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You’ve read how Minnesota bands fared at South by Southwest last week in the local press, but what about the national media?
Doomtree got an awesomely meaty write-up at RollingStone.com, where the writer brought up the collective writing that went into the “No Kings” album: “The unified nature of those songs help them get blown up and turned into a pummeling force in concert.” Esteemed New York Times critic Jon Pareles also sang Doomtree's praises, saying the group "put the crunch of rock samples behind forthright messages of defiance and self-confidence."
Spin magazine’s writers listed Howler right below Springsteen among their Thursday highlights, riffing on their young age and their “delightful, surfy racket.” The Toronto Sun's music critic also named Howler one of his top 5 of the week: "Believe the hype," he wrote. Both Howler and Night Moves made the MTV Buzzworthy list of 15 favorites from the whole fest, saying Night Movies “occupies that space between psych-rock, dance and country.”
Poliça was outright named “band of the festival” by the music blog Drowned in Sound, while the IFC’s blogger said they “create beautifully fuzzy songs that bore into you.” Maybe the most significant thing about the latter write-up was the use of "arresting" in the headline, officially pushing that pun into the moratorium phase.
After Jay-Z, Snoop, 50 Cent (with guest Eminem), Lil Wayne and T.I. all made appearances at this year’s South by Southwest, I figured by Saturday night I needed to catch at least one famous rap star or else my coverage would not properly reflect this year’s festival. I’m glad the one I caught also happened to be the best one here.
Nas took over the Moody Theater/“Austin City Limits” studio and reiterated his place atop the heap on closing night of the music conference, a showcase sponsored by Vevo. Unlike last year’s Vevo-funded mega-finale with Kanye West, this one was a sanctioned SXSW showcase in a real venue (the best venue in town, actually). It was also the kickoff to Nas’ “Illmatic” 20th anniversary.
Backed by a full-scale stage production with a giant video screen and faux Brooklyn street-scene props (streetlights, subway stalls), Nasir Jones played up how young and broke he was when he made his debut album. His DJ and hype man, Premier, recounted hearing him perform when the rapper was only 16. Photos and videos from those days scrolled across the video screen. It was a rare case of nostalgia actually freshening up the record and putting it into better context.
Unlike Nas’ obvious abilities, though – “Life’s a Bitch” with AZ and “The World Is Yours” were especially on fire -- the show lacked a steady flow. He stopped between every song to talk, dropped the Firm track “Phone Tap” in the middle, and then he let Premier and old cohort Pete Rock spin off into a lengthy DJ battle. During one of those stops, Nas became the only one of these multi-platinum rappers to admit that SXSW is an odd place for them to be. “I never thought I’d be here,” he said. In his case, I’m glad he made it.
Other highlights from Saturday:
HELLISH BELLS : Coolly scheduled before Nas at the “ACL” studio, this month’s Spin cover story Sleigh Bells also made the most of the hi-fi space. The theater’s TV-geared lighting system was turned up as hyperactively as singer Alexis Krauss, who surfed over the crowd twice with microphone in hand and worked the large stage like a master showwoman. In fact, she ran around so much (without sounding breathless) it sure did raise suspicion about there being some vocal augmentation going on along with all the pre-recorded drums and keyboards.
New York’s electro-metal pop duo – which includes a second male guitarist on stage – could add all the live musicians in the world and still not make musical sense of such overcooked, sonically grating tunes “Riot Rhythm” and “Comeback Kid.” When the group got to its slowest, best-known (and best) song, “Rill Rill,” the two fellas left the stage, rather fittingly. Krauss is a star, but her band is pretty much a joke.
FEEDBACK: Hearing Jamaican superstar Jimmy Cliff playing acoustic versions of “The Harder They Come” and "I Can See Clearly Now" was the sort of beautiful, cleansing performance you want to hear on the last day of SXSW. That had to suffice for a lot of the partygoers at Ms. Ray’s annual bash at Stubb’s, though since the line to her famous free food stretched all the way to the back of the Stubb’s yard like some sort of desperate bread line. So it goes when everyone has been eating from greasy food trucks all week. I also caught electronic R&B/hip-hop up-and-comer Theophilus London’s set there and thought it better live than on record, with a sexy energy and London’s fun, cocky charm.
COVER BAND: Winning Rolling Stone’s “Choose the Cover” contest last year was a blessing and a curse for the Sheepdogs, who were cursed to wear clothes in a subsequent, hilarious “Project Runway” episode but showed great style on stage in the upstairs ballroom space Trinity Hall. You would never know the quartet is from Saskatoon, Ontario, as they sounded like a mighty Southern band with its bleeding two-guitar boogie and boisterous, singalong tunes. I could see these guys going over well at the Cabooze back home, and I’d want to be there.
CHINESE ROCKS: After first hitting Beach Fossils’ 1 a.m. closing set and realizing I had seen them in Austin last year (and tellingly forgot all about them), I crossed over to the all-China showcase at the bar 512. One of the best moves I made all week. Beijing power trio Carsick Cars – not sure if their name makes more or less sense in Chinese – blew me away with their wall-of-whir guitarwork and the singer’s Mark E. Smith-like repetitious, rhythmic spattering. A fitting way to end the fest: A band I had never heard of and will probably never see again, and all the Doritos logos or puking frat boys oh-so temporarily out of sight.
Look for SXSW recap pieces in Tuesday's and Friday's newspaper and all of last week's coverage at www.startribune.com/sxsw.
It’s hard to compete with a Dorito’s-backed Snoop Dogg party or a Shady record-label showcase with 50 Cent and surprise guest Eminem for star value — although, truth be told, neither generated all that much attention — but the shindig that still defines the party scene at the South by Southwest Music Conference the most is the Spin magazine party in the backyard amphitheater at Stubb’s BBQ. And the performer that seemed to sum up that party and maybe SXSW on the whole on Friday was Bethany Cosentino of Los Angeles fuzz-pop band Best Coast, whose singer told off one audience member for repeatedly requesting an older song.
“It’s South by Southwest,” she grunted. “I can play whatever the hell I want to.”
Electronic hip-hop songstress Santigold carried that spirit over into her headlining set at the Spin party. The Philadelphia-reared debuted a batch of new songs with a hybrid of urban and world-music styles, from an album due in May, and her Egyptian-looking headdress and gold-adorned jumpsuit reflected a similar anything-goes attitude.
Alas, one of the last major showcases as the 26th annual music fest spun into its last day Saturday was not as welcoming: Former White Stripes leader Jack White’s coming-out as a solo act in a relatively small Sixth Street club was harder to get into than Jay-Z’s gig on the eve of the fest Monday. Word was White played a lot of his older tunes, including the Strpies' "Ball & a Biscuit" and "Door Bell" and even the Dead Weather's "Cut Like a Buffalo." He split up the showcase between his all-male and all-female bands just like on "Saturday Night Live."
With White out of my reach, here's some of what I grabbed onto Friday:
OLDIES BUT GOODIES: Turns out, I was being ageist at this year’s South by Southwest. Except for a certain Rock and Roll Hall Famer, there weren’t any performers in my itinerary prior to Friday night old enough to remember the Reagan administration. Bob Mould certainly does, though. The ex-Minneapolitan headlined the showcase for his new label Merge Records on Friday at a cool new weiner eatery called Frank, a gig he picked up very last minute. "We only just signed the deal last Friday," he told the crowd, which included old cronie Mike Mills of R.E.M.
Mould was ready to go. I've seen the guy perform 30-40 times going back to his first solo outing after Hüsker Dü, and Friday's set would be in the top two or three. His current band, with longtime bassist Jason Narducci and Superchunk drummer John Wurster, is certainly his tightest and most explosive backing unit in that time. They played the first half of his classic Sugar album, "Copper Blue" -- they'll be doing the full thing Saturday and on tour this year -- not stopping once and showing a fierceness the whole time that was more Hüskers than Sugar. That led to the "Copper"-era B-side "Needle Hits E," three heavy and fast new songs (from a record due in September) and a booming version of Cheap Trick'smoodiest masterpiece "Downed." Out of my head, indeed.
Before Mould, the veteran ex-punks in Imperial Teen reiterated their boy/girl hook-swapping charm and groove, putting a lot of similar-sounding buzz bands half their age to shame. Their set ended with the Current-spun single "Runaway," an infectious gem that left the crowd giddy.
HYPE CENTRAL: One of the most poorly run venues (doors opened late) and most grotesquely coporatized official showcasing venues at SXSW is the approriately titled Hype Hotel. Taco Bell was pushing its Dorito-shell tacos inside; and free Tito's Vodka was being served. The schilling seemed to be more important than the music, as the doors opened late, and opening band Guards had to start when the room while most folks in line were still waiting to get in. Then the scheduled band, Caveman, didn't even show. Things were running more smoothly over at the NME/British Music Embassy, where Howler drew a sizable crowd despite the fact that its young members had never been to England before last fall. An actual British band, Big Deal, performed before them as a duo with more sweet boy/girl vocal swapping and a sexiness that sort of suggested the XX without the electronics.
FROM MN WITH SWEAT: Minneapolis rapper Brother Ali drew his own bulging crowd at the First Avenue/City Pages day party, where he debuted a new band with three horn players that was as sweltering as the humidity inside the poorly ventilated Swan Dive bar. “This is some hot weather for us” Minnesotans, Ali gasped on stage. Night Moves performed right before Ali, and while it only had half the crowd, the space-twangy rock quartet sounded tight as ever and played to a lot of impressed industry reps. Singer John Pelant also made a comment about the temperature, but rightly guessed, "It's probably just Minnesotans who notice it."
See the rest of our coverage from Austin at www.startribune.com/sxsw
Something freaky was going on at South by Southwest on Thursday. Beyond the whole thing with the 16 straight hours of live music and 10,000 bands being in town, that is. At four different shows throughout the day I saw the power go out or the sound suddenly go dead. Perhaps Austin has hit overload.
OUTTAGE #1: It first happened to Minnesota’s own Trampled by Turtles at the Bloody Merry Morning Brunch on the new “Austin City Limits” mezzanine patio, where the power to the stage went completely kaput. No problem in this case. The all-acoustic pickers barely batted and kept right on playing – truly unplugged. They never did get the amplification back, and they were thus recruited to back Texas songwriter Ben Kweller (due up after them) through Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” and other covers.
OUTTAGE #2: The sound cut out a couple times on the big Auditorium Shores stage across Town Lake during M Ward’s picturesque sunset gig, too. “Just like playing Emo’s,” Ward quipped, referring to Austin’s now sadly defunct mega-sized punk bar. He did OK playing a couple acoustic tunes on his own, including “One Hundred Million Years,” and his band was up to speed for “Whole Lotta Losin’” and several more psychedelic-toned new songs from an album due out next month. The Shins followed Ward to the stage to work out their own new tunes and a remade lineup. The single “Simple Song” sounded great, but the three other songs from the just-issued record I heard before I had to cut out for the Springsteen gig reiterated what folks often say about James Mercer’s band: It’s way better at making albums than playing gigs.
OUTTAGE #3: Spank Rock did it to himself. The Baltimore-based, hyper-tongued rapper was climbing and bouncing all over the stage under the parking lot tent at the Beauty Bar, and he eventually pulled out his microphone cord himself while ascending a stack of amps mid-song. He and his DJ and hype man were otherwise fully plugged in. They showed off the great electro-static spark on last year’s mouthfully titled, sadly underrated album, including “Birfday” and the sweltering “Hot Potato.” On stage, with his mohawky hair and spazzy delivery, Spank Rock added even more flair to the raunchy and rowdy songs.
OUTTAGE #4: Speaking of bawdy stuff, Minneapolis’ mouthy indie-rapper Prof covered through a spell of technical difficulties in his set by telling a sordid joke involving Superman and Wonder Woman and the Invisible Man (use your imagination; or maybe it’s best not to). Prof played to a crowd 50 times less the size of what he gets back home, butthat allowed him some funny face-to-face barbs with some audience members (unrepeatable here). Once his DJ, Fundo, worked out the wiring kinks, things got serious, especially in the howling and blear-eyed soul-rocker “Whiskey.”
MUSICAL BLOWOUT: There weren't any electrical issues at my last set of the night, the Cloud Nothings, a Cincinatti band that played the open-air rooftop of the 512 on Sixth Street. Alas, I can't say they blew the roof the place since they were performing on it, but they reached that point musically several times. A straight-up, two-guitar quartet whose new album was produced by Steve Albini (Nirvana, PJ Harvey), the group bounced around musically and physically with its roller-coastery punk jams. Nerdy, scratchy-voiced singer Dylan Baldi is charming in a Milo Aukerman (of the Descendents) sort of way, but the highlight of the set was a long, bursting instrumental called "Separation" that reminded me of Husker Du's "Reoccuring Dreams."
Keep following our Austin coverage at www.startribune.com/sxsw
After insisting that most of his songs are stolen from the Animals during his keynote speech earlier in the day, Bruce Springsteen invited the band’s singer Eric Burdon up for a surprise appearance in his first-ever South by Southwest gig Thursday night. Oh, and he also brought up another Rock and Roll Hall of Famer: reggae hitmaker Jimmy Cliff. Oh, and three future Hall of Famers: Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of the Arcade Fire. Oh, and two Austin music legend, Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo.
In other words, the Boss didn’t skimp on the show just because nobody in the crowd paid for tickets. Held in the new Austin City Limits Theater – the three-tiered,2700-capacity, hi-fi home of the PBS series of the same name — the SXSW concert really was a concert, and then some. Bruce went 2½ hours and took advantage of having so many friends and heroes in town at one time for the conference, the spirit of which he seemed to relish.
“Nice to be back in Austin, a town that has been warm to us since the ‘70s,” he said, adding, “It’s [expletive] crazy here right now, though. Glad to be a part of it.”
Morello had the biggest role among the guests, playing electric guitar for several tunes on the new Boss’ new album, “Wrecking Ball” (which he also plays on), and then going hog-wild with his Rage-style effects in a stormy “Ghost of Tom Joad.” Cliff came out late in the set for a medley of his hits (“The Harder They Come,” “Many Rivers to Cross”), followed by Burdon with “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” Everyone else joined in on the finale of “This Land Is Your Land.”
The real excitement in the show, though, was seeing the E Street Band get past the death last year of saxophonist Clarence Clemons in only their second show without him. His nephew Jake Clemons sweetly (and capably) played the Big Man’s solos. But the spirit of Clarence also seemed to be oozing out of the entire four extra horn players and gospel-trained backup singers added to the new lineup, resulting in holy rave-up versions of the new songs “Shackled and Drawn” and “Wrecking Ball” as well as “E Street Shuffle” and “My City of Ruins.” Other oldies included “Badlands,” “Promised Land,” “Thunder Road” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.”
As is often the case at SXSW, the crowd was more cool and reserved than a typical, reverential E Street affair, which offset some of the thrill of the show's relative intimacy. Bruce himself seemed to think that he was somewhat to blame for being a little off in the set. Or actually, he blamed it more on SXSW, saying, “I had to give a big speech and wake up at 8 o’clock today. Why?!” The hard work he put into both the speech and the gig pretty well answered that one for him.
See our full coverage of Austin's big fest at www.startribune.com/sxsw.