AUSTIN, TEXAS -- As the sun broke through the clouds to create the usual Texas spring swelter Wednesday afternoon, one of the new bands with the hottest buzz at the South by Southwest Music Conference reflected back to a gig from a few weeks earlier to remind attendees to soak it up.
"We were just in Minneapolis, and it was negative-26, so this feels good," said Katie Toupin, keyboardist/co-vocalist in Houndmouth.
The harmonious Indiana rock band was among the 2,300-plus acts setting up shop in Austin for the week for the 29th annual SXSW fest, the music industry's biggest hype-generating conference. Houndmouth's first of six gigs in town was at the Spotify House, one of dozens promotional venues set up strictly for corporate SXSW schilling. Budding Fort Worth retro soul-rocker Leon Bridges -- a new favorite at 89.3 the Current in the Twin Cities -- also played the Spotify showcase, treating it as if it were an old supper club with classy cocktails instead of a cheesy marketing hub with free lemonade vodka.
Here's a rundown of Wednesday's standouts:
ALREADY KNEW THEY WERE GOOD: Except for when she toured with Mumford & Sons for a backup band back in 2008 (at a mere 18), Laura Marling has always been strictly an acoustic folk artist in the utmost sense. Her songs still sounded raw, intimate and emotionally racked Wednesday afternoon even as the British singer/songwriter debuted her new band at the Billy Reid/Third Man Records party on the Weather Up patio in East Austin, with a drummer, standup bassist and electric guitarist. She intermittently strapped on an electric herself, too.
Not only did the new sonic approach match the style of her new album, “Short Movie” – several of its songs even sounded heavier live than on the record – she also amped up older tunes such as “Master Hunter” and “Devil’s Spoke,” the latter buoyed with rolling drums and a darker tone. Marling isn’t reinventing herself with the band, she’s just reinforcing her already powerful approach.
TV On the Radio was similarly as captivating as ever late Wednesday night headlining the NPR Music showcase at Stubb’s BBQ. Bathed in dark purple, red and yellow lights that sometimes swirled as frantically as the music, the Brooklyn art-rock heroes alternated between songs off the new “Seeds” album and older tunes such as the opener “Young Liars,” “Golden Age” and “Wolf Like Me.” Highlights among the “Seeds” tracks included the hard-blasting punker “Lazerray,” the fragile rocker “Careful You” and an especially jittery, wild-bent “Happy Idiot.” With no Minneapolis date on their tour itinerary, they proved well worth the wait through the peppy, cutesy Belgian/French house-music pop star Stromae on before them -- whom NPR probably never would’ve booked if he sang over his spring-break brand of dance music in English.
BEST OF THE NEWBIES: The other dozen acts I saw Wednesday were all ones I hadn’t seen before, and many I will go out of my way to see again. Part of the Canadian-heavy showcase on the Mohawk Patio, Toronto’s co-ed whir-pop quartet Alvvays (pronounced as the less Google-able “always”) lived up to the buzz generated off their single “Archie Marry Me.” The collegiate-looking, contagiously smiley kids sounded like Glasgow indie-pop vets Camera Obscura with more shoegazer-flavor guitar work. They were followed by a wildly different Toronto band, Metz, a roaring and bombastic trio that would have fit in nicely on the Am/Rep or Touch & Go label rosters of the ‘90s.
Both Leon Bridges and Houndmouth were impressive at the Spotify House. Bridges’ swaying, slow-but-steady-grooving retro soul-rock suggested he’d be an equally good fit touring with JD McPherson or Charles Bradley (instead, he’s weirdly opening for Lord Huron at First Ave next month). Houndmouth proved even rowdier and livelier on stage than on record. All four band members traded off on lead vocals like a rock ’n’ roll game of tag, but throughout all the change-ups they maintained a loose energy and Dawes-like harmonious sound straight into their fun finale with “Runaround Sue.”
One more quickie: Houston's buzzing R&B big band the Suffers, who are set to play David Letterman next week, came off like a slower-grooving, more velvety version of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, a smooth end to the night at Holy Mountain nightclub.
NOT IMPRESSED: Besides the lost-in-translation Stromae, Los Angeles lo-fi punk/pop duo Girlpool – which has many high-profile gigs in town this week (including the slot before Alvvays at Mohawk) -- was the other perplexing and nearly intolerable act on Wednesday’s lineup. They came off like a two-headed Kimya Dawson with twice the cutesy factor. Another act all over this year’s party schedules and preview write-ups, Virginia-bred tunesmith Natalie Prass just issued her Columbia debut following several tours playing in Jenny Lewis' band. Prass certainly wasn’t grating like the others but proved rather generic and sometimes too precious with her wispy rock songs.
Look for Tony Nelson's photo galleries and more SXSW coverage through the weekend at startribune.com/sxsw.