What I Saw--And What I Missed--at SXSW


Sam Machkovech

I'm tempted to write a long list of the dozens of musical acts I've seen since arriving in Austin on Wednesday, but it's more telling to list the South By Southwest Music Festival acts I've missed.

Perennial festival favorites Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings; the Wu-Tang Clan's GZA; Jim Lauderdale, the Nashville-based country songwriter whose Thursday night showcase saw surprise guest appearances from Americana legends Buddy Miller and Patty Griffin; Nas and Damien Marley, teaming up to promote their forthcoming album; at least 30 amaaaaazing bands I surely haven't heard of yet. Scheduling travesties are inevitable at such a packed music festival, but that's always been SXSW's allure—there's probably a better band down the block, just past the taco truck, I'm sure of it.

The sway to stray shouldn't go hand-in-hand with oversized crowds, a lesson I have to relearn every year in Austin. Take She & Him, the moniker of indie-roots stalwart M. Ward and 500 Days of Summer star Zooey Deschanel, who performed at a sardine-packed courtyard on Thursday to promote their sophomore album. The set sounded immaculate, as Deschanel's voice proved full and unwavering through most every rootsy, doo-wop song from albums Volume 1 and Volume 2 (though the backing singers and the nimble guitarwork of bandmate M. Ward couldn't have hurt). Unfortunately, the band's abrupt request—no photography!—came complete with a 7-foot-tall bouncer angrily cruising the crowd to shake down offenders.

It was a rare bit of chilly, cold air from a SXSW act—a problem Wednesday night headliners Spoon also demonstrated in their cold, no-charisma set of taut pop to an outdoor crowd of thousands. Of course, humility and wonderment worked out in the favor of some of SXSW's best so far. Miles Kurosky, the once-leader of Beach Boys-loving wunderkinds Beulah, gushed over how the crowd applauded for his brand-new solo band: "I was expecting to hear crickets until I got to the Pavement covers," he quipped, snidely referring to the comparisons his old band received. Interestingly, his new material has a darker edge that actually sounds more like Stephen Malkmus, only draped in the synthesizers and horns that made Beulah a fan favorite so many years ago.

If wide-eyed smiles were a SXSW commodity, no act would be richer than the combination of Austin psych legend Roky Erickson and hometown indie faves Okkervil River, who have teamed up on next month's True Love Cast Out All Evil. The songs are certainly more Roky's fare than Okkervil's, eschewing the latter's conceptual folk-pop to blare through bluesy, guitar solo-filled barn-burners about two-headed dogs and walks with zombies. Looks like Erickson was the piece Okkervil River needed to birth itself anew; between the psych-tinged takes on Neil Young and the touching, tear-in-my-beer bits of slow country, the band has never sounded more like an Austin outfit. Erickson often looked over at Okkervil singer Will Scheff with a twitch in his eye, almost as if to visually ask, "Do we really sound this good?"

Another Austin powerhouse, White Denim, somehow one-upped that Okkervil concert by playing its most confident set of prog-funk I've seen in the band's half-decade. Mustering the strength somehow, the band blurred its songs into each other for 35 minutes of perfectly arranged, bass-heavy noise that could rival most any Jimi Hendrix bootleg--it was that good. Hours later, famed British songwriter Billy Bragg held court in a tiny club normally full of popped-collar frat boys; he made the strange stage his soapbox about raising a feedback-loving son, berating the worldwide banking system, and telling off American soccer fans ("We call it football because we play it... with our feet") between frank folk songs old and new.

There's more, so much more: Dengue Fever's American-rock twist on enchanting Cambodian/Bollywood fare, complete with its lead singer, Chomm Nimol, sprinkling glitter around the crowd without coming off as cheesy for a moment; the Canadian roster of rootsy label Six Shooter Records taking over a tiki bar for its annual, tequila-soaked hootenanny, hosted by Neko Case collaborators Carolyn Mark and Kelly Hogan (where Albertan freak-pop outfit Hot Panda crashed the party and happily surprised the cowboy hat-wearing Canadians); blog-hyped duo Sleigh Bells headlining an NPR party by delivering on its promise of hard-edged dance-rock that could make Kelly O look like an out-of-touch aunt; Chicago quartet Califone casting its everything-and-the-indie-kitchen-sink spell of repetitive, droning pop on a lawn party at the peculiar French Legation Museum; and, hell, even the party I'm typing this at right now, a South Austin pizza parlor's backyard patio overtaken by two stages that alternate between electro-tinged dance-rap and piano-heavy balladeers I've never heard of.

...Just checked. They're called Jukebox The Ghost. If only I could meet every one of my deadlines with piano-pop in my ears and greasy mozzarella scent in my nose.