Tuesday, March 20, 2012

my obligatory SXSW 2012 report

According to tradition, SXSW isn't officially over until you offer up some kind of report about it. You know how it goes- you pluck out some kind of zeitgeist meaning from the thousands of bands who played there and then go over some highlights. I'm glad to offer up the later but I'll skip the former, though if you're dying to know what the buzz was about this year, it was Alabama Shakes and the usual keynote person who dominates all else (some guy from NJ this time).

I managed to see about 45 bands this time (down from my all-time high of 50 last year) but that still represents less than one percent of the bands that played the festival. Until I get that cloning device working properly, I can be satisfied that I saw these acts below, which I heartily recommend.

* Pat Todd - this California rocker (formerly of the Lazy Cowgirls) never seems to make it out East, which is a shame. He and his band the Rankoutsiders (including an ex-member of Sparks) put on the best show I saw at SXSW. Think of the best bar band in the world, revved up to 100 MPH and you'll get a taste of what they sound like. Pat's a grey bald guy but he makes you forget that and not care at all when you hear and see how loud and his band can be.

* Fidlar - This L.A. punk quartet has a simple motto/philosophy: "F*CK IT DOG LIFE'S A RISK." Their live show is just this side of out-of-control and all the more exciting for it. Not only do you see an active mosh pit and crowd surfing at their show (old hardcore staples by now) but also audience members taking the stage and even tackling the singer, with no repercussions. Plus, they do a killer version of CCR's "Lodi."

* Schaffer the Darklord - Happened upon him during a nerd-core showcase and was pleasantly surprised. When he first came out, he seemed like not a rap MC but just the MC of the showcase, or at least a hip technie/hacker in a dapper suit. Even performing over his own canned music, he showed the dexterity, humor and self-deprecation you'd hope from back-pack rap.

* The Lions Rampant - these Southern Rockers dub themselves as "blues infused, garage brewed rock 'n roll" and they're pretty close to the mark. Featuring one scraggly haired blonde guitarist and another one who looks like a younger Dylan, they tore it up for every song in their set to an ever-swelling and appreciative crowd, coming out from a 2 day drive to make it to the fest. Sadly to say, they were only featured on the Tuesday night before more of the attendees arrived. And though their latest CD It's Fun to Do Bad Things is a good beer-swilled time, you should catch their live act for some real fun.

* Screaming Females - OK, so this isn't exactly a revelation even to most indie fans but I'm compelled to add my voice to the chorus heaping praise on 'em. In particular, Marissa Paternoster (the only real screaming female in the band) isn't just a great shouter but a hell of a guitarist too.
* The Henry Clay People - After actively enjoying their canny/cathcy 2010 album Somewhere on the Golden Coast (one of the best releases of that year), I wondered how they'd hold up live. Other than some corny jokes ("A drummer and bassist fall outta a plane, who lands first? A: who cares?"), they were able to put on an impressive show even on the tiny stage at Opal Divine's, with a valiant new bassist and their singer making his way on top of a front table to do a song. I was moved enough to get the drummer a drink too.

* ZZ Ward - Firsty, ZZ Hill and ZZ Top and now another Double Z. This one a bluesy rockin' woman in the manner of Bonnie Raitt, even with some of her pop sense too. Definitely an up and comer to watch.
* The Bombettes - An all-grrl garage-rock band from Sweden who side closer with the Runaways than with the Go-Go's. Admittedly not my first choice for the time slot they were on, they were impressive nevertheless and several people thanked me for sending them to another show they did at the fest.

* Chappo - You might know this NY band from the iPod commercial they did a few years ago (which mentions the device in the lyrics no less) and it's a hell of a catchy number too ("Come Home"). Decked out in American Indian garb, they knew how to put on a memorable show with the singer firing a glitter gun and playing his tambourine on the floor in the middle of the crowd, who looked more surprised than ready to hoist him.

* Sugar and the Hi Lo's- I really liked the self-titled debut of this country-rock duo but was thrown off by a lifeless outdoor show they did. I'm glad I caught them in a smaller club a few days later 'cause they were much more relaxed and having fun there. Amy Stroup's got some soul to her and Trent Dabbs's an impressive string-bender.

* Gashcat- A bunch of weirdos for sure but I mean that in a good way. An adenoidal singer plus a melodica player and two drummers make for a sound that's unique but also really catchy in its own odd way. Appealing enough too that I cornered one of 'em to buy their CD after the show and was glad that I did.

* Michael Kiwanuka - Touted by the Guardian and elsewhere as an up-and-comer, you worry if a guy like this can live up to the hype. Seeing this sweet, mournful folk-soul singer at 1AM at a big, beautiful church was wonderful though. So good in fact, that after enjoying every minute of his show, I wished that he had more than a half-hour to share with us.

* Gumbo Ce Soir - As a city boy from the Northeast, I don't get to see much Cajun and this Austin act sounded good on their SXSW band page that I didn't want to pass it up. It was well worth it, not just for the trip to the less-crowded and funky outskirts of East Austin but also for the atmosphere of seeing couples two-step to their music, which almost made me wish that my sweetie was there so we could join in (though we'd probably embarrass ourselves).

* The Heavy- Not exactly a newish act and you've heard and enjoyed 2009's "How You Like Me Now?" in commercials but this Brit soul-rock band definitely deserves more love. They have a great rhythm section and a horn section to boot but the real secret sauce is singer Kelvin Swaby, who puts on a passionate, eager stage show. Album-wise, I'm still hooked on their debut, 2007's Great Vengeance and Furious Fire, but the new material sounded really impressive and their live show is so jaw-dropping that it needs to be seen.

  • Blacklicious - as much as I liked seeing the Thrasher showcase and Das Racist, this duo was the best rap show I saw this time (admittedly, I missed Snoop's showcase)
  • Imperial Teen- finally back after a too-long hiatus, their old material sounded as fresh as ever, especially thanks to Lynn Truell's furious drumming.
  • Joe 'King' Carrasco - his majesty now reigns at a club south of the border so this was a good chance to catch him in the States, especially with his old bandmates in toe and a different crown worn for each song (not to mention the tortillas they tossed at the crowd).
  • Built to Spill- by now, their lengthy workouts put them almost in jam band territory but by now also, their triple guitar dynamics and journeys are still worth following (I'm up to 6-7 times seeing them now).
  • Jimmy Cliff- this recent RnR Hall of Fame inductee appeared with a small band featuring himself on acoustic guitar, another guitarist and a drummer, plus his justly-famous early 70's material (that's him and me in the pic at the bottom of the post).
  • Fionna Apple- even another writer who's a semi-detractor had to admit what an interesting career she's had and if it hadn't been for Bruce and Jack White, she probably would have been the fest's biggest attraction. Starting with "Fast As You Can" (my favorite song of hers) and featuring her wonderfully mad dancing, I say she's still an attraction worth seeing.
  • Big Star Third- I'd seen the NYC version of this tribute band but I'm glad I caught it here again featuring faithful drummer Jody Stephens plus Chris Stamey of the dB's as band leader and guest appearances by Tommy Stinson (Replacements, Guns N' Roses) and Peter Buck (R.E.M.) among others and nicely showing the range of the group's influence.
  • The dB's- Leaning a little too heavily on their new material, their harmonies and guitars still sparkle and shine regardless (pictured left with Mitch Easter on bass).
  • The Waco Brothers- It just doesn't seem like a SXSW without these guys so I had to catch 'em. Especially good to see them at Jovita's (south of the downtown area where most of the action was) as I was downing a mouthful of tacos while they blazed through "White Lightning."
  • The Scruffs- Chuck Eddy (who's an Austinite now) marveled that this Memphis power pop cult act was back but they've actually done several records in the last decade or so after their initial splash in the late 70's and singer Stephen Burns still sounds as beautifully vulnerable and hurt as the did on their greatest songs. Plus, it was fitting that Jody from Big Star was in attendance for their show (which is actually the place that I cornered him for the pic below).