Six months ago, I had a simple idea to listen to all of the bands playing SXSW, write some thoughts, and post my first “blog” online. There wasn’t any real goal with this project, just something I wanted to try out to see how it went. As I get ready to announce the next phase of Operation Every Band, it’s pretty amazing how far this journey has taken me. I feel like part of the music world as a whole for the first time. It’s been a rewarding transition from fan to contributor, especially with all of the positive feedback I’ve received in the past couple of months.
Late on Thursday morning, I was sitting in traffic turning in and out of lanes in an effort to catch an early set by one of my favorite new discoveries of the year, The Naked and Famous. Trekking from the main stretch of Sixth to the west side of town at Waterloo, eventually I heard the familiar sound of The Naked and Famous opening their set. There was a sparse crowd in the Waterloo parking lot, many trying to kick start their day with some upbeat music or eyeballing the Third Man van parked outside the venue. I settled in right up front, and the band had their instruments turned up loud. From the second I found my spot, I was entranced by the music I heard for the next half hour straight.
The band played a set primarily drawing from their excellent debut LP, Passive Me Aggressive You. For a young band, their sound is huge, blasting guitar and keyboard lines with an unbridled passion. They combine electronic pop and indie rock perfectly, always focusing on their songwriting craft and catchiness. All I could think watching their set is how impressive they were, feeling lucky to catch such a great band at the start of their career. If I had to bet on any band really breaking into something powerful from my SXSW experience, it’s The Naked and Famous. I envisioned arenas full of fans singing along taking in their set, a tough feat for a nooner on a Thursday in a record store parking lot.
There were a few real standout moments throughout their set. Early on, possibly opening the show up, they tore up the album opener “All of This”, breaking into an anthemic tone that carried through the whole set. “Punching Up A Dream” had the crowd really moving for the first time, featuring perfect vocals from frontwoman Alisa Xayalith, who stalked the stage, bouncing in time with the energetic beats behind her. The set closed appropriately with their single slowly breaking in the States, “Young Blood”, drawing some cheers from the crowd on the opening notes. The set drew a perfect end, but I would love to have seen more. I actually tried to catch them on Saturday for a second time but couldn’t get into the Cedar Street Courtyard. I can’t say enough good things about this band, and their album continues to get plays on my commute, nodding my head along knowingly with what’s to come for The Naked and Famous. I never would have guessed the best show I would see would be a noon set in a parking lot, but at SXSW, the unexpected always is the best musical gift.
I saw a traditional folk rock band with a ton of energy. I saw a woman playing a jawbone of a donkey. I saw a tap dancer as a percussion base. I saw a band play on top of tables and chairs. David Wax Museum had the most action packed and exciting set of any band I saw at SXSW. They took the stage among man of their folk peers, carrying on the great energy created by earlier sets by Seryn and Sarah Jaffe. The crowd was excited from moment one, as aggressive acoustic strumming launched the band into their rambunctious set. David Wax Museum brings a strong traditional base with a modern flair, a style of music that was much represented at SXSW, but never perfected like the band’s set on Thursday afternoon.
The band started as a four piece acoustic bluegrass lineup, combining guitar, upright bass, fiddle, and percussion. They came out swinging, aggressively delivering a gritty traditional-sounding folk number with a defined grit and a rebelious tone. The second song introduced a tap dancer, a fine compliment and an interesting musical twist that I’m sure was unique among the thousands of bands playing SXSW. She had a magical presence, capturing the crowd’s attention both visually and musically. What would normally be a gimmick turned into a fifth member of the band, joining on four numbers throughout their half hour set. The violin player picked up some unique percussion, which was later revealed to be the jawbone of a donkey, hitting with a drumstick and shaking the teeth. Again, this wasn’t a trick, but a solid contribution to their sound throughout the set.
The show really turned a corner when the band eyed a set of tables directly next to me, unplugged their instruments, and entertained the crowd by standing in the middle of the room and belting out their traditional-based songs. SXSW many times is about finding a “moment”, and this one worked perfectly for me. They performed two songs among the crowd, and as they returned to the stage to finish their set, I was completely sold on David Wax Museum being one of the most unique, fresh, and interesting sets at SXSW this year. It’s exciting knowing how young they are as well; this band has a sound and presence that could develop into something really great for the music scene.
I was originally going to catch Wye Oak, The Dodos, and Middle Brother at the BrooklynVegan day party on Friday afternoon, but due to an overcrowded, hot, and somewhat agitated crowd, we decided to venture off. My friend sent me a text promising nice air conditioning and great hip hop at the SXSeattle party at Copa Bar, so we headed in that direction, realizing we were about fifteen minutes from a Macklemore & Ryan Lewis set. This duo was high on my list of top hip hop recs, so excitement was high entering the wonderful back patio at Copa. The crowd wasn’t too large, but made up for it in passion as they crowded the stage upon Macklemore & Ryan Lewis stepping into performance position.
The following show was one of the best half hours of fun and danceable hip hop I’ve ever witnessed. Macklemore is a very skilled MC and lyricist, using relatable material and clever phrasing. His energy was at a ten throughout, coercing his fan base to shout along and dance like no one is watching. There’s an incredible lack of ego emited throughout his performance, creating a friendly and musical vibe that fit the crowd of friends and big time music fans surrounding the tree that dominates the back patio at Copa. The Ziggy Stardust inspired trickery within the club-ready party jam “And We Danced” drew a midset peak, showing a light and catchy side of Macklemore’s personality. He seemed to work every member of the audience individually, striding across the stage and engaging eyes and ears throughout the whole performance.
The show started out with an unexpected twist, with a trumpet player standing on a table in the back corner blasting out a melody that carried right into Ryan Lewis’ beats. The instrumentalist played throughout the set, adding just that little extra touch that seperated the show from the other hip hop acts I caught at SXSW. The music ranged from honest and powerful (“Otherside”, playing off the Red Hot Chili Peppers track) to poignant and emotional (“My Oh My”) to flat out fun (the flag-waving set closer “Irish Celebration”). I walked away from the set with the immediate reaction that it was the best hip hop act I’ve seen live. The show was pretty much perfect, and was the solid highlight of Friday’s shows. I can’t wait to catch them again; Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are poised to really break out if they can get their songs to listener’s ears.
Thursday’s evening shows presented a slew of choices, but we settled on the showcase at Billboard Bungalow on the strength of the full lineup. The night was hit and miss, featuring a meandering and confusing set by The Knux, a disconnected, yet impressive at times, performance by K. Flay and a nice and energetic set by California Wives. I would question our choice if not for the highlight show put on by The Limousines. I’d been turned onto the band through my project, but really only dug into a couple of their songs, especially the catchy gem “Internet Killed the Video Star”. Admitedly, I couldn’t quite remember what The Limousines sounded like until my show buddy put the songs and the artist together for me.
I tried to explore many genres in the four days of SXSW, but there were very few bands that fell as strongly in the pop catagory as The Limousines. Armed with keys, computers, drums, and vocals, The Limousines completely embrace upbeat pop music, but deliver it with an indie rock edge. Vocalist Eric Victorino employs a punky and quirky soprano, sounding like a unique mix between Rivers Cuomo and Freddie Mercury at his best. I was reminded of some modern alternative rock vocalists a little as well, but it’s not overly polished or formulaic. Musically, they definitely focused on anthemic choruses combined with danceable rock rhythms and pop melodies. Highlights included the upbeat “The Future”, a hands-in-the-air enducing “Very Busy People” and the aforementioned closing number “Internet Killed the Video Star”, sounding stadium-ready for that three song run.
The Limousines stand out as one of my favorite surprises of the festival; I didn’t even really have them highlighted as one of the top draws at this six-band showcase. Their live show really outshined their already strong studio material, so hopefully they can pull a lot of gigs and ears in the coming year. They’re a band of a lot of potential, and a true winner from my perspective at SXSW. Great, great show!
Excitement was at an all time high entering the Stage At Sixth after participating in my first SXSW panel and hanging out with the Tumblr crew a little bit. I put in countless hours dedicated to one event, so seeing a stage and knowing the four days of exploratory music ahead of created some minor goosebumps before hearing a note. The Civil Wars were one of those bands I knew would fall in the schedule somewhere, and were the perfect opener to a brilliant SXSW experience. A little after two in the afternoon, the duo walked onstage dressed to the nines among a sizeable crowd especially for their time slot.
There’s something to be said for an act that has gained quite a bit of buzz off of an acoustic guitar and two vocalists. Seeing The Civil Wars perform live is the only way to really understand their power, one they took advantage of as the seized the room to close to silence. That’s quite a hard feat among free beers and the general party atmosphere riding up and down Sixth. There is a great, playful chemistry among the duo, often knowingly glancing at each other. You can see how much they feel the lyrics of their songs, honestly delivering every line with a true emotional resonance.
Unsuprisingly, their set focused on material from their recent LP, Barton Hollow. There are certainly a fair amount of quiet moments among their songs, but The Civil Wars delivers them in such an engaging fashion that their show never really dragged. Highlights included the tender “20 Years” and the gritty reading of “Barton Hollow”. The real treats of their sets were two great interpretations of other artists’ material. The duo performed a slowed-down version of The Smashing Pumpkins “Disarm”, drawing out the lyrical content to an emotional swell. One of the highlights of the whole festival was their version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”, which was equally inventive, honest, and fun. After seeing the band, I’m very excited to see how their success in the future and will be sure to catch them anytime they’re in the area.
Lost in the Trees was another new discovery from the Operation Every Band project, but it was actually my second time catching the band after seeing them perform a late set at 35 Conferette in Denton earlier in March. That show was a little plagued by technical difficulties on the forefront of the band’s mind, but I really enjoyed their sound and approach, and walked away impressed with their combination of emotional folk music with a defined classical influence. The song “Walk Around The Lake” really struck me too, with the Wagnerian string melodies and intense and dark, emotional tone. It stuck as one of the highlights of the growing Denton festival after that weekend, becoming one of the bands I’ve dug into the most throughout the past month.
Unsurprisingly, when I saw Lost in the Trees was playing among a great mix of folk rock band at Wednesday’s Paste Party, I couldn’t have been more excited. The beautiful thing is, their set was even better than the performance the week before, and actually created a sound that far exceeded their already excellent studio efforts. There was a strong energy throughout The Stage on Sixth that afternoon which Lost in the Trees completely took advantage of by all of the band giving it their all on stage. There was an unexpected aggression to their playing, especially in the string section, creating a real bite to their folk delivery.
Their greatest strengh was highlighted with an instrumental track and some stunning outros, completely embracing the classical influence. This was a great counterpoint to the nature of the bands playing along side Lost in the Trees that afternoon. There certainly is a trend in incorporating more interesting instrumentation and influences into folk music throughout the past couple of years (Edward Sharpe, Seryn, Typhoon, Mother Falcon etc.). The seperation that Lost in the Trees proved throughout this set was that they don’t play folk music with a classical music, but rather they truly combine both styles pretty much equally. A gentle violin solo is one thing, but the complex arrangements that ground Lost in the Tree’s music is truly a unique take on the genre. There is a certain amount of tension created by their melodies and harmonies that works so powerfully live. I can’t wait to keep catching them whenever they are touring, truly a band to watch in the coming years.
A quick disclaimer: I’ve been pimping James Vincent McMorrow pretty hard since I’ve heard his album for the first time a couple of months ago. He ended up at the top of my folk recommendations, and was a decently sized topic of conversation of the panel I participated on Wednesday. Suffice to say, he was an artist I had targeted as a must see this weekend. James’ show at PureVolume house on Saturday afternoon was actually the second time I caught him in Austin. Thursday night, I closed my night at Friends Bar to see his late night set. A close listen revealed some of the beauty in the music I’ve been falling for, but the combination of an Irish Bar, and Irish Showcase, and it being St. Patrick’s Day created an environment not really suited to James’ quiet demeanor. I walked away pleased, feeling a little sorry for the band’s lack of reception from the audience barring the first few rows of fans right next to the stage.
On Saturday, I marked James Vincent McMorrow’s set at PureVolume as a stop on my last day at SXSW. His set started a couple minutes after most of the line got into the building, with a scant collection of fans taking in his set. He featured songs from his debut LP Early In The Morning, covering most of the album within his forty minute set. In general, the music has a quiet demeanor for sure, but there’s such power in James’ vocal delivery. His eyes seem to ride above the audience, showing a little bit of disconnection to the hectic SXSW scene. This actually worked for me. The venue had a real escapist feel to it, dramatically dark for 2:00 in the afternoon, impressive lighting, and even a fog machine that provided a mysterious vibe to the music.
Recognition should also be paid to the band who from what I gather have only been playing together for a short time. They reminded me a lot of Midlake, creating a full sound while still paying respect to the sounds between the notes. The harmonies were crisp and appropriate as well. The music went from very quiet (the sparse interpretation of “Follow You Down to the Red Oak Tree”) to more energetic pop-leaning material including the mid-set highlight “Sparrow and the Wolf”. My favorite moment of the set was a stirring rendition of “If I Had a Boat” allowing James to stretch his vocals in a emotional and gripping way. I’m really excited to follow the career of James Vincent McMorrow in the coming months, hopefully capturing an audience in the States through touring and word-of-mouth. It was a beautiful and entrancing set, a great sign for the future.
My first day of SXSW consisted mostly of folk-based rock at the Paste Party, so the shift to Flamingo Cantina to spend some time with the Doomtree collective was a purposeful change of direction. This has been the first year I’ve really embraced hip hop, and Doomtree was right at the top of my list. The showcase featured all of the individual members of Doomtree culminating with a group performance to cap the night. The earlier part of the night featuring Lazerbeak and Paper Tiger mixing electronic music with an indie/garage rock interlude, followed by the premier performance of Four Fists, an anticipated collaboration between P.O.S. and Astronautalis. The two MCs played a very loose set consisting of a couple of new tracks and an inventive Nate Dogg influenced freestyle to commemorate the influencial artist who passed earlier that day.
Mike Mictlan was slightly under my radar compared to my draw to P.O.S. and Dessa for their elastic approach to hip hop. His show proved that he is not only an incredibly skilled and energetic MC, but the most solid rock of the Doomtree collective. His set featured a style equally combining a laid back and aggressive approach, forming a really complete statement in a half hour set. He really captured the room, connecting really well with the crowd who got more into it as the set went on. SXSW tends to go the opposite way with most fans, knowing there’s always another band to catch next door.
The highlight of the night was a groovy yet sharp performance of “Game Over” with a few members of the crowd, myself included, rhyming along with Mike throughout the chorus. He really set the tone, and walking away from the Doomtree showcase it was Mike Mictlan that really stood out the most. Bonus points go to Mike for rocking the Gayngs hoodie during his set; it got me excited knowing all of the collaboration the Minneapolis crew would be up to throughout SXSW.
I saw John Grant for the first time last year in Denton, supporting a hometown Midlake show at Hailey’s. The bands surprisingly didn’t collaborate that night, and John Grant’s opening set really didn’t shine compared to the excellent LP Queen of Denmark. I was left a little bored from the sleepy delivery, wishing he lived up to my own expections. I actually caught the bands at Swan Dive to avoid the Deer Tick crowd out back, so I was surprised to be entranced by a really strongs set. The band focused on the same material from Queen of Denmark, but there was that necessary underlying energy with songs the reach a medium tempo at best.
This show really highlighted John Grant’s songwriting ability above all. Pop/Folk gems such as “Sigourney Weaver” and the controversially-titled “Jesus Hates Faggots” were crowd favorites. Midlake completely added to the sound, creating a true band feel. They are a great set of instrumentalists, using a wide range of acoustic and some electric vehicles for their semi-anthemic sound. Hopefully John finds a similar sound for his future projects. After the riotous trip around the crowded connecting venues, it was a wonderfully relaxing set and a highlight of Friday’s day shows.
So begins my best-of list, a timely nine days after the last showcase in Austin. I want to start with a larger showcase. Middle Brother was the lead in act for the big Bright Eyes concert at Auditorium Shores, playing for a smaller dedicated crowd up front and hundreds of parties spread out across the expansive field. Their set was comprised of a six song burst, kicking into “Blue Eyes” like a band already deep in the middle of a set. Middle Brother had already played a few showcases around town, as well as Dawes and Deer Tick adding a full slate of day party and showcase appearances.
There was no sense of warm up to their set once they hit the big stage. Deer Tick’s John McCauley, with a shirtless and intoxicated demeanor, was a treat to watch attack the stage with unrelenting energy. Matt Vasquez (Delta Spirit) carried the same energy, ripping his guitar lines like an 80’s arena rock frontman. The band’s sound for this short set was really anchored by Taylor Goldsmith, treating this project as his own version of The Band. The rest of the cast seemed to rotate by song, including a late and rousing apperance by the joyous Johnny Corndawg on track “Middle Brother”.
Middle Brother’s set was a great cap to the unbridled energy and musicianship that prevailed at SXSW this year. There was a sense of joy emiting from the stage, which I imagine was pretty contained within the crowd up front. The big stage did take away from some of the intimacy that SXSW normally exhudes, but a great show is a great show, no matter the venue. These bands have rightly moved to the forefront of the indie folk/rock scene, a crown that can be worn proudly throughout the next few years.
Bonus: This set is available for streaming on NPR. Give it a listen by clicking here.
After 4 months of intense listening, I’ve been taking a few days off since SXSW closed off. Reviews of the top ten shows will be coming in a couple of days, but I did want to share pictures as they are being uploaded, grouped by show. If anyone wants to relive some of SXSW this weekend while you go through music withdrawal, check it out. It will be updated throughout the weekend, but I have two days up already:
This week, I’ll be posting pictures and reviews of the top 10 artists I caught at SXSW. It was an excellent long weekend with more highlights than I can count, taking in about 50 bands over the course of four days.
For the band treasure hunters, I’ll still keep up on new bands with a “New Discovery of the Week” feature. I’ll focus on acts that have yet to release their debut LP if possible, but may feature some more established acts that are new to me.
Lastly, the focus on this blog is going to take a major shift in the next few weeks. I’m teaming up with some friends to start an exciting new project on Operation Every Band to carry all the way through SXSW next year. We are ecstatic to try to take this project to the next level. The spreadsheet was just the beginning. Stayed tuned to be introduced to “The Twelve”…