Look, there are simply far too many bands at SXSW for one man to cover but damned if I didn’t try. It’s been said that Austin is uniquely situated to host a festival like SX and it shows – it’s a sprawling sonic smorgasbord of musical delights where every nook and cranny of the town becomes a stage. I’ve seen a lot of bands throughout this week but here are a handful of the standout artists that truly rocked my soul.
Paul Thorn and the McCrary Sisters
Being who I am, I was expecting to be singing a lot of praise this week simply because of my beliefs in the sacredness of song. I was not expecting, however, to be taken to church. When Paul Thorn came on stage in a slick suit backed by the McCrary Sisters dressed in choir robes and carrying tambourines, I had an idea of what I was in for. Raised in Mississippi, Paul Thorn covers all the bases of southern rock, zydeco, and Gospel and does it with grace and style. A stage presence that commands not only your attention but your participation, you’d think he was a Pentecostal preacher just like his daddy. But, nope, he’s just a damn fine showman. With the heavenly voices of the sisters in tow, Paul had the audience testifying to the rhythm and shouting ‘amen!’ with every tune. By the time Paul jumped down into the audience for the last track, he had every sinner and every saint transfixed -and whether or not we fell into either of those categories, we are all ready to praise.
Absolutely one of the bands to watch for out this year’s SXSW, these Minnesota rockers are a barrage of youthful energy and boundless talent. Ornate dance pop rhythms somewhere along the lines of Vampire Weekend and Reptar, the electricity of the crowd awaiting their show was palpable – and Hippo Campus did not disappoint. They provided a non-stop dance party for their eager fans and – with plenty of jumping about, showing off their considerable art school honed skills – they were right there along with us. One marvelous thing about SX is getting to see up and coming bands embrace their art and bring it out into the unknown. Watching these guys play, you got the sense that they are having the time of their lives. With a sound that’s already far more developed and tightly rehearsed than some acts I saw throughout the week, it’s not hard to imagine that these boys have a bright, bright future ahead of them. And, with sounds that’s as sunny as theirs, they’ll be bringing more of that pure youthful joy to crowds every step of the way.
Tokyo Police Club
This Canadian indie rock (but also, sorta, pop-punk?) band has been one of my absolute favorites for years. Because of this, I’ve been lucky to see them a few times – and their live show never disappoints. Although their debut record Elephant Shell hit at the height of late aughts indie rock renaissance, it stood out for its infectious brevity. Since then, however, they released an absolutely perfect pop album in the form of Forcefield. Like, I cannot stress this enough. It revealed them to be masters of the hook to the point where they could open it with an 8-minute long track that’s just as deliciously digestible as any of the 2-minute bursts they were once known for. And that’s how their live act is: a burst of endlessly catchy joy. Added bonus: this was the 10-year anniversary of when they first came to SX – glad to see they’re still on the top of their game.
The first chance I got to check out Real Estate this week was at one of the larger open air show cases. This was a mistake. Partially because of the size of the venue, partially because it was late night, but really mostly because of Real Estate’s style, this venue could not have been worse. Sure, the band sounded great from what I could hear but that was barely anything at all over the drunken rabble milling about. Luckily, the following day I was able to catch them at the radio stage – a large, indoor setting where the crowds were respectfully attentive and let the band really breathe into the space. Thanks to their laid back stage presence and languid textures, this was absolutely ideal. A band that had somehow alluded me for several albums, they’ve quickly become one of my favorites this past year and I was overjoyed to see them without distraction. Playing tracks from their newest LP In Mind (which just dropped this past Friday), the band’s on stage demeanor perfectly mirrors their sound – calm, cool, and endlessly relaxed. Although the style remains the same, the new tracks utilized some more engaging techniques than before including a spacey, prolonged wash of sound in the final song that especially got me excited for the new album. If you get the chance to see them, make sure it’s quite and focused – they’re worth the attention.
North Carolina “baroque folk” artists are responsible for giving me a much better name for the growing genre of expansive folky psychedelia that’s been cropping up recently and I am forever indebted to them for that. I am also indebted to them for giving me one of my favorite records of last year, one that our local scene has luckily picked up with gratitude. An album of intense meditative joy, We All The Light feels tailor made for communal bonding and nature wandering – and their live show follows suit. Although the album’s songs are very tightly written, the most interesting moments of their live set are when they let loose and let the songs breathe into spacious jams. It’s too bad that there was such a tired vibe of the room. I can’t blame people for being exhausted from a day of running to and fro throughout town but this is the sort of band that deserves your body’s full attention. At least we were treated to watching them dawn their pussy hats and turn their closing number into a psychedelic rendition of Credence Clear Water’s “Fortunate Son.” It was a playful bit of protest and a great late night pick me up. Still, can’t wait to meet them one day in a field.
Genre names like “alternative-country” or can be misleading. When Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, or, hell, even Chris Stapleton started blowing up the scene a few years back you’d think they reinvented country the way some people went on about them. But they most certainly did not – it’s always been there, waiting for the manufactured sheen of CMT to wear thin, revealing the rusted rustic heart beneath it all. Brent Cobb is one such musician waiting in the wings with his overbearing drawl and southern sentimentality. I know some people might hear his lyrics and think he’s putting on a show but, being a Georgia boy myself, I can tell you he’s singing straight from the heart. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea but, if you fondly recall the feeling of red dirt between your toes, Brent just might one of your favorite new artists. I know he’s one of mine.
Ben Sollee has always been an engaging performer. While his instrument of choice is the cello, the real draw are his lyrics. Filled to the brim with political ramblings and romantic musings like all good Americana, Ben is a class-A songwriter. Of course, it certainly helps that the cello provides a unique and disarmingly lovely base for the genre. Hailing from Kentucky, Ben did an admirable job following up the country fried rock of Cobb by turning the whole vibe on its head. Playing tunes directly influenced by his Appalachia upbringing, he was joined by a banjo and a simplistic drum set up that gave the vibe of down-home bluegrass without ever really embracing it. At one point, he professed his love for the music of central Mexico and produced a tune that split the difference between Kentucky and south of the border to such a remarkable degree that it woke the whole room up at nearly 2 in the morning. I’m not entirely sure where it all leads but he’s onto to a form of bluegrass fusion unlike anything you’ve heard before and I highly recommend watching out for him.