March 26, 2012

the shiny wonders of SXSW 2012


The first band I saw this year, marching along at 6th and San Jacinto at midnight

SXSW is the world’s best music festival if only for the sheer volume of superb choice. On any given day/night/early morning, I was staring at a ridiculously, totally stupidly embarrassing list of terrific musical choices. I was very cognizant that this spring break for grownups is one of the richest weeks of the year for me. I survived this, my “senior” (fourth) year, and came back bone-crushingly exhausted but smiling widely (and bruised without remembering precisely how I obtained my battle scars).

My stated primary objective for SXSW this year was to kick ass as a panelist, speaking during the Interactive segment on “Man vs Machine: New Music Discovery” on Tuesday morning. There was a write-up of the morning here from the Austin Statesman (the two pull quotes they used from me are hilarious and kind of sum up all of Fuel/Friends). It was a fascinating discussion that I strongly enjoyed taking part in, because ruminating on larger musical questions is one of my favorite pastimes, at any time of day (generally better with whiskey but I will take what I am offered, even if it is green room coffee).

The panel was pitched intentionally as a somewhat false dichotomy, since we all know that both the human recommendation and the technological algorithm can lead to a rad discovery — I suggested we just cage-match fight but no other panelists took me up on that at 8:45 in the morning.

My points eventually crystallized around the fact that I believe the nature of music discovery has changed: where you used to need a friend in the know to play you that punk 7″ they got in London in 1976 because humans helped to counteract musical scarcity, nowadays you need humans for almost the opposite reason – to place songs into some sort of a meaningful context, and to genuinely curate good music in a neverending flood of songs. An audience member asked the question of what the role of context is when it comes to music, and it was so useful for me to articulate this mission of what I do that I’ve added it over there on my sidebar: that I’ve been “Giving context to the torrent since 2005.” I think is a solid summation of what this site tries to be about, and why it is so fun for me, still. I want the context, the color, the personal framework around my music. Even if I then go ahead and create my own around that song as I weave it into my own musical life, I never forget the context in which it first came to me.

Panel completed and supernap under my belt, I moved on to the MUSIC. You can read in scintillating detail about my Austin adventures below, but everyone always asks when I come back which bands blew me away this year. I’ll tell ya without skipping a beat: Alabama Shakes and Of Monsters and Men. Those two bands are going to take all good music lovers by hurricane-level-5-storm this year.

Alabama Shakes @ Hype Hotel

Alabama Shakes @ KCRW Showcase

Alabama Shakes were absolutely, completely incendiary when I saw them early in the week at the KCRW daytime showcase. At 4pm. In the CONVENTION CENTER. Even at that hour in that business-like of a setting, I was wordlessly riveted to the spectacle before me, with shivers all over and some sort of weird lump forming in my throat through my smile.

It’s rare for me to see a band with a female frontwoman who I 100% want to be when I grow up. Brittney Howard is magnificent: ravagingly fearless in her command of the stage and her malleable play of the audience. She can shred on her red guitar and makes all of the hairs on every part of you stand on end, and she yowls out lyrics like, “I wanna take you out, I wanna meet your kid / I wanna take you home, baby tell me where you live.” Man, I love those lines, and I love even more that they are sung by a woman. I mean come ON. Even though in real life she couldn’t be sweeter, their music feels like she could rip you apart with her teeth and she is not ashamed. And that rocks. By day two of the music festival, everyone was talking about them on every street corner, and for good reason. Ho-ly hell.



Of Monsters And Men @ FILTER’s Showdown at Cedar Street

Secondly, seeing Iceland’s Of Monsters And Men at the FILTER party left me beaming. Best I can describe, this band has the loping dream-like qualities of Sigur Ros, the expansive exploding joy of Typhoon, and brightly compelling vocals from one of the singers that reminds me of Bjork. How’s that for a combo? Listen to their full debut album here.


This ship will carry our bodies safe to shore…

They had a shimmering assortment of instruments, a drummer who controlled every songs with his primal percussion, and songs that just soared off that patio. It totally and completely works for this band. GO SEE THEM if you can, they are on a sizeable US tour right now. I was exhilarated by them. Also, one of the singers is kinda a girl who looks like Skrillex.



Frank Turner @ Latitude 30

Frank Turner live at Latitude 30 was so combustible that I had to go back twice in two days to hear the crowd yell along to his anthems of belief and burning. I was converted, and not just by the tattoo on his right bicep that says, “I STILL BELIEVE.” He even sang his song about Prufrock, upon my sheepishly instantaneous request when he asked what he was playing next. That man has an astounding power in what he does (even after not having slept for 36 hours), as well as an electric way of engaging his fans.



Delta Spirit was so good to see after a few years away, tightly weaving the songs from their upcoming self-titled album when I stumbled upon them at the Hype Hotel very late one night. Maybe it’s just because that party was curated by my best blogger friends (who we all know are wonderful), or because there were free drinks AND free Taco Bell (sorry, body), but I spent many hours at that Hype Hotel and saw several of my favorite shows in that warehouse.



Michael Kiwanuka @ KCRW Showcase

At the KCRW showcase on Wednesday afternoon, British singer Michael Kiwanuka radiated this warm, lapping voice that I just wanted to curl up inside of. His album seems like one I would love to put on my turntable and let play, on repeat, in its entirety on a springtime Saturday afternoon.



Sharon Van Etten @ Stubbs


Listen to it here.

Man, oh man – Sharon Van Etten‘s new album Tramp is definitely one of my favorites of this year already, all excoriating elegance and lush melodies. Her performance at Stubb’s on Wednesday night was delicate and strong, fearless and smart all at once — just like the record.



Nick Waterhouse @ Hype Hotel (it’s morning but you wouldn’t know it)

The Allah-Las at Valhalla

The retro cool of Nick Waterhouse and The Allah-Las were both SO. MUCH. FUN. Musical comrades, these two were some of the most invigorating shows I saw during the week, with their squalling, dirty jams equally influenced by surf-rock and a sharper underlying punk current.



Nada Surf acoustic at the Red Eyed Fly

Thursday night’s last-minute decision to cross the street after the Allah-Las at Valhalla to see an acoustic set from Nada Surf at the Red Eyed Fly was a superb one. It was a set-up strongly reminiscent of that gorgeous show I saw a few years back in the jewelbox of SF’s Swedish American Hall, a night I was happy to revisit. On Thursday night in Austin, this Bruce fella was playing across town at the ACL Theatre, doing things like bringing Arcade Fire and Tom Morello onstage, so I was getting text after text of those happy pictures after my badge was not selected to attend that show, but hearing the golden dulcet tones of Nada Surf was a deeply wonderful salve.

I told Matthew Caws afterwards that I hope he never stops doing what he does — their music is still as sharply incisive and lyrically poetic as ever, plus they seem to be having fun still. They played several songs from this year’s superb The Stars Are Indifferent To Astronomy, as well as a few older ones:



Seun Kuti on fire @ the African showcase

I ended Thursday night with a tasty steak street taco that I thankfully ingested for sustenance before heading into Copa to see Seun Kuti, Fela’s son, from Nigeria. With absolutely no sense of urgency (and a band of about a dozen folks and singers to soundcheck), they ended up starting their set an hour late, around 1:30am, on languid equatorial time. They blew up that place.



Pickwick at the SXSeattle party

On Friday morning I limped across town (cowboy boots, day four yo) for an explosive set from Pickwick at the SXSeattle party. Pickwick came all the way to Austin to play just a few sets in one single day, but they used it to showcase not only the formidable pipes of frontman Galen Disston, but also to show off a substantial amount of their new material. It is intricate, and darker, and not as easy to classify in a specific soul genre, which I think is a right move.



After an amazing meal at La Condesa that I can’t stop talking about (they have FLIGHTS of GUACAMOLE, people), I headed to Auditorium Shores to give an attempt at a Counting Crows show which unfortunately suffered from the stretching grass fields full of loudly-talking aged frat boys, ditching after a handful of songs for the Magnetic Fields. Stephin Merrit and Co were heartbreaking, every weird and resonant song, beautifully constructed. I felt like I shattered and spidered apart, unexpectedly, when he did a humble performance of “The Book Of Love.” It was very much like this:


I love it when you sing to me / and you can sing me anything.



Spank Rock @ that 1100 Warehouse place

Warehouse crowd-surfing

Next, a life lesson: when a friend asks if you want to go see a hip hop show in a warehouse under the highway, the correct answer is always yes. I packed myself up front (with room for some questionable dancing on my part) for the Spank Rock and Hollywood Holt show, and it was a tremendous amount of fun, and a good palette cleanser from all the mopey shit which, left to my own devices, I will drown myself in.

I then paid a random couple stopped at a light with their window down $20 to drive me to Antone’s for the Cold Specks show. I hope my mother is not reading this fine example of what makes SXSW so awesome. Cold Specks was one of my most anticipated sets of the week and she did not disappoint. Her music from her debut album gorgeous gospel – slow-burning and evocative, yet vulnerable within the lyrical excavations. I definitely think Al Spx, the frontwoman, is one to continue watch in 2012 as she tours in support of her treasure of an album.

Cold Specks @ Antone’s



Saturday I decided to focus on the food one more time, and walked clear + gone to the far side of town for an inspiring culinary adventure at Hillside Farmacy, before catching my final show of SXSW: You Won’t on an outdoor stage with crawfish tails and parts littering the dirt around me. Creepy little fuckers (the crawfish, not the band).

You Won’t @ Banger’s (yes huh)

You Won’t was this young, fun band who scowled in the same timbre as Deer Tick’s John McCauley and played the drums sometimes with kitchen utensils. Their songs were classically-constructed pop perfection, singable and not at all overly sweet. As I walked out past the stage, the singer saluted me with “have a good flight!” (we’d talked before the set). Yep, they were that kind of endearing, perfect band to end my festival.

I hopped exhaustedly on my $1 Airport Flyer (BEST KEPT SECRET IN AUSTIN) and as my bus lumbered towards the airport, I sat back and smiled. I find SXSW exceedingly capable of sating me. In retrospect, to sum it all up tidily: last week I got to shake the hands of legendary rock photographer Bob Gruen, NPR’s Bob Boilen, and the singer from Seven Mary Three. I mean, that pretty much hits me on most of my important levels. I’d say all my cylinders were well-fired.

Well done, again, SXSW.



[more pictures are over at Fuel/Friends' Facebook]

4 Comments »

  • That comment about context is what I love about music (and your writing). It’s the truth. It means, and can change, everything.

    Your reaction in tweet form to seeing Alabama Shakes for the first time was one of my favorite things ever.

    Adam — March 26, 2012 @ 7:09 am

  • i’m surprised you left off brown bird.

    V — March 26, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

  • well done SXSW…love to be there.

    John Vopaca — March 26, 2012 @ 8:02 pm

  • Every year around this time I read your SXSW review and I’m always insanely jealous that I’m on the wrong side of the Atlantic to go. I’m glad you’ve fallen so hard for Frank Turner though! I’ve seen him play tiny back-room-of-bar gigs all over the world, and next week I get to see him at Wembley. It’s a great feeling when the local heroes suddenly start playing big shows.

    Vicky — April 5, 2012 @ 10:03 am

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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