Photos: James Edward Crittendon
Music Day 1: NPR Showcase
The NPR Showcase definitely stands as one of the festival's marquee events. There's been some grumbling here and there that NPR is like an old man trying to act hip to what the kids are into, when all it really wants to do is scream, a la Abe Simpson, "I'm an old man. I hate everything but Matlock!" But whatever their motives, you can't argue with the results…
I thought Ladyhawke's performance was fairly revelatory. From the moment the dance beats began pummeling us, Ladyhawke's set was a vibrant mix of skeleton-rattling bass, skittery funk chords, and washes of keyboards. To my ears, the band did a much better job of connecting than they have on record.
If Ladyhawke represented the crowd's chance to dance and get down (when they weren't heads-down twittering or updating their Facebook statuses), then the Heartless Bastards were all business with loud, grinding alt-country/garage rock. Songwriter/guitarist/vocalist Erika Wennerstrom led the band through songs from their recent record, The Mountain and seemed right at home on the stage at Stubb's Bar-B-Q.
One thing about Stubb's. The stage is set in this large earthen hollow. Boxed in by the venue's large wrought-iron gate and a ring of walls and outer buildings, it looks like a giant chicken-yard where the chickens have scratched away everything living. When civilization falls, the Stubb's amphitheatre will be where the rulers of Austin hold their mutant gladiator fights. The Avett Brothers seemed right at home (granted, though, you could put those four in an Intel clean room and they'd manage to stomp dust out of the floor). Playing an abbreviated set that mixed new songs with old, the band was reasonably subdued. With their set clocking in at roughly thirty minutes, they wouldn't have had much time to get into full-flight punk/bluegrass mode, anyway. The new songs, from their upcoming Rick Rubin-produced major label debut, sounded strong and even added a piano into the mix. It should at least comfort fans who were afraid the band would lose their "Avettness" (apart from Seth Avett losing his hillbilly beard).
If the surroundings weren't quite where you'd expect to find the Decemberists, they quickly grabbed the night as their own by performing their new record, The Hazards of Love, in its entirety. Hazards is a concept album in the classic sense, telling the tale of Margaret, a young girl who must face rakish men, treacherous plants, and devious woodland royalty. It's a beast of an album, and lead singer Colin Meloy commits to it fully, swinging from fey British folk to heavy metal roar as his story demands, exhibiting a willingness to include a forest queen that would make 2112-era Rush blush. This is drama on a grand scale, sounding like it takes place in the woods outside of Sweeney Todd's neighborhood. The seven-piece band of multi-instrumentalists did a fantastic job of replicating the record. Meloy's backup singers -- one dressed in a white diaphonous robe for the role of Margaret, the other in a tight black dress in the role of the Queen -- roared through their parts, and "The Rake's Song" became an instant highlight when five members of the band attacked it with synchronized drumming.