AUSTIN, TEXAS -- Wednesday night at South by Southwest saw arguably the biggest coming-out showcase of this year’s music conference, and inarguably the biggest comeback. Both happened to take place at the NPR Music showcase (and broadcast) outside Stubb’s BBQ. First up, however, let's check in on local rockers Howler.
Twin Cities music tweeters and boosters who squawked over Howler frontman Jordan Gatesmith's trash-talking of his hometown music scene might've relished the scene at Waterloo Records late Wednesday afternoon. Hundreds and hundreds of teen- and college-age fans fled the scene outside the famed record store following a set by radio-ascending New York band Fun., who played right before Howler. It's too bad only a hundred or so people did hang around, though. Gatesmith's still-green quintet -- still less than a year old -- continues to tighten up and sharpen its hooks.
On Wednesday, the fellas played a charmingly reworked version of "Back of Your Neck" with an extended-jam ending. Gatesmith himself also extended himself between songs with funny banter about seeing Paul Simon at SXSW (not true) and seeing Pancho Villa's encased trigger finger. That one apparently was true: After the set, Gatesmith explained to me that, at age 20, he's too young to get into all the bars serving music this week, so he went into an oddities museum instead earlier in the day.
He did mention one other alternative form of entertainment he had in mind for this week, too: "I'm hoping to trash a hotel room with the 4onthefloor guys," he joked. Or at least his parents and tour manager hope he was kidding.
Out of commission for most of the half-decade, Fiona Apple kicked off the night with both her newly dyed hair and her dramatic flair ablazing. The dusk performace was the first leap forward in Apple’s repeatedly stagnating attempt at issuing her first album since 2005. She clearly hasn’t been forgotten in that time. The line outside stretched two blocks in two different directions, and the crowd inside gave her a rabid reception. All of that did nothing to temper Apple’s nervousness, though.
“You’re imaginary! You’re not real!” she half-jokingly said to audience members, trying to forget they were there.
Apple, 34, had reason to be on edge. Her voice was clearly out of shape. She sounded noticeably shaky and uneven in the opener “Fast As You Can,” quickly descending into a hoarse and just plain weak delivery of “On the Bound.” Things evened out somewhat as the hourlong set went on, including the singer’s temperament. By show’s end, she mustered up an especially cocksure and feisty version of “Criminal.” In between, she debuted three new songs, all of which sounded worth the wait (June is now the slated release date). The highlight among the newbies was one tentatively titled “Valentine,” which she kicked off solo on piano before her band turned it into a prickly jam.
No new band appeared to get more press going into SXSW 2012 than the Alabama Shakes, who followed Apple a few sets later onto the Stubb’s stage (Dan Deacon and Sharon Van Etten were in between). Actually from Alabama – thankfully not Brooklyn or L.A – the soulful rock quintet didn’t just live up to the hype. Its frontwoman Brittany Howard seemed to accept it as a gift from above. “This is the best night God ever made,” she bellowed in the show’s sky-high finale.
Howard’s sturdy band -- fueled by Steve Cropper-echoing guitarist Heath Fogg -- played its radio hit “Hold On” just a few songs in and threatened to peak early. And indeed, the set did drag a little in the middle with slower tunes such as “Boys & Girls.” But hold on: The Shakes brought the tempo back up even higher with “Be Mine,” featuring a total Otis Redding-style blowout climax, which was followed by a couple more tunes with riveting build-ups. Most of the songs, by the way, were completely unknown to the crowd (the group’s debut record isn’t out till next month on ATO). It's not hard to recognize greatness like this, though.
Photos by Tony Nelson