South by Southwest 2011 Music Recap, Part II: The evening showcases

Welcome to Part II of our South by Southwest coverage, where our tireless concert goer braves five straight days of live rock ‘n roll. First we tackled the headliners. Here, it’s showcase time.

The Evening Showcases

Official SXSW showcases took place each night, in six hourly slots from 8 pm to 1 am. So much music, so little time, so many choices. Here’s some of the highlights.

Tristen, The Phoenix

Wednesday night featured an 8 pm set from Tristen at The Phoenix. The Nashville singer/songwriter/guitarist deals out an infectious brand of pop rock with a rootsy base and strong melodic hooks. She’s got a great voice that at times recalls Jenny Lewis from Rilo Kiley. But “The Ringer” had more of a retro pop vibe a la She and Him, while “New Punching Bag” had a gloriously bouncy guitar shimmer.

Fifth Nation, The Tap Room

One of the most unique aspects/perks of SXSW is the potential to discover a great new band you’ve never heard of when your ear just happens to catch a compelling sound from the street. So it was after Tristen’s set when a soaring voice from a nearby rooftop caught our ear. A quick scramble up the stairs at the Tap Room revealed Fifth Nation, out of Brooklyn. Singer/guitarist King Julia has a voice with some of the soul undertones of a Lauren Hill or Erykah Badu, but she puts it in more of a rock context. She and drummer/keyboardist Music Read are just a duo, but create a full sound. Just catching the last 10 minutes of the set revealed this pair as a talent to keep an eye on.

Immortal Technique, Mohawk Patio

Legendary underground hip-hop artist Immortal Technique played to a packed house at the Mohawk Patio at 11 pm. He certainly delivered a high-energy set, although it seemed a bit heavy on plain old anger and a bit short on the radical, left-wing political lyrics that he’s famous for, such as a tune about 9/11 being an inside job. His message would also probably come across stronger if he had a band instead of just a DJ and four hype men.

Nico’s Gun, Annie’s West

We spent the whole evening at the ACL Live venue on Thursday, but Widespread Panic’s set was over around 12:30 am, so there was still one more showcase to be caught in the 1 am slot. The perfect aftershow party was not far away as Nico’s Gun out of Philadelphia threw down a raucous set at Annie’s West on Sixth Street. The funky rock quartet got the party going immediately as girls were dancing onstage during the first song! The band sustained that high energy level throughout their set, mixing some psychedelic qualities in with the funk to keep the Spreadheads dancing the whole time.

Liz Phair, IFC House

Friday night saw ’90s indie-alternative darling Liz Phair was in high demand rocking the intimate IFC House. Phair is 43 now, but she’s a testament to human evolution because she doesn’t look or sound a day over 28. She hit the stage rocking a short mini-skirt and her classic power pop jam “Supernova,” which elated the small but packed room. It’s a strange venue since the concert area is so tiny, yet there are also widescreens showing the performance in the lobby where free drinks and pretzels were being served. Phair ran through a crowd-pleasing greatest hits set, but also tossed in a great new song and then closed it out in triumphant style with her classic “Fuck and Run.”

It was tempting to try and catch the psychedelic rock of Austin’s own Black Angels in the midnight hour, but the Cedar Street Courtyard was a total crowd scene as Jeff Spicoli would say, so it became more appealing to check out Toubab Krewe at Copa. The Asheville jamband drew a festive audience and delivered the goods with some uplifting melodic jams that had the Copa crowd moving and grooving.

It was also tempting to catch Sharon Van Etten at the Central Presbyterian Church at 8:30 pm on Saturday, as her sweet voice would surely sound extra fine with those sensational acoustics. But the Bright Eyes set at Auditorium Shores was just too good to leave at that point. Afterward, it was over to the Belmont on West Sixth, a great little courtyard venue where Nico’s Gun were playing again. The funk quartet were worth seeing again, especially with the improved acoustics and great light show of the classy outdoor venue. It was another great set as the boys showed themselves as a band to watch on the jam rock and festival scene.

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Dawes, Lustre Pearl

There were lots of attractive options in the midnight hour with Austin power trio Ume (above) at Skinny’s Ballroom, as well as Texican rockers Los Lonely Boys at the Phoenix. But with the Band’s Robbie Robertson having recently tabbed Dawes to be his new backing band, catching them at Lustre Pearl seemed like the way to go. It didn’t take long to see why Robertson fell in love with the band; They’ve got a compelling vintage folk rock sound coming out of LA’s Laurel Canyon scene. They also have great chemistry, thanks to bassist Wylie Gelber, who was just flat-out amazing. His warm liquid bass runs showed a total mastery of the instrument and boosted every tune higher.

Coming up next: the day party sets and conference panels

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