SXSW Music 2012 Recap: Andrew Bird + Alejandro Escovedo and Friends

Andrew Bird, NPR showcase, Stubbs, March 14, 2012

Andrew Bird presented a fitting conclusion to a diverse NPR showcase lineup contrasting sharply between the warm, soothing stylings of Sharon Van Etten, the communal street party antics of Dan Deacon, and the Muscle shoals grit of Alabama Shakes. The show served as the U.S. debut of Andrew Bird’s latest album, Break It Yourself, much of which was recorded live, and demonstrated the appeal of his latest shift towards a looser sound — a contrast from Bird’s traditional approach of intricately constructed passages. While Bird has had success adapting his solo material with long time collaborators and guest artists such as St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, Bird’s current material, given its live origins seems well suited to be presented in a free-form setting. Bird’s comfort level with bandmates Martin Dosh on drums, Jeremy Ylvisaker on guitar and Mike Lewis on bass, is clear during the midsection of the set, when the band played seven tracks off the new album.

The show started out inauspiciously enough, Bird walking out alone, nattily protected by the elements by a tightly wrapped black scarf, and hitting each of the signature elements: a violin solo, trademark whistling, the spinning victrola speaker, a little tinkling on the bells. But fans accustomed to Bird’s tradition of letting his songs simmer to a slow boil through syncopated tape loops are in for a jolt. In short order Bird is joined on stage by his band, the speaker stops, and the band launches into “Danse Caribe”, a complex song with multiple parts defined by its calypso beat and Celtic violin passage, conjuring up the world travels of Paul Simon. The new material is a showcase of the integration between performers that bears the feel of a more free-form, almost improvisational style demonstrating Bird’s fluidity in switching instruments mid-song. Bird seems equally at east crooning on “Eyeoneye” or laying down a celtic fiddle passage on “Orpheo Looks Back”, interplay showing the band at its loosest.

The band lays down a smooth groove in “Near Death Experience Experience” rather effortlessly, while “Give it Away” proves to be the most unconventional of pop songs with its four distinct parts, each exhibiting a shift in tone and tempo. The full ensemble added additional heft to tracks drawn from solo works such as “Fiery Crash”. It was only at the tail end of the set, during the extended violin solo of “Plasticities” that the spinning victrola made its reappearance, somehow managing to avoid decapitation of a little sock monkey perched on its edge. Fans who sat in patient appreciation of the new material were rewarded with a closing push that worked into a crescendo with “Tables and Chairs”, with Bird switching between violin, guitar and bells and then the spirited pizzicato strains that marks the opening of the signature “Fake Palindromes”. Andrew punctuated his performance by wielding his mallet, first as a type of pointer for emphasis, and then waving it like a magic wand, to the delirious excitement of his fans.

Andrew Bird’s performance is available for your streaming pleasure at NPR’s SXSW site.

Alejandro Escovedo and Friends, Continental Club, March 18, 2012

An annual highlight of SXSW is the closing party that Alejandro Escovedo holds each year at the crown jewel of Austin music clubs, the Continental Club, home to Texas swing, blues and rock for over 50 years. At a time when Escovedo seems to be reaching new heights in popularity, with new found levels of popularity Escovedo has not let up on his local commitment, continuing to participate in a Tuesday night residency at the club and steadfastly promoting favorite emerging artists. In a week where Escovedo was the headline performer at the Austin Music Awards (featuring a guest appearance by Joe Ely and Bruce Springsteen), and opened for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band at their historic show at ACL Live, Escovedo expanded his commitment further by starting his showcase at 1 pm, meaning that attendees could catch thirteen hours of music from fifteen artists. Escovedo was there from the event’s start, tirelessly promoting each artist as emcee. The eclectic lineup featured artists as varied as the Bombettes, a girl band from Sweden, German indie rocker Maren Parusel, east coast veterans Garland Jeffreys and Jesse Malin, and Tommy Stinson of the Replacements. The most inspired booking was punk veteran Kid Congo Powers who led the audience on a mystical, avant garde set, later joining Escovedo for the most mesmerizing performance of the evening, a breathless rendition of “Sex Beats”.

Escovedo’s lineup choice is perhaps the best reflection of the eclectic nature of his own musical background, an artist with punk roots who lives to tell tales of survival in the hard charging “Chelsea Hotel” to roots music close to his Tex-mex heritage. Escovedo’s headline set featured several tracks off his forthcoming new album, Big Station. If Escovedo’s band, the Sensitive Boys, seemed even more pressed than usual, it was due to the finale that he had in store, with as many twenty artists on stage at once. In dizzying fashion, guest artists Rosie Flores and Jesse Malin appeared, Malin channeling Iggy Pop in a cover of the Stooges’ “Loose”, which included a stage dive that nearly took my head off. Mike Mills and Peter Buck dropped in for spirited versions of the Troggs’ “Love Is All Around” and R.E.M.’s “Don’t Go Back to Rockville”, Buck remaining firmly planted in the background. In a surprise finale, Escovedo passed around the lyric sheet as the likes of Jesse Malin and guest Jon Langford traded verses with Alejandro on a rambunctious, but soulful version of “Rock the Casbah”. In what has become a tradition, in lieu of a curtain call, the musicians gracefully exit the stage one or two at a time, leaving a solo performer on to bring matters to a close.

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