10 Acts I Saw (and Loved) at SXSW 2014
By now you’ve undoubtedly heard the horror stories from this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin. Tragedy, marketing madness and throngs of thirsty spring breaking teenagers certainly put a damper on the week and yet again raised the question of when SXSW will simply implode. These are all serious issues, but underneath all of that there is still the music. Even with mainstream rappers and pop acts now hogging much of the media attention aimed at the festival, there are still thousands of talented, exceptional acts to be seen. As far as musical quality goes, I can say that hands down this year was one of the finest. Though I saw more acts than I can count throughout the course of the week, I decided to highlight ten that truly stood out and that I would strongly recommend catching if they make it to your town. Some of these are old favorites, but most are new discoveries. Enjoy!
1. Promised Land Sound
These Nashville boys don’t look much older than 21, yet they play their own style of countrified Americana that isn’t necessarily what you’d expect from a band so young. In the live setting the members of Promised Land Sound sounded equally as fresh and exciting as their album. If the Byrds, Gram Parsons and The Jayhawks started a garage band that is Promised Land Sound.
2. The Bear
Original is the first word that came to mind when I caught this young Alabama group at the Single Lock Records showcase On Wednesday night. For those that don’t know, Single Lock is a newly founded indie label founded by Alabama Shakes keyboardist and producer Ben Tanner, who also plays keyboards with The Bear. Singer Louisa Murray was undoubtedly the star of the show, holding down lead vocals and alternating between guitar, banjo, maraca and even flute. Despite so much instrumental talent, what really kept the crowd entranced was Murray’s rich, folky vocals. The Bear’s combination of catchy tunes, indie rock sensibilities and the twang of a pedal steel guitar create an original and appealing sound, making them definitely a band to watch.
3. St. Paul and the Broken Bones
I have never seen a club fill up as fast as the Tap Room did just minutes before the up-and-coming Alabama band St. Paul and the Broken Bones took the stage. The unassuming group of guys in the Broken Bones were on point in their delivery and funky grooves while frontman Paul Janeway rid the entire audience of their demons with his soulful crooning and sermon-like approach to handling a crowd. It’s no wonder that St. Paul and the Broken Bones have received so much hype, because much like their peers the Alabama Shakes, they deserve it. Their SXSW showcase was one of the most riveting performances I have seen from any band in a long time and literally had me shaking with excitement.
Considering there’s no instrument I love more than a pedal steel guitar, I had a strong feeling that I would enjoy this band based on their name alone. Previously, I had seen these Nashville-based musicians perform as the backing band for youthful Americana acts Andrew Combs and Caitlin Rose. However, seeing Steelism perform under their own moniker was a whole different experience, and a thoroughly enjoyable one at that. Guitarist Jeremy Fetzer and pedal steel player Spencer Cullum Jr. have an intimate understanding of each other’s musical ability, and use that to produce a dynamic, textured sound. The highlight of Steelism’s set came when they nailed down creative renditions of the instrumental surf rock classic “Apache” and the James Bond theme song. I would love to see more from Steelism in the future.
Barrence giving the people what they want!
5. Barrence Whitfield & the Savages
I challenge you to find a soul on this earth who can’t get down to the rollicking boogie of Boston band Barrence Whitfield & the Savages. Between hard-charging garage rock riffs, sleazy in-your-face sax playing, and the soulful yet punk-esque vocals of Barrence Whitfield, this band is irresistible. Though their set at the Bloodshot Records BBQ was short, Barrence Whitfield & the Savages managed to instigate the roller coaster energy of a full on rock and roll show before getting every person in the crowd waving their hands wildly in the air.
6. The Waco Brothers
The Waco Brothers are living proof that age is just a number and I can promise you these Chicago badasses put on a rowdier show than any faux-rock hipster band you caught at SXSW. In what is most certainly an annual tradition, the Wacos closed out the Bloodshot BBQ with an explosive performance of their signature style of country-fried punk-influenced bar rock. Hopped up on Lagunitas and good times, the huge crowd spilled into the alley behind the Yard Dog art gallery as they danced and pounded fists along to Waco Brothers classics and covers ranging from Johnny Cash to the Clash!
This Austin-based duo consisting of guitarist Andrew Trube and organist Anthony Farrell are doing big things in 2014 and their Saturday afternoon show was only a taste of the honest, enlightening music we can expect from these two. Playing with local drummer Jonny Radelat (most notable as a member of Gary Clark Jr.’s band), the Greyhounds’ funk-driven, down-home soul music was the perfect anecdote for the hungover crowd. Trube and Farrell have a natural, brotherly chemistry onstage that shows in the way they effortlessly bounce jams off each other and never lose their groove. I’m looking forward to seeing much more of these guys in the coming years.
“Everyone has a favorite root vegetable. This is a song about root vegetables,” said Kevin Russell shortly into the Shinyribs set on Saturday afternoon. There really isn’t anything not to love about this Austin band. Fronted by the always jovial Kevin Russell of local legends The Gourds, Shinyribs is about having the best time possible. While Russell often describes Shinyribs as a variation of swamp boogie, to me their sound is best described as real Austin music. Onstage under the tent at Dog & Duck the band played a short set of fun tunes that veered into laid back humor and kept the crowd dancing joyfully along to the music. The set culminated when the band returned to the stage for an encore and jumped into their own Austin-style rendition of Ginuwine’s R&B hit and strip club favorite “Pony” before Russell jumped off the stage and led a conga line with every woman in the crowd.
9. Nikki Lane
Nikki Lane is both sexy and talented. Onstage at the Heartbreaker Banquet Lane commanded the spotlight with confident country swagger. Reminiscent of the great Nashville female country singers of a bygone era, Lane sings of love and heartbreak with an attitude that lets you know she’s strong, independent and owns her persona. If her Thursday afternoon set was any indication, we should be expecting exciting things from Nikki Lane in the coming year.
In this day and age when music lovers are perpetually overwhelmed by no-talent pop acts claiming to make folk and bluegrass music (Ho Hey, anyone?), the Felice Brothers are that rare act that has always been straight up and has never watered down their sound for the masses. The use of fiddle and accordion may strike some as odd and more fitting for a Cajun band, but with the Felice Brothers those instruments are the foundation of their country-folk sound. It’s been a good while since the Brothers have all toured together consistently, but their performance at the Heartbreaker Banquet proved that they are ready to show the world authentic bands still do exist.
All photos by Neil Ferguson.