Words by Audra Tracy — Austin, TX
For passionate music fans, surviving SXSW is an artform. Each year, industry insiders and hardcore party people flock to the festival willing to sacrifice sleep and sobriety for a chance to catch hundreds of bands at small, intimate venues all over Austin. But until you’ve been there, you have NO idea what really goes on every March deep in the heart of Texas.
This year, the Music component of the nine day conference featured top acts Bruce Springsteen and Jack White, as well as young-bloods like Tea Leaf Green, Rubblebucket, and Black Taxi. And while badge-holders could walk freely from venue to venue, you didn’t need an official pass to experience the citywide shit-show that was SXSW 2012.
We’re proud to report that us Yankees made it out of Austin without losing our phones, our dignity, or any teeth. Feet up and a hangover cure in hand, we look back on a wild weekend in America’s live music capital.
Thursday, March 15th
We may have arrived fashionably late on Wednesday night, but, by the look of the crowd at Delta Spirit’s afternoon set on Thursday, the city of Austin had already hit its stride. Prematurely weary fans sought out the solace of the air-conditioned Austin Convention Center to take in a nap, and a slice of Americana.
At the back of the carpeted conference room, listeners lounged on over-sized pillows. At the front, the San Diego rockers dug into tracks off their new self-titled record, which was released just days earlier. While most of the audience was seated, Delta Spirit’s double dose of drummers made the most of this typically tame time-slot. Even at this hour the Convention Center couldn’t ignore the rumbling rasp of front-man Matt Vasquez (guitar/vocals).
Fans weren’t the only ones burning the candle at both ends. Between lugging gear all over town and playing multiple sets each day, Vasquez and Co. were hurtin’ for certain too. “I’m starting to limp”, he remarked half-jokingly in between ‘Trashcan’ and ‘Children’, two tracks off the band’s 2008 break-out album Ode to Sunshine. Delta Spirit sent us off via the new track ‘California’, and with stars in our eyes we followed the noise to 6th Street.
As night fell it was time to head over to Hotel Vegas for a backyard set from Brooklyn dance-punks Black Taxi – just the kind of band you need to see after dark.
“Someone has my cowbell out there, right?”, Ezra Huleatt (vocals/keys/trumpet) asked the ladies lining the front of the stage. This is a front-man who’s known for singing through megaphones and climbing the balcony of the Bowery Ballroom, but on this night there was no warpaint, no pixie dust, and, well, not enough skin.
The band’s short set featured ‘Vultures’, ‘Friend’, ‘Do What You Gotta Do’, and ‘Hand’ from their incredible new album We Don’t Know Any Better. Sonically, the live treatment was tight, and Bill Mayo killed it on guitar as usual. But in terms of energy it really didn’t do the band justice, especially in comparison to their epic shows back home. Blame it on the Tex Mex, the tiny stage, or the fact that Black Taxi had eight shows booked during their brief stay in Austin, but either way, this gig wasn’t a fair representation of their boundless talent.
Now that they’re back on home turf, go see a proper Black Taxi show at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City every Thursday during the month of April.
Leave it to the cosmic captains of Howlin’ Rain to keep Austin weird well past midnight. Their 1AM set brought a little bit of Haight Ashbury to Valhalla, a small venue tucked away on Red River Street.
Former Comets on Fire vocalist Ethan Miller lead his band of bearded brothers through songs off The Russian Wilds, a vintage psychedelic flashback released this past Valentine’s Day. The Oakland quintet seemed to effortlessly transition from one song to the next, leaving little pause for applause. But that didn’t stop Austin’s night owls from hootin’ along in harmony.
Miller’s soulful moan is reminiscent of the golden age of the hippie era, like what Joe Cocker looked and sounded like at Woodstock back in 1969. Toward the end of Howlin’ Rain’s set Miller joined his fans on the dancefloor, made his way through the crowd, and climbed atop the bar to sing his shaggy little heart out.
This is what it must have felt like to see The Black Crowes during their early days, and we’re proud to be in the thick of things as Howlin’ Rain readies to become a household name.
Friday, March 16th
No matter how much your feet might hurt during SXSW, the power of the Yes Wave will get those shoes movin’ again. This genre of indescribable indie music is catching on fast, which is probably why a line of badge-holders were wrapped around the Beauty Bar’s Backyard tent to catch the Rubblebucket set on Friday night.
Like auditory Adderall, Rubblebucket provided the boost fans needed to fight the fatigue associated with conquering the country’s most well known music marathon. Kalmia Traver (vocals/sax) and her band-leader boyfriend Alex Toth (vocals/trumpet) planted their freak flag on 7th Street and set the dance party in motion from the get-go.
The six-piece ship that is Rubblebucket combines the intricacies of a jamband with the control of a symphony, leaving behind wakes of rich, colorful tones free of unnecessary noodling. Tracks off 2011’s Omega La La like ‘Worker’, ‘Breatherz (Young As Clouds)’, and ‘Silly Fathers’ hit that happy nerve, helping us forget the fact that we hadn’t slept in two days.
Newly refreshed, we forged back on to 6th Street, where some guy was headlining the Third Man Records showcase.
If you didn’t hear, Jack White announced a last minute showcase at SXSW, so naturally, our whole Friday revolved around finding a way into The Stage on Sixth for his late night performance.
After waiting on the wristband line for a few hours, the venue reached capacity and SXSW declared the Third Man Records showcase a badge-only event. This may have discouraged some fans, but, when there’s a window, there’s a way.
Noses to the glass, the badge-less settled for glimpses of the Seventh Son through a cloudy bay window facing 6th Street. And even though John C. Reilly and Bill Murray had a better view inside, the sounds from the stage still bellowed onto the busy sidewalk.
For the first set Jack was joined by an all female backing band, opening with the White Stripes song ‘Dead Leaves and The Dirty Ground’. ‘Sixteen Saltines’ and ‘Love Interruption’, two singles from White’s upcoming solo album Blunderbuss then made their Austin debut. But what really knocked us out was how the lovely ladies on stage reanimated White’s older material, especially on another White Stripes tune, ‘I’m Slowly Turning Into You’.
After a twenty minute intermission White returned to The Stage on Sixth for another go round, but this time with an all male backing band. White’s storied discography was on full display as his band tore through tunes from The Dead Weather (‘Cut Like a Buffalo’), The White Stripes (‘Hello Operator’), The Raconteurs (‘Steady As She Goes’), and even White’s collaboration with Danger Mouse (‘Two Against One’).
Clearly, it was the most badass set you could ever watch from a sidewalk. But we bet you already knew that.
Saturday, March 17th
The winner for best Milli Vanilli impersonation at SXSW goes to Vockah Redu, a hip hop artist hailing from New Orleans. Clad in stretch pants and what appeared to be a home-made aluminum jacket, Redu made an over the top entrance to his gig at the Mohawk on Saturday.
While this may not have been the top act of the festival, Redu’s set was certainly a sight to behold. Recycled samples of classic hooks like DJ Kool’s ‘Let Me Clear My Throat’ fueled Redu and his Cru’s choreographed dance moves; and as much as his hype-men tried to rile up the crowd, no one was biting.
It was a long and painful forty minute set to endure, but these are the things we do to be front and center for the Black Belles, who were headlining Saturday night’s showcase at the Mohawk.
The self-proclaimed ‘guerilla music’ of New Jersey-based Delicate Steve was a much welcomed follow-up to the Redu-culous spectacle that had just nearly pushed us out the venue doors.
(Delicate) Steve Marion let the guitars do the talking during his set of improvisational sonic landscapes. He may write all the material on his records, but on tour Marion has a band to help translate it all onstage. This set was filled with music off 2011’s Wondervisions as well as the upcoming album Positive Force, which is heading your way this May 15th via David Byrne’s label, Luaka Bop.
Marion and his band play the kind of music that makes you want to roll around in the meadow with the birds, the bees, and the butterflies; it’s almost like the stratified instrumentals created on stage were mimicking the sounds of nature. It was sweet and adorable and the exact opposite of what was to come next in this showcase line-up.
The Black Belles
After spending a few days with overly friendly Southerners, it was a relief to find a little bit of home in the darkness of The Black Belles. They hail from Nashville, but these garage goth girls have the edge of a true New Yorker. Just ask Stephen Colbert!
Dressed in all black, Olivia Jean (vocals, guitar), Ruby Rogers (bass), Shelby Lynne (drums) and Tina NoGood (keys) did not seem to care that it was St. Patrick’s Day. Instead they stormed their 10PM set at the Mohawk ready to scare the Shillelagh right out of you with songs off their debut self-titled album.
It’s easy to see why Jack White hand-picked The Black Belles for his label, Third Man Records. Like Alison Mosshart of The Kills, these girls play reckless rock n roll. You know, the kind of music that ‘nice girls’ aren’t supposed to play. ‘Honky Tonk Horror’ proved this end, which found Olivia Jean roaring “I’ve been a bad girl/I want to be good again”.
Shelby Lynne showed so much spunk behind the drums that her witch hat flew off seconds into the first song. Later in the set her kit literally collapsed from all those heavy hits – but The Black Belles are god damn professionals, and nothing could stop them from casting voodoo all over you.
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