The Best of SXSW

Tim Quirk's Extremely Guitar-Band-Centric SXSW Music Festival Recap
Number of Bands Seen: 35
Best New Discovery: Dead Sara. Every year, there's at least one band I stumble across by accident and fall in love with (previous years this has included Dr. Dog and Frightened Rabbit). As I left a db's set Wednesday afternoon, I heard rocking (which here means, "loud music played well and compellingly") coming from the front porch of Opal Divine's and wandered over to see who could be making such a ruckus. Turned out to be two ladies and two dudes, with the singer howling like a female Axl Rose fronting a way more musically interesting Runaways. The set closer "The Weatherman" pretty much boils down everything great about this band into four intense minutes. Imagine her giving the world the finger while screaming the lyrics from atop a dangerously wobbling PA to get the full impact.
Best Show: This one's not really fair. I snagged one of the lottery-assigned wristbands to see Bruce Springsteen in the relatively intimate setting of the Moody Theater. The combination of rage (eight songs from his angry new album Wrecking Ball), swagger (confident, blistering versions of classics such as "Badlands" and "Thunder Road") and grace (gorgeous choir vocals on "Rocky Ground," and a touching tribute to departed saxophonist Clarence Clemons during "10th Avenue Freeze-Out" that saw the band do a full stop to let the crowd roar in his memory for at least two full minutes) would have easily made this one of the best Bruce shows I've ever seen. And that was all before Jimmy Cliff guested on "The Harder They Come" and Eric Burdon came out to cover "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."
Biggest Letdown: The Twilight Sad, who were my Best New Discovery a couple years back. Advice to singer dude: if you're going to bring fancy in-ear monitors to a 20 minute set at a day party, you better damn well hit every note. The band took so long doing their line check that MC Andrew W.K. finally said, "Guys, you're all onstage. Your performance has begun whether you know it or not."
Notable Trend: That thing where aging rockers play classic albums from start to finish shows no signs of letting up, based on The Wedding Present's rendition of Sea Monsters and Bob Mould's run-through of Copper Blue. Both had lots of heads nodding happily. Granted, most of the heads were balding, but still.
More Rocking Rockers Worth Checking Out: The Men, Screaming Females, and the upsettingly named Diarrhea Planet.
My Personal Highlight from the Google Play/YouTube Presents Live from the Lot Shindig: All the bands put on stellar sets (and ones that sounded good, too, which isn't always the case at SXSW), but Chicago soul heroes JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound stepping in at the last minute for an ailing Ting Tings, and completely killing it, tops my list. Thanks, guys (and get well soon, Katie White).

Jen Guyre's Similarly Guitar-Centric Recap of SXSW
Number of Bands Seen: 32
Best New Discovery: Dead Sara. If you read Tim's update, he was so moved by what he saw that I got a text saying: "Go see this band—you'll love them." But after waiting a solid hour for them to take the stage, I figured there was no way I'd have a good response after the build-up. Man, was I wrong. Vocalist Emily Armstrong was amazing. Such control, such range, such presence and sincerity. She moved like Axl Rose and sang like Janis Joplin—going from singing to passionate, gravelly screaming. Without a gimmick and without a "look," they were just pure unadulterated talent. The crowd recognized this refreshing fact and went off: everyone in the room was into it, with the band so explosive they blew out an amp and broke a kick pedal in the making of this killer show.
Best Show: It's a tie between The Atlas Moth and Royal Thunder. I admit to being a fan of both bands before seeing them live for the first time in Austin, but they both equally killed it. The Atlas Moth's sound is so complex and dense, that to hear them effortlessly hit every little nuance live is beyond commendable. These guys are technicians in their own right and with three guitars, multi-instrumentation and raw emotion, they commanded attention, causing a room full of bleary-eyed metal fans still hungover from the night before to hang on their every note at the Longbranch Inn. Though I'm told they're even more of a force when they have a lightshow, to see the rare moment of a band sans a stage draw a crowd to the outskirts of the city in the middle of the day and give a bone-chillingly phenomenal performance that challenges their recordings, well that's something to write home about. As for Royal Thunder, it was the middle of the night, and though The Cult were playing simultaneously, I couldn't think of a better place to be when Royal Thunder frontwoman/bassist Miny Parsonz opened her mouth to belt her soulful vox against some serious southern-tinged thunder. Her powerhouse voice and impressive range were captivating, but the band's ability to take something so moving to dark and heavy territory with precision and aplomb made this performance unforgettable. Their marriage in styles—Southern-tinged groove meets '70s-inspired doom with a leading lady—is in itself worth checking out, but to watch them deliver it live at a level even higher than recorded makes me think their best is yet to come. You're gonna want to be able to say you saw them back when they were first starting out.
Biggest Letdown: The biggest letdown I encountered was missing All Pigs Must Die: their 2011 album is insane, and I really wanted to see that pure aggressive energy live. But if I have to call someone out as being brutal in all the wrong ways, a certain battle metal band that mixes a little melodic death metal into their viking march brought me from blocks away to check out, and were sadly not worth the trip.
Notable Trend: Saxophones. Clarence Clemons left some big shoes to fill, and the music world must've taken note: Bill Clinton's favorite instrument was unexpectedly present and played in this post-ska revival world. First: Shining, Norway's premier black metal jazz band. Their frontman switched from guitar to sax and, with what breath he had left, also handled vocals. It was shocking and so different that, no matter how many Lost Boys movie references I wanted to make, I was impressed by the originality and splendor in which he rocked out like Bleeding Gums Murphy giving Lisa Simpson a lesson. The Atlas Moth also broke out a sax at one point, and at the Sub Pop showcase, I was in the presence of a full-on brass ensemble led by a saxophone when I walked past the 11-member Debo Band on my way to the outdoor stage.
More Rocking Rockers Worth Checking Out, New Bands: Primitive Weapons, Cancer Bats, Saviours, KEN mode, Black Tusk, Intronaut, Early Graves, Deafheaven; Old Bands That Still Rule: Cro-Mags, Hot Water Music, Jimmy Cliff, The Cult
My Personal Highlight from the Google Play/You Tube Presents Live from the Lot Shindig: Best Coast. I say this with girl-to-girl fashion envy: how cute was lead singer Bethany Cosentino in her sailor outfit? The band played a healthy amount of new tunes—including one about the movie Mean Girls that was super catchy—alongside the tried and true, closing out with the stuck-in-your-head-for-days "Boyfriend."

Sam Chennault's Slightly Less Guitar-Centric SXSW RecapNumber of Bands Seen: 30
Best Show: At the risk of being a shill for the company line, Talib Kweli's set at the Google Play/ YouTube Live at the Lot party was amazing. It was originally billed as a Black Star performance, but Mos Def pulled out at the last moment (Talib addressed this on stage, saying that "Mos Def couldn't be here, but I am, and that's all I'm going to say 'bout that"). While disappointing, this allowed Talib an opportunity to bring out some friends, and it resulted in a who's who of past, present and future hip-hop stars, including newcomer Schoolboy Q, legends Bun B and Pharoahe Monch, and Talib's labelmate Jean Grae. Later, Talib told me that he performs 250 shows a year ("half of them are at SXSW," he mentioned) and the experience served him well, as he has excellent rapport with the decidedly diverse audience.
Biggest Letdown: I didn't see any shows that disappointed me, per se, but confusing the Beauty Ballroom with the Beauty Bar and thus missing Com Truise performance was a bummer.
Best Late-Night Gig: Stumbling home on Friday night at the Duck Down showcase at Zona Rosa (where Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire tore the roof off, by the way), I ducked into the Madison to see a set by post-dubstep duo (and former Antenna Artist of the Week) Sepalcure along with up-and-comer Salva. Normally, Sepalcure's music is dense and dark (they contributed to the Black Swan soundtrack, if that tells you anything), but the set was looser and funkier. After they finished, they snuck into the crowd (along with Daedelus!) to dance along with the audience to Salva's reimagining of current pop music as fractured 8-bit video game collages.
Best New Discovery: My biggest musical discovery during SXSW was that I can enjoy a country concert. I like to think of myself as pretty eclectic, but had not been to a country music show since I was 8, when my grandmother dragged me to a Conway Twitty show. Bloodshot Records' showcase on Saturday at Red Eyed Fly was headlined by the beautiful (and beautifully ramshackle) Lydia Loveless. Though a bit bloodshot herself (she was leaning her head against the microphone for large portions of the show), her backup band was impeccably raucous as it tore through Loveless' tough-tit, love-spurned tales.

Michele Flannery's Recap of SXSW
Number of Bands Seen: 33
Best New Whimsical Band Name: Star & Micey
This stripped-down Memphis trio version of the full band made up for not having their drummer along by syncing foot pedal duties on cymbal, snare and tambourine. Whether their inspirations were purely evangelical or perhaps partly chemical, combined with nervous energy, their jittery adrenaline and odd stage patter ("Send a postcard to your mom, don't play games!") put a quirky spin on a traditional folk-blues-soul sound they describe as "swirled out." With this kind of inventiveness up their sleeves, it's no wonder they recorded their latest at Ardent Studios with a little help from legendary Big Star drummer Jody Stephens.
Best Performance from a Parking Lot: Two Gallants
From the top deck of Google Play/YouTube Presents Live from the Lot showcase, this San Francisco duo packed in more dark, gritty yet vulnerable emotion—accompanied with just drum and guitar—than a full orchestra conducted by John Williams.
Best Super Group with a Turntablist in a Koala Costume: In a quiet corner of the Red Eye Fly, what unravelled was a dreamlike combination of musical strengths—all hand-selected by mastermind producer Dan the Automator. Take the sultry speak-singing of Portland's Emily Wells, add the wise lyricism of Lateef the Truthspeaker, position beatboxer Butterscotch at the keyboards and pull in the mad turntable skills of Montreal's Kid Koala. File under "perfect soundtrack to a sci-fi spaghetti western square dance."
Best Reunited Brothers + One Naked Guy: Jesus & Mary Chain
The best reason to view this packed-with-singles reunion show from the balcony tier of the Belmont, and not down in front? A bad case of claustrophobia, as well as avoiding an overzealous fan who ran onstage and proceeded to take off all his clothes. The bouncers immediately tossed him right back into the audience au naturel, prompting Jim Reid to ask in a thick Scottish accent, "Who was that guy, and how is he going to get home tonight?"
Best Music + Movies Combo: It was an honor to have the opportunity to see Nothing Can Hurt Me Now, the documentary on legendary Memphis group Big Star, presented almost two years to the day that Alex Chilton passed away. As it's not yet finished, I'm not supposed to gush about what a fitting tribute it is to one of the world's most enigmatic bands, but I'm looking forward to the final cut. Runner up: Sneaking into the Hideout to catch Gary Lucas performing the eerie score to the 1967 Brazilian horror film This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse. Which was still not as terrifying as the St. Paddy's Day drunkfest happening outside.
So Nice I Saw Them Twice: Typhoon & The Wedding Present
I'd planned on seeing David Gedge and company's recreation of 1991's Sea Monsters album on Friday night, but was worried about missing songs from the rest of their extended catalogue, so I slipped off to see another set earlier in the week. It was worth it for the encore of "Don't Talk, Just Kiss" and an extra dose of machine gun guitars. Weddoes also wins the award for most awesome roadie, a winsome English lass who sat in the corner of the stage at the ready to swap out guitars while holding extra strings in her mouth.

I've yet to tire of Typhoon's ever-enthusiastic indie orchestra of joyous voices, violins, horns and two (count ‘em, two) drummers plus another percussionist. The small stage at their final festival show couldn't hold all the members, so the drummers set up their kits down in front with the audience. They ended up serving as my proper festival bookends, having started with their appearance at the Paste Magazine showcase and finishing up another memorable SXSW with their group sing-along at the Swan Dive.


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