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This year marks the triumphant return of Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks, who made an auspicious debut at SXSW in 2010 in support of their strong debut LP, These Four Walls. Last year’s follow-up, In the Pit of the Stomach, was a much darker album demonstrating extensive range and creating emotional resonance through sudden and unexpected variations in tone and tempo that lead to a sense of nervous tension. In contrast to the likes of UK bands such as the Kaiser Chiefs or Bloc Party who achieved instantaneous success, the growth of Jetpacks has been more gradual. The showcases the group will appear at will provide fans with an opportunity to gauge their musical development.
(Wed. Mar 14, Easy Tiger Patio, 1 AM; Sat. Mar 17, Red 7 Patio, 12 AM.)
An essential part of the SXSW experience is taking the time to visit one of Austin’s institutions, the legendary blues club Antone’s, or Alejandro Escovedo’s annual post-SXSW Sunday night showcase of friends and family at the Continental Club. This year, one can add one of the most intriguing acts, an 18-piece orchestra who in the midst of a string passage,will suddenly break into harmonies. At the center is Nick Gregg, who conceived of the concept and built up the ensemble of multi-instrumentalists composed of four core members, and a broader group developed through contacts with local youth orchestras. The shock of seeing orchestra members singing along is a shock, and why Mother Falcon, with its fusion of pop, jazz, and classical music, is a must see. Mother Falcon has garnered a number of local nominations, while their cross-pollination of Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens, Mucca Pazza, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra may represent this year’s version of the Scala Choir and Kolacny Brothers, the multi-piece choir that grabbed acclaim for its cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” on the soundtrack to The Social Network and who played a prominent SXSW set last year. Mother Falcon’s debut album Alhambra was released last month, and they are in the process of developing the soundtrack to an indie documentary.
(Fri., Mar 16, St. David’s Bethell Hall, 1 AM.)
One of the most rewarding parts of the SXSW experience is taking stock of the latest in the most recent wave of indie buzz bands as they run the gauntlet of the conference’s showcases. Brooklyn-based three-piece Hospitality (which only recently signed on to Merge Records, and just released its debut album in January) will follow the grueling path of countless promising bands before it: 20- to 30-minute sets, crowds ranging anywhere from a handful to a packed room, and audiences that vary from casual event-goers more intent on schmoozing to diehard fans who have been following the band for a seeming eternity (months!) and have already committed the band’s lyrics to memory. Hospitality has garnered acclaim for their blend of pop and jazz, drawing favorable comparisons to Camera Obscura. One of the band’s distinct characteristics is vocalist Amber Papini’s faux accent, a brogue of sorts, practiced by the Kansas City native. The band’s material traffics in matter-of-fact hardheaded reality, the angular sounds of guitarist Nathan Michel and bassist Brian Betancourt meshing with sweet harmonies and some oddball lyrics that are akin to the inspired work of Eleanor Friedberger.
(Fri. Mar 16, Frank, 8:30 PM; Thu. Mar 15, Beale Street Tavern, 10 PM.)
Every year, there’s room on the schedule for a major wave of retro artists. SXSW has seemingly been through the ‘80s ringer in recent years: OMD, Duran Duran, and the Bangles came through in 2011, for instance, and ‘80s veterans the DBs, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Thomas Dolby are set to return. While there’s seemingly a dearth of retro artists, this year sees the return of ‘80s-tinged Chairlift following an extended hiatus where founding member Aaron Pfenning left the band. Something, Chairlift’s first album in over three years, finds the group—now down to singer Caroline Polachek and drummer Patrick Wimberly—embarking on a fresh direction, showing a determination and sense of purpose on a work that due to the refined production of Alan Moulder features the polished sound of a lost ‘80s pop record.
(Thu. Mar 15, The Parish, 1 AM; Fri. Mar 16, Empire Automotive, 12 AM.)
It’s one thing for stars to walk the red carpet. It’s another thing altogether when star musicians play the red carpet. The convergence of film and music, on display several years ago with a conference keynote presentation involving a conversation between director Jonathan Demme and his subject, Neil Young, will be even tighter in 2012. Two years ago, the shocking death of Alex Chilton on the eve of SXSW and a scheduled Big Star performance resulted in a last-minute, spur-of-the-moment tribute. This year, the band’s legacy will be the subject of a documentary. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, after which an all-star band consisting of Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, Mike Mills and Peter Buck of R.E.M., the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson, Mitch Easter of Let’s Active, Chris Stamey of the DBs, and members of the Posies will perform the Third album. If that’s not enough star power, members of Mumford and Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros will play an acoustic set following the screening of the film Big Easy Express.
(Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Thu. Mar 15, Paramount Theatre, 7 PM; Big Easy Express, Sat. Mar 17, Paramount Theatre, 4 PM.)