Live Review: SXSW Music Festival [Austin, Texas] March 12-17, 2013

Ah, Texas – home to the best BBQ, the sexiest cowboys, and the Live Music Capitol of America – the large, the glorious, the magical city of Austin.  While elsewhere […]

Ah, Texas – home to the best BBQ, the sexiest cowboys, and the Live Music Capitol of America – the large, the glorious, the magical city of Austin.  While elsewhere in the United States (and likely the world) folks are experiencing unseasonable blizzards and cold fronts, here in Austin for the annual South By Southwest music festival, we’re getting sun-burnt  and we’re okay with it. Why are we okay with it? Because it’s SXSW, it’s Austin, and music is happening EVERYWHERE.

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Though those unfortunate laws of physics, time, and space prevented us from being at every show at once, we did manage to see truckloads of the world’s finest upcoming bands and musicians – and we’ve got the lowdown for you right here.

TUESDAY

If you’ve never experienced Austin during SXSW, let me paint a picture for you: the sky is blue, and the barely cloud-concealed sun is beating down on blocked off streets where you’ve got crowds of all shapes, colors, and sizes swarming with excitement. They’re getting their bratwurst from a stand and giving a dollar to that guy that juggles machetes. They’re dressed in crop tops and neon sunglasses that were given to them free, playing with yoyos that were also free, some wearing badges that they paid 2000 US dollars for. They have folk music going through their left ears and metal through their right, coming from dueling rooftop bars on either sides of the street.

Get the picture? We certainly did, and if you think it’s overwhelming, it is at first – but any music lover will learn to love it almost instantly.

The first band we encounter as we begin our journey is Jared &  the Mill. We assume Jared is the cute frontman, and the Mill his talented ensemble – gentleman from Phoenix  Arizona striking their banjos, mandolins, and cellos with spirit, very much pulling off a Mumford and Sons-inspired style, though lacking vests and hats. Their upbeat tunes are just the kind of fun we needed to kick off a great week – the lyric “it’s a perfect night to be here in our youth” providing a general SXSW truism. It is a great night/day to be in Austin as a young person – or any person, really, so long as you aren’t scared of noise or deaf.

Next, we discover The Buster Duanes, quite by accident. Really, the sound of trombones and kick-ass trumpeting draws us in, and keeps us hooked and impressed by big band finesse. There about seven band members who in combination create a great sound filled with smooth vocals, brass, and bass, and, you guessed it, more brass. The jamming vibe carried throughout the set – they even did a great rendition of Bill Whither’s “Use Me,” which jived perfectly with their style.

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Next on the agenda is Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and Tegan and Sarah, who we wait in line for a considerable amount of time. Unfortunately, and despite said consideration of wait time, the show reaches capacity before we can get in. We’re pretty bummed about this. Here is Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” for your enjoyment nonetheless – oh how we wanted to see these fellas live. I guess they are just too popular for their own good – or ours, anyway.

WEDNESDAY

Wednesday kicks off with a party! Literally – we catch DJ’s Young Guru and Just Blaze at Empire Automotive. Author Neil Gaiman and his wife Amanda Palmer of the Dresdon Dolls were also here for reasons not entirely known to us, but that we are entirely okay with.  The DJ set is a lot of fun – these two innovative mix and mashers mix and mash like the masters they are, spinning songs under the tent-covered stage amidst laser lighting and dancing fans.

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But you don’t want to hear about that! You want to hear about Wet Nuns.

We actually were lead to this band’s show by a British girl we became friends with over the course of the week, (Katie Wilkinson of the band Gaggle) who is a close friend of the group – and we’re glad we did. These gentlemen played at Head Hunters,  where we watched heard and, well, experienced the set from an upper balcony in this amazingly cool  venue. Despite what the name Wet Nuns seems to imply (holy women drenched in water, or some sort of fetish porn), this band is anything but damp or celibate – they burned the place up with some seriously unholy guitar riffing , which combined with roaring vocals infused the room with an incredible garage-rock sound.

We ended the night at a Charity Bar called the White House, where rapper Mason performed (we were slightly disappointed by the bands here. But there was an open bar and we made some connections, which was good).

THURSDAY

Today makes up for some of the difficulty we had the first two days – finally, we are getting the hang of downtown Austin’s layout, particularly pertaining to where and when things are happening. Our first discovery of the day is the band Branches. We love the imaginative lyrics, male and female harmonization, as well as the use of xylophone and accordion box. This band has an Of Monsters and Men feel to them, with a similar whimsical and melodic vibe. Hailing from California, US, this band describes their genre as “indie-folk-rock-family-fun” which we think is pretty spot on.

Next, we were headed back to Rainey Street at a venue called the Lustre Pearl. Aside from having delicious margaritas and tacos, and a beach-house-party vibe, what was best about the event was the incredible line-up and the crowd’s enthusiastic response (ours included). It was a hot day, and despite being under a tent where sun could still hit you in the eye, and also right next to the wall-sized speaker, the music made up for it! First band were the Generationals, followed by the Canadian wonder Diamond Rings, Brooklyn’s St. Lucia, and culminating with Icona Pop.

Starting with Diamond Rings, (we only caught half of The Generationals) – Oh, boy. The frontman of this Canadian band is really something else. A first look at him, with his bleached blond head and leather studded jacket, has you wondering if he could possibly pull it off. He proves himself a driving force within minutes. Turns out John O’Regan is the band, which is in retrospect no surprise. O’Regan slinks around the stage, interacts with the fans, and delivers smooth alt-rock vocals over beats and edgy guitar riffs. Not only does his talent shine as a musician, but entertains like a professional, and perhaps at a level of no one else we see the entire week.

St. Lucia of Brooklyn brings more of a pop-driven energy to the stage, and it is super contagious.  With catchy hooks the crowd isable to pick up easily, St. Lucia has us all singing and dancing along as if their songs are already hits, which given time, they may be. Instrumentally, there is flawless technique at hand as electronic beat and percussion create a multi-textural sound, which layered with spacy vocals makes for a dynamic and fun atmosphere. Not only is the outside area at Lustre Pearl flooded with fans, but the enthusiasm is almost impossibly high. The energy O’Regan of Diamond Rings built up carries and explodes with St. Lucia’s sound. All leading up, understandably, to the incredible Icona Pop.

Sweden’s Icona Pop, as expected, is beyond excellent; they succeed in taking the electronic-pop-rock theme from the set before and taking it to a new tier of awesome. While on the surface they are just two girls, clad in black, with no other instruments but their microphones, voices, and sound-mixers, it doesn’t take long to reveal the one-of-a-kind energy and technique that has brought them so much success thus far.  It’s hard to watch the performance without being inspired by the serious girl-power they possess and amplify – as most bands have a male majority with perhaps one token girl, it is incredibly refreshing to see two women absolutely killing it on their own.  It’s no wonder their song “I Love It” was featured on HBO’s “Girls.” Even if it was the episode in which they were on crack.

FRIDAY

It’s officially the weekend, though for us and the rest of the tourists Austin is supporting, of course it’s been the weekend all week. It’s the weekend-end, perhaps, but things are only getting more exciting, as more and more hula-hoopers hula hoop on 6th street, and the wolf-violinist on the corner of Neches violins with extra fervor. An extra layer of trash has covered the blocked-off streets, a festive and colorful litter that seems a bit like confetti (but is actually a million flyers).

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For us, the day gets started with a touch of Ireland, and by that I don’t mean we got drunk and sang Wild Rover (St. Patrick Day is still 2 days away). Instead, we catch an showcase at BD Rileys featuring some incredible Irish bands:  Squarehead, DeLorentos, and Funeral Suits.

Standout here might have to be Delorentos, though close to tying with Funeral Suits. Delorentos blows us away with incredibly well-constructed verses and choruses, paired with instrumental precision and spirit. This might be in part to the fact that each of the 4 band-members is a singer-songwriter; I can only imagine, with four experienced song-writers bound together, the song quality can only be 4 times greater.  Indeed, each song seems a well-crafted and well-executed mini-masterpiece, and the experience has us engulfed and happy.

Funeral Suits proves excellent, as well, showing us a range of emotion within its alt-rock casing. Moments that involved moodier and darker feelings ridden with shadow and despair contrasted nicely with lighter songs, which glowed with vibrant vocals and thrilling instrumentals. All in all, we were impressed by the nuance and skill the band shows, and their ability to manipulate the mood as if simply adjusting light.

Our evening showcase at Stubb’s BBQ takes a bit of waiting, but due to an extraordinary line-up and enormous outdoor venue proves entirely worth all trouble.  The first band is The Mowgli’s , an 8-person group from Los Angeles that seem more like a small, close-knit tribe than a band, which works in their favor. The Mowgli’s are like modern-day hippies, but the peace-love-and-happiness show they put on isn’t at all sappy or cliché – it’s honest, pure, joyful and fun, and filled with an energy that could make even the grumpiest person crack a smile. Mr. security guard, I’m looking at you.

Walk Off the Earth is next – you may or may not know this band by their viral cover of Gotye’s “Somebody that I used to Know,” in which all 5 band members perform the song on one guitar. The best part? They did it live, and it was amazing. While Walk Off the Earth is known largely for their creative cover songs, what many people don’t know is that they have incredible original music as well, which made up a majority of their set. They prove to be just as innovative as their YouTube videos imply – and definitely more than just a cover band. Their music, much like that of The Mowgli’s, has a joy to it that carried easily to the crowd, who are brought into their magic world. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of their performance is the fact that the lead female singer is extremely pregnant, and it doesn’t stop her a bit.

Folk-rock singer-songwriter Lissie takes the stage next. Though decidedly unglamorous in attire, Lissie performs with a raw talent that doesn’t need any extra glitz – the woman is a rock star  and she acts like it. Her Illinois roots definitely show as some of her music crosses into country territory, but for the most part it is solid rock, with great personality. The only shame about this set is that it was cut short – by about 4 songs, apparently, and Lissie was none too pleased. Luckily, she was able to perform a cover song she’s become known for at the very end – a rendition of Kid Cudi’s “Persuit of Happiness” that perhaps beats the original.

Last artist of the night – Cold War Kids! And we are super excited for these guys – so is everyone it seems, and we laugh at the fact that there is probably a line of people outside the venue that won’t get in to see the show (or this is what we tell ourselves). Anyway, CWK is one of those bands that I don’t realize I know as well as I do until I see them and have that “Oh, so THEY sing this song” moment. Did I mention, as well, that throughout the evening we have been getting closer and closer to the stage, and by this point we are basically front row? Right in front of the aforementioned grumpy security guy whose job is to watch the crowd. Best job or worst job? You tell me.

Anyway, Cold War Kids definitely ended the night with a bang – there is no denying the musical chops these guys have. Incredible and powerful lyrics performed with precision along with mint instrumentals: indie rock at its finest. Being that close is almost like being on stage. My only complaint would be that the set seemed to lack the personality of its predecessors, even if the music surpassed it. The energy in between songs just seemed lacking (though it is getting late, and that might be our tired feet talking).

SATURDAY

What? Saturday already? Where has the time gone?

It is especially hot today, and we think that most of our sunburn was picked up in the early afternoon as we drag our luggage across hot Austin suburban sidewalk (where we’d be staying with family for the remaining trip). After fueling up on some fast-food chicken from Sonic, we are ready to tackle the day and bus into the city.

Finally in downtown Austin, where the streets are suffering from a week’s worth of pizza plates littered by music-savvy drunks, we wander into our first show: Story Books. This 5-piece band, from Sittingboard, Kent, UK, bring atmosphere to the rooftop stage, delivering piano, guitar, and vocal driven songs that have tenderness, nuance, and feeling all stitched into a patchwork of engaging sound. The thing with SXSW is that you rarely know what to expect when taking a chance on a showcase, save for what you hear from the street, or read in your schedule. Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you strike out. We definitely stumble across something really special here, and recommend Story Books for anyone interested in alternative music with elegance and depth.

Estelline is also a unique and interesting find that we enjoy considerably. Indie-folk-rock that is West-Texan in origin, Estelline’s music seems to color the territory in a new and exciting way that is distinctly Texan and at the same time, like nothing we’ve heard. The frontman’s drawl along with strumming electric guitar is at times dark and nostalgic, utilizing narrative lyrics that seem filled to the brim with experience. Their music is expressive and captivating, an uncommon gem of western glory we think has serious potential to become huge.

We head over to Shakespeare’s Pub, next, for The Hush Sound. This band was one of my favorites 5-7 years ago, in their prime – since which time they’ve been on a hiatus. Seeing them reunited is not only personally nostalgic, but a reminder of just how darn good they still are, after all this time. What makes this band so noteworthy to me is the complexity of the lyricism, as well as the incorporation of classic piano, alternating female and male vocals, and an all-around jazzy-indie feel that is really irresistible. Not only this, but the band puts on a great show. Perhaps it’s because they’ve been together so long, but the rapport they have with each other, and with the crowds, cannot be beat. You can tell how comfortable they are performing, and it truly sets the mood.  We got to see some of our favorite classics performed live along with some new material that everyone should definitely get excited about.

The last artist is Jenny Owens Young. As our journey reaches its end, we’re glad to let her take this spot because really, we just want to be her best friend. Forget her endless talent, gorgeously composed songs, and provocative voice – she talks to the crowded Cedar Street  courtyard as if we’re all just pals in a bar in New Jersey, which, we’re convinced pretty soon we should be even though no one really likes New Jersey. Despite the awesome personality inherit to her being, the music is incredible as well – her voice has a very distinctive sound that adds a unique flavor to all of her songs. In this particular performance, almost the entire set was performed acoustic and without a band. This setting really allowed her to shine as an individual, though it would have been nice to experience the full punch of her music with some percussion and bass. The fact that we got a T-Shirt with a dinosaur on it more than makes up for lack of drums, however. We consider it a win.

Other standout bands we see include Fierce Bad Rabbit and NO CEREMONY///. We suggest you check them out as well, ASAP, because they rock.

SUNDAY REFLECTION

Austin has some serious cleaning up to do. It’s hard to believe anyone will be celebrating St. Patrick’s day on a Sunday after a week of all-day all-night music of all kinds, but anywhere you go you will still find people making fools of themselves in green. Not us, however. Not today.

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Reflecting on the week, we enjoyed SXSW in Austin more than we can express in words – shall we express it in music?  No, because the talent we’ve witnessed here has put us off trying to play a guitar ever again. It is probably for the best. As for you, readers, we definitely recommend this music festival to anyone who can afford to use an ATM that charges 7 US dollars per withdrawal. Austin is a beautiful city, even when it is covered in the debris of posters – in fact, many an Austin resident nearly convinced us to move here. The ATM fees, though treacherous, were worth the exposure to such a vast amount and variety of music and talent. Heck, the sunburn was even worth it. I may come back to New York city (where it is snowing) with sunglasses shaped burn-marks on my face, but I also have a T-shirt with a dinosaur on it, new friends and musical interests, and a mind-blowing experience I won’t soon forget.

Goodbye Austin, Texas, and nice weather, for now. Goodbye music from left, right, up, and down. Hello ringing sound in my ear from standing dangerously close to speakers (that might linger for a while).  Next time I come, I’ll bring some sunscreen, fully prepared for immersion in sunshine and festivity.

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About Jennifer Markert

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