SXSW 2012: 25 Festival Favorites

  • by David Greenwald | 3.22.2012

The-Dream
Photo by David Greenwald

SXSW 2012 was, as expected, the best week imaginable. Here are the shows/bands I liked the most. Here’s a Rawkblog Best of SXSW 2012 Spotify playlist — listen along while you read.

WEDNESDAY

Future Unlimited apparently were struggling with sound issues at Beauty Bar — I didn’t get the chance to see them again, but their recordings are a pretty promising take on Cut Copy-style synth anthems.

Hospitality: The band I most wanted to see at SXSW was so good, someone on Twitter took a picture of me dancing and called me adorable. (This actually happened.) With the horns and wider arrangements of this year’s wonderful new album stripped down to a pair of guitars, drums and bass, the group still executed its lightweight pop flawlessly, offering surprisingly funky breakdowns and charming new arrangements in place of the missing instruments. Frankly, I could listen to Amber Papini sing the phone book — seeing the songs sung through her occasional goofy smile was icing on the cake.

A House for Lions, one of my favorite local acts and one I’ve somehow managed to miss live, played at Rusty’s. They were a force, adding volume and electric energy to the nice-guy ’90s alt-rock of their terrific debut EP. The new material is equally great — fingers crossed for a debut album by year’s end.

The Royalty, a new addition to Victory Records that shaves down Tennis-style retro garage-pop to a punkier point, offered an effective performance at Rusty’s, if not a wholly commanding one. It’s the kind of rawness that a year or so of touring should mold into a more undeniable charisma. (Their recordings, which are great, get the point across a little better.)

The Staves: The British trio had to sing over a crowd of middle-aged free beer aficionados at the British Embassy’s opening party, but their harmony-driven folk was still exquisite. Next year, I’ll see them in church.

Vintage Trouble: The bluesy, soul man-fronted act isn’t the kind of thing I’d usually seek out, but frontman Ty Taylor’s lightning-rod performance embodied everything a genuinely talented entertainer can be.

The-Dream: The best part about The-Dream is he is always 100% The-Dream. He’s not the world’s greatest singer or the most handsome, compelling stage presence, but his mountainous confidence has an appeal of its own. As does having many of the best R&B songs of the last half-decade, which the songwriter rolled out like so many toy trucks.

Lionel Richie: I’ll confess to not being overly familiar with the man’s catalog, but his set was an unstoppable dance party and an impressive win for SXSW’s AARP contingent.

THURSDAY

Of the seven bands TwentyFourBit and I booked for our day party at the Jackalope, I’d only ever seen two live. So I have to gush a little bit:

J. Irvin Dally: L.A.’s tallest (?) singer-songwriter offered a truly spell-binding set that revealed traces of the blues, Dylan, Jeff Buckley and an ethereal loveliness that’s uniquely his own. Pay attention to this man.

Big Deal: The UK duo’s magnetic harmonies were equally gripping in person, as was the simple charm of their guitars-only songwriting. A “Thirteen” cover was a nice touch.

A Classic Education: I’ve compared the band to the Shins’ early days, and the Italian act’s wonderfully tuneful, effervescent guitar-pop translated perfectly to the Jackalope stage.

The Mynabirds: I was less familiar with Saddle Creek’s Mynabirds, who played a charming, shambling set full of folk/blues moving parts that synced up just right.

ARMS: One of indie rock’s best bands keeps getting better. Maybe the finest set I saw all week. No other band combines spiky guitar work and melodic beauty in quite the same way.

Lissy Trullie: Hearing Trullie’s “Madeline” live, in the context of amplifier heaviness, I understood it: it’s a nod to the Velvet Underground, to a Warholian stylistic sensibility and a kind of druggy, overwhelming mental static. Great stuff.

North Highlands: The intricate musicianship of the band’s excellent Wild One didn’t dim an iota at the Jackalope, nor did singer Brenda Malvini’s genuinely quirky charisma. Also, the nicest people.

Alpine: At Deseo on Thursday night, the Australian group was one of my favorite discoveries of the week. They play a synth-heavy, Metric-y hipster disco thing made deeply compelling by the sometimes harmonized, sometimes-not performances of their dueling lead singers.

Twerps: The second coming of The Church aired out a nice set of trebly, ’80s indebted indie-pop goodness at the Beale Street Tavern. Singer Martin and I also have similar pairs of green New Balance kicks, so you know he has great taste.

FRIDAY

Class Actress: I wasn’t initially impressed by their recordings, but the Brooklyn electro/dance act was a lot of fun live — or maybe I was just dehydrated and thought singer Elizabeth Harper, who was clearly having a ball playing, was pretty. (She is. I probably was. Good set, though!)

Horse Feathers: Along with Alpine, Hospitality, ARMS and a few others I saw this week, this is a really special band. Singer-songwriter Justin Ringle has a voice in the vein of Sam Beam, breathy and emotive with a deep well of lung power hiding below like an iceberg. An acoustic guitar in hand, he played with a string trio and a drummer, offering up new songs with lovely, intricate arrangements and earnest folk grit.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah: In seven years of fandom, I’d managed to avoid these guys: they played a really nice set heavy on the (pretty good!) new material and centered around a killer version of “In This Home On Ice.” They’re probably indie classic rock now: the crowd was mostly 30-somethings who danced harder than most of the shows I saw all week.

Cloud Nothings: “Holy shit” barely covers this one. by contrast to noisy groups like The Men or Screaming Females, Cloud Nothings’ music starts with thorough pop songcraft: even their most abrasive songs are split into distinct verse/chorus/bridge portions. But live, the group filters even the brightest hooks through the churn of guitar noise and wholly authentic, endlessly sweaty punk aggression. It being 1 a.m. also helped.

Turquoise Jeep: Turquoise Jeep are a hip-hop/R&B collective with a handful of viral hits, including the incomparable “Lemme Smang It.” Like The-Dream, they offer both absurdist sex-jam lyrics and an unbreakable musical and public persona. But Turquoise Jeep are also brilliant satirists who give the joke away through items both subtle (Flynt Flossy’s fake mustache) and obvious (the “Lemme Smang It” video, which echoes Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”) The group’s stayed below the mainstream radar but corralled a number of enthusiastic supporters, myself included, who’ve been dubbed “jeep riders.” I met a handful in line at the Lose Control party at 2 a.m., greeting them with “Keep the Jeep riding!” Then we all did the “Smang It” dance. It was a moment.

A few minutes later, watching the group do Backstreet Boys-level synchronized dance moves to each song and dropping beats with the finesse of seasoned hip-hop veterans, I didn’t know whether to laugh uncontrollably or chant the hooks along with the packed house. I did both. Best show of SXSW? Yes.

SATURDAY

Savoir Adore: The New York band brought along their own light installation for the Swan Dive show, which was a nice touch. Their music’s also an electro-tinged post-Metric concoction, done with sharp writing and pleasing harmonies.

Emma Louise: The Australian singer-songwriter has a voice like Laura Marling and electric songs more in line with fellow newcomer Lucy Rose — loads of potential here.

Daedelus: The L.A. electro master is often ignored or overlooked in the mainstream press’ attention toward Skrillex or other dubstep newcomers, but no one I saw played a heavier set than his bass-soaked BandPage HQ performance. Though I can’t say I follow it with complete attention, L.A.’s electronic/beat scene may be the most musical, innovative one going — and Daedelus remains a crucial piece.

MORE NOTES:

I sat across from Nas at the airport on Sunday. Multiple white people sat next to him and didn’t know who he was.

Staying downtown: game-changer! Evening showers/naps/music breaks were a huge relief, as was not having to sit in a shuttle for an hour a day.

Ran into Dan Deacon enjoying the Hampton’s complimentary breakfast. Didn’t get to see his plate.

Warby Parker’s takeover of the French Legation Museum’s outdoor space was perfect: plenty of room on the grass, excellent sound from the stage, great bands and cool sunglasses. Wish they’d kept going through the whole week instead of calling it quits after Wednesday.

The Guero’s steak taco is a thing of beauty. So, too, is the Home Slice pepperoni and mushroom pizza and the Mo Betta truck’s surprisingly great brisket sandwich.

The inaugural, extremely unofficial Blogger Karaoke session at Ego’s on Tuesday night was pretty great. Credit to Consequence of Sound’s Jeremy D. Larson for just fucking destroying Fiona Apple’s “Criminal.” Let’s do it again next year.

SXSW is the best place to meet people outside of freshman year of college. Despite the hundreds of possible locations and shows one could see at any given moment, It is also the best place to randomly run into everyone you know every hour on the hour. And if you’re a blogger/heavy Twitter user? It’s summer camp.

Every band member I met was happy and energetic and grateful. It’s really exciting to see bands in the middle of the SXSW madness, which is basically their Olympics — anyone sitting at home, reading tweets, who complains that the bands “can’t really sound that great” is missing the point.

Asked if the unbitten sandwich in my hand was any good at a food truck, I said I didn’t know yet. “That’s a risk,” a bro, trying to impress the girl who’d asked, told me. “Fuck it, dog, life’s a risk,” I responded. It almost made up for not seeing FIDLAR.

I didn’t ever get to the Doritos stage. I didn’t wait in line for hours to see Fiona Apple. Sure, there’s a lot of corporate sponsorship money at SXSW and too many big names, but there are so many things happening that you have to actively put yourself in front of the gross/busy stuff. SXSW is my favorite music festival (and my favorite week of the year) because it lets you choose your own adventure in such a complete way that nothing really compares. See you in 2013.

RAWKBLOG @ SXSW 2012:
* Wednesday Photos (The-Dream, Cloud Nothings, Lionel Richie)
* Thursday + Friday Photos (Class Actress, Alpine, Twerps)
* Saturday Photos (Savoir Adore, Emma Louise)
* Rawkblog & TwentyFourBit’s Waynestock II party