SXSW 2013: Incredible Acts and Killer Vocals

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SXSW 2013: Incredible Acts and Killer Vocals

A great band or act is composed of many elements (some of them undefinable). While my tastes range widely — from indie to country to screamo to metal to hip-hop — I must confess a certain soft spot for hearing an actual melody and great group singing. I certainly expected to hear great bands at this year’s SXSW but was not expecting to be overwhelmed by the wealth of incredible and unique vocals on stage. While writing, arrangement, instrumentals and stage presence are all essential elements of a great act, for me, hearing great singing is always a primary thrill. I depart SXSW 2013 with some new favorites and a greater appreciation for some I already knew.

Kenny Loggins

Kenny Loggins was  always one of my favorite pop singers. One might think that an artist with a forty-plus year Grammy winning career as a singer and writer might rest on his laurels, collecting mailbox money. But the music, a desire to play and create and perform overrides the comforts of home. Loggins instead joined forces with legendary Nashville singer/songwriters Gary Burr and Georgia Middleman, and their collaboration has given us The Blue Sky Riders. These three are backed some of Nashville’s best and the complete combo couldn’t sound better or be more fun to watch. While countrified music, it is accessible to anyone who enjoys fantastic harmonic vocals, eminently listenable songs, fantastic musicianship and a side order of fun. They sound like they have been singing together for years. But do not go to a BSR show and expect to hear “House at Pooh Corner” — Mr. Loggins is clear that this is a group effort.

I must admit that the fan in me felt the same excitement as the first time I heard Loggins sing — he remains an incredible performer and his new group is fantastic. Finding an audience may prove challenging, but since this will probably be marketed as crossover country with a touch of Laurel Canyon (think Lady Antebellum, but add fun and talent), there’s a chance we will have the pleasure of their collaboration hanging around for a while. Check out their debut effort — Finally Home — released this past January.

Charles Bradley is our one true living and functioning connection to the real soul/R&B world created by James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. But this is no tribute act — Bradley sings his face off and gives an old school soul show. It’s quite the thing to watch someone achieve their dream at the age of 62, but I’m not cutting this guy any slack — he would be oh-so-funky and a terrific singer even if he was 22. Bradley shares an auto-biographical tune taken from his early life experiences and subsequent struggle to make it both in the music business and in life. It’s less about proclaiming his authenticity than an endearing act of humility that in its own way is “keepin’ it real.” By whatever road he got here, we are SO glad that he did. Could anyone else sing the word Poughkeepsie and make it sound cool? No.

I was thrilled to be listed for the Green Day concert, but the thousands-strong crowd proved too much to navigate. As I reluctantly began searching for something else to check out, I saw that Lucius started a set in just a very few minutes and one of the Weeping Elvii had told me to me to check them out if possible (Behrnsie had previously told me not to miss Mumford & Sons back in early ’10 before anyone knew them). I love Green Day, (I’ll never forget their killer set at Lollapalooza 2010), but what I experienced instead made me glad to have missed their set.

Lucius

It’s been quite some time since I was so blown away to be at a near loss for words upon hearing a new group. While it’s a phrase you hear a lot, this is the best example I have seen of “they’ve got something.” If the primordial soup of their musical creation included elements of Arcade Fire, The B-52s and The Manhattan Transfer (as crazy as that sounds) Lucius might be a possible result, but they remain a totally unique creation. The B-52s reference is not only to the stage persona and style of their two female singers, but also a reference to the sound of the vocals. The bulk of those vocals are sung either in unison or  in 2-part harmony, and, like the B-52s the result is far more powerful than one would think possible from two singers. When you add the band’s male members into the vocal mix it becomes a staggering array of harmonic complexity and pure blend. Lucius’ vocal sound is the sweetest thing you’ll hear outside of Allison Krauss muti-trackin’ herself.

All bets are off when it comes to instrumentation— you never know how sparsely or fully an arrangement will be realized but in either case the result is mesmerizing. At one of the sets I heard, a beautiful church sanctuary served as the backdrop. This spurred the group to move to the middle of the audience and present a beautiful guitar and vocal number which further showed their versatility. I am about to believe that it is Lucius’ world (we just don’t know it yet) and we are lucky enough to hang with them in it.

I had heard a couple of interviews and features on Lianne La Havas  and I knew that hers was a voice I needed to experience live. Fortunately, I found out about her unlisted appearance at a corporate party and managed to get in. To say my expectations were exceeded would be a massive understatement; this is artistry in its true form.  Fans of Norah Jones and Esperanza Spalding (or any great singer/songwriter, for that matter) will dig this. She performs personal songs of love and loss and life with jazz-influenced vocalizations at times reminiscent of Amy Winehouse while her guitar playing is clearly influenced by the great jazz masters. Her voice can be wonderfully subtle one moment before suddenly erupting into an edgy, slightly gritty burst of passion and soulfulness. Her ongoing interactivity educated the audience about each song’s meaning, and she seemed happy to have the audience work her “stuff” out with her. “Artist” is the most apt descriptor I can use, but there are not enough adjectives to modify that noun so I will just say she is wonderful.

Lissie

Laid back singer/songwriter Lissie arrived a few years ago with a fairly well-promoted and critically-praised release. She was definitely on the radar of those in the know but — as happens in the music business — some things pop and some things don’t. Having enjoyed her first record, I was thrilled to see her playing several sets at this SXSW. It seems that the powers that be are behind her this time (at least those at SXSW) as she played the SXSW-curated Radio Day Stage in the convention center as well as the venerable Stubbs (maybe the most sought after, high profile SXSW venue). Lissie delivers catchy and well-crafted songs one might call alt-country by way of Laurel Canyon, and one cannot ignore her terrific vocals. If it is possible to feel raw yet polished at the same time she manages it. Shawn Colvin springs to mind and Lissie’s energy and guitar playing made me think of a more accessible St. Vincent. She travels with her one of the most versatile backing bands I have seen live;  the drummer stops to play lap steel and turns the skins over to the bass player which he successfully handled while STILL playing bass (don’t ask, you have to see it…with no electronics btw). “Geddy Peart” anyone? The time she’s spent on the road opening for Tom Petty has obviously been a good thing for her career, but she got where she is she now because she knows exactly what she wants to say and has the songs and vocal chops to do so.

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Clem emerged from the underbelly of NashVegas where he began his love of ALL things musical. College found him in the commercial music program at the University of Miami where he actually learned what the hell he was doing. New York was next and whether he “made it there” is still up for debate. From playing in the honky-tonks of Nashville and the dance clubs of Miami to Broadway and theatrical stages around the country, to Carnegie Hall (while practicing one day somebody told him how to get there) and the recording studios of New York and L.A., Clem’s variety of musical experience has transcended the boundaries of genre. He owns a production company, lectures on music in colleges across the country and is on the visiting faculty of Elon Univ. He has a port-o-johns named after him at Bonnaroo, Coachella and Lollapalooza.