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Tuesday night at the South by Southwest Music Conference – always the soft opening of the five-night live music marathon -- is a lot like what the festival used to be like before the internet took hold. A lot of bands without a whole lot of cache are spread out between a manageable swath of clubs. Instead of feeling like a hyperactive beehive, Austin’s main nightlife thoroughfare Sixth Street is actually kind of a pleasant, leisurely stroll. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t any overcrowding issues on Night 1 – what’s SXSW without a fire marshal making the news –but it was definitely low-key in a good way. Here were some of the highlights.
BEST OF THE NIGHT: Anybody hoping to start out SXSW on a rowdy, happy note might’ve felt let down by Torres. Performing at the far-off Rainey Street hangout Javelina, the Brooklyn-based, Georgia-reared indie songstress – real name: Mackenzie Scott, age 23 --- played an intense, darkly tinged, sometimes frenzied brand of distorted purr-to-roar rock. Her bellowing voice showing traces of PJ Harvey and Patti Smith. In one song, “Jealousy and I,” her brow was furrowed heavier than the actual, taxidermied javelinas hanging on the wall behind the stage.
BIGGEST SURPRISE: With the showcase name “K-Pop,” I expected the South Korean music showcase at the goth-flavored dance club Elysium to be more along the lines of “Gangnam Style.” Instead, we walked in on Hollow Jan, a scorching screamo band with Nirvana-like bombast and a frontman who prowled around and exploded on stage like a half-pint Henry Rollins. I couldn’t tell you what the songs were about, but the anger in them translated well.
BIGGEST LETDOWN: Chicago’s “acid rap” wiz-kid Chance the Rapper was the one big name for the night I had hoped to catch, but the line outside was snaked around the corner. In fact, it was there two hours before his showcase, when fellow Chicagoans Autumn Defense were playing (with John and Pat of Wilco). It seems Chance fans who lined up early bought tickets and stayed the whole night. According to Chicago Tribune critic Greg Kot, the rapper’s set was shut down after 18 minutes by the fire marshal for being too packed.
I was also bummed not to catch a single Minnesotan act on opening night. Wiry rappers Sean Anonymous and Ecid were playing early in the night back-to-back at the Nook Amphitheater on Sixth Street -- aka the burned-down Black Cat Lounge -- but we didn’t get to town in time. Maybe tomorrow (or the next day, or…). We also got in too late to pick up the media tickets to the Coldplay/Imagine Dragons double-header that kicked off the iTunes Fest at SXSW, but we honestly didn't try very hard to make it.
REST OF THE NIGHT: Anybody from the northern climate who endured the winter we Minnesotans just escaped would not fault us for picking a few showcases simply based on the fact that the shows were on outdoor stages. The first was by one of Austin’s own new buzz bands, the Sour Notes, who came off like a more shoegazery and poppy Silversun Pickups at Cheer Up Charlie’s (the former Club DeVille).
Then came one of Austin’s best-loved vets, thunder-voiced blues-rocker Carolyn Wonderland at the Main (the former Emo’s; you may notice a trend here). Headed to Minneapolis on March 27 to play the Dakota, Wonderland was joined Tuesday by a seemingly unlikely collaborator, James Williamson, the “Raw Power”-era guitarist in the Stooges. They played the songs from a 7-inch single they made for Record Store Day, April 19, including the gritty epic “Open Up & Bleed.” The songs are part of a broader all-star project reviving some old Stooges songs that were never recorded.
On a reverse trajectory from Wonderland, former Verbow bandleader Jason Narducy was just in Minneapolis a week ago Tuesday playing guitar and bass with Bob Mould, which he will do again later this week in Austin. First up, though, the Chicago utility man -- who has also played with Robert Pollard -- hit the Javelina stage with his new band Split Single, which packed more of a pop/rock, GBV-style punch than Verbow. On record, the trio features Spoon’s Brit Daniel on bass and Superchunk (and Mould) drummer Jon Wurster, but Tuesday’s lineup featured a couple equally capable guys . “This is my first South by Southwest,” Narducy casually commented as the clock neared 2 a.m., but nobody took the bait. “Actually, I’ve been coming for 20 years.”
The vets know to come early and make a full week of it.
Stay tuned for five days of SXSW reports and photo galleries at startribune.com/sxsw.
Yep, I know all about Lady Gaga’s ridiculous Doritos showcase, and would love to cover it just for the punchlines. I know about Kanye West and Jay-Z having to team up to fill Prince's heels at this year’s Samsung party, which ate up half a night of music for me last year when the little guy played it. I know that iTunes is paying for Imagine Dragons, Pitbull, Coldplay and Soundgarden to all play their fest-within-a-fest, which only seems to encourage people to go see bands they've already downloaded. Heck, I know there are a lot of great bands from past years and tours I’d be happy to see again.
But South by Southwest is still about new artists for me, an old-timer at the fest (this will be my 24th year, going back to high school). Here are the newbies I’m most eager to see at the Austin music conference, which kicks off tonight and lasts through Sunday.
Bo Ningen: SXSW has a great tradition of promoting Asian punk bands -- one of my favorites from past years, Beijing’s Car Sick Cars, is finally coming to Minneapolis at Cause on March 27 – but this Japanese noise-rock quartet might be the one to really break big in America. Or at least it’ll break some ear drums, as seems to be the consensus from its live in shows in London, where the group is now based. This video shows off the members’ kooky ‘70s-psychedelica style as well as their thundering approach.
Hurray for the Riff-Raff: Not to be confused with the cornrow-headed rapper Riff Raff (not even close), this twang-rustic New Orleans ensemble is led by Puerto Rican-rooted, Bronx-reared, New Orleans-based Alynda Lee Segarra, who sounds like a non-kitschy cross between Patsy Cline and Cat Power. She just released her first album for ATO Records, “Small Town Heroes,” an eclectic, soulful treat.
Temples: Probably the most 89.3 Current-ready band on my list, Temples have a psychedelic, flower-pedals-on-our-guitar-pedals retro sound that at times sounds kitschy, but there’s no mistaking the clear, Beatles-y songwriting charm underneath the haze. Their debut album was just issued stateside by Fat Possum Records and they’ve already gotten fat on press.
Eagulls: The other big British buzz band crashing America’s biggest music industry fest, this rather gangly looking quintet from Leeds offers the sonic bombast of early PiL with a little of the Pixies’ stop/go groove, too. They made a good impression on Letterman last month.
Future: Heretofore best-known for a collaboration with Miley Cyrus and as Ciara’s baby daddy, this Atlanta rapper toured with Drake over the winter and is now poised to break out with his second album “Honest,” due next month. The single “Move That Dope” dropped just a few days ago with a guest appearance by the rarely seen Pharrell Williams.
Perfect Pussy: Not sure if I’ll get to write about this one for the print edition – maybe if they put on a Putin protest sometime in Austin this week -- but this Syracuse noise-punk quartet has a riotous, roaring frontwoman and a visceral, frantic sound that should get them more attention in the end than the band name.
Hugh Bob & the Hustle: Butternut, Wis., native Hugh Robert Masterson channels his small-town, North Woods roots with big-time inspiration alongside his pedal-steel-soaked, Milwaukee-based twang-rock band. I don’t expect to see a lot of indie hipsters out for their sets, which makes them all that more attractive.
Jamestown Revival: You gotta give it up for the new Austin bands at the fest, and not just because they’re the hometown musicians who make SXSW possible despite the city’s rocketing rent. This folky, lightly bluegrassy acoustic band is led by two soulful, Americana-harmonizing dudes and has been touring with Wild Feathers.
Dupree: Another cool Austin band to watch, this instrumental, B3-organ-led trio just recorded their debut with Spoon drummer Jim Eno (who also helmed Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears' early work) and started a weekly residency at Continental Club owner Steve Wertheimer’s new South Congress venue, C-Boy’s Heart & Soul -- which also might be the new local hangout with the biggest SXSW buzz this year.
Kentucky indie-rock gods My Morning Jacket have a rather spectacular new tune floating around the internet, and the stream behind it started here in Minnesota. The cover song, “Farewell Transmission,” is the title track of a new tribute album to late Ohio indie tunesmith Jason Molina -- the latest endeavor of St. Paul’s charitable nonprofit label/promoter Rock the Cause.
“We’re very excited and proud of this one,” said RTC founder Scott Herold, who is taking his cause to the South by Southwest Music Conference to promote “Farewell Transmission: The Music of Jason Molina” with a day party next week.
The 27-track Molina tribute will raise money for both MusiCares and the singer/songwriter's estate. Known as the driving force behind Magnolia Electric Co. and Songs: Ohia, Molina died in 2011 after a long battle with alcoholism.
Within weeks of the sad news, Herold was contacted by a couple of music bloggers on opposite ends of the country about trying to put the record together. The idea was spawned off another fine tribute collection, 2011’s “Minnesota Remembers Vic Chesnutt,” honoring the Georgia song legend who hadkilled himself a year earlier.
“Everything we’re able to do with this record points back to the Vic Chesnutt collection,” Herold said, explaining that the earlier disc gave them “a foot in the door on a national scale” and led to a distribution and overall financial structuring that helps RTC get a better return for its causes. This also helped with the success last year of Zach Sobiech's “Clouds” single, which hit the Billboard and iTunes charts just as the teenage Stillwater songwriter died of a rare form of cancer.
“Farewell Transmission” will arrive April 22, and Herold hopes to build the buzz in the meantime. Besides the My Morning Jacket cut (posted below), the album also features two dozen other recordings from the likes of Murder by Death, Cory Branan, Sarah Jaffe, Centromatic’s Will Johnson, Squares and a Minnesota cast that includes Communist Daughter, Farewell Milwaukee, Gabriel Douglas, Luke Redfield, Enemy Planes and Fathom Lane. Pitchfork.com originally posted the whole list and a report on the album here.
RTC’s SXSW party takes place next Friday, March 14, at the Liberty Bar in Austin, Texas, with a handful of the album’s participants and more RTC supporters, including Nicholas David. Some of Sobiech’s family and bandmates will also be on hand to pay tribute to him there. A local “Farewell Transmission” release party is set for April 19 at First Ave with Farewell Milwaukee and Fathom Lane. More details on the record and pre-order info are at IRocktheCause.org.
Rock the Cause also has its fifth annual Glitter Ball fundraiser coming up on March 29 at the Grain Belt Bottling House with one of the best party-starting rockers in the country, Austin's Black Joe Lewis.
The kind of two-tiered show that requires two rooms, Vita.mn’s Are You Local? showcase will move back to the best-loved twofer venues in town this year, First Avenue and 7th Street Entry, with a lineup topped off by the Cloak Ox and featuring a solo Dave Simonett, John Mark Nelson, Haley Bonar’s freak-punky side band Gramma’s Boyfriend and the three newbie finalists from the AYL? contest. Tickets go on sale today at noon via First Ave outlets for $10, and voting for the contest is under way at Vita.mn.
Despite their powerful reputation as a live band and the year-end acclaim for their full-length debut, the Cloak Ox will be making their headlining debut in the main room for the show. It will also be Simonett’s first high-profile gig away from Trampled by Turtles since the release of his first solo EP, “Razor Pony.” Nelson will be previewing tracks from his long-in-the-works sophomore album, which he plans to gain attention for at the South by Southwest Music Conference next month. Bonar is also readying her new, sonic change-up of an album but is always willing to cut loose with Gramma’s Boyfriend, which shares guitarist Jeremy Ylvisaker with the Cloak Ox.
The newbie bands -- who range in quality on the AYL? voting site from "Wow!" to "Huh?" (such is the nature of the contest) -- will start off the night in the Entry. A "winner" will be chosen from the three finalists to perform a quick set in the main room before the Cloak Ox and then to perform at the Vita.mn/First Ave day party in Austin, Texas, during SXSW at Holy Mountain on Friday, March 14. Carroll won AYL? last year, preceded by Prissy Clerks, the 4onthefloor and Bight Club.
As if five straight 16-hour days of nonstop live music wasn’t enough for one festival, Prince took the South by Southwest Music Conference into overtime with his closing-night party Saturday.
The Minnesota rock boss performed six encores at his invite-only promotional performance for Samsung, whose mobile devices had their batteries tested like never before as the little energizer kept going and going till 3 a.m. Sunday at La Zona Rosa nightclub.
“We’re gonna show you how we do it in Minneapolis,” he warned at the start of the first encore.
Of course, the way Prince has often done shows in his hometown is by first making the audience wait for their musical pudding. He didn’t go on until nearly 12:30 a.m., when doors opened at 9 p.m. and many attendees started lining up hours before that. At least they were treated to a rare performance by influential hip-hop quartet A Tribe Called Quest as an opening act. Samsung gave out wristbands for this wowza double-header concert to users of their $700 Galaxy mobile phones, who had to rack up points at 11 different vendor locations in Austin. The company certainly deserves points for staging what may be the most elaborate SXSW party after Kanye West’s big bash in a vacant power plant in 2011.
Even though La Zona Rosa is a full-time, hi-fi music venue, Prince still made Samsung build him a new stage from scratch along the long wall of the club to accommodate the 18-piece New Power Generation band lineup he brought with him. Throw in a stretched-out video screen behind said stage -- plus confetti guns and a bevy of glitzy lighting -- and the giant South Korean electronics maker had clearly spent a small fortune even before it handed over Prince’s paycheck (which was undoubtedly a not-so-small fortune; at least $1 million seems like a good guess).
Even with all that visual eye candy – including the several different blouses Prince changed in and out of – the show’s handlers still threatened to eject attendees for taking pictures with their mobile devices during his set. So yes: Prince demanded that nobody use the product he was there to promote.
The concert followed a similar pattern as last fall’s Welcome 2 Chicago shows and his second night of January’s three-night stand at the Dakota in Minneapolis. He only sang a few of the hits, starting with “1999” for the second song and “Purple Rain” just before that first encore break, 50 minutes past go (for a few minutes, it looked like Samsung wasn’t getting its money’s worth).
For the rest of the show, Prince often acted more like a George Clinton-like cheerleader than the spine-tingling singer that he is, always urging various members of his band to take solos, especially drummer John Blackwell and saxophonist Marcus Anderson. Thanks to his own disinterest in playing a guitar – was he afraid the Austin humidity might warp the neck? – Donna Grantis of his new 3rd Eye Girl band got some extra spotlight time, too. Ironically, he addressed his surroundings mid-show from a six-string context: “Austin, Texas: Just like I pictured it," he said. "You’ve got a lotta guitar players up here, don’t you?”
Prince’s current NPG lineup is killer, no question, but the crowd obviously didn’t come to find that out. Some of the workout jams included “Musicology,” Curtis Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner,” James Brown’s “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing” and parts of the Jackson family catalog – Michael’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” Janet’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” He rewarded diehard fans in the crowd deeper into the encores with some of “Something in the Water Does Not Compute” as well as snippets of “Housequake” and the Time's “Cool.” By then, those nutty fans included Questlove, who apparently ran over after his competing gig with Justin Timberlake at the MySpace party several blocks away.
Prince just kept coming back out. The 2½-hour set was the antithesis to the wham-bam performances that the thousands of other bands in town had to play in quick order during SXSW – bands that, by the way, were losing untold amounts of attention from media and music professionals while conference attendees waited on Prince. At least the presumptuous Purple One offered something in the way of a benediction to fittingly sum up Austin’s holy week: “I love being a musician,” he said. “It feels like a service.”
Maybe SXSW organizers should try to book him as the keynote speaker next year. You can bet that won’t go over the allotted time.
A Tribe Called Quest’s 50-minute warm-up set was more like a typical SXSW set, in that the New Yorkers tore through their songs rapidly, starting with “Steve Biko (Stir It Up)” and including “Can I Kick It?,” “Oh My God,” “Bonita Applebum” and the finale “Award Tour.” Though largely inactive of late, the guys still displayed an ageless chemistry. After the latter tune, the group’s forever-charismatic lead MC, Q-Tip, stuck around to mop up – literally.
“Do you know what I’m doing?” he asked the crowd as he toweled off the stage. “I’m cleaning up for Prince. I would never do this for anybody else.”
Q-Tip clearly wasn't the only one to make that statement on Saturday. Read our full festival coverage at www.startribune.com/sxsw.
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