My road to SXSW wasn’t the easiest. Having never flown on a plane before (yeah, somehow I made it 21 years without ever leaving the ground), the flight over was a little nerve-wracking to say the least. Everyone around me said I would be fine if I just counted to three and breathed, so I did. For those of you counting with me, that’s one valium, two shots of whiskey and three deep, deep breaths. The first night was all about cheap hotels, late shuttles and getting bearings, with music unfortunately taking the backseat. After a few bumps in the road (and in the air), though, on Thursday I finally got to experience what SXSW is all about—discovering new music, and remembering what you loved about the old.
Tucked away a few blocks down from SXSW’s main drag is the Levi’s/FADER Fort, a surprisingly large invite-only corral filled with free drinks, free food and enough western-inspired décor to make you feel more like you’re at the Alamo than a music festival. Past the booths and displays is a covered stage where some of the best of what’s up-and-coming gave the few hundred in attendance a taste of what they’d be hearing on blogs and reading about in magazines soon.
Fans of the Ting Tings would do well to check out the Chew Lips, a London-based dance trio fronted by the blonde and bubbly Tigs. Mixing indie rock sophistication with minimal dance pop beats and melodies, the Chew Lips tap into a vein that’s been a little overdone over the past couple of years, but do so with a level of energy and skill of performance that could let them transcend the clichéd dance pop level into something a little more substantive, a la Yeah Yeah Yeahs or Metric.
The Morning Benders
These are some guys to keep an eye on. Hailing from Berkeley, California, the Morning Benders sound like a darker, more world-weary Vampire Weekend that grew up on the Beach Boys rather than afrobeat. The Rough Trade Records band looked liked the youngest I’d seen all day, but you wouldn’t know it by their playing. Lush harmonies and layered instrumentation driven by a strong sense of melody and technical skill made for tunes that were catchy and complex at the same time, a feat that’s not always easy to pull off. Standout songs from the performance include “Promises,” a groove-heavy tune off their new record Big Echo, and closer “No Excuses,” which ended with the band engrossed in a dark, psychedelic jam.
To be perfectly honest, when Damian Abraham, the huge, often naked lead singer of Toronto hardcore punk band F*cked Up, took the stage, I was pretty grateful to be watching from the comfort of the Tex-Mex themed backstage couches rather than the front row he quickly drenched in beer. “I’m proposing a new tagline for SXSW,” he told the crowd. “Energy drinks or cocaine—take your pick” Whatever Abraham and company chose must have really done the trick, as more energy went into their half-hour set than a lot of SXSW stages probably see in an entire day. The best part of F*cked Up’s set was Abraham’s interactions with the crowd. While he dove into the photo pit to mosh with fans, I had the distinct pleasure of copping a feel of Abraham’s back hair, something I suggest everyone tries to do at some point. “Everyone should try to be in a band once,” Abraham told the crowd towards the end of the band’s set. “I’m living proof you don’t need talent to do it.” Talent or not, F*cked Up is a crowd-pleaser that’s sure to be making their loud beer splash on larger stages soon.
Antone’s – Americana Showcase
Some of country and Americana’s finest made it down to Antone’s, a large bar with a barn-like feel, for the Americana Showcase. The room was packed with country fans who had been waiting all day to catch these acts, and the energy in the room really made for a great show.
Before the Courtyard Hounds took the Antone’s stage, there were a few murmurs around the room about who the Hounds actually were. As soon as they walked out, though, two familiar faces brought cheers of recognition from those who were initially a little skeptical. Courtyard Hounds is the side project of Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, also known as two thirds of country/bluegrass phenomenon the Dixie Chicks. The girls played several tracks off their upcoming album, including first single “The Coast.” Later in the set, they hinted at a recent collaborator and surprise guest who just “happened to be in town,” which ended up being none other than former Wallflower/son of that Bob guy Jakob Dylan. He joined the Hounds on two songs, mixing in lead vocals and background harmonies that complimented Robison’s and Maguire’s voices even better than I would have expected. Alternating between fiddle, banjo, guitar and vocals, the girls of Courtyard Hounds managed to develop a sound that, while still maintaining their Dixie Chicks roots, differentiates them from the trio of their past and sets them up for what could be a pretty bright future.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
Rarely have I seen a performer with so much energy and such strong stage presence as Grace Potter. Hitting the stage in a barely-there sequin dress and belting the lyrics to “Sweet Hands,” the energy in the room went up tenfold in a matter of minutes. Having been part of the live circuit for a while now, Potter’s band the Nocturnals was tight and managed the accomplishment of keeping up with their lead singer, which, if you’ve ever seen her live, is not an easy task. Potter and her band blew through tracks old and new, debuting a few from their upcoming album. A standout was “Goodbye Kiss,” a tune Potter wrote while in Austin after her boyfriend took off drunk down the highway and she was left to be consoled by a homeless priest. With her huge pipes and penchant for strange stories, Grace Potter shows always keep the audience entertained, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else this new album has in store.