Our first South By Southwest is in the can and we learned a few things for next year. One is that if you want to sound like a local or someone who has done this convention/festival before you just call it “South By.” The other is that you cannot take it on as you would other festivals. You need to focus on particular acts and plan around those— there really isn’t a way to bounce around and hear as many bands as you can. You pick what you want to hear and if there is something else in the vicinity just before or after then you are lucky but you will chase your tail A LOT trying to squeeze too much in. There is no seeing it all…it’s just too big. It’s big but great and when you add in a keynote speech by The Boss and events like panel discussions with artists like Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart…well it just adds to a great whole.
One of the best facets of this year’s SXSW, which involved very little music, was the keynote address by The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen. It was quote after quotable quote from an icon who has spent over 40 years in the music business and has just released what some are calling one of his best albums to date. It was his history in the music business along with the history of pop/rock music and some of the best words I have ever heard strung together regarding what it means to be an artist of any sort— all of this in 50 minutes if you can believe it. I encourage any music fan, musician, music history lover—hell anyone—to hit the link above and hear some incredible thoughts from one of the most important figures in the history of popular music.
I have extolled the virtues of Justin Townes Earle before but we are now seeing a transformation from someone who plays traditional country, country blues, folk and Americana — his own special kind of honky tonk that would have made Hank Sr. and Woody Guthrie proud— into more of a mature singer/songwriter with his unique musical and lyrical slant still intact. His songwriting is a bit of an enigma—songs about his experiences living in Manhattan or other New York boroughs, but which sound like they were born on the prairie. This new direction for JTE has caused him to expand his live band from himself, fiddle and bass to a full rhythm section. In fact he told the audience at Stubbs on that it was his first time ever performing with a full band. You wouldn’t have known as JTE worked his way through some of his older fare mixed in with songs from his new album which had a decidedly different sound musically yet great all the same. The voice and the songs are great but also in this mix is JTE’s totally unique finger-picking style of guitar playing that while complementing his band was always sonically present and could totally be picked out in the mix— a very good thing in my book. One could say he hasn’t learned that he no longer has to fill up the sound all by himself and to let the other musicians do it for him but to me, his unique style is one of the things I love about JTE and I hope he never changes that…knowing him he never will.
A few words about Bad Rabbits—Parliament, Prince, James Brown, Cameo, Hendrix, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Gap Band, The Ohio Players, The Isley Brothers (big inhaling sound) funky, groovin’, nasty, stanky, fun, dancin’ and so good it makes you wanna slap somebody. If these words appeal to you then check out the Boston-based Bad Rabbits Band (I swear I wasn’t going for that illiteration). I managed to make two sets of theirs while at SXSW and during both they drove the crowd so wild that a mosh pit broke out…yeah, a freakin’ mosh pit at a funk concert. Make no mistake about it— this is no hip-hop or modern R&B band with the label of funk but a true, honest-to-goodness-like-the-70s-used-to-make-’em funk band. Their EP Stick Up Kids is available now and a new full-length album is coming. Don’t miss the chance to say you heard them first and don’t miss the incredible funk that is strong in these young ones. This is funk like James, Bootsy and George Clinton intended. Miss them at your own peril and don’t say I didn’t warn you when you see them and have the urge to slap the guy next to you ‘cuz the jam is SO good.
We Were Promised Jetpacks is, for my money, one of the best band names ever and while their music does not sound like what you think it would with that kind of name, it lives up to it in greatness all the same. There is something important and serious feeling about this music, and the only band that comes to mind to reference is Interpol, but that does come close to describing it. It is guitar texture over guitar texture with a melodic line popping out of the din from time to time…something on the order of Built To Spill meets Sonic Youth. It’s hard riffs and grooves played incessantly and slowly growing and changing dynamically until an orgasmic pitch has been reached. There are, at times, even hard rock elements— even touches of doom metal but do not let that scare you away from this terrific band. It is some of the most arresting new music I have heard in some time. At first I was a little put off by the lack of even acknowledging the crowd and the absence of the obligatory “thank you” after each song but I soon realized this was part of the gig— the persona of the band if you will and I bought it hook, line and guitar riff. These boys were here to do something deadly serious and to them and there was no need for anything other than their music. Don’t let the name fool you this is a serious band. Did I mention they were serious?
Like any good music festival there is a good representation of “world music” and my favorite of SXSW was M.A.K.U. Soundsystem. This Columbian by way of Queens ensemble was the big talk of the recent globalFEST in New York and have been featured widely on NPR. Their style is officially dubbed “Afro-Columbian” (you’ve probably heard other world music bands labeled Afro-Cuban or Afro-Carribbean) and there is a musical history lesson here as Africa and Columbia are nowhere near each other but when you listen to the music, those are the styles definitely blended to make up these VERY cool jams brought to us by M.A.K.U. Soundsystem (see Grammy winner Bela Fleck’s amazing documentary Throw Down Your Heart for some understanding on this). As is typical with many South American acts the musicians sense of time and groove is a bit different. It feels at times as though they are on top of the beat—even about to rush but they all find it together and it keeps the music vibrant and catchy and anyone within earshot moving to the groove.
If you like your alt rock a little on the “proggy” side then check out White Denim. This Austin act’s last album found its way onto many year end “Best Of” lists and from this year’s SXSW set, they seem to be further honing their unique style. Their often intricate jams are never inaccessible and they manage fulfill those seeking something with a bit of virtuosity, yet they never cease to please if you just wanna rock. There are no Rick Wakeman keyboards (in fact no there are no keyboards at all), no extended drum solos and no 20-minute epics. One would never call this “radio friendly” (save XM/Sirius’ Alt Nation) but really…who cares about that?
If you are ready for your appreciation of dubstep to move beyond Skrillex then Koan Sound may be to your liking. These two youngsters from across the pond make their very danceable jams, half-time grooves and big drops happen by still actually spinning discs (where their counterparts are mostly all Macs and midi controllers). However, you could never tell the difference from their ear assaulting (in a good way) grooves from their contemporaries as Koan Sounds’s in-your-face beats are just as complex, musical and original as those of say Pretty Lights, Bassnectar or Skrillex.
Breton is for fans of Passion Pit, Cut Copy and the other acts out there who are taking us on a big 80s new wave rewind…Rachel Yamagata has moved from her background mic position out to the front for some very interesting singer/songwriter fare…British African-American artist Michael Kiwanuka continues the onslaught of folk/Americana artists crossing the pond yet sounding like they belong here. He brings mellow, heart-felt tunes perfect for chill-out listening.
So there you have it— Weeping Elvis’s favorite moments from SXSW 2012. All the artists written about here are truly deserving of a listen so expand your musical mind and ears and point your browser to Spotify or iTunes and check out some great new music. We truly think you will enjoy any of the acts we have reported on during these incredible four days…we certainly did.