South by Southwest 2011 Music recap, Part III: The day showcases and panels

Welcome to the final installment in our coverage of the South by Southwest Music Festival, where we decided to listen to some people talk along with continuing to listen to people sing. The free food and drinks weren’t bad, either.

South by Southwest offers more live music than any other music event on Earth when you add in all the free day parties. Many of the the bands playing official evening showcases also schedule day party sets to maximize exposure and opportunity. But then you also have the panels at the Austin Convention Center, where industry veterans discuss a wide variety of music industry topics and concerns. It’s great to be able to take a rest from the parties and soak up some knowledge in whichever areas are of interest.

The daytime showcases and panels

Ume, Lustre Pearl

Lustre Pearl was the place to be at 1 pm on Wednesday as Ume played a rocking set to get the beautiful sunny day going in the club’s back yard. Ume was recently named by Rolling Stone as one of the 16 best unsigned bands in America, and it’s not hard to see why. Singer/guitarist Lauren Larson is a dynamic force of nature, riffing and rocking out in high-energy fashion, while her husband holds down the alt-punk-grunge low end on bass. Tunes like “The Conductor” find the band putting it all together with great riffage, a catchy melodic chorus and then a big rock finish. The band sounds like they could fit right into the ’90s Seattle scene. Could they be even better if they added a lead guitarist? Perhaps.

Leslie & the Badgers were due up at Lustre Pearl after Ume, but the Badgers were MIA as Leslie Stevens played solo acoustic. But with the day still young, it was nice for the ears to follow Ume’s powerful alt-rock set with some acoustic Americana stylings and the sweet soprano voice of Stevens.

Steve Poltz, West Sixth

Steve Poltz and the Rugburns played the Dogwood on West Sixth at 2:30 pm and it was a great ’90s flashback since Poltz usually tours solo these days. The Rugburns were a band that should have been big in the ’90s, but they never quite got over the hump. But Poltz has carved out a career as an endearing singer/songwriter of catchy tunes with a great sense of humor. “Me and Eddie Vedder” was a highlight as always with Poltz, where he pays amusing tribute to Led Zeppelin, marijuana, LSD, the Brady Bunch and alt-rock dreams. Poltz also told an amusing story about riding his bike when he was a kid, running into a truck and needing 56 stitches in his head. He also then needed a retainer that he said became like a radio, which is what led him to start writing songs, including one about visiting Graceland and being willing to pimp out his sister to Elvis. Poltz remains one of the most unique and charming singer/songwriters in the business.

The Cloud Nothings, Mohawk Patio / Jessica Lea Mayfield, Radio Day Stage

Ohio musicians were down on the scene in the mid-afternoon as Cleveland natives the Cloud Nothings rocked the Mohawk Patio at 3:15 pm. The band has a high-energy
pop-punk sound, if that’s your thing, though they could perhaps benefit from some more dynamics in their songwriting. It was Kent, Ohio’s Jessica Lea Mayfield (below) who stole the afternoon at the convention center’s Radio Day Stage in a 4 pm set. The 22-year-old singer/songwriter is clearly an old soul, emoting in a style that seems beyond her years. Her overall vibe is sort of Midwest Americana mellow, but her songwriting keeps growing and she’s starting to incorporate a little more rock flavor into some of her tunes. She highlighted songs from her new album Tell Me, such as “Trouble,” which starts off slow but then picks up with a solid beat and some shimmery electric guitar elements. Lead single “Our Hearts Are Wrong” is a big winner, with Mayfield at her best on the up-beat yet still laid back groove. This is the kind of tune that could guide Mayfield toward stardom.

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Music panel: Juggalos to Phish-heads

The 5 pm hour featured an intriguing panel titled “Juggalos to Phish-heads: Managing Fanatical Music Consumers.” The panel featured discussion about super fans and how they can at times be a double-edged sword. Amy Miller from Ticketfly moderated and related the tale of how Juggalos – fans of the Insane Clown Posse – had basically assaulted the notorious Tila Tequila when she tried to perform an opening set for the band. Fans had apparently vowed to abuse her and the Insane Clown Posse had even offered to pay her not to perform, yet she chose to risk life and limb. Andy Gadiel from JamBase, famous in the Phish community for his Phish site, was quick to point out how that would never happen at a Phish show. Stories were also related by panelists about fans of Jane’s Addiction and R.E.M. In the end, it seemed apparent that Phish has the most active and benevolent super fans of all.

Eisley, The Stage

If you knew you couldn’t catch Eisley in their at the Barbarella Patio, there was another chance to see them at Paste Magazine’s party at the Stage on Sixth at 7 pm. The melodic indie-pop band from Tyler, Texas played a great set, mixing older tunes with material from their forthcoming new album The Valley. With girls on guitars and keyboards and guys on drums and bass, the band delivers a majestic sound. The harmonies on “Invasion” were a treat, with guitarist Sheri Dupree-Bemis and keyboardist/sister Stacy Dupree soaring on the haunting yet catchy song. “Ambulance” was another highlight, with Stacy shining in a Tori Amos type of way. The band has been signed since 2003 and are still fairly young, maintaining what still looks like a very high ceiling.

“Treme” party, The Ghost Room

Thursday afternoon offered a “Treme” party at the Ghost Room, featuring New Orleans jazz and funk and headlined by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Ace piano man Henry Butler also entertained the packed club, while fans enjoyed a New Orleans buffet on the patio out back featuring dirty rice and beans, jambalaya and Crawfish Monica (a spicy macaroni and cheese with crawfish tails, mmmm.) But attending the party required missing Guns ‘n’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan delivering a solo panel back at the convention center on financial advice for musicians. This was a really tough call if you’re a fan of both G’n'R and New Orleans music.

The Joy Formidable, The Parish

English buzz band The Joy Formidable played the NPR day party at The Parish at 3:15, but the free party had a line down the street making late arrival impossible. You could still catch the band in the 5 pm hour in a party from Seattle’s KEXP at Mellow Johnny’s Bikeshop though. But for some reason, the shop had bands playing inside the shop with horrible acoustics and bad sightlines when they had an outdoor stage set up that they were only using for evening sets. The power trio did their best in a bad situation, and it was still apparent that singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan is a star on the rise. The band’s guitar-driven sound recalls Tanya Donnelly’s ’90s band Belly, with a big sound and airy yet strong vocals from the diminutive but forceful Bryan.

Nicole Atkins, The Stage

Nicole Atkins entertained fans at the ongoing Paste party at the Stage on Sixth in a 4 pm set, with a bluesy melodic vibe highlighting songs from her new album Mondo Amore. “The Tower” closed the set in stylish fashion. Atkins started off the song singing in a torchy sort of style, before the tune evolved in a more powerful direction that saw her belting it out on the choruses and the ending jam.

Music panel: Writing about music in the 2010s

Friday had a 12:30 pm panel for the music critics titled “Writing About Music in the Twenty Tens,” where attendees could glean the wisdom of writers who have managed to make a living at the game. One tip was to save all your recorded interviews, because you never know when there could be a book deal down the line where the material could come in handy. Two o’clock featured a related topic with “Critics vs. Publicists: Why Must Things Be Contentious?” Moderator Heather West, President of Western Publicity out of Chicago, led a lively discussion on the relationship. The bottom line was that music critics and publicists need each other, so cordial and respectful behavior should be a two-way street.

The Radio Day Stage area continued to serve a key dual purpose. Bands had a chance to play afternoon sets at the convention center for badge holders who might not be able to catch them later. There were chairs up front for close-in viewing, but there was also a lounge area in the back with lots of big cushy pillows where attendees could relax and take a load off. The Felice Brothers played in the 3 pm slot and mixed a bluesy folk rock sound with a Dylan-ish vibe that was perfect for a lazy break time.

Rolling Stone party: Tennis, Surfer Blood, Stephanie Hatfield & Hot Mess

Saturday afternoon featured a Rolling Stone day party at La Zona Rosa, with barbecue, Stella Artois and tequila drinks. Tennis, Surfer Blood and the Joy Formidable all performed. Tennis had a melodic pop sound featuring waifish vocalist/keyboardist Alaina Moore. Surfer Blood out of West Palm Beach featured an anthemic guitar rock sound that recalled the Strokes to some degree, but not as hooky. It would have been great to see the Joy Formidable in a proper venue, but the 2:45 pm slot called for a trip over to Fuel on Trinity Street, where Stephanie Hatfield & Hot Mess were due. The Santa Fe band has a guitar-driven blues rock sound that serves as a canvas for the sensational vocal stylings of Ms. Hatfield, a rock goddess who can belt it out with the best of them. She went sultry, playful, mournful, anthemic; there seems to be no limit to her range. Guitarist Bill Palmer, meanwhile, was a master of six-string dynamics, always playing for the song. The band will soon release their second album and could be on the verge.

Madison House Breakfast Beats & Afternoon Treats party: Eliot Lipp, Toubab Krewe, Van Ghost, Lynx, Rival Sons

This was a treat indeed, held in the parking lot of Frontgate Ticketing’s office on South Congress and featuring free vodka drinks and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. You don’t get a lot of jam bands at SXSW, which are Madison House Publicity’s specialty, as they tend to focus on relentless touring rather than aiming for industry connections. But Madison House put together a great little lineup for the jam crowd here. DJ Eliot Lipp threw down some tricked out funky breakbeats in the 4 pm hour to entertain the assembled. He featured analog synths and futuristic vibes that had the boys dancing and the girls hula hooping. Toubab Krewe appeared again and delivered another stellar set of groovy jams that were very well received.

Van Ghost out of Chicago mixed it up with an acoustic duo version of their bluesy Americana band, featuring singer/guitarist Michael Berg and powerful vocalist Jenn Hartswick (of Trey Anastasio Band fame.) The pair delivered some of the best harmonies of the weekend, leaving fans eager to hear the whole band. Lynx followed with her one-woman act that featured an amazing vocal jam where she beat-boxed in an impressive manner that recalled the skills of actor Michael Winslow in Police Academy. The Oakland-based artist said she developed the skill from too much time being grounded and bored. She also played some great tunes featuring call-to-arms lyrics like “Time to give the power back to the people.” She’s got a great message- someone get this girl a backing band.

It was only too bad that the crowd had diminished by 7 pm because the best was yet to come in the party’s final slot. Those who stayed were richly rewarded with an electrifying set by Rival Sons out of Los Angeles. The rocking quartet seems heavily influenced by Led Zeppelin and the Black Crowes, with an authentic blues rock sound that’s hard to come by these days. Guitarist Scott Holiday oozes coolness and is a riff master who’s obviously worshiped long and deep at the altar of Jimmy Page. Vocalist Jay Buchanan has clearly got the rare “it” factor that makes great singers so hard to find, bringing a vocal prowess and charismatic stage presence that stand out in a crowd of 2,000 bands.

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