AUSTIN, Texas — Old-timers at South By Southwest often grumble that the family mood once floating over the festival has been smothered by the deal-makers and fashion seekers packing the streets and music clubs of Austin. Yet one of this year’s most anticipated shows was all about filial warmth and effortless artistry — wrapped up in a package ready to possess pop radio.
The formal club debut of Court Yard Hounds attracted a vehemently supportive audience — as might be expected for an endeavor undertaken by two-thirds of country’s groundbreaking trio the Dixie Chicks. Sisters and multi-instrumentalists Emily Robison and Martie Maguire share the spotlight in this group, taking a breather from the vocal leadership of the more idiosyncratic (and glamorous) Natalie Maines. The sound they’ve developed in this more-than-a-side project — the band’s debut album comes out May 4 — is surprisingly rocking and predictably classy.
Robison took the vocal lead on most songs, but the sound was essentially collaborative. Sibling harmonies dominated, and the sound, fleshed out by a full band, was more roots rock than country pop. Maguire sometimes bent the notes on her fiddle as if it were a solid-body Fender, and the banjo and mandolin parts melded with organ and electric guitar to create a sound that fit into the country-minded rock tradition extending from Gram Parsons to Linda Ronstadt and, later, such lesser-known artists as the Long Ryders.
At times, the music recalled some of Sheryl Crow’s material, but at other times it was more like the Bangles. Robison and Maguire led the group with confidence and obvious pleasure. Robison’s singing lacks the sharp flavor of Maines’, but in combination with her sister, it held a gravity that suited the material, which expresses the complicated concerns of an adult woman. The lyrics sometimes slipped toward banality, but other moments were witty, and those harmonies made even well-worn phrases transcendent.
The Court Yard Hounds made a big sound on their own; it grew even richer when Jakob Dylan strolled onstage in a fedora to join for two songs. The first was an original, an aching love song reaching back to Parsons’ duets with Emmylou Harris.
Things got rowdier and less organized when the band covered Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well”; at one point, Dylan forgot the words and resorted to reading them from scraps of paper. He laughed and looked sheepish, but no one in the crowd complained. It was a typical special SXSW moment: a partnering so comfortable, it had to come true.
New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus is ambitious — and fearless. The rootsy punk outfit sees no shame in riffing on classic Bruce Springsteen lyrics, its songs a sometimes reckless reaction to all things pop culture. “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to die,” Patrick Stickles sang in set-opener “A More Perfect Union,” and the band was off and running. Think of what the Pogues might have sounded like if they had grown up near Asbury Park, with lengthy, breathless songs loaded with half a dozen shifts in direction and twice as many hooks. The band’s latest, “The Monitor,” is supposedly a concept album inspired by the Civil War, but it’s largely just about surviving the recession on the East Coast. The band’s songs draw clear battle lines between the haves and the have-nots, and Titus Andronicus doesn’t exactly identify with the former.
The Paris-based electro-rapper Uffie was not on my list of 80-plus acts to potentially see here. Having spent some time on her MySpace page, I was bored by her pop-tart poses and aren’t-these-shocking lyrics. Yet some changes in scheduling allowed me to stumble into one of her afternoon sets, and I walked away a believer. Her debut, “Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans,” is due in late May, and she has an upcoming single with Pharrell Williams. She performed the song “ADD SUV” on Thursday, and like much of Uffie’s spry dance cuts, it revealed an artist willing to poke as much fun at herself as she does at the boys who chase her. Though she repeatedly noted it was “weird” to play in the daytime, Uffie was all smiles, and her songs popped with effervescent, club-ready backdrops.
AH, THE PRESENCE
Another hopeful from across the pond, VV Brown, did a commanding set Thursday night, even covering Drake’s “Best I Ever Had.” In Brown’s hands, it took on darker undertones — a hip-hop soul cut with an edge of frustration. The rest of her set carried a surprising rock ‘n’ roll bent. Coming onstage in a Mardi Gras-ready mask, Brown ripped through decades and styles, borrowing equally from girl groups and hip-hop.