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The SXSW music festival leaves an indelible stain. That’s not to say that it changes your life necessarily, more that, by day two, your hands are so full of stamps that they look like little inkblots (we see a pony and a Buick). Also, our arms are adorned with so many wristbands that we find ourselves leaning to one side.


You quickly learn that the majority of bands you picked to see prior to the festival aren’t nearly as good as the ones you happen upon accidentally. Similarly, the catered and sponsored industry soirees leave a lot to be desired, especially compared to more intimate unofficial events.


Not that we’re complaining: the good far outweighs the bad. And, as you’ll see below, it’s like that with the bands as well. Sure, we’ve seen a few stinkers, but, for the most part, everyone brings their A game. It’s a good thing too, because we’re to busy worrying about washing our hands off to cut any slack. Speaking of which, time to get the water running…



BELLES OF THE BALL
The Besnard Lakes, The Black Angels, Micah P. Hinson, Charlie LouvinThe Twilight Sad


HONORABLE MENTION
Beirut, Cameron McGill and the Quartet Offensive, Castanets, Catfish Haven, Dirty Projectors, El-P, Ghostland Observatory, Headlights, Helene, Joshua James, Lonely China Day, Okkervil RiverElvis Perkins, Shout Out Out Out Out, Solid Gold, This Is Me Smiling, Amy Winehouse, Uncle Monk


NICE TRY, GUY
Blonde Redhead, Boston Chinks, Dosh, The Faceless Werewolves, Benjee Ferree, Macromantics, Skratch Bastid, Stardeath and White Dwarves


BATHROOM BREAKS
Annuals, The Broadfield Marchers, Loxsly


Belles of the Ball

THE BESNARD LAKES
@ Mohawk Indoor Stage

A psychedelic counterpoint to the Arcade Fire, the Besnard Lakes mix heavy drone rock with light, harmony-driven vocal melodies. Utilizing a smoke machine to great effect (how many times do you get to say that?), the six-piece band (three guitars, bass, drums, and keys) play outside as dusk settles, ushering in the late evening with a mix of stoner-guitar riffs, space-rock ruminations, and delicately intricate Beach Boys breakdowns. “Devastation” opens with, dare I say it, a Smashing Pumpkins riff circa Siamese Dream before soaring off into its own stratosphere. At the center of all this is Jace Lasek, whose high-pitched vocals add to the hymn-like quality of songs like “Disaster,” lending each tune a fragile quality that sits perfectly below the star-filled night. (KP)


And You Lied to Me [MP3]


THE BLACK ANGELS
@ Emo’s Annex

   
With beats culled from a deep place where demons creep—stifled but still breathing—the Black Angels are like a grease-stained mirror that complements your complexion. Comparisons to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club are apt as both bands layer darkness with a modicum of cool. Of course, the Black Angels take the evil energy up a notch, burning with such fury that it’s a feat to keep your forearms from being singed. Primal drumbeats and screams elicit a hypnotic, pelvic feedback from the crowd, a psycho-somatic sexual energy. Waves of guitar crash and echo off each other in an exorcism of sound. The band, meanwhile, stand mostly still, allowing listeners to melt with their slow movements. By the time they finish, my head and heart are swollen, a pain enhanced by the damning suffocation of not being able to hear anymore. (BB)


The First Vietnamese War [MP3]


MICAH P. HINSON
@ Lambert’s

Though Micah P. Hinson is a young-looking twenty-something, he sings with the voice of Bill Callahan after a long day smoking rust-tipped cigarettes. His music doesn’t have heart; it is heart. Hinson interacts with the audience’s emotions armed with enough soul, heart, and intensity to cover everyone in the room. And, despite the competitive-minded spirit of SXSW, he still finds an opportunity to recommend another artist. “You guys know about Richard Hawley? Saving grace to modern music, man,” he says, tapping his head so everyone will remember. Classy and classic. Let’s not say he performed at SXSW; let’s say he is SXSW… or at least what it should be. (BB) 


Jackeyed [MP3]


CHARLIE LOUVIN
@ The Parish

Charlie Louvin will be 80 years old this year, yet he plays with the vigor and vim of someone a quarter his age. A legend, he became a member of the Grand Ole Opry along with his brother Ira in 1955. Louvin was once supported by Elvis Presley and has seen his songs covered by artists as varied as Uncle Tupelo (“Great Atomic Power”) and The Raconteurs (“This Christian Life”). Tonight he saunters onto the stage in a suit jacket adorned with musical notes and armed with a honeyed voice that’s aged as well as he has. A deft lyricist, and showman to boot, he’s backed by an adept band, who switch between ball-rolling country rock and syrupy ballads. Though it’s obviously Louvin’s show, guitarist and backing singer Diane Berry steals the spotlight every time she steps up to sing, sounding like a cross between Jennie C. Reilly and Loretta Lynn. (KP)


Must You Throw Dirt in My Face [MP3]


THE TWILIGHT SAD
@ Emo’s Annex

Approximately fifteen seconds into the Twilight Sad’s carefully controlled cacophony, I suddenly feel my eardrums turning inside out. With the basic guitar, bass, and drum dynamic, this Scottish four-piece will obviously, and rightly in some sense, be compared to fellow Scots Mogwai. But whereas Mogwai use the low end to create texture and stealthily approach their point of implosion, the Twilight Sad attack with wild, relentless abandon. It’s like comparing a kitten pawing a ball of wool to a lion ripping at a zebra. What keeps them from drowning in whirlpool of dissonance is a constant melodic undertow. Reacting to one of the loudest shows I’ve ever witnessed, the crowd took a step backwards when the band started playing. I stood my ground and quickly learned what David must have felt like facing Goliath. The sound was gargantuan: the drums pounded like a barrage of bowling balls being dropped on a tin roof as the guitar wailed like a banshee in a hurricane. It’s like having Red Bull injected into your eyes. (KP)


And She Would Darken the Memory [MP3]


Honorable Mention

BEIRUT
@ Emo’s Outdoor Stage

By the time I get to Emo’s, there’s a line outside for badge holders (yep, even with a pass you’ve got to get down on one knee and pray that the door guy shines his light on you). Luckily for me, he does. Unfortunately, the show saints are not as kind: the main room of Emo’s is packed. Atop an impenetrable mass of hipsters, I can make out a trumpet and accordion. Another trumpet comes into view, then an oboe, and then Zach Condon with what looks like tape reel wrapped around his neck. He leads his group of Balkan burglars on a merry carnival march that has the crowd cavorting more than any I’ve witnessed today. The band sounds awesome. I’m a sucker for horns, and Condon and his crew play them to perfection. Best show I heard and, nearly, kind of, didn’t really see. (KP)


Elephant Gun [MP3]


Ably backed by a string quartet, cellist, and pedal-steel player, Cameron McGill’s harmonic-laden, acoustic-led tracks soothe to no end. Described by some as being cut from the same cloth as Elliott Smith and Jeff Buckley—allegedly sharing their intensity, passion, and range—his set today was playful and laidback. Although I only caught a few songs, it was just what the doctor ordered. Simply put: if the Twilight sad were an itch I couldn’t stop scratching, Cameron McGill is the corticoid cream I needed to soothe my symptoms. (KP)


Long Way Back to California [MP3]


CASTANETS
@ Mrs. Bea’s

Sounding like a sedate Will Oldham, Castanets crouch around their instruments, eschewing the stage and setting up on the floor instead. Fittingly enough, the crowd gathers around, sitting cross-legged while the band moves from a noisy improvisational opening track (which seems to double as the sound check) to their own songs, sparse, avant-garde country. As to how much is actually improvised and how much is rehearsed to sound like it’s improvised, that’s anyone’s guess. But, in the lazy afternoon, all you’d need are wolves howling in the background to make the scene complete. (KP)


All That I Know [MP3]


CATFISH HAVEN
@ Emo’s Outside Stage

“Keep shaking those asses,” implores Catfish Haven singer George Hunter halfway through their afternoon set. I’m not sure if he’s addressing the crowd or the two backing singers the band brought along to enhance their soul-country sound. Filling their set with a mix of foot-to-the-floor stomps and raw soul ballads, Catfish Haven produces a balanced, but sweat-inducing set that’s full of buoyant brevity and introspective interpretations of soul classics—Memphis not Motown. Part of the Metro’s Chicago showcase, they immediately capture the audience’s attention with a short soul-funk number that sees them declare, several times: “Are you ready?” It’s as much a call to arms as a sound check. With the crowd firmly transfixed (either on the backing singers choreographed dance moves or the music itself), Catfish Haven run through songs from their debut EP and album sounding a little like Buffalo Tom, if they’d grown up with Wilson Pickett instead of the Pixies. (KP)


Crazy For Leaving [MP3]


DIRTY PROJECTORS
@ Mohawk Indoor Stage

Dave Longstreth’s vocals are less a vessel for sentimental schmaltz and more an integral part of Dirty Projectors’ musical make-up. He levels guttural, primal screams atop angular guitars and afro-beat rhythms as if David Byrne just died in his vocal canal. Watched by a small but growing crowd, the band’s discordant post-punk strums and Television-type guitar duels never lose sight of the melody. Much like those peanut-butter-and-cheese crackers, the parts shouldn’t work together, but they do. (KP)


Fucked For Life [MP3]


EL-P
@ Buffalo Billiards

El-P’s live radio spot goes awry one sentence in when he almost immediately drops the f-bomb. He tells us later, during a short, in-between song interview that his favorite karaoke tune is “Little Red Corvette,” and that he and Chan Marshall go way back. Amidst all this, his band mixes indie hip-hop with shoegaze stylings and Krautrock edge, making music that is at once gritty, powerful, and melodic. As the head of Definite Jux, El-P is the de facto leader of the sound he sells, and judging by this short performance, one that has the crowd baying for more, that isn’t going to change anytime soon. (KP)


GHOSTLAND OBSERVATORY
@ Austin City Limits Studios

Austin’s freak-flag duo have been burning up the local scene for some time, combining soft, heartachy beats with up-tempo, sugar-shocking noise, driven into your chest and scrambling for a pulse to continue. In Austin’s legendary televised studio, loyal fans and some new ears showed up for an intimate 35-minute set, watching as Ghostland’s epic, meditative sparks flew from the stage (I’ve never seen so many people moving and grooving at three in the afternoon!). The studio’s 250-300 seats are set alongside that memorable downtown Austin backdrop. “This is probably the nicest place you’ll see a show all week,” my friend from the area stated.  So far, she’s been spot-on.  Though indoors, the air was clean, the sound engineers sparkled, the band was tight, and the crowd was rocking hard. (BB)


HEADLIGHTS
@ Flamingo Cantina

Perennially upbeat, Headlights open their set with a series of choreographed hand moves that mimic the rise and fall of their music. Urgent and earnest, the Champaign, Illinois, band falls in with the male/female indie-pop ilk, but does so without the hint of twee-ness that so often torments the genre. The band’s only failing comes when they try to slow things down with an accordion-tinged tune. Luckily it’s an introduction to another up-tempo track that peaks with an energetic giddiness the band has so perfected. (KP)


TV [MP3]


HELENE
@ Central Presbyterian Church

Bathed in green and red lights and playing in front of a sparse crowd, Helene drop a mesmerizing and moody set, sounding like Mazzy Star if they’d been from London instead of California. While the band certainly parade down the same dream-pop avenue, they also take their hue from fellow Londoners the Clientele, providing hazy shades of what sounds like the winter of their discontent. Built on slight, primitive rhythm and a guitar that constantly apes and evolves the revolving picking of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes”, Helene—named for the singer—play one of the day’s best shows: slow, seductive, but never sedate. (KP)


This Is All We Have To Know [MP3]


JOSHUA JAMES
@ Emo’s Lounge

Joshua James is a soul-fed player with a vocal tenderness usually reserved for easy listening. Wrapped in a voice that stings your ears like a cold, crisp autumn morning, his songs ring with the vitality of a young Ryan Adams. Armed with slick black hair, bushy sideburns, and a harmonica around his neck, the 24-year-old offered the perfect introduction to the SXSW music festival (he actually was mine). Whispering through the Texas mist, his religiously tinged songs made me want to believe. (BB)


Soul and the Sea [MP3]


LONELY CHINA DAY
@ Spiro’s

Propelled by a laptop, Lonely China Day make mechanical music with programmed drums and shredding, Pro-Tool type guitar sound positively organic. They’re like food scientists working in the factories on the New Jersey Turnpike, making the artificial feel and taste real. The laptop—which counts into the songs with electronic drum beats and signs them out with shoegaze swirls—is the KITT to their Michael Knight, minus the sarcastic one-liners, of course. Their one obvious Sigur Ros homage, “Red Blossom of Plum and Me” is stunning in its inception and execution, a sublime, free-floating piece of epic music knit together by Deng Pei’s melodic and soaring vocals. At the end of the set, they drop their Sigur Ros affectations for a baggy, Madchester beat and proceed to rock out. Due to the earlier technical difficulties, the house lights come on. Undeterred, the band plays on until the laptop counts them out. In defiance, they rip one last batch of feedback, you know, just to show everyone who’s boss. (KP)


Red Blossom of Plum and Me [MP3]


OKKERVIL RIVER
@ Bourbon Rocks

I’m a playwright, and any time I hear Okkervil River I imagine placing their music inside a scene I’m writing. Though it’s under the surface, their sound has an impressive theatricality. Live, what lead singer Will Sheff lacks in vocal range, he more than makes up in charismatic stage presence. (To his credit, he mentioned the band finished recording a new album the previous day, in which Sheff lost his voice a little along the way.) And when a lead singer beats the hell out of the high-hat, you know you’ve been a part of something special.  (BB)


The President’s Dead [MP3]


ELVIS PERKINS
@ La Zona Rosa

Seaside shanties, a quart of ale, and a guitar to bring it all home. From the porch, we watch seagulls rise and fall into the ocean. Elvis Perkins brought a folk-tinged festiveness to the stage, his music a celebration of these exact moments, nights when everyone stops to watch the sunset. A little dab of Dylan, a sprinkle of Mr. Guthrie, and a heavy ladle of original bragging rights, Mr. Perkins and his five-piece band brought out everything but the jug. The percussionists stumbled with faux-drunkenness, but, like the audience, they actually ripped with joy and soused on harmony. (BB)


SHOUT OUT OUT OUT OUT
@ Beauty Bar Patio

“We play dance music and will do so until you have absolutely no inhibitions left.” As a statement of intent, it’s weighty, especially since indie kids like to hold their inhibitions close. But, when you’re faced with the Shout Out Out Out Out’s two drummers and four bass players (who also work two samplers, five synthesizers, and a couple of vocoders), you’re inclined to do what they tell you. Resplendent in fluorescent sneakers and pink jeans, the band cavorts through a set of vocally inflected, Daft Punkish tunes, topping them off with a go at LCD Soundsytem-style cowbell-driven dance punkery. It’s not new, and it’s certainly not clever, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. And though I don’t know how to judge the loss of one’s inhibitions, I’d say a packed, sweaty tent, all dancing with arms aloft is a sure sign that something’s amiss. To quote Inspector Gadget: Wowzer. (KP)


Dude, You Feel Electrical [MP3]


SOLID GOLD
@ Maggie Mae’s

Dressed in mariachi outfits and multi-colored bandannas, Solid Gold rode into town on a static divide. With a drum machine and analog organ, the group dove so deep into the crowd’s bloodstream that you could feel your veins start wiggling.  Singer Zak Coulter’s voice held a soulful reckoning at times, in perfect harmony with the rhythms as they tapped in, only to unravel in front of our eyes. That said, the band was at times in need of a lead guitar and a live drummer to sanitize their sound. Still, these kinds of dance beats, delivered by lanky banditos, are enough to get any knee knocking, even on a Wednesday night. (BB)


Get Over It [MP3]


THIS IS ME SMILING
@ Emo’s Outdoor Stage

SXSW is well under way, and no one is smiling. That’s when T.I.M.S, a four-piece with electric keyboards and an indie-pop sensibility, step in, playful and high-spirited one minute, soulful and direct the next. Any band that boasts a keyboardist closing his eyes and gritting his teeth is giving the crowd something, right?  This flavorful afternoon pop-rock pill was, incidentally, brought to you by Miller Lite, Kamel cigarettes, and Dos Equis. Of course, I forget about corporations after T.I.M.S.‘s third song, a crescendo-laced Ben Folds Five-esque ditty. The lead singer, a younger-looking Wes Anderson, announced the band played Missouri at midnight the previous evening, finishing the set by packing their gear and driving through the night, through the rain and oil-covered roads, all for SXSW. Boy am I glad they did. (BB)


Goodbye to Each New Day [MP3]


UNCLE MONK
@ Mother Egan’s

In Uncle Monk, Tommy Ramone—the Ramones’ famous recording engineer—plays mandolin and provides vocals, while Claudia Tienan supplies vocals and acoustic guitar. Huddled around a solitary microphone, as all good country duos should be, Uncle Monk play old-school bluegrass with a shaky, imperfect streak—one that actually suits the music well. Doused in back porch atmospherics and down home deference, it’s a welcome respite from the chaos of 6th Street. (KP)


Mr. Endicott [MP3]


AMY WINEHOUSE
@ North by Tent, Brush Square Park

Despite the early hour, Amy Winehouse is extremely composed—a surprise given her reputation for unabashed partying. Knee high to a grasshopper, the diminutive singer plays a short acoustic set bereft of the backing singers and horns that made her latest album, Back to Black, a doo-wop revivalist’s dream. Working her way through several songs—including the album’s title track and singles “Rehab” and “You Know I’m Know Good”—she sounds more jazz singer than Sixties jangle popper, which, at this hour, is far more pleasant than her thick eyeliner could ever be. (KP)


Nice Try, Guy

BLONDE REDHEAD
@ Antone’s

It pains me to dwell on how I waited in line to see Blonde Redhead for an hour the night before, only to get turned away. So, I made a special effort to arrive early for this performance. Monitor problems pushed back the band’s starting time, and a sardine-packed crowd of fans had to wait over thirty minutes for their chance to hear one of New York’s more cutting-edge trios. And, just as fast as the audience exhaled to the band’s first beats and the sexy red lights showering the figures slinking across the stage, the show was over. Sorry, folks. That’s the way SXSW goes.  Every minute of every hour counts, regardless of technical problems. And when your time’s over, it’s over. But, whatever. The three songs they played? All new album tracks. All amazing.  (BB)


BOSTON CHINKS
@ Beerland

Wail. Spit. Sweat. Feed. Back. Echoes. Danger. Mohawks. Beer.  Havoc. Remember.
Plumber crack. Robot screams. Dungeon noise. Devil sauce. Herculean rage. Fist fury.  Tattoo eyes. March madness. Hell sauce. Walking slow. Dos equis. Bringing heat. Punk music. Thunder butter. Cigarette fingers. Drawing restraint. Stay alive. Stay hungry.  Serpent girl. Cheetah lady. Instrument assassin. Punk music is the edge we try to find in the little fabric of emotional ventilation. Punk is the dagger used to fight the giant when we know it’s time to save the villagers. Do I know the foundation of punk music? Perhaps not. Do I understand what it’s like to want to scream at the top of my lungs and rail against the defeat of yesterday? Always. (BB)


Coltrane [MP3]


DOSH
@ Spiro’s

Dosh is a multi-tasking musical housewife with a laundry list of things to do: sample keyboards, play live drums, loop vocals. Layering his mix upon itself, the headphone-adorned Dosh—tonight backed by a saxophonist, guitarist, and Andrew Bird on violin—mixes ambient sound with garage-rock rhythms in a painstakingly assembled set. When everything gels, it’s sublime, but like anything, the building process can be a little painstaking. (KP)


Um, Circles and Squares [MP3]


The Faceless Werewolves prop their rawkness on a pedestal. Similarities to Sonic Youth and Sleater-Kinney first pigeonholed my impressions, but the Werewolves evolved into their own entity as the show wore on. Their underground-garage sound is all crash and collapse, the fanning of fangs. Will they ever make it to the next level? Probably not. Were they exactly what I needed after a day of all-too-similar bands? Absolutely. (BB)


My Weakness [MP3]


BENJY FERREE
@ Habana Calle 6 Annex

Benjy Ferree takes to the stage in a big-rimmed hat, as do two other members of his four-piece backing band. They look like they should be bunting down river, and the laidback country/folk they play matches that mood. The set picks up pace as it ambles along though, sounding like they hit rapids—one number is even propelled by a ska-like guitar riff. Unfortunately, the crowd isn’t on board, except for one guy, dancing by himself in his own little world. But the fact he’s also wearing a big-rimmed hat makes me think he’s a plant, not an independent partier. (KP)


In the Countryside [MP3]


MACROMANTICS
@ Mrs. Bea’s

“Thank you for fucking yourselves up,” says Australian rapper Macromantics to three girls who have danced at the stage’s front, despite the searing sun, for the entirety of her outdoor set. A shaky sound system can’t stop Macromantics from tearing shit up. Backed by DJ Amy, Macromantics has the small crowd hanging on her every word, allowing pure unadulterated energy to make up for the struggling sound system. (KP)


Scorch [MP3]


SKRATCH BASTID
@ Zero Degrees

An undeniably talented DJ, Skratch Bastid’s set suffered from, of all things, overcommunication. In other words, he needs to learn to let his music do the talking. Still, it was a blessing to watch the DJ scratch in horns and deep bass beats like he was performing rhythmic laser surgery—the economy and precision of where one drops the needle for a particular lead can make or break the momentum. But where does the lonely DJ go?  With a set that was focused, practiced, and properly mixed, Skratch gave it his all only to get zero reaction from the crowd. See, that’s why you don’t break your momentum with too much talking. (BB)


Jugglin Justin [MP3]


STARDEATH AND WHITE DWARVES
@ Levi’s Outdoor Stage

Stardeath and White Dwarves opened its set with green-and-gold, Green Bay Packer colored smoke, a thankful reminder that Brett Favre is returning to my favorite football team. That said, it was a sloppy way to get things going, and, though I was temporarily endeared, the first song turned my nostalgia into anger, Incredible Hulk-like anger. The good news:  the first tune was the worst they played.  Still, first impressions here are too important to deny.  To their credit, Stardeath opened up to me by way of sonic revelry, and one of their last songs saw the two guitarists step aside for a one-two drum-and-bass knockout jam, the tempo lifting the Levi’s tent. (BB)


Chemical [MP3]


Bathroom Breaks

ANNUALS
@ Antone’s

There’s no denying sound was a problem at this sweatbox of a local blues bar: when I arrived to see Blonde Rehead, technical difficulties meant the stage was about to be taken by openers the Annuals, a group of twenty-something graduate-looking students from Chapel Hill. They looked like children, and that’s exactly how the lead singer behaved when technical difficulties prohibited the band from starting. I’ve never seen such a prima-donna, hands-on-the-hips, I’m-not-going-to-bed-until-I-wanna-go-to-bed attitude. Relax, dude.  It sucks, I know, but it’s an unfortunate part of the process. When the band finally started, I wasn’t displeased with their efforts. They showed great signs of promise as a young up-and-coming Arcade Fire. But come on; channel that anger into the songs. After all, you’re a big boy now, even if you don’t look like it. (BB)


Multiple songs [WOXY]


THE BROADFIELD MARCHERS
@ Bourbon Rocks

If surnames were allowed in Scrabble, then the brothers Zdobylak, who make up two thirds of The Broadfield Marchers, would win every time. Dustin (guitar/vocals) and Mark (bass), backed by Justin Carter on drums, play skewed melodic indie rock with jangular guitars. On record, they pilfer Robert Pollard’s power-pop playbook, but tonight their passes go astray. Instead, the Lousiville, KY, three-piece sound like by-the-numbers indie rock, which begs the question: is SXSW oversaturated with such bands, or is it the scene itself that bears bands too gorged with guitar? (KP)


Kingdom for Lions [MP3]


LOXSLY
@  Mohawk Patio


Austin is awash with new construction. Fittingly, local band Loxsly also like to build. Despite interesting instrumentation (keys and pedal steel sit amongst the typical guitar, bass, and drums), Loxsly let their songs grow from intricate and atmospheric opening arrangements into bombastic blasts of proto-typical indie rock. This in itself isn’t a bad formula per se, but they lack the subtlety or maturity to pull it off. The foundations are there though, and on record, the pedal steel, lost in today’s mix, might make an appearance. In essence, they are the auditory equivalent of a cashmere sweater caked in dried mud—textural underneath, hard on top, and not very wearable. (KP)


Multiple songs [MySpace]


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