Distraction is a bit of a problem at SXSW. Amidst the bevy of booze, deliciously greasy grub, squinty eyed, warm weather, and desperate marketing gimmicks (60 foot Doritos vending machine stage, I'm looking at you), the real reason for any pilgrimage to Austin TX in the middle of March can become obscured. It's the bands, bless their hearts. The bands who play 7, 8, 9, sometimes even 10+ shows over the course of a matter of days, the bands that give their all, compete for your attention, and ultimately await your judgment (they do, it's why they are there there...they gotta know if they got the buzz, ya know?). SXSW, despite the onslaught of brands, beer, and BBQ, is still about the bands...it's still about seeing something new.
Speaking of new, that's exactly what the SX 2012 experience was for me. Past years I've been sucked up in all the party planning hullabaloo, advancing acts at Baeble's various day time activities, assuring artists arrive when they are supposed to arrive, play when they are supposed to play, and vacate the stage when they are supposed to vacate the stage (on occasion, not the easiest thing to do). With our event falling on a Saturday, this year gave me the opportunity to see what else
was shaking at SX. This was my year to indulge a little, this was my year to kick back, this was my year to be the judge....because let's face it. Critique is the lens by which most attendees view the festival.
Of Monsters and Men by Eric Horn
For a lucky few, critical acclaim was theirs for the taking even before they rolled into town. A handful of acts had the hype from the get go....buzz bands not to be missed over the course of the week. Icelandic sextet Of Monsters and Men could claim this kind of status, courtesy of a deliriously catchy sing along song in "Little Talks". The band was actually #1 on my wish list and by 2:30 on my first day in Austin, I was staring at them at the Sennheiser/Paste Party on 6th Street. Over the course of a 30 minute set, the band charged through a jubilant, kick drum powered performance that reminisced of both the Arcade Fire's most anthemic moments and Edward Sharpe's most melodic. The band are only just getting started in the states and will deservedly leave a trail of sold-out tour dates in their wake.
Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, by Eric Horn
Southern outfit The Alabama Shakes also crossed city limits with preordained, "must see" status intact. During the band's appearance at the boozy, blazing, perfectly sunny outdoor venue South By San Jose, the band wrapped up a tight and taut set...all riffy, southern fret work, steamboat rhythms, and power laced vocals from front woman, Brittany Howard.
Ben Howard, by Henry Linser
Ben Howard, of Mumford and Sons' Ben Lovett's Communion Label, was also a new talent worth seeking out from the get-go. Much like Mumford, Howard delivers a brand of highly emotive, insanely dynamic folk rock...think Damien Rice, The Swell Season, but with something a little more mystic pressing on the soul of his songs. My encounter came during our own Launch Pad event. Those who managed to cram into our space witnessed stirring songs that demanded stomping, clapping, and a whole lot of call and response sing-alongs. Those who didn't...well, we'll have the set for you shortly on the site.
Electric Guest, by David Pitz
Not all bands came to Texas knowing they would set SX afire, though. Younger acts baited more select audiences with interesting singles in the run up to the fest. I stumbled upon Electric Guest's Danger Mouse produced single "The Head I Hold" a few weeks back; a soulful slice of vintage cool that's the closest thing to Gnarles Barkley's "Crazy" in a long time. At Filter's Lustre Pearl shindig, the band showed off a 30 minute set in front of a modest crowd. Though a bit of a work in progress on the live end (they could use a few more shows and maybe an instrumentalist or two to round out their sound), "The Head I Hold" is definitely in contention for that song
that will be impossible to escape this summer.
Gary Clark Jr. wows even from the shadows, by Erick Capps
Austin native Gary Clark Jr. also sparked some pre-festival curiosity I wanted to make good on. His rumbling, blues-inspired rock sits nicely next to any Black Keys album. Watching Clark and his effortlessly stylish band dig into a set at Pandora's Discovery Den suggests he could hold his own with the Ohio boys if he had. When he sings "You're gonna know my name" on "Bright Lights", well...well, I believe him.
Trampled By Turtles trounced the crowd at Red-Eyed Fly, by David Pitz
Most exciting though are those completely unknown acts that fly from the ether. I managed to catch a few understudies in the run up to the bigger bands of the day. In addition to owning the best band name at the festival, Minnesota's Trampled By Turtles also put on one of the most memorable shows during the Noise Pop showcase at Red Eyed Fly. "Wait So Long", from their 2010 release Palomino
, is the stand out track here. Slices of fiddle, a rigorous swell of banjo, and a chorus that demands audience participation all had those in attendance turning in the most enthusiastic response to a band I would see all festival long.
Kids These Days
Teenage, Chicago rock/hip hop/funk/soul/ska/jam (yup) band Kids These Days also surprised those waiting on The Alabama Shakes. In addition to touching on every genre imaginable, the band seemed to take more satisfaction for the opportunity to play than any other. It was not surprise to learn that the band apparently beat out thousands of their peers in a hometown band completion a couple years back. Though their vibe was that of a school of rock class, their enthusiasm was unrivaled at SXSW.