South By Southwest is an all-you-can-hear sonic buffet—and as with any buffet, you might try something only to realize you don't really have an appetite for it. You can get a taste of hard rock, punk, country, jazz, brass bands, chicha and more, with bands from around the world doing their own spin on the rock and roll they've been hearing since infanthood.
I don't know if it's just another sign of the political climate or my own poor luck in scouting bands, but I heard a lot of sad and depressing music from the white guys in bands at SXSW. It wasn't necessarily bad music, but it sure as heck wasn't uplifting: Acclaimed bands like Low (at a surprisingly underwhelming NPR showcase at Stubbs) and SYML were just pretty downbeat. And check out the description of Lo Country: "Lo Country is the recording project of Carlton Bostock, Vince Delgado, Robert Cherry, and Jason Butler. It is based on the mutual love of country, blues, and sad, sad songs. Lo Country celebrates the pain of existence with a voice that has obviously lived it. Silver tongued balladeers, their songs plumb the depths of despair and loss." Hey, there's a place for all that, but I was looking for something a little more upbeat. Leave it to the girls to kick some ass: London's 19-year-old Jade Bird, named a country artist to watch by Rolling Stone last year, delivered a rousing set that concluded with a jangly cover of Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere." Lucy Dacus delivered a sweet set to kick off the NPR showcase. Brooklyn-based Sunflower Bean, led by Julia Cumming, blew my hair back. And Thunderpussy showed that girls can rock just as hard as boys (if not harder). I left their set before it wrapped up because it was past midnight on my first night in town, but when I popped into the convenience mart across the street for a six-pack of Lone Star, it felt like the whole store was reverberating from Thunderpussy's licks. Those girls bring the noise.
There were still some guys who knew how to rock. Two Austin bands that share members were standouts: Brownout and Chicha Money. Brownout is a funk band heavy on horns and percussion that spun out of Austin's legendary Grupo Fantasmo, and Chicha Money is a new spinoff of both bands that loses the horns of Brownout in exchange for the surf guitar of chicha—or Peruvian cumbia—that will be familiar to fans of Tucson's own superband XIXA.
Out at the amphitheater at Lady Bird Lake, Los Lobos showed they still had what it takes after more than four decades of playing rock and roll. Cesar Rosas, David Hildago and the rest of the gang have such a bond after all these years that, whether they are doing something from their own extensive catalog or covering something like "Oye Como Va," you can count on extended jams that are like sonic rollercoasters, taking you high up to the peak and then rushing down the tracks at top speed. If you're a fan of the band at all, don't miss their upcoming show at downtown's Rialto Theatre on Friday, May 4.
And then there are our friends from across the pond. The Wedding Present, from Leeds, England, played an in-your-face set of screeching guitar, pounding drums and feedback that soaked the packed crowd in sweaty rock 'n' roll. Like Los Lobos, this band has been playing for decades and rock has kept them young.
At the close of one of my nights, I caught a set by England's Frank Turner, whose working-man rock and roll has earned him comparisons to Springsteen. Turner was in a dim bar with nothing more than his guitar and his vocals, but he kept the crowd enraptured to his every word. Somewhere around 2 a.m., he played his final song, "I Still Believe," which served as a benediction for my night (and my entire trip):
And I still believe (I still believe) in the saints. Yeah, in Jerry Lee and in Johnny and all the greats. And I still believe (I still believe) in the sound, That has the power to raise a temple and tear it down.
And I still believe (I still believe) in the need, For guitars and drums and desperate poetry. And I still believe (I still believe) that everyone, Can find a song for every time they've lost and every time they've won.
So just remember folks we not just saving lives, we're saving souls, And we're having fun.
And I still believe.
Now who'd have thought that after all, Something as simple as rock 'n' roll would save us all. Now who'd have thought that after all, Something so simple, something so small. Who'd have thought, that after all it's rock 'n' roll?