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Many Austinites have said that this, SXSW’s 20th incarnation, is the best they’ve ever seen. The local papers say it’s the biggest, with more free events than ever before. We can’t vouch for all that, but we can say that the array of talent is simply stunning. It seems that for every Bathroom Break, there are ten potential Honorable Mentions (and twenty more equally invigorating bands that we didn’t even get a chance to see).


As things come to a close, we’re both exhausted and exhilarated. Our eyes are bloodshot, our ear ringing, but we haven’t quite crossed the finish. What say we stack’em up one last time and then put this massive monster to sleep… until next year.


BELLES OF THE BALL
Bill Callahan, Dan Deacon, The Good, the Bad, and the Queen, Danny and the Nightmares, Malajube, The Victorian English Gentlemens Club


HONORABLE MENTION
Ad Astra Per Aspera, Antibalas, Black Lips, Buffalo Tom, Steve Earle, Eisley, The Last Vegas, Les Breastfeeders, Perseph1, Phonograph, Gruff Rhys,Ray Sharpe, Marnie Stern,Jim White, You Am I


NICE TRY, GUY
28 Costumes, Buzzcocks, Fujiya and Miyagi , Hymns, Kunek, Rumblestrips, Who’s Your Favorite Son, God?


BATHROOM BREAKS
Messiah J. and the Expert , KINGS OF LEON


Belles of the Ball

BILL CALLAHAN
@ Central Presbyterian Church

I haven’t been to church in some time, but I don’t think it’s supposed to smell like sweat and tears. Backed by a piano and violin, Bill Callahan (the man formerly know as Smog) preached to the converted in a sultry voice as he picked his guitar in clear, calculated motions. Amassed in lyrics and deep sentimentality, Callahan convinced the quiet, contemplative crowd that the gaps between our mighty resolutions are big enough to contain all our regret and sorrow. Songs with words like “I bought this guitar to pledge my love to you/I am a rock-bottom riser, and I owe it all to you,” contain dreary restraint. Similarly, Callahan soon stated with a stoic whisper, “This is our last song.” The audience responded with a whiny moan. “It takes Colombo twice as long to solve a crime,” he quipped. Fitting that Mr. Callahan found his way into the sacred gates. His deep voice was born for churches, but, sadly, no church was built for his voice. Does that make his efforts less than noble? Not after a standing ovation. (BB)


Daniel Johnston is an Austin institution. And, like the Mexican free-tailed bats beneath the Congress Ave bridge, he’s spent most of his career under the surface. Thankfully, he was brought to the fore last year in brilliantly insightful documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and he’s since become a sort of cult superstar. Heralded as an outsider artist, Johnston—who suffers from bipolar disorder—made his name as a singer-songwriter, but he’s been rocking out with his backing band, the Nightmares, since 1999. In an earlier show, he performed a more stripped-down set, but tonight the acoustic guitar slung over a shoulder was more a prop than anything else. The five-piece Nightmares—which included both violin and cello, though they were lost in the mix—rocked out as Johnston recited lyrics of unrequited love and dark demons. Though visibly edgy—his hands were shaking—Johnston was confident, like someone on a job interview. He even regaled the crowd with a few jokes. Whilst the music itself was simple, solid rock ‘n roll, Johnston’s lyrics and frail vocals pushed this performance well over the edge. (KP)


DAN DEACON
@ Creekside Lounge

Dan Deacon wants a dance circle, and what Dan Deacon wants, he gets. A bespectacled, tie-dye wearing, uber-nerd whose glasses—prescription not sun—are taped around the back of his head, Deacon is a hyperactive, Casio-keyboard cavorting DJ-cum-comedian who just asked us to hold hands with our neighbors. “Hold your hands in the air,” he says like a psychedelic pre-school teacher. “And I want you to think of the worst thing you’ve ever done to someone, and then transfer all that bad shit to the person next to you.” He cranks up this music—a spastic mix of mumbled lyrics, mashed-up beats, cheap Casio tones, and effects pedals—while we take turns dancing in the center of what has been dubbed the “Transference Circle of Evil.” Of course, this couldn’t fly on record, but at 4pm on a Friday, Deacon’s goofy persona, party rhythms, and performance-art pieces (he has the whole bar reciting the Lord’s Prayer at one point) are a refreshing antidote to the guitar slingers that stuff this festival like a fat Thanksgiving turkey. (KP)


The Crystal Cat [MP3]
   


Owey. Owey because it hurts so good. Prior to attending the Good, the Bad, and the Queen’s afternoon show, I was handed a pamphlet that said “The reader of this book is in for an exciting encounter with the power of God.” If only the man who handed it to me had known where I was heading. With a little help from Danger Mouse, Damon Albarn has created an amalgam of alternative, punk, Afrobeat, ska, reggae, and dub sounds, mashing it all into a mix that rings with prophetic wisdom. Also on board, former Clash bassist Paul Simonon is himself a transcendent sight to behold. Retaining all the attitude of the Clash in its heyday, he plays with a snarling, take-no-prisoners, feel-good-about-feeling-bad intensity, dropping in jerky, abrupt movements to let you know he’s staying alert. Surrounded by a pool of limitless talent, Albarn delights the crowd with infectious, haunting vocals. Decked out in a top hat and a purposeful gaze, he switches from piano-bound songster to front-and-center pastor, handing down his words with unbridled excitement. Amen brother. Amen. (BB) 


MALAJUBE
@ Habana Calle 6 Patio

Malajube make music that’s at once ethereal and exhilarating, experimental and exhausting. The type of tunes that wrap you up in a cocoon and put you to sleep before waking you in a startling fashion just to tell you everything’s all right. Hailing from the musical hotbed that is Montreal and using the same bombastic approach to songwriting as the Arcade Fire and Besnard Lakes—though sounding like neither—Malajube brought a blissful aura to Saturday afternoon, moving with ease from epic rock to dreamy instrumentals. Their wall-of-sound approach sat well in the Habana Calle 6’s back-patio setting, with the stage stuck next to a giant rock face, keeping the sound enclosed and the crowd focused. As one thunderous crescendo came to a close, the trees, shaken by the sound, dropped tiny leaves on everyone like a summer snow. “Exceptional,” shouts one guy as they finish. I’ll second that. (KP)


Etienne D’Aout [MP3]
   


Playing a packed Irish pub two hours before St. Patrick’s Day is not ideal, especially if you’re Welsh and deal in discordant-but-delirious squalls of post-punk pop. This Cardiff three-piece—Adam Taylor (guitar/vocals), Louise Mason (bass/vocals), and Emma Daman, (drums/vocals)—are a jerky, twitching mass of off-kilter chords, popping bass, and pounding drums that’s as ramshackle as it is rambunctious. It’s the sound of shattered pop music put back together so that it works, but not as it should. High-pitched vocals, yelps, and even a yodel act as signifiers that the Victorian English Gentlemens Club—there’s no apostrophe, and that’s how they like it—are art-punk purveyors mixing early ‘80s influences such as Wire and Gang of Four with the vocal interplay of the B-52’s and a riot grrl attitude. Imagine Bis stripped of their Icky Poo. The show ends with drummer Daman hitching up her ball gown—yes, she wore a silver sparkly one—and high-tailing it out of the pub window as Taylor slams his guitar to the ground. Take that, St. Patrick’s Day. (KP)


Ban the Gin [MP3]
   


Honorable Mention

Bedecked in a Jimi Hendrix-style red bandana, Ad Astra Per Aspera’s workmanlike leader, Mike Tuley, plays his guitar like the aforementioned ‘60s guitar god would if he fronted Sonic Youth. Vocally deficient, but instrumentally exhilarating, the Lawrence, Kansas five-piece peppered their psychedelic freakouts with feverish-yet-fluid flourishes of guitar-laden mayhem. Ostensibly a vehicle for Tuley’s tremendous skill at the six-string, he wringed more life out of it than any other guitar band I’d seen so far, resuscitating the instrument as if it had gone into cardiac arrest. (KP)


Voodoo Economics [MP3]
   


ANTIBALAS
@ Habana Calle 6 Patio

At a festival as big as SXSW, you’re going to get some mismatches as far as bands and venues. But for once the bookers got it right, placing Antibalas and their funky, calypso-tinged Afrobeat in a late afternoon slot on the back patio of a Cuban restaurant. Inciting crowd interaction better than any other band, the horn players (when they weren’t tooting, of course) taunted the crowd until it cavorted along with call-and-response vocals. Meanwhile, the group’s tropical soul whisked us far from Austin—if only for a short while. (KP)


Multiple songs [Streaming]


BLACK LIPS
@ Red 7

The Black Lips’ skuzzy, bluesy take on garage rock is best seen in some dank, dark club. But today, in the mid-afternoon sun, they play a backporch patio that feels more like TGI Fridays than CBGB’s. Mixing the deluge of early Velvet Underground with Hamburg-era Beatles, they try to make it at least feel like a dive, and do so, if only for a brief, but blistering, second. (KP)


Multiple songs [Streaming]


BUFFALO TOM
@ The Parish

Boston, MA, is a place known for Aerosmith, the Red Sox, and accents. It should also be heralded for taking care of Buffalo Tom. An older band amongst hundreds that claim to be hungrier and harder rocking, Buffalo Tom didn’t disappoint a soul in any one of the Parish’s 300 seats. Instead, they broke the nostalgia barriers, playing like good friends at a high-school homecoming party. It’s like everyone in the audience stopped to appreciate the kids that no one was paying attention to, and simultaneously decided they were their new favorite band. Buffalo Tom should become this generation’s classic rock. They make live music fun again. (BB)


STEVE EARLE
@ The Parish

Early in the morning, Steve Earle was on the local radio station, playing a few songs after being introduced by a man who’s been working there since at least 1973, “Which was
when Steve and I first met and did one of these little shows on the air. The first time we met, actually,” the host stated. Looking like he’d just finished writing a book in a cabin far away from his politically charged anthems, Mr. Earle wasted no time getting down to brass tacks. Grabbing his acoustic guitar, he played his trademark brand of rough country, full of all the triumph and tribulation he’s witnessed over the years. Crowds aching for Earle to come out and extend some old-fashioned values found the singer calling instead for less struggle, more stability, less war, and more peace. Not that anyone complained. In times so weary, plastic, and challenged, it’s tremendous to be a part of Earle’s ongoing voyage. (BB)


EISLEY
@ PV Outdoors

Eisley get the Sweetheart Award for SXSW.  The family band played likable up-tempo alterna-twee in an outdoor venue as the crowd caught up on their food (where were all the pizza slices coming from?).  It’s not often one hears a band in this competitive music minefield pay respects to their surrounding musicians (though, Phonograph, Buffalo Tom, and Galactic’s sets all provided shout-outs). But here’s this young band, loaded with promise, asking the crowd if they were lucky enough to see Lovedrug, the band that played before them. “And we’re playing tomorrow night,” said the lead singer. “We’re playing with Mew. You should come check it out. Even if you’re not coming to see us, go see Mew. They’re amazing.” Such adorable scamps. How about I just come to see you instead? (BB)


Multiple songs [Streaming]


THE LAST VEGAS
@ The Blind Pig


Armed with electric guitars and black clothing, the Last Vegas spit their way into a hot St. Patty’s rooftop show, tossed their sunglasses onto the rock ‘n roll craps table, and came up winners. Built on a wave of sheer attitude, these rockers did everything short of starting a riot to elevate the outdoor audience’s hysteria. A poor-man’s Velvet Revolver/Molly Hatchet amalgam, their sound encompasses the AC/DC sounds of yesteryear. “You guys like rock ‘n roll music, right?” the lead singer inquired. “That’s why we’re here; for the rock ‘n roll.” During the obligatory drum solo, the lead singer crawled his way to the railings and rafters to clear the path for some drum danger.  Outdated? Thirty years ago, rock ‘n roll was looking you right in the eye and not wavering. The Last Vegas accomplish this time warp in a short period of time, shaking the crowd all night (or, rather, afternoon) long. (BB)


All The Way [MP3]
   


LES BREASTFEEDERS
@ Creekside Lounge

“My favorite word in English,” chuckles Luc Brian, leader of Montreal’s premier French-speaking garage-rock act, “is debonair.” This tongue-in-cheek attitude crosses into Les Breastfeeders’ music, which mines the already barren cliffs of ‘60s garage rock for inspiration but makes up for the rudimentary musical styling with a startling stage show. Dressed dapperly, they unleash an excessive rock ‘n roll performance, spitting beer in the air and attacking with a three-pronged vocal attack. Tambourine player Johnny Maldoror is a Gollum-like creature, crawling and cavorting around the stage as he creates rhythmic mayhem. At one point, he climbs onto the ledge next to me before falling and landing on his back. Even injured, he doesn’t miss a beat. (KP)


Tout va pour le mieux dans le pire des mondes [MP3]
   


PERSEPH1
@ Zero Degrees

Like a lap leader setting the pace, Perseph1 never pauses for breath, spitting fiery raps with such intensity that the cadence is clearer than the actual words. As her DJ spins drum ‘n’ bass backing tracks, the Houston-based rapper speeds along with the rushed rhythmic tracks, safe in the knowledge that, if she wanted to, she could overtake them. As the set goes on though, the grooves get slower, post-rock and ambient at points. But Perseph1 keeps up the same pace, worried perhaps that someone might pass her. Judging by this short performance, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. (KP)


Plain James Pt 1 [MP3]
   


PHONOGRAPH
@ Jovita’s

New York’s Phonograph sells you what you’re willing to believe. I’ve been lucky enough to catch this band from their early inception to the tight, evolved, confident sound it is today—a band dripping roots-rock Americana.  They played an early afternoon show off the beaten festival path, and the glow around the venue—from young and old alike—couldn’t be better. What’s more, their sound was accomplished without a soundcheck and by an engineer who hadn’t heard one note of their music. The old folks were knocking their knees and line-dancing to the country-rock feedback, fully realized with a lap-steel ascending, like the band itself, into the next-big-thing twilight. (BB) 


Watch and Ward [MP3]
   


GRUFF RHYS
@ Bourbon Rocks

There are so many toys on the table that sits in front of Gruff Rhys that he might as well be sponsored by Fisher Price. Joined tonight by Lisa Gen, who provides backing vocals and percussion, Rhys is as playfully poppy as he is willfully obscure. He mixes English and Welsh speaking tracks while performing feats of tape-loop trickery. Despite the chattering masses that make it hard to hear his spoken-word introductions, Rhys is cool, calm, and collected. He’s so assured, so ‘the dude abides’ that when I look for inspiration later in the day, I no longer ask WWJD. I ask: what would Gruff Rhys do? (KP)


Multiple songs [Streaming]


RAY SHARPE
@ Bourbon Rocks

I wandered into this showcase looking for a cool beer, but when the bouncer told me New Orleans-style blues was the featured music, I jumped.  A gentleman introduced Ray Sharpe and his all-star band, obscurely referencing Lee Hazelwood, a legendary, prolific songwriter. “People talk about alt-country music. Hell, these guys were playing alternative country in 1957 when no one knew how to categorize the sound. You’re in for a treat.” With a voice reminiscent of Chuck Berry and a band Booker T. could easily use to replace the MGs, Sharpe got the place positively buzzing. A man dancing next to me jumped up and down, entertaining everyone with his unbridled enthusiasm, and, eventually, convinced a blind man to place his bag and cane down and dance along. Call it alt-country or Texas blues if you want. I’ll just call it bliss. (BB) 


MARNIE STERN
@ Emo’s

Marnie Stern is a 21st century one-woman band, an electronic update of the man on the corner with bells attached to his ankles. An iPod affixed to her jeans provides rhythm while she shreds atop it in a feat of far-from-formulaic guitar noise. Sounding like a Norse speed-metal player invited to a cool party, Stern alternates between picked flourishes of electric mayhem and frenzied finger tapping. Her voice is shrill, moving from shouting to chanting to actual singing (and even some spoken word), but it’s her virtuosic six-string slinging that stands out. I’d hate to play her in Guitar Hero. (KP)


Every Single Line Means Something [MP3]
   


JIM WHITE
@ Habana’s Annex

Habana’s Annex is a beautiful Cuban-themed restaurant serving pulled-pork, yellow rice and beans, and pineapple salsa. And free Lone Star. It’s the perfect place for Jim White to wear a trucker cap and play folk with a clear, crisp, AM-radio voice. His wife joined him onstage for a beautiful rendition of “Turquoise Heart,” the sentiment of the coupling sinking deep into the bones (much like the the margaritas). You’ve inspired me to get kinda drunk Mr. White. Thank you. (BB)


Jim’s Room [MP3]
   


YOU AM I
@ Habana Calle Annex

Holy hell balls. This band just dove in without messing around. Does every Australian rock band sound this good? Damn, mates, take it easy on the afternoon kids. The sun’s still out! People aren’t wearing diapers to this show! Think about the kids! As You Am I’s drummer slams his stick-grabbing fists into the skins, the lead singer begins windmillin’ electric shocks into a crowd incapable of retreating. Kudos to the singer for delivering some of the more rewarding and insensible comments of SXSW 2007:  “Professor Hawkinson (drummer’s name), why don’t you teach these good people a lesson about creating chaos?” and, when glancing at the setlist for the next song, cheekily remarking, “Oh my goodness. This next one’s a killer as well.” It was. (BB)


It Ain’t Funny How We Don’t Talk Anymore [MP3]
   


Nice Try, Guy

28 COSTUMES
@ Latitude

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Liverpool has produced more #1 hits than any other city in the world. Unfortunately, 28 Costumes won’t be adding to that score. Though their energy never waned, the songwriting did, coming across as a Futureheads pastiche with a Scouse accent. Their attempts at realistic lyrics also went awry (“I nearly crashed my car last night”), coming off as MySpace blog fodder rather than achieving the Arctic Monkeys-style social-commentary angle they were attempting. (KP)


Multiple songs [Streaming]


BUZZCOCKS
@ Emo’s

You’d think they’d know better by now. Steve Diggle, the Buzzcocks gregarious guitarist is, in true, old-school punk fashion, spitting on stage. That’s all well and good, but it’s a shame that they don’t stick to their musical roots as well. Instead of blistering punk rock, the band lays down latter-career cock-rock riffing through half their set. Luckily, they close it out with a three-song suite—“What Do I Get?”, “Orgasm Addict,” and “Even Fallen in Love?”—that infuses flowing, lilting melodies, atop punk-pop riffs. It’s amazing, but only serves to highlight the fact that punk did indeed die back in 1978. (KP)


Looking like they just wandered in from the pub, Fujiya and Miyagi, bedecked in tracksuit tops, are an English three-piece whose name makes them sound like a Japanese duo. They play krautrock-tinged dance music, the kind where you groove with your shoulders, feet firmly planted. Their lack of stage presence didn’t help the lackluster performance and neither did the mid-afternoon time slot. (KP)


Multiple songs [Streaming]


HYMNS
@ Eternal

A New York band that wishes it was from Nashville, Hymns play country rock, and they play it straight. They sure look the part—scruffy hair, beards, tight jeans, and blazers—like the Kings of Leon’s cuter, younger cousins. They have all the right moves, but there’s just something empty and vacant about their sound that makes it seem like they’re aping the genre rather than accentuating it. Five songs in, they throw a generic Neil Young tune into the mix. Funny, they say you can’t do it with a book, but perhaps you can judge a Hymn by its cover. (KP)


It’s a Shame [MP3]
   


KUNEK
@ Flamingo Cantina

Oklahoma sextet Kunek use the Beatles as a starting point for their music, but unlike fellow States-men the Flaming Lips, who push the Fab Four’s psychedelic envelope, they base their tunes on more orchestral, latter-day song suites. Fleshed out with keys, cello and, at times, an accordion, the band flailed in several directions—instrumental prog jams and Coldplay-style piano-led rock being the most common—but couldn’t find a common thread to connect their obviously well-trained sound. (KP)


RUMBLE STRIPS
@ Bourbon Rocks

The saxophone is in vogue at this year’s SXSW. Once an instrument for those that like a little Kenny G with their bubble bath, it’s gained a lot of traction with the indie elite and is on its way to becoming an alternative mainstay. Hailing from Devon, England, the six-piece Rumble Strips use the sax —and a trumpet as well—to good effect, accentuating their energized indie rock with a Dexys Midnight Runners-style soul stomp. Stripped of the horns though, the songs are passable at best, making the band one to watch but not one to bring into the bath, bubble or otherwise. (KP)


A trio of bearded renegades at the base of a sixty-seat theater, the deliciously named Who’s Your Favorite Son, God? began with a layered rock procession, but turned flat and repetitive shortly into their set. Though I must admit I attended the showcase mostly for their name, the California band’s chaotic propulsion did not go unnoticed—it just went nowhere. I couldn’t avoid the drummer’s headset microphone, reminding me that Britney’s in trouble, and she needs our help. (BB)


Multiple songs [Streaming]


Bathroom Breaks

KINGS OF LEON
@ Stubbs

Sad. This band, whose studio work I continue to love, just does not work live. The media, the hype, the egos, the nonsense—it doesn’t register with me. These Tennessee farm boys rock so well they don’t need to be wearing tight jeans, styled hair, and scowls. Yes, I know this is rock ‘n roll, but let the rock give you the style. “Man, you guys have been alright,” says lead singer Caleb Followill. “I thought this crowd was going to suck.” Well gee. Thanks. Message to Followill: don’t throw your pick into the crowd like you’re flicking a cigarette, and don’t treat your crowd like they’re homeless and you’re tossing them a dime. After all, you’re not too proud to beg, or at least you shouldn’t be. (BB)


[Streaming]


At the security checkpoint, the ticket lady wouldn’t let me pass. “Do you love Texas?” she asked. When I told her I did indeed, she said, “That’s the secret password, honey.” Funny, I thought my ticket was what got me in. Since it was St. Patty’s Day, I wanted to find some traditional Irish music and fill the festive gap with cheer. The only problem: this place was downright awful, offering the least Irish crowd I’ve ever seen on St. Patty’s Day. When a girl passed by and said, “Where are they giving out free cigarettes?” I didn’t have a concrete answer for her, so I improvised. “I don’t know where they’re giving out free cigarettes,” I said, my arms outstretched, “But we’ve got free hugs right here.” I couldn’t help it.  Needless to say she wasn’t into the Blarney I was throwing out.
Just like I wasn’t into this Irish hip-hop band, even if it was St. Patty’s Day. (BB) 


Place Your Bets [MP3]
   


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