SXSW Rocks Into Gear
I arrived in Austin a day before the festivities really hit full throttle. Even though the festival and conference wasn’t in full swing Tuesday night, I caught two bands I’ve been dying to see for a while – The Head and the Heart and Dry the River.
The Head and the Heart, you may by now be aware, are a bit of a power troupe from Seattle. Their album dropped last year and skyrocketed the band straight to the moon. I was a slow-comer, I’ll admit. I tend to back off from hype pretty quickly, but then I saw them busking at the No Depression Festival. It’s the only time I ever saw them live (how did that happen?) until Tuesday night at a party here at South by Southwest.
Let me be real here. I’m not a sound engineer, but I’ve been to enough shows in enough different kinds of venues to know that you don’t have to turn the speakers up farther than they want to go in order to make a band sound good (though I reckon there is a way to make it loud and not painful). This night, whoever was working the sound completely dropped the ball. There was nowhere to stand in that room and not feel like the devil himself was hammering fiery daggers straight through your head – from eardrum to eardrum. It was awful. It was physically uncomfortable. For a band whose music is not about making you physically uncomfortable, especially, this didn’t make any sense. I stayed longer than I should have simply because I really love watching the Head and the Heart make their music. Even through speakers that spit sharpened daggers at your ears, you know you’re hearing a band at a particular moment in their career – a moment beyond which, perhaps, they won’t have to play through such a terrible sound system again. One might hope. I’ll have to see them a second time this week, just to make up for it. It’s a tough job.
Dry the River, on the other hand, played a dive called the Bat Bar on 6th St., to a crowd perhaps not there to hear such beautiful music. But, these guys from the UK delivered an impressive and beautiful set, carving their musicality through the chatty crowd, and leaving their mark.
I’d discovered them only by looking through the list of bands scheduled to play. Their name struck me, so I clicked through and listened. That’s the beauty of SXSW. I’m not sure I would have ever heard of them or sought them out on my own in any other context, but here they gave me a brief 40 minutes of beauty.
Day two, to contrast, kicked off in a courtyard where Willie Nile rock-kicked his way into the afternoon. Leaping into the crowd and shredding back and forth with his lead guitar player, Nile delivered a memorable and often moving set. Songs were dedicated to the folks who were killed in the Madrid train bombing, and the people in Japan struggling with what seems like disaster after disaster this week. Nile was the only musician I’ve seen so far who called out to Japan from the stage, recognizing that unimaginable tragedy taking place the same time the music industry has converged to shmooze it up. The song he sang for them, “The Innocent Ones,” was heartfelt and intense, with some of the most impressive guitar solos and instrumentation from the band. Definitely a great way to wake up for Day Two.
Later, another Seattle band – Ivan & Alyosha – got my full attention for their entire set, as did Nicole Atkins & the Black Sea. Somewhere toward the middle of Atkins’ set I started to realize the track record I’ve created here this week is going to be hard to beat. Aside from the low marks I’d give the sound person for The Head and the Heart, the shows this year have been consistently head and shoulders above last year. Even Duran Duran exceeded expectations (opening with “A View to a Kill,” moving through “Notorious,” “Hungry Like the Wolf” and a swath of newer material).
So, now we leap into Day Three of SXSW, with a panel discussion, another bunch of parties, and tonight the ND Showcase (sure to be a highlight). I’ll report back with more tomorrow.