As a self-professed anglophile and fiancee to one very cheeky Brit, I certainly appreciate the many aspects of our wry, Founding Fathers. From stodgy meals, statuesque cathedrals and sublime music, England is a nation enriched in all aspects: cuisine, culture and most importantly, creativity.
My most recent English example? Indie/blues/rock/soul/funk mash-up musicians known as The Heavy.
Hailing from Britain’s rain-sopped turf are The Heavy; four very talented lads who emerged onto the music scene circa early 2000s. Their most notable song, “How You Like Me Now?” has been featured in countless adverts, movies and video game trailers (and was the first tune that sparked my fan frenzy).
The Heavy reeks of rawness. They’re uncut and unparalleled artists who perform as well at gigs as they do on VEVO. I would know; I’ve frequented three of their concerts within the past two years, and have yet to be disappointed.
While The Heavy is relatively under-the-radar, their undeniable talent is worthy of high accolade. Take a peek at the ghoulish video for their new single, “Can’t Play Dead,” and let us know your take on this British, bass-heavy/bad-ass band.
While most kids ran around the park, scrapping elbows and playing Pirates, I sprawled out on my bed and copied the lyrics of my favorite Petula Clark song. My name is Melanie, and I am the oldest 25-year old that ever lived.
I was born with the heart of a 1960s hippie, twenty years too late. I blame my folks for this. My parents spent their youth as bell-bottomed teens with a penchant for the classics, particularly music birthed from Great Britain. In turn, they passed their “peace and love, man” ideals to yours truly. In middle school, I was the musically misplaced ‘oldies fanatic’ during ‘NSYNC mania. I hummed doo-wop songs before I even knew what ‘hip-hop’ was, and Justin Timberlake had nothing on a young Paul McCartney, bowl-cut and all. (To this day, I’m pretty sure I can belt out any Beatles tune if you ask nicely.)
What’s the point of this pretentious anecdote? To showcase the moment I nearly lost faith in contemporary music, upon stumbling across Justin Bieber’s “Baby” video on MTV. Once I had processed the mind-numbing chorus of: “Baby, baby, baby, oh // Like baby, baby, baby, no // Like baby, baby, baby, oh // I thought you’d always be mine, mine,” I could only sit on the sofa, absolutely dumbfounded. I felt as if I had just witnessed the decline of all human effort, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was the only person in the world who would actively campaign to get his songwriter fired.
To my relief, Bieber soon went bye-bye and a new video emerged like a musical Godsend. A solo artist named Gary Clark, Jr. swooped in to restore my optimism in the modern music industry. For the next five minutes, I was in guitar-riff heaven; captivated by this musician who shredded his way into my heart with a classic Gibson ES335.
Brazenly referred to as the modern-day Jimi Hendrix, Gary Clark, Jr. is the Texas-based crooner making waves with his commanding “cool cat” persona and fuzzy guitar rhythms. Though he has gained some notoriety on the indie-blues rock scene, Gary Clark, Jr. is relatively under wraps. For someone who has harnessed old-school influences to produce a modern blues vibe, this is one artist truly deserving of global recognition.
Listen to his first single, “Bright Lights,” a song chronicling his journey of self-exploration in the unforgiven metropolis of NYC. What’s your take on this up-and-coming artist? Is Gary Clark, Jr. the reincarnation of old-school rock?
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.
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.
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.
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
I don’t even know why I’m here, frankly. I think it’s pretty well documented that all I do these days is write about television and interview people ’til the cows come home. Once upon a time, though, I used to be a music critic, dammit…and once you’ve had opinions about music, you’ll always have opinions about music. As such, here are my thoughts on the albums and songs that grabbed me this year. This may be the first time I’ve actually written about most of them, but you can damn well be sure that I’ve spent plenty of time listening to them.
1. Tom Jones: Praise & Blame
It’s a pretty consistent tradition that my #1 slot on my Best Albums list of any given year belongs to an artist whose career I’ve followed for quite some time, but Sir Tom earned his spot fair and square. Kicking things off with a stark cover of Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I?” which will leave listeners spellbound, the Welsh wonder goes gospel with this record, and while it’s admittedly not the sort of career move that generally results in the shifting of mass units, it’s a creative success, one which befits a man entering his seventies far more than, say, another retread of “Sexbomb.” Having already secured legendary status (not to mention a knighthood), our man Tom can afford to step outside of people’s perceptions, and for those who’ve been paying attention, that’s what he’s been doing for the past several albums, including 2008’s 24 Hours and his 2004 collaboration with Jools Holland. But while Praise & Blame is a continuation of an existing trend, it’s also arguably the first time Jones has made absolutely no commercial concessions. There’s no wink-and-a-nudge cover of “200 Lbs. of Heavenly joy.” There’s no song by Bono and the Edge nor uber-hip production from Future Cut. There’s just Tom Jones, age 70…and, by God, he’s still got it.
2. Glen Matlock & The Philistines: Born Running
It isn’t as though it’s surprising that John Lydon’s the member of the Sex Pistols who’s gone on to have the most successful solo career – he was, after all, the frontman for the group – but it continues to be equally eyebrow-raising that so few of the band’s fans have kept their ears open for the consistently solid material emerging from Glen Matlock‘s camp. It’s not quite as punk as the Pistols – which makes perfect sense if you believe the story about Matlock supposedly getting the boot from the band for liking the Beatles a bit too much – but the songs on Born Running still pack a fierce wallop.
3. Brian Wilson: Reimagines Gershwin
The older I get, the less I allow myself to feel guilty about enjoying an album that I could easily peddle to people my grandparents’ age. All things considered, I’d much rather have a full collection of new originals from Mr. Wilson, but the way he takes these Gershwin classics and arranges them to match his traditional sound is still music to my ears. Then, of course, there’s the added bonus that he’s taken on the task of completing a couple of previously-unfinished Gershwin songs. Unsurprisingly, they sound just like Brian Wilson compositions…not that there’s anything wrong with that. At all.
4. Farrah: Farrah
There’s Britpop, and then there’s power pop, but you don’t tend to find bands who can manage to comfortably keep a foot in both camp; I’d argue that Farrah succeeds at this task, but given that they don’t have a particularly high profile in either, I suppose it really all depends on how you define success. For my part, though, if an artist releases an album which contains a significant number of catchy-as-hell hooks, it’s top of the pops in my book, which means that this self-titled entry into their discography is yet another winner for Farrah.