May 2, 2012

listen to my SXSW panel!

At the SXSW conference this past March, I was delighted to be a panelist for a session called Man vs Machine: New Music Discovery. Anyone who has ever had the (mis)fortune of sitting me down in person and asking me my thoughts about the role of music in a healthy society, why music resonates with us, and how media serves (or doesn’t serve) this goal – those folks know that I like a good rumination, a good extrapolation of ideas. I’ll talk for hours; more if you give me a good beer to cogitate over.

For this event we only got a little over an hour, and the panel was a lively discussion between me, Anil Dewan from KCRW, Philipp Eibach from, Richard Slatter from We Are Hunted, and Scott Perry from New Music Tipsheet as moderator. It was a substantial deal of fun, to sit back and discuss where we might all be going with this, and why. As I wrote in March, 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.

“Man vs Machine: New Music Discovery” SXSW Panel audio

Now that you can all listen in and join the discussion, what do you think about the things we reflected on? What role does context play, and how important is human connection in new music discovery? Should machines be able to cry? Is there a perfect robot DJ, and will he also clean my house like on the Jetsons? So many questions.

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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]

March 22, 2011

Fuel/Friends dives in at SXSW 2011

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On Wednesday night, as we braced ourselves for the marvelous musical onslaught that was churning ready to release onto the streets of Austin, somebody told me that the SXSW Festival was 40% larger this year than last. I have no idea if that is true because I am terrible at estimating numbers of anything, but I can certainly believe it, as SXSW continues to grow and draw so many acts down to Texas that I always leave feeling like I’ve been through a musical washing machine. Or maybe I feel like that episode of ‘I Love Lucy’ where she is trying to eat the chocolates that just keep coming so fast, and more, and more, and more. No one can keep up with all that deliciousness, but I was game to try. I’m always game.

After a splendid opening reception for media at Austin City Hall with some excellent local talent and gift bags with bottles of Tito’s (uh oh), I headed as quickly as I could over to Bat Bar for Walk The Moon, to start my SXSW 2011 off right. You know I was mightily excited. With the crowd packed close and the bar walls open to Sixth Street passersby stopping to watch, their set was crackling with the kind of kinetic confidence that comes easiest in youth. Their energetic, dancey set can best be illustrated by two texts I sent to a friend while I was trying to convince him to come over.

9:24pm: “These guys are adorable. And twenty.
9:26pm: “And wearing facepaint.

It was everything I had hoped for. The first show of my SXSW was also the feel-good winner. I had to stop filming a video clip because I decided I had to dance instead.

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I want to join Wild Flag. I want them to adopt me as egg-shaker rocker girl (since I couldn’t depose the formidable Janet Weiss, of Sleater-Kinney, as their drummer) and take me on tour with them, so I could bask in their rock glory every night. Fronted by Carrie Brownstein, this new band of Pacific Northwest badasses were phenomenal at the NPR party, playing their squalling guitars held behind their heads. Their songs had strong driving melodies and basslines, with that singsong female voice that sounds even better with the right heft behind it.

Their MySpace helpfully says “Apt adjectives for describing the band’s music: wild. Also: flaggy.” To that I would add: really damn good. Cannot wait to get their (Britt Daniel-produced) first 7″ on Record Store Day.

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After lunch on Thursday I started out from the house I was staying at, and walked past the Auditorium Shores where The Strokes were due to play that night. There was already an amazingly long line of kids standing waiting in line for the free set. Even if it hadn’t been for the multitude of Strokes shirts in incarnations from the last decade on every other person, it would have been fun (and easy) to try and tell which band they were waiting for just based on the fashion.

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That night was my first time seeing The Strokes, and it was long overdue. I was giddy with anticipation. For a band that saw its comeuppance in small NYC clubs and the sweaty intensity of raucous tiny shows, I was acutely aware that something was missing from the way I was experiencing them for the first time, but beggars can’t be choosers, as they say, and to me they sounded absolutely terrific. With the Austin skyline silhouetting them, their set peppered with new songs, Julian brought his lackadaisical drawl (I’ve always said it sounds as if he can’t be arsed to get up off the couch), but there was that underlying edge, the guitars and drums tight and spot-on.

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On most days, this is my favorite Strokes song, and I just stood there with a big stupid grin on my face to get to see it from so close.

The set ended with a massive bombardment of surprise fireworks that started exploding during the opening drumbeat of “Last Nite.” I am a sucker for fireworks. I also thought fleetingly about some sort of metaphor in there for a band that used to cause all the fireworks themselves in small dark clubs, now playing such massive stages that they can light off pyrotechnics into the night air.

After a quick beer with my drummer friend Robby from These United States (who looks awesomely like Jesus these days, and whose sets I totally missed in Austin this year, sadly) I headed off – to church.

The rootsy new G. Love album, produced by the Avett Brothers, feels very much like the album he was always meant to make, and since it was recorded in a church, this seemed also like the setting I was absolutely meant to see it performed live in for the first time. Joined by Luther Dickinson from the Black Crowes and the North Mississippi Allstars for a few songs, he wailed and howled and stomped his way through his very solid and compelling set.

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Lord Huron from Los Angeles were more potent and feisty live than their warm and woolly EP suggests. Instead of bringing that Fleet Foxes meets Edward Sharpe vibe, they cranked up the percussion (dude was wearing a washboard on his chest and I wanted to run away with him immediately into the Texas night) and were entirely danceable, in a near-tropical way.

The Stranger – Lord Huron

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My night ended on Thursday watching all dozen+ members of Gayngs (with Justin Vernon, and a dude in a white cape) cover George Michael’s “One More Try” to a packed Mohawk crowd. I just looked around a little confused and tried my best not to enjoy it (longstanding hatred of GM). And then sang it all the way home, dammit.

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Friday’s mercury climbed into the sticky-uncomfortable range, and became the day I decided to start a new photoblog called It is going to be completely amazing. From the moment I left the house, the sweat beads formed and were unrelenting, and I saw a large number of skinny jeans pulled up into man-capris, and plenty of dark clothing and impractical scarves sweat through. I was grateful for my dress.

To escape the heat, and because there is a fantastically vibrant scene there right now, our first stop of the day parties on Friday was the SXSeattle showcase at Copa, where we caught Ravenna Woods, Young Evils (harmonic, well-crafted pop with a kickass girl drummer named Faustine), and a hip-hop artist named Sol that we danced our asses off to, to spite the heat. I also had the WINNING moment of Damien Jurado showing me his driver’s license so I would believe who he was. Ummmm, the heat was scrambling my brain? Sigh. Sorry Damien. You are awesome and I know it.

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Get Over It – Young Evils

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Later that afternoon, I caught one of the most high energy sets with Middle Brother playing to a packed Barbarella backyard porch. This is the supernova collaboration between three excellent bands: Deer Tick, Dawes, and Delta Spirit. There was a genuine affinity between the three frontmen (see kiss below) and lots of interaction with / dancing in / throwing beer on the crowd to complement their crunchy riffs and early-’60s garage rock feel. [VIDEO: Me, Me, Me]

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I also, not surprisingly, kept finding myself at The Head and The Heart shows – I think three in 2 days, by my count. The buzz on the street for them was thrilling. After SPIN Magazine hyped them as their #2 band to watch at SXSW 2011, it seemed that everywhere I went (photographers pit, radio lunches, that welcome reception) people were asking each other if they’d seen them yet. I had a few friends to drag to see them, so I happily went along spreading the gospel.

They played a wickedly hot midday show at Lustre Pearl for the Dickies/FILTER party on Thursday afternoon (their first “real” one, they said, meaning to a bunch of sweaty kids instead of to industry folks). Then on Friday, both the legendary Antone’s as well as headlining the Sub Pop showcase at 1am, before heading to the airport for their European tour with The Low Anthem. They left vapor trails in their wake, from an explosive week for them.

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In between Head and The Heart sets on Friday night, I popped into the Ale House for my favorite Australian from last year’s SXSW, Andy Clockwise. Completely dousing the audience with charisma like gasoline, Clockwise commands you watch him, and commands you enjoy. He brought the girl next to me up onto stage to play electric guitar and I couldn’t help but be jealous of her badassery.

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Josh Ritter played the St. David’s Church sanctuary at 10:30pm, and I got in only for the last few songs. It was quite a shift after Andy Clockwise, but it was utterly spellbinding, and –as you can imagine– transcendent. If there is a more poignant moment than Ritter performing “In The Dark” in a church, in the dark, with the crowd singing softly and spontaneously along, I don’t think I can handle it.

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Saturday morning I hopped right on up out of bed (ouch, cowboy boot blisters, ouch) ready to tackle the final full day of SXSW. By that day, everyone is feeling it and you best be talking quiet. Denver’s soiree of the music year at the Reverb Party was happening at Parkside, and it was on the lovely rooftop patio overlooking Sixth Street. Since I forgot to have a breakfast taco back home, my day started gently with Great Divide’s Wild Raspberry Ale (I mean, this is Colorado, so we do up our free beer at day parties RIGHT).

Port Au Prince is the new project of some good friends from the now-defunct band Astrophagus, back with a completely different sound. They are more accessible but still smart, with call-and-response melodies that made me happy when they rang down over Sixth Street.

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I headed over to the Ryan’s Smashing Life blog party at Rusty Spurs, where Adam Duritz did a cameo appearance with the rapper NOTAR that he has signed to his T Recs label. I definitely gushed on a little too much when I met him about what his music has meant to me over the years. But then again, let’s be honest I am not known for hiding my feelings, and Duritz has been a major force in my musical development over the years. It was a great moment for me.


Also at that same party I got to check out the super talented Ivan & Alyosha from Seattle who were having quite a bit of fun up there. They’ve named their band after brothers from Dostoyevsky who struggle with faith and family ties, and chats with them before their set belie a depth of intelligence that is palpable in their smart, substantial songwriting. One of my favorite unexpected discoveries of the festival.

Easy To Love – Ivan & Alyosha

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Then I went and decided to Mess With Texas at their free outdoors day party on the other side of the highway, and in a shocking role reversal it ended up just completely messing with me instead. I was sending texts about !!! and people thought I was so excited that I was forgetting a word in there, but really I was just totally wowed by their live set. For a man wearing (very) short blue shorts and a purple striped polo shirt, the lead singer of !!! had charisma in droves. Despite my weepingly aching feet, I found myself dancing harder than I have in a very long time, there on the dusty field.

I’ve been googling lead singer Nic Offer today (since I’ve decided to abduct him for a dance party, after that show – and that Prince outtake they covered!), and this quote from the A.V. Club profile on him pretty much sums it up in the very best possible way:

“A few years back, I perfected ‘The Prance,’ where you’re almost skipping in place and you have a look on your face that says “Nobody’s business, ain’t nobody’s business if I do!”

I do so adore a man who isn’t afraid to dance. As one of the best songs on their new album says, my intentions with him are unabashedly bass.

Jamie, My Intentions Are Bass – !!!

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I packed into the giant sweaty tent for the ass-shaking extravaganza that was a Big Freedia show that I was promised would change my life (I never thought I would see a black man with a pompadour that impressive also have those sort of limber hips) and then almost died during Odd Future (no seriously) and evacuated the premises.

The last show I saw at SXSW 2011 was Rural Alberta Advantage at the Central Presbyterian Church late Saturday night. I have an affinity for the resonance of churches, and the simple quietude that is found in the shows that happen there. I am someone who is familiar with the interiors of churches, and lately shows like the RAA are the most deeply resounding and peaceful of the connections I make. Their set sounded fantastic: affecting, urgent, and honest. There was a simple joy, and words that needed to burn their way out. Their latest album Departing has been on non-stop repeat even before their set, but so much moreso after.

For their final song, they unplugged and walked down the red velvet aisle to stand among us and perform a stripped and perfect version of “Good Night.”

rush into the woods where we first felt god
ripple through our veins from the moment when we touched

When Nils threw his head back and the veins popped out on the side of his neck and he howled, “someday if you get it together in your heart / maybe we might get back together but good night….” I started crying and wasn’t even sure why, except for identifying with the longing permeating each syllable. It wasn’t a specific loss, rather a cumulative one.

I wandered alone through loud and colorful streets for about another hour, watching the expansive Laurel-Canyon sounds of Dawes for a few minutes from the street outside the crowded Lustre Pearl, but ultimately took my iPod, cued up Departing, and started the long walk home. The air was heavy and warm, and the as I crossed the river the almost-full moon was reflecting off the ripples. And of course, with so many songs ringing in my head, I was happy. There is no festival like this one.

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[all of my best pictures from the week are here on the Fuel/Friends Facebook page]

March 24, 2010

The warm musical embrace of SXSW 2010

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I was walking alone down Sixth Street on Friday night around 1am, listening to the music pouring out through every open window and door into the warm night air. My boots clacked on the asphalt as I tucked away a BBQ sandwich from a street cart to drown some of the Shiner Bock. Everyone I walked past had a smile and sometimes a nice word or even a hug. I felt so in my element, so alive.

I had the pleasure of attending the 2010 South by Southwest Music Festival this year with a sailor who informed me in detail that when reading a compass, south-by-southwest is technically a direction that doesn’t exist. I’d try to recreate the explanation but it’s sailor talk. In any case, I remember thinking how I enjoy that the only place SxSW exists is in a mythical land in Austin. It’s fitting.

A thousand people could go to Austin and have a thousand different experiences, and I love that about the crowded, sweaty, jubilant mess. No one I talked to saw (and loved) the same bands. The endless options for every time slot is simultaneously fantastic and heartbreaking. I surely missed more bands I wanted to see than those I made it to, but I made it to some marvelous shows that invigorated me and reminded me why I do this, why I love music.

Here’s what made this year’s festival for me:

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Lissie was everywhere, delightfully. This girl from Rock Island, Illinois has a voice that is even more potent and chill-inducing in person; it’s as if she has the force of a complete gospel choir of large black women lying in her belly waiting to explode through songs like “Little Lovin’” and “Everywhere I Go.” When she sang the latter at a nighttime show in St David’s Church, I actually got tears in my eyes from the lugubrious power of that sparse song. Later on that weekend I heard her cover Metallica from downstairs in Stubbs while I shook Bill Murray’s hand. Go figure.

Little Lovin – Lissie
[SXSW VIDEO: Here Before]

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J Roddy Walston & The Business felt like Jerry Lee Lewis meets Soundgarden, and in a completely insane way, it worked. I wrote about them a long time ago and said I absolutely wanted to see them live, so when they played the Little Radio party, I was there in the front row. I was speechless. All I could do was look at my friends with a glowing smile; “So bizarrely awesome,” Bethany replied. The bass player stood wide-stanced, thrashing his long locks around with a force I’ve not seen since junior high dances and headbanging to Metallica, while J Roddy pounded the piano and kicked over his chair. Whew.

Rock and Roll II – J Roddy Walston & The Business


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Andy Clockwise from Australia also led me to use breathless descriptors of two artists I would never think of pairing together: Nick Cave and the Eels. Clockwise has 1,000-megawatt star magnetism, all swagger and quirky dance moves that I loved, and his music explodes into a supernova live — so much so that I went to see him twice. The fact that he came down in the audience, danced on the bar, handed me a Lone Star, and knelt and buried his face in my belly while we danced might have also helped things (I’m only human). Holy crap go see him live (and his fantastic band featuring my new favorite drummer, Stella) if you ever have the chance.

Sorry for the sometimes-shady video, but you get the fabulous idea — and know you wanted to be here:

And speaking of superb live moments, These United States covered Violent Femmes! I was walking up Trinity Street immediately upon arrival to Austin when I heard this ridiculously catchy drumbeat cascading down from a window above. For some reason my brain flashed to thinking, “I wonder when that day party with These United States is?” After checking the schedule, I was thrilled that I had recognized them from their drummer warming up, and we jostled up the stairs to start our fest right. I saw them two more times at SXSW, their rambunctious, heartfelt country-tinged tunes are right at home in that environment, and I was delighted when they covered this (after some previous discussion on the matter):

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Jennifer Knapp – an artist I had no idea would be at the festival (there are always dozens of such pleasant surprises at SXSW, it seems) but one I loved a lifetime ago and made a point to see. She was a young Christian artist when I was in high school and early college, a warm alto voice full of Melissa-Etheridge-like power and conviction, fierce on the guitar. I knew she’d vanished for years and years and was now resurrecting her art apart from the church, as far as I can tell. Her new work belies years of struggle that I can relate to, and a grasping at what she can still hold. I was completely blown away, one of the top shows for both myself (as an old fan) and the sailor (as a newly-converted one). This song was towards the end, as she played to a riveted and packed St David’s Church, and she said it conjured up her “Bob Dylan side.” Her album Letting Go is out May 11. [SXSW VIDEO]

STREAM: Stone To The River – Jennifer Knapp

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The music of JBM (Jesse Marchant) is completely entrancing, with his intricate guitar fingerpicking and pink moon stylings. Walking into the dark quiet of his show felt like a respite from the storm outside. The church hall was rapt and silent, and for good reason. He played this song using loops for the slide guitar part, and something in the timbre of his voice just breaks me. A friend told me a story of seeing Ryan Adams at SXSW ten years ago and if there’s any justice in the world, I feel like JBM could be an artist we look back on to this year and remember when.

From Me To You And You To Me – JBM

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Guillemots frontman Fyfe Dangerfield was tipped by Mojo Magazine as one of Four To Watch at SXSW (alongside the XX, who I totally failed at seeing despite my best line-waiting efforts) so his 10pm showcase at Lambert’s was quite packed. And for good reason – his new album Fly Yellow Moon has my favorite single of the last forever [SXSW VIDEO], but also is laced through with these heartbreaking piano ballads and tunes like this one that can’t help but make your heart jump on up and cartwheel, if just for a moment:

She Needs Me (Monarchy remix) – Fyfe Dangerfield
(“I am yours, you can do what you like with me…”)

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Frightened Rabbit‘s sweltering daytime set at the Paste party was rife with technical difficulties from the start. Keyboards didn’t work at all, monitors went in and out, and finally the band decided on a minimalistic, stripped-down approach. “But you know,” Scott Hutchison said from the stage, “This the way it should be, isn’t it”? I completely agree. I liked hearing the visceral gut punch of the songs from their new album Winter of Mixed Drinks acoustic, and was only sad I missed a live performance of “The Loneliness and the Scream,” my favorite track on there. But since I was actively trying to avoid crying at the festival this year, perhaps that was for the best.

SXSW VIDEO: Keep Yourself Warm


Chicago songwriter Joe Pug played a day party where people were chatty in the big bar, so he took the refreshing tack of asking the first three rows of us who were sitting down listening closely to join him by the stage. He came in front of the microphone and sang one of the most powerful songs on his new record (“Won’t you bury me far from my uniform, so that God will remember my face?”) with nothing between us to obscure things.

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The final show I saw at SXSW this year was the Electric President set in the wee small hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning, at a little venue on the far side of town. It was their first show in three years, and worth walking to in the cold Saturday night air. Their new album The Violent Blue has been on non-stop repeat around here for months. I was so dead beat from the festival that I remember this show as if through a haze, but I was deeply content to hear their intimate songs recreated live. Ben Cooper’s voice is, as he self-effacingly joked, “that of a twelve year old girl,” despite his brawny man appearance, and their songs simply shimmered in the loose, congenial midnight atmosphere.

A few other show impressions:

–I adored seeing The Damnwells live again and hearing a bunch of fresh material, including an announcement of a new album they are working on recording. Alex Dezen walked into the center of the tipsy midnight Paradise crowd to sing “Golden Days,” and for that song it felt so so right.

Jukebox The Ghost brought pleasingly nerdy piano-based rock to the WXPN dayparty, both classic and charmingly awkward.

The Scissor Sisters were highly hyped and I so wanted to enjoy them but I was not turned on by their set at all. Maybe it’s because I was freeeeezing all Saturday, and by their outdoor set at Stubbs I just wanted a hot tub and a hot toddy and other hot things. It felt stilted and not at all fabulous.

Matt Pond PA‘s Galaxy Room showcase set was one of the hardest things to get into all weekend. I hope that means word of his absolutely marvelous new album is spreading. He is a hardworking artist of the best kind, with literate songs that make all my insides happy. (new tour announced!)

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…And a few final favorite moments of SXSW 2010:

–Eating a fantastic Sunday brunch at Moonshine, which I am still full from, carrying on my favorite tradition started in 2009.

–Admiring the Hall & Oates coloring contest at Home Slice Pizza, and then participating in an “Only At South-By” restaurant singalong of “Hey Jude” in the very best possible way, everyone in full voice, with their whole hearts, sitting at their tables.

–Taking a ride from an elderly Austin native named Howard who drove a VW Rabbit with a handicapped placard. Go go renegade taxi services when you need one!

–Riding home on the airplane seated next to Creed Bratton from The Office and the epic ’60s band The Grass Roots. He’s my new favorite flight companion; we cracked each other up the whole two hours.

I missed seeing Hole at the SPIN party, and Warpaint who everyone raved about, and Local Natives, and the XX, and …and …and … but I did have a momentously marvelous time, drenched in the music. Anyone who doesn’t have a good time at SXSW might have their music-thingie irretrievably broken.

See you next year, Austin.

ALL MY SXSW PICTURES: On the Fuel/Friends Facebook Fan Page

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March 26, 2009

The Fuel/Friends SXSW Experience


As I start writing this post, I am blazing up I-25 somewhere just outside of El Paso. We’re taking the long way home from Austin, and enjoying the time to let the SXSW experience percolate and settle between the yellow divider lines that flick past on the road in an endless stream. Cracker’s “Eurotrash Girl” is playing in the radio, and the windows are down as we try and sing along. Life is still really good.

We all stayed in Marfa, Texas last night at the modernistic Thunderbird Hotel, and I highly recommend it if you ever find yourself out thisaway. Pedaling rented cruiser bikes, we stopped at the charmingly-painted El Cheapo Liquor Store (really) and then rode out to an inky black field off Pinto Canyon Road to watch for the famed Marfa lights after midnight. We saw them, holy mackerel. Natural phenomenon or hoax or something in between, it was otherworldy spooky last night. As we rode home in the aching silence of the mid-desert (ok, punctuated often by our laughter), it occurred to me that I don’t know when the last time was I’d seen such a brilliantly sparkling number of stars.

These last few days I’ve been processing the absolute whirlwind of SXSW. I meant to write each day of the festival but somehow that never happened. From the time I stepped foot into those festive, loud streets, I feel like I was sucked into something that was simultaneously thrilling (because I mean really, that much music all in one place?!) and crushingly exhausting at the end of each day. I was too busy to stop and write about it, despite my best of intentions.

Let’s start with the bands that knocked my socks off.


#1 tops: Mumford and Sons on Maggie Mae’s Rooftop
One thing I loved and envied about Austin were the number of great open air venues built specifically for live music. You can’t beat the earthiness of the fresh humid air against your skin and the scent of the breeze while listening to amazing music, instead of the (mostly) indoor sweaty air I’m used to. Mumford and Sons completely blew us all away in a setting like this, their impassioned sweet harmonies rising perfectly out into the night. Their young faces and world-worn lyrics carry a strong current of hope, all banjos and stomping foot percussion.

This was one of my most anticipated shows and they didn’t disappoint. They opened with that new song “Sigh No More” that I posted last week and it absolutely slayed me. The chorus sings of “love will not betray you, dismay or enslave you, it will set you free — be more like the man you were made to be.” I felt more like me, only better, when their set spun off at full tilt. Jawdroppingly pure.

Pretty & Nice at Beauty Bar
My SXSW experience started at Beauty Bar (amidst the sparkly pink paint and old-fashioned hairdryer chairs) to the carbonated punk of Boston’s Pretty & Nice. Their angular rock keeled off-kilter, in the vein of Guided By Voices, and they looked like they were having a hell of a lot of fun:

The Damnwells at Threadgills

I have loved this band for a few years now, but never seen them live. One time I (briefly) considered driving to Phoenix to catch them at a film festival for their excellent documentary Golden Days, but that plan fizzled. So before my first night got rolling in Austin, I set off walking (and walking) over the river to Threadgills to see them play on an outdoor stage as the sun set. Alex Dezen’s voice is even more gorgeous and stirring in real life, and the material off their new album was solid. Here they are doing “Bastard of Midnight“:

Starfucker @ Radio Room (MOKB)
You’d have to be dead not to have fun at this band’s live show. All clad in the headbands/neon sunglasses/running shorts look, Portland’s Starfucker blew the roof off Dodge’s MOKB Showcase on Wednesday night. Explaining it to a friend who hadn’t heard them, I described their sound as Eighties sheen with real classic pop-song construction underpinning. An intensely fun 45 minutes, and a band I would love to see again.

Elvis Perkins In Dearland @ The Central Presbyterian Church
Midnight redemption.

BLK JKS @ Radio Room
Victim to the same thief that got to MSTRKRFT, South Africa’s BLK JKS (“Black Jacks”) lost all their vowels and then played the NPR SXSW party. Despite that somewhat humorous confluence of abbreviations, their set was electrifying and elemental and sounded completely fresh — an “unmistakable otherness.” Their debut EP is out on the excellent Secretly Canadian label, and their set went like this:

Oh! And in a brilliant apex of total surrealism, I watched this show with Roy from The Office. Jerk to Pam that he is.

Other memorable shows were Voxtrot at Emo’s (pretty sure I caught some new stuff in there that sounds very exciting, totally different), the bright swing and soul of Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears at the Paste Party, and Superdrag closing my festival out with a scorching set of new material at the SPIN Afterparty. Less good was Third Eye Blind. Don’t even ask, please. Sometimes you do things that make you feel dirty at SXSW.

Irish-fronted Minneapolis country band Romantica (who once recorded that soul-gasping duet “The Dark” with Ryan Adams) was an early afternoon treat Friday, in a dark and tiny bar across the highway. Australian band The Grates at Vaya Con Tacos were an acrobatic whirl of girl rock and swirling ribbons, and King Khan exploded the Rolling Stone party as expected.

The Mile Hi Fidelity Party fairly packed out The Jackalope with great Denver bands, and as an occasional hot freak myself I was pleased to spend a large chunk of my hours on both Friday and Saturday at the Hot Freaks party, listening to absolutely ravaging bands like Henry Clay People (and some confusingly fun ones like Peelander Z). All the blog showcases I attended were quality.

Oh, and Lady Sovereign looks like the cool difficult girl from junior high that totally lit that one guy’s locker on fire and then cut Saturday school.

On a personal music experience level, my favorite moments of the festival came when I saw The Hold Steady twice in one damn day. I was half a foot away from their afternoon show in a little white tent at the Hot Freaks party at the Club de Ville, with a setlist that would make grown THS fans cry. They blew out that tent, and I almost got smacked in the face a few times with their instruments. That one looked and felt like this:

At the end of the night, at the midnight Noise Pop party, I got to see them again next door at the Mohawk, also outdoors with all of us packed in close around the small stage in the warm Texas night. The crowd was appropriately rowdier and the BAC was higher, well, all around. It was like a line from one of their songs: “Let’s clutch and kiss and sing and shake…. Tonight, let’s try to levitate.”

I’ve seen THS shows several times before but never with a friend who loved them every fervent bit as much as I do, so from the opening notes the two of us screamed out the lyrics at the top of our lungs as the whole crowd became one roiling, pressing, pogoing, diving mass. Everyone had their arms around each other and for about 90 minutes I felt no pain. That was one of the best concert moments of my life. Let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger.

As I stuffed clothes back into my suitcase before checking out of the hotel, I thought about the post-festival depression I always feel when the last notes of music die away, and how much more acute it was after a week of this magnitude. I am overwhelmed with the sheer number of bands I wanted to see and didn’t. I keep remembering new ones, too. Ack.

But I am so grateful for the experiences I had, both musical and non, and cannot wait to come back next year. Holy heck.

Day One
Day Two
Day Three
Day Four

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SXSW 2009: Scott Avett has rambling fever

A fair rogue Avett covers Merle Haggard on the tour bus at SXSW.

Also — listen to their set at Stubbs here.

[via Crackerfarm]

New Thao Nguyen song at SXSW

Thao Nguyen and the Get Down Stay Down played several kickass shows in Austin this year. Her set on Friday night at Momo’s was one of the most packed that I personally attended, with a huge line outside left unsatisfied. I squeezed my way in nimbly up to the front and wow — that woman is ferocious and fearless in her music and her stage presence. She knows how to wield a guitar and craft a song with all the right balances.

Thao played a brand new song to the packed house (there’s one blurb of scratchy audio but then my camera gets on the ball):

A new album is expected from Thao this year.

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March 21, 2009

SXSW: My ears and heart are full

This festival has been amazing and overwhelming, in a very good way. I’m barely alive (among other things the Hold Steady nearly killed me last night, two shows from them in one day) so what I can offer right now is a look through my lens these last three days.

Words to follow when I find my voice again, after all the singing along.

[click any image to see it full-size]

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March 20, 2009

Mile-Hi Fidelity party today!


Please come by and say hello!!

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Elvis Perkins, midnight church, and redemption

Elvis Perkins just restored in my faith in the hot-blooded beating heart of music, in a cavernous church sanctuary in the middle of Austin tonight.

Playing a midnight set with his impassioned band Dearland, he left me reeling in the front pew as he wailed and pounded and jangled through his heartbreaking song catalog. I had never seen Perkins before and even though my feet are aching and holy mackerel have I seen a lot of music these past two days, Perkins stripped away all the jaded varnish on my ears with one of the most real, brilliant shows I have ever seen.

The whole set sounded incredible, reverberating off the arched walls and stained glass windows, but the last two songs knocked me flat. “While You Were Sleeping” is one of the most beautifully honest and aching songs I’ve ever heard, and when he sang the lines about “while you were sleeping the babies grew, the stars shined and the shadows moved….time flew, the phone rang, there was a silence when the kitchen sang…,” I started crying pretty embarrassingly honestly in the front row. But by the time he moved on to the next and final song, “Doomsday,” it was like redemption. All eight or so of the musicians, the brass section and the giant marching-band drum guy, all poured off the stage into the front of the church, dancing and kicking and hollering and raising their instruments to the arches. People were dancing in the aisles to the thump of the giant bass drum and I swear I’ve not felt like that in a long time.






Perkins comes to Denver May 8th and a bunch of other places in the coming months. Please go.

NPR’s Morning Edition yesterday (thank you Bob!)

[my camera….well, I might have dropped it in the bathroom, and my good lens just might be in four pieces. I don’t want to talk about it. I resorted to flash + daytime lens. Sigh]

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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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