelin's “Rock and Roll” for a commercial on their “Break on Through” campaign a few years ago. The company originally wanted to use The Doors' “Break on Through,” but the group's band agreement required unanimous approval for such licensing and Jim Morrison's estate voted against it, feeling Jim would not approve. The role of the band manager was also discussed, with the attorneys clarifying that it is to “find ways to exploit the creative output of the artist, not to book gigs, which is an agent's job.”