CMJ vs. SXSW – A Comparison



Now that I’ve attended two of the nation’s (and maybe world’s?) premiere music conventions, I have seen the pitfalls and high-points, and know what works at these events for me, and what doesn’t. Below, you’ll find my comparison of CMJ and SXSW; there are critiques and kudos where appropriate, with my overall insight at the end.

Guest edited by Zack Teibloom

Venues, Pt. 1

SXSW: Austin venues tend to work in unison with the convention to host SXSW-official showcases all week. So at SXSW, if you’ve got a badge, you get priority entrance into shows, you don’t have to pay any kind of cover, and it allows you to easily venue-hop and catch as much music as possible. Wristband holders are next in line, and also (theoretically) can jump around and avoid paying cover. Finally, people who decide to wing it can buy tickets to specific shows at the door. (Or, if you’re Festival Crashers, you find other ways.)

CMJ: Some of the venues worked with the festival, but others branched off and followed their own rules. Badges stand in line with regular ticket holders, and some venues don’t allow you in at all without a ticket. While city locals probably love this because it allows them to get in to see their favorite act, it’s difficult if you’re a member of the press trying to cover specific shows for a publication. There’s nothing wrong with a fan-focused festival, but since it seems like CMJ is trying to be somewhat press-focused a la South By, I can envision a lot of aggravated folks who bought their badges (which are $495 at full price) and then got turned away from shows they really wanted to see or were supposed to cover. Luckily, I only ran into this problem once – I wasn’t able to get in to the Two Door Cinema Club show, because it was tickets-only. Still, I think people just need to be aware of these policies before they drop mad money for a badge.

Edge: SXSW

Venues, Pt. 2

CMJ: Way more spread out in New York than Austin. There are a handful of places squished together in and around Ludlow, but if you’ve got a must-see act at the Mercury Lounge at 8pm and another can’t-miss at 10pm somewhere in Brooklyn, good luck. I felt like a good portion of my time at CMJ was acclimating myself to my surroundings, getting lost trying to find that one little bar in Chinatown, or on a subway headed to a different area.

SXSW: One of the great things about Austin being a little smaller is that every venue is pretty much within walking distance from every other venue. There isn’t much to be done about this, of course; it’s just a perk of having SXSW in a big-little city. I’m able to catch quite a few more shows, because everything is close by. Of course, it might help if I were a native New Yorker and didn’t spend so much time getting lost and finding my way again.

Edge: SXSW

Cities

SXSW: I love Austin. It’s my beautiful home, the weather is almost always gorgeous, and it’s a hot spot for awesome music, awesome people and general all-around awesomeness. SXSW occurs at the perfect time of year, when things are beginning to bloom but it remains cool because of lovely afternoon showers. On a personal note, I also love SxSW week because it always lands on my birthday – what better way can a music fan celebrate than with tons and tons of live music??

CMJ: That being said, there’s no place like New York City. Between run-ins with all kinds of musicians, actors and directors to a constant barrage of cool, creative and fun stuff to do, see, eat and drink, it’s just a magical place with a stunning skyline that tugs at your heart strings every time you cross one of the myriad bridges from Brooklyn to Manhattan. To host CMJ at the perfect fall moment, when it’s cold but not too cold (and actually looks like autumn), and to have participating venues in both Brooklyn and Manhattan – it’s an out-of-towner’s NYC dream.

Edge: CMJ

People

CMJ: All of the people I met at CMJ were friendly, excited and interested in what was going on around them. However, most of the people I met at CMJ were not native New Yorkers. I’m not going to uphold the stereotype that the people of New York are unfriendly; I honestly don’t believe that’s true. However, the population of perfectly-coiffed hipsters that lined Ludlow every evening to literally stand around fashionably, stare at you as you walked by and judge you was something I’d not experienced to that level of intensity in Austin.

SXSW: Between that and the self-conscious arms crossing that occurred at 90% of the shows I attended, I’ve gotta say that Austin crowds win. Music fans in Austin can be a little hipstery at times, but for the most part, if a band gets people going, they’ll hoot, holler, dance, whistle and applaud with reckless abandon. The two exceptions to this NYC generalization came at the Phoenix show (because, I mean, really, you’d have to have been dead to be still) and at Dan Mangan’s performance, when he managed to get the whole room singing with him on a song.

Edge: SXSW

Underprepared for Underage?

Another issue I have with both festivals is the lack of under-21 showcases. Although I am well past the point of having to worry about that, my friend Pooneh (who’ll be 21 in January, woo!) ran into problems at every corner. I don’t run a venue, so I don’t really understand much about liquor licenses and how difficult it is to be the kind of venue to just put a giant “x” on someone’s hand vs. not allow them in at all. But I also feel like CMJ, being the College Music Journal, after all, should have a few more under-21 gigs. People generally don’t reach the golden age of 21 until their junior year of college, so to have a festival focused on college music that only has a smattering of shows for the underaged seems a little off balance.

Edge: Neither

Overall, I absolutely adored CMJ. The fabulousness of so many more bands I’d never heard of coupled with the excitement of being in New York made it a total win, and press bonuses like the PureVolume House, getting into most of the shows I wanted for free, and even getting the chance to get Phoenix tickets, had I not already bought mine, was awesome. The check-in process was easy, and even though the judginess of the hipsters could be intimidating at times, that crowd made for some of the best people watching ever. I would totally recommend CMJ to any music lover; you get to discover new music, meet great people, make important connections and lasting memories, and all in one of the greatest cities on the planet.

The Big One – Phoenix at Madison Square Garden



Photo by Melissa Montes

I am one lucky sonofagun. To quote the great James Murphy, I was there. I was at the Madison Square Garden show when Daft Punk joined Phoenix onstage. What’s more, I want you to go there with me. So let’s do this – let’s relive that night, put you right up against the gate with me, and party down.

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CMJ 2010 – Top Picks



At some point in my day Monday, I finally crashed. I crashed, because I had spent the last five days on a music junkie’s high, doing nothing but exploring new bands in one of the craziest, coolest cities in the world. New York engulfed me and spat me back out with sore legs, sleep deprivation and a boatload of new bands to devote myself to. The CMJ festival had tons to offer, and felt overwhelming at times, but I have only happy memories and fond reflections for this particular post. Below, you’ll find AWM’s picks for best of the fest; there’s a lotta folk, a little bit of rock, some exciting new finds and some old favorites. The first few reflections are my top picks for new-to-us finds, and below that, you’ll discover honorable mentions in the form of artists this blog has loved in the past, and loved at the fest. Enjoy, and feel free to share your own favorites in the comments!

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CMJ Preview Post #5



Ah, we’ve made it this far! (Will we make it this far? Remains to be seen.) On Saturday, you may just be tailing the incredible bands you have discovered on previous days, but don’t forget to see a few more new groups (or established faves). Let’s see what we’ve got.

Rooftop Vigilantes

Rooftop Vigilantes are a group of poppy, obnoxious-in-the-right-way punks that stole our hearts, in part, because they’re from Lawrence, Kansas (we’ve got relatives in Leavenworth, whatwhat!) Anyway, they’re fun and they’re playing Bruar Falls at 7:50 p.m.

The Jezabels

The Jezabels have smooth, cool female vocals, and electronic and piano-driven nighttime-appropriate pop rock to back them up. Think calmed-down Metric. They perform at Fat Baby at 8:45 p.m.

DeVotchKa

Little Miss Sunshine soundtrack? Check. Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack? Double check. Yeah, DeVotchKa scores films, but don’t let that fool you – they are energetic rockers when they take the stage live. You can (and should!) see them play at 10:15 p.m. at Big Top.

Dinosaur Feathers

In the event that Avey Tare and Deakin don’t totally satisfy your Animal Collective needs, Dinosaur Feathers will fill the void. They’re fun and playful, and, according to their MySpace page, “Pro-America.” They’ll play Fat Baby at 10:15 p.m.

Asobi Seksu

I was introduced to Asobi Seksu in my cooler, younger days as a college DJ (long live KVRX!) If you like soaring, alternative indie pop, check her out at the Santos Party House at 11:00 p.m.

Ponderosa

Another ACL band I wanted to see, but couldn’t wake up early enough for. Ponderosa are from Atlanta, and they craft bluesy rock tunes that are believable and toe tap-worthy. Check ‘em out at Arlene’s Grocery at 11:00 p.m.

Me First and the Gimme Gimmes

A punked-up version of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”? Sign me up! I’m a total sucker for pop-punk, ska and all the other kinds of upbeat stuff that’ll let me get my skank on. These guys seem to promise a ball, and they’re playing at the Music Hall of Williamsburg at 11:30 p.m.

Neon Indian

Not that Alan Palomo is new to many of you, but I gotta represent him ’cause he’s a Texan, after all. The best way I feel I can describe Neon Indian to someone who hasn’t heard his/their music before is to ask, “Did you see the Saturday Night Live sketch with Jimmy Fallon, Tracy Morgan, Horatio Sanz and Chris Kattan where they sing about how awesome Christmas is with a synth, and it’s really minimalist and hilarious? Yeah, well Neon Indian is like that, only serious.” That’s not to knock what the band has accomplished, and it’s really not surprising they’ve accomplished it when you see them live – Palomo is super engaging, the kind of singer you can’t stop watching. You can see Neon Indian at the Bowery Ballroom at midnight.

CMJ Preview Post #4



I made my favorite discovery on this day, so I’m crazy stoked to share them with you. Friday is teeming with talent, and some of that talent is kick-ass female talent from Texas, y’all!

Cotton Jones

Cotton Jones is folk-rock with heart and soul, and a touch of twang. They’re from Cumberland, Maryland, and will be performing at the Knitting Factory at 5:00 p.m.

Grand Hallway

Grand Hallway makes soundtrack-like, full, orchestra music a la the Morning Benders or (locally) Mother Falcon; the songs can sneak up on you and overwhelm you in a very good way. These kids from Washington will play the Rockwood Music Hall Stage 1 at 6:00 p.m.

Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is my IDOL. This young Denton, Texas-native sings with a rare passion, and her voice will immediately fill a room. Her debut full-length record, Suburban Nature, is full of heart-wrenching soul baring and the kind of love songs that can simultaneously comfort and break you. She’s NOT to be missed. Jaffe will play at Fat Baby at 7:00 p.m.

The Black Atlantic

This is the group I was alluding to in the opening graph; the Black Atlantic come from the Netherlands, and are my favorite formerly-unknown-to-me find. They employ a choir of voices that act as a cushion to the lead singer’s voice, which gives you that snuggly, wintry feeling. Hit up their MySpace page and check out “Fragile Meadow” RIGHT NOW, and you’ll understand my fanaticism. The Black Atlantic play the Living Room at 7:45 p.m.

Blair

I had the immense pleasure of interviewing Blair (so, so awkwardly – on a moving van with mics falling all over the place) at South by Southwest this past year, and not only is she a total sweetheart, but she makes excellent music. Hers is minimalistic pop music that’s dancey at times, more subdued at others. She performs at the Mercury Lounge at 8:00 p.m.

lissie

lissie is a vocal beast. Though small in stature, she sings almost as if possessed, and her voice seems to burst from every pour. Musically, she makes country-tinged folk, and it’s wonderful. You can see her at the Hiro Ballroom at 8:00 p.m.

Royal Bangs

Royal Bangs are a three-piece from Knoxville who will make you dance to the kind of jaded lyrics you expect from a group like LCD Soundsystem. They are intensely energetic live performers, and I have seen fans mosh around a little at times. Jump around at the Cameo Gallery at 8:30 p.m.

JBM

JBM is a blog favorite, and for good reason. The man can play guitar like he was born to play guitar, and his voice is some kind of ethereal that makes him sound related to Jim James. Live, he is the kind of performer that will make a room go silent. Catch him at the Mercury Lounge at 9:00 p.m.

CMJ Preview Post #3



Thursday! More amazing bands, more good times to be had. Let’s jump right in.

Muy Cansado

Muy Cansado hail from Boston, and create the sort of raw, garage-y stuff that seems inevitably Pixies influenced (a good thing). They perform at 3:00 p.m. at Spike Hill.

Savoir Adore

This band from Brooklyn crafts vibrant, dynamic pop music with sugary vocals that perks up your ears and your mood. They’re playing at the Public Assembly at 3:00 p.m, and again at the Bowery Electric at 7:15 p.m.

Coby Grant

Coby Grant is all the way from Perth, Australia. She’s got a sparkly, pretty voice backed by shiny, sweet pop music with just the right emotional punch. She’ll perform at the Delancey (upstairs) at 7:00 p.m.

Avey Tare (DJ set)/Deakin

If you’re an Animal Collective nut, you can catch some of the founding members around town, spinning records and doin’ other stuff too, I’m sure. Both guys are set to play the Cake Shop at 8:00 p.m. Draw your own conclusions.

John Vanderslice

Couldn’t resist using this photo of John Vanderslice being eaten by Britt Daniel. Vanderslice has a voice somewhere between Sondre Lerche and Paul Simon; it’s weightless, but full of honesty. Check it out at 8:00 p.m. at the Mercury Lounge.

S.Carey

S. Carey opened for the Tallest Man on Earth recently in Austin, and they were lovely – it was atmospheric pop music a la MUTEMATH or As Tall As Lions. They play Pianos at 8:45 p.m.

Two Door Cinema Club

This is one of the bands I’m most excited to see again. You may recall a video of theirs posted in our ACL preview; these Welsh dudes make the kind of electronic-based dancey pop that gets you groovin’ so head to Webster Hall at 9:00 p.m. if you wanna sweat it out.

First Aid Kit

First Aid Kit are a Swedish sister set who make delicate, folksy music. They’re on the cusp of blowing up in a big way, so catch ‘em while you can at the Delancey at 10:15 p.m.

Das Racist

Pizza Hut Taco Bell. Need I say more? Catch these guys at the Santos Party House at 11:30 p.m.

Matt Pond PA

Matt Pond PA are from New York, and they’re for lovers of Sufjan Stevens and Belle & Sebastian. Their pop is mellow and gorgeous, great for the colder months. They’ll be playing the Mercury Lounge at 12:30 a.m.

CMJ Preview Post #2



Wednesday is going to be somewhat pre-planned for AWM, because we’re heading to see Wavves, the Dirty Projectors and Phoenix at Madison Square Garden. Still, there should be opportunities to catch some new finds earlier on in the day. Read on for blog picks for Wednesday, Oct. 20!

Kitten

Kitten creates emotive, guitar-driven pop rock, and vocalist Chloe Chaidez has one of those sweet voices that surprises you with its power; it soars. You can see this L.A. band at 1:30 p.m. at the Delancey.

Communist Daughter

Prescott, Wisconsin birthed this Matt Pond PA-esque troupe. They’ve got elements of quiet folk, and of wind in the trees; all comforting things. See them at 1:40 p.m. at Spike Hill.

FENCES

I know you are probably looking at the above photo and thinking, “Finally! Caitlin has suggested something that isn’t folksy indie-pop.” Well … you’re wrong. FENCES crafts interesting, pretty and poppy tunes, and they’re great. Start with his duet with Tegan & Sara’s Sara Quin, called “My Girl the Horse,” and then see FENCES at the Rockwood Music Hall at 5:00 p.m.

Pearl the Band

Probably because I just saw the latter perform tonight, but Pearl the Band reminds me of Austin’s own up-and-comers Little Lo. There’s a lovely chorus of voices, big instrumentation and catchy choruses. (Admittedly, I love our local Little Lo better than this Brooklyn band, but at least it’s a little taste of the familiar!) Plus, they’ve got a song about Johnny Cash’s house burning down. See ‘em at 5:00 p.m. at Spike Hill.

The Eastern Sea

Speaking of Austin bands, the Eastern Sea! These guys are wonderful; they’re sort of an American version of Fanfarlo. You can see them (and support Texas!) at 7:00 p.m. at Kenny’s Castaways.

Hacienda

And ANOTHER Texas band! This time, from San Antonio. Hacienda play Southern rock with enough soul to get Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach to produce their debut album. See these guys at the Canal Room at 12:15 a.m.

Wavves

Madison Square Garden – first opener.

Dirty Projectors

Madison Square Garden – second opener.

Phoenix

AAAAAAAAAAHHHHH! (Expect a tear-streamed keyboard as I am reviewing this show.)

Still need your suggestions for bands to catch at CMJ! Post in the comments here, or on our brand new Facebook fan page.

CMJ Preview Post #1



The 2010 CMJ Festival in New York City is fast approaching, and Austin Writes Music will be on the scene this year to report our findings and listen to as much music as possible. If you, too, are heading to NYC, or you’d just like the skinny on some up-and-coming bands, you’ve found the right post. For the next few days up until we head outta town, we’ll be posting previews of the bands we wanna see at CMJ. Admittedly, CMJ is totally overwhelming; after spending 3 hours listening to bands last night, I managed to only get through one hour of ONE day of the festival. So, if your favorite band is playing the festival, let us know! If you’ve heard interesting buzz about somebody, clue us in. This blog is here to serve, after all, so help us cover the bands you’re interested in. Below is a preview of the bands we’re most excited for and/or curious about playing on Tuesday, Oct. 19.

Lawrence Arabia

Lawrence Arabia is a folksy-rock fellow from New Zealand. I’ve heard nothing but good things from friends who’ve seen him and his band live, so this is a group I’m going to try very hard to catch at least once during the festival. They play at 6 p.m. on Tuesday at Le Poisson Rouge.

Alfonso Velez

Alfonso Velez was one of my discoveries last night as I scoured the schedule. He’s a New York native that plays delicate, emotional folk-pop; think Travis as a one-man band. He plays at 7 p.m. on Stage 1 at the Rockwood Music Hall.

Luluc

Another late-night discovery. Luluc is a Brooklyn-by-way-of-Melbourne duo that creates lullabies for adults; their soft, breezy love songs will make you feel small and vulnerable. These two are at the Living Room at 7 p.m.

Quilty

Quilty are a Brooklyn band that create catchy, punky and raw music; check out “Supernova” on their MySpace page. The trio plays the Knitting Factory at 7 p.m.

sleepy vikings

sleepy vikings hail from Tampa, Fla., and their Americana-tinged pop does have that rubbing-the-sleep-from-your-eyes, morning-dew aura about it. They’ll be at Kenny’s Castaways at 7 p.m.

Baby Alpaca

Baby Alpaca, apart from being an ADORABLE fuzzy animal, is a band from Brooklyn with a sound that’s a little shoegaze-y, a little moody, and totally gorgeous. They play at 7:30 p.m. upstairs at the Delancey.

Ma Mentor

One of my favorite pre-CMJ discoveries, Ma Mentor are from across the pond, and they sound like the Strokes if the Strokes suddenly decided to go electronic. They’re playing Pianos at 7:30 p.m.

The Barr Brothers

The Barr Brothers are a four piece from Montreal that come off like a less bombastic Avett Brothers (which is a good thing). They’re playing at the Cameo Gallery at 7:30 p.m.

Miniature Tigers

I’m incredibly excited to finally catch this band live. The Miniature Tigers played Lollapalooza this year, and have been touring all over the place. They come home to New York for CMJ, and they play the Music Hall of Williamsburg at 9:45 p.m. Try “Cannibal Queen” to see for yourself how crazy-catchy their pop rock tunes can be.

Jenny & Johnny

Jenny Lewis, people. Siren. Musiker. Queen of indie rock. She’s one bad mother shut-your-mouth, so basically I will follow her through whatever incarnation she deems fit to play in, whether it be solo, with her band Rilo Kiley, or with her beau Johnathan Rice. The pair will perform at the Irving Plaza at midnight.

Don’t forget to drop your suggestions for bands we should cover in the comments below! We could particularly use your help if you can point us in the direction of bands that can’t be described as “folksy.” (I was raised on Nanci Griffith! I’m predisposed to love folk!! I’M SORREEEE!!!)

Austin City Limits 2010



Another year of the Austin City Limits Music Festival has come and gone, and with the picture-perfect weather, stupendous lineup and great fan atmosphere, 2010 is without a doubt in the running for my personal best ACL ever. A day-by-day breakdown is below, and photos from Melissa Montes are here, and ours are here.

Friday, Oct. 8

I set up shop at the Honda stage to position myself as close to the front as possible for Miike Snow, which meant I caught Donavon Frankenreiter’s set in the early afternoon. He and his backing band played solid sunny, peppy rock tunes with twang (and Donavon’s cowboy hat and boots getup added some Southern flair). The most memorable moment of Frankenreiter’s set was when his bandmate whipped out a harmonica for a mean solo; it got the crowd’s blood pumping and people went from gently swaying to fist-pumping. It was great music for the Jason Mraz fan in me, but I was much more excited for the kind of dark lyrics only Swedes and New Yorkers could come up with, so when the set was over, I grabbed my photographer and pal Melissa and shot toward the front gate.

When Miike Snow took the stage, they wore their trademark masks; this time, they were silver, and the Texas sunlight bounced off of them, giving the stage an appropriate discotheque air. They ripped through a bulk of their debut full-length, kicking off with “Cult Logic.” Highlights of their set included a boisterous and fan-appreciated “Black & Blue,” an intense and light show-accented “Sylvia,” and a surprise guest appearance by Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig for a live mash-up of “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance.” The show was a wild ‘n’ sweaty dance party from start to finish; the band closed on their hit “Animal” which fell apart a little at the end, but in such a way that it seemed appropriate and everyone (fans and band members included) went nuts. The band performs with sincerity and energy every time, making them one of the highlights of ACL 2010.

The Black Keys started their set around the corner from Miike Snow just minutes after the latter band left the stage, causing Melissa and I to get stuck far off to the right side of the stage amongst the scenesters. Not an ideal position for such a stellar band, but we ignored the loud and obnoxious chattering around us and just tuned in to a stupendous set from Dan Auerbach, Patrick Carney and co. The guys dug back in their repertoire for the first couple of songs, but relied on their newest album, Brothers, for a large chunk of their set. “Everlasting Light” upped the sex factor, and the guys kept it high for the sultry swank of “Next Girl,” an ode to girlfriends past and present. If hips weren’t swaying by the time “She’s Long Gone” howled out of the speakers, they were rocking then. “Strange Times” and “I Got Mine” from Attack & Release were raw and guttural, and “Tighten Up” made certain there weren’t a pair of still lips on the field. Auerbach and Carney each give a one-two punch of musicianship and showmanship, and the combination of Carney’s gut-busting drumming and Auerbach’s gripping guitar solos is overpowering in exactly the right way. (Plus, Auerbach looks like a younger and beefier Thom Yorke, so until ACL sees Radiohead headline, the Black Keys are the closest you’re gonna get.)

I scooted much closer to the stage post-Black Keys, because hometown heroes Spoon were up next. Despite having attended their STUPENDOUS (all caps because it was seriously that good) pre-show at the Mohawk on Thursday night, I couldn’t miss seeing Britt Daniel and the gang a second time. They relied heavily on tracks from their latest, Transference, and super-hit Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga. The most surprising epic rocker during both the pre-show and their ACL set was “The Ghost of You Lingers.” On record, this song’s insistent piano riff is grating and makes the tune hard to swallow, but live, it is a grandiose statement, and as machine gun sounds echo across the stage and Daniel’s voice cries out the title verse, it’s affecting and heartbreaking. The jerky dance moves broke out for “Don’t You Evah” and “I Turn My Camera On,” and bodies flew all over the place for “The Underdog.” My personal favorites were the punky and sassy “Jonathan Fisk,” and the sweet, quiet closer “Black Like Me.” Before the latter, Daniel thanked the crowd and announced this would be Spoon’s last show stateside for a while. Multi-instrumentalist Eric Harvey closed things out in rock-star style, kicking over (and subsequently destroying) his stand-up piano. A fine farewell to their home state.

I passed on Vampire Weekend to get over to Stubb’s for the Jimmie Dale Gilmore/Monsters of Folk after show. Since I’ve already reviewed one Monsters of Folk performance this ACL weekend, I will only say that the addition to the set list of My Morning Jacket’s “At Dawn” and Bright Eyes’ “Another Travelin’ Song” was glorious, and “His Master’s Voice” was even more hauntingly gorgeous in the airy amphitheater.

Saturday, Oct. 9

I raced to the Austin Ventures Stage with fellow AWM blogger Brittany Rodriguez, and we met Melissa and promptly danced like loonies to Two Door Cinema Club. The guys raced through hits “Undercover Martyn,” “I Can Talk” and “Something Good Can Work” at breakneck speed, and despite the sweltering heat in the early afternoon sun, the sizable crowd shimmied and leapt in unison. “Something Good Can Work” is a perfect summer jam, and since it is, after all, still summer in Texas, it made for a fitting festival soundtrack.

After sweating off all of my sunscreen, I ran up the Zilker hill with Brittany to attempt to meet the Monsters of Folk. Sad story short, it was just not in the cards this year; the Waterloo autograph line was maddeningly long, and the “no soup for you!” cut off was about fifteen people in front of me. I watched with puppy-dog eyes as Conor Oberst and co. were shuffled off, away into the distance.

Next up, Brittany and I made the decision to camp our at the Budweiser stage for Muse. That gave us the opportunity to catch a strong set from the Silversun Pickups. The Silverlake, CA band started out with the mellow jam “Growing Old is Getting Old” from their sophomore release, Swoon. Lead singer Brian Aubert informed the crowd that their ACL performance was the last one they’d do on their Swoon tour, and the group let it all out. “There’s No Secrets This Year” left destruction in its wake, and swept right into “The Royal We.” For any given song, you could watch any band member and be entertained. Aubert sings with urgency and intimacy, bassist Nikki Monninger is somehow simultaneously ass-kicking and adorable, Joe Lester tends to dole out intense stares from behind his keyboards, and perhaps the show-stealer, drummer Christopher Guanlao lets his long hair fly as he hits the set like it’s life or death. The group ended on their two mega-hits, “Panic Switch” and “Lazy Eye,” and seemed to completely win over the crowd by the time Guanlao kicked over his drum set to finish the show.

Next up on the main stage was LCD Soundsystem. Before their late Saturday set, I would have called myself a casual fan. After this performance, I’m a diehard. LCD stole the day and, possibly, the entire festival, with a raw, honest, fun and blissful dance party. In line with the rest of the performances, much of LCD’s set consisted of songs off of their latest release, This Is Happening. They kicked it all off with a stirring rendition of “Dance Yrself Clean,” and “Drunk Girls,” “I Can Change,” “All My Friends” and “Yeah” left no room for rest. Frontman James Murphy was a perfect everyman, apologizing for wearing sunglasses because it was bright. “I’m not just wearing them to be a douche,” he promised. It’s hard to pinpoint one reason why this set was magical; the fans were great and all very clearly in love with the band, which was a key ingredient. The band was clearly thankful of the fans and also clearly enjoying what they were doing, which is also important. Murphy’s voice has some kind of siren-like quality when it rises with a combination of suffering and hope. The lyrics of LCD’s songs are easily relatable and very personal. And the sun seemed to set at the perfect moment, allowing the group’s disco ball to rock us all away with closer, “Home.” Everything conspired to make the set more than memorable; it was one of those soul-quenching shows that remind you why live music is so special. Way to be, LCD.

Personal space became non-existent the instant LCD Soundsystem’s set was over. The good news is, Muse fans tend to be incredibly friendly, so when you’ve got one person’s elbow in your ribs and another person’s armpit in your face, you’ll at least have the opportunity to befriend said people. After an hour-long wait for fans and years of career building for the band, the headlining spot three rockers from Britain have long vied for was theirs. Armed with lasers, lights and smoke machines, the band entered the scene to the mad delight of their adoring sea of fans. Lead singer Matt Bellamy’s outfit was outrageous enough to warrant its own sentence – the post-glam rocker was sporting a shiny, sparkling silver suit that made him look like some kind of holiday decoration. Revolution was in the air among the opening chords to the band’s set, as “Uprising” echoed around the park. The set list was littered with songs from four of their five full-length records, plus a tease of their cover of “House of the Rising Sun.” “Resistance,” “Undisclosed Desires” and “United States Of Eurasia” were the only new tracks the group performed, and past hits “New Born,” “Time Is Running Out,” “Hysteria,” “Plug In Baby,” “Supermassive Black Hole” and “Starlight” all made appearances, with a chorus of fan voices to support every one. Notable theatrics included a standing light-up drum set for Dominic Howard, a piano with a transparent lid and a neon-glowing keytar for Bellamy (to compliment his silver suit, obviously). The pomp was delicious and wonderful, and when “Stockholm Syndrome” ended the first part of the band’s set, there was no stopping an encore. Nary a head was still when the opening chords of “Knights of Cydonia” rang out, and Bellamy killed his surf-rock riff with expert ease. The band seemed truly thankful for the love Austin, Texas has shown them, and went so far as to proclaim Texas their favorite state in the U.S. Muse wore their headlining crown with flair.

Sunday, Oct. 10

It’s difficult to rouse oneself after LCD Soundsystem and Muse back to back, but I managed to drag my tired body down to the festival grounds in time for Devendra Banhart and the Grogs. Banhart was superbly strange, and he and his bandmates are stellar performers. Banhart plays the role of bizzaro-world crooner well, and I perked up especially for the oldie, “This Beard is for Siobhan.” If the crowd didn’t love Banhart for his playing alone, everyone perked up when he graciously invited any ole’ person (in this case, some guy from Houston) onstage for a brief solo performance. The guy seemed close to tears for the opportunity, and he was good to boot! He adopted Banhart’s warble as he picked at an electric guitar, and fans ate it up, applauding him warmly. Banhart and the Grogs returned to the stage, and they closed out the set with the dancey “I Feel Just Like a Child.” A friendly way to start off the day.

My highlight of Sunday hit the stage next, and despite the burning heat, Yeasayer made it hotter. Once again, the band members came onstage for their own sound check, reinforcing their almost-famous space in music at the moment. The guys brought the funky star of the “Madder Red” video (whom they have dubbed Bommel) out with them when they officially entered the stage, and opened with that song. “Rome,” “Mondegreen” and “Sunrise” got bodies moving, including singer Chris Keating’s; whenever he sang lead on a song, he’d jump around the stage and tease audience members by hopping down to the ledge below. The group’s big hits went over best, with “O.N.E.” and “Ambling Alp” closing out their show. Though Yeasayer is super skilled at crafting catchy pop songs, this does not mean their tunes are simple; the band members are each incredible instrumentalists. Anand Wilder shone on the haunting Odd Blood track “Grizelda,” and Ira Wolf Tuton melted faces with his fretless bass – his solo in “Grizelda” literally forced gasps to escape from the group of fans standing next to me.

My next hour was spent camping out to meet Yeasayer, and I will not indulge myself by forcing those details on you. I’ll only say that they are completely down-to-earth and humble; just a great group of people.

I finished my ACL experience with the National. Their fans came out for them, chanting every angry, depressed word of every song right along with Matt Berninger. The set was solid, featuring old and new tunes. “Bloodbuzz Ohio” incited excitement, as did “Mistaken for Strangers.” “Boxer” was the first song where Berninger really started to howl, screaming out to the crowd without a mic near the end of the track. This is what makes the National such a memorable live band; they add energy that just can’t come off on their studio recordings. Despite their downer lyrics, the band members themselves are quite perky and hilarious. When a large, white bouncy ball appeared in the crowd, Berninger quipped, “I’ll pay $1,000 to the first person who pops that.” One of the Dessner brothers said, “I think the Flaming Lips sent that over.” Berninger remarked, “Yeah, Wayne Coyne’s actually still in there, watch out. He’s puking all over the place.” The final three songs of the National’s set were my very favorites; “Fake Empire” kicked it off, and “Mr. November” picked up the energy as Berninger leapt down from the stage and up on the fence, half-leaning on the crowd. “Terrible Love” rounded it out, and Arcade Fire’s violinist-gone-solo, Owen Pallet, joined the band for the tune. The crowd so loved that song (and the band in general) that they insisted on an encore, which the National actually obliged. Berninger jokingly explained, “I was hanging out with Glenn Frey in the shower earlier, and he told me we could have five more minutes. So thanks, Glenn. And thanks for the shampoo.” I will straight up admit, I don’t know what the title of their encore song was, but it was gorgeous and, according to the Dessners, an older one. It was a beautiful, dark goodnight kiss and a peaceful, mellow way to close out the festival. (Well, that and singing “Hotel California” with Melissa and the Eagles across the Zilker Park field.)

Everything conspired to greatness this year; great fans, great weather, great bands with great performances. Festival experiences like these remind you exactly what festivals are for – they are here to let you live in the moment, and remember it forever in a song.

Monsters of Folk take the Austin City Limits stage, 10/6/10



When the Austin City Limits Studio shifts downtown in 2011, it’ll be great to pack even more fans into what is surely going to remain an acoustically-superior and near-magical venue. Still, there’s something about the original campus location that gives you goosebumps the minute you exit the elevator doors. Perhaps it’s the feeling that you’re walking in the footsteps of hundreds of musical legends, possibly breathing in some of their left-behind molecules of awesome. Maybe it’s that iconic ACL cityscape that, when I was a child, completely fooled me into thinking the studio was in some downtown high-rise with a giant window behind the performers. It is most definitely the intimacy, this tiny room jam-packed with people all reveling in their shared enjoyment of music, swaying gently in their own confined square of space. It’s all a part of the experience, and ACL does it right, giving out free water and other libations, letting people line up earlier in the day and tracking their space with numbers so that they can actually go eat before the show, and generally being laid-back, wonderful and diehard music fans themselves.

This was the setting for the Monsters of Folk taping on Wednesday, Oct. 6. Being the passionate (read: near-obsessive) fan of the band that I am, I lined up super early and was the first in the door when we were let inside, giving me a front-row standing spot (and allowing me to befriend one of the camera operators). When ACL producer Terry Lickona came out to give thanks to all of the sponsors, I felt the pace of my heart quicken. When Mike Mogis, Conor Oberst, M. Ward, Jim James and Will Johnson bounded onto the cozy stage, I turned, wide-eyed, to my friend Melissa and possibly let out a quiet squeal. I’m not embarrassed, though; these five songwriters are legends of my generation (and I am not throwing that term around lightly). Just look at their canons. Will Johnson has done solo work, leads Centro-matic and South San Gabriel, and he’s a Texan to boot. (James dubbed him “Austin’s secret gem.”) M. Ward has released seven solo albums bubbling over with ghosts of AM-radio, plus two albums with Zooey Deschanel for She & Him. Conor Oberst is one of the most prolific young songwriters of our time, with nine albums under the moniker Bright Eyes, two under Commander Venus, one with Desaparecidos, and seven under his own name. Oberst’s music can be politically biting, emotionally transparent, experimental and Americana-tinged — and all within the same song! Mike Mogis has also worked in Bright Eyes, Lullaby for the Working Class and We’d Rather Be Flying, and is the go-to producer for most artists on the Omaha-based label, Saddle Creek Records. Finally, and perhaps fan-favoritey, Jim James is best known as the lead singer for My Morning Jacket, and also recently came out with an EP of George Harrison covers under his moniker Yim Yames. Understanding all of this hopefully gives context for why this band was carved out a two-hour timeslot at the Austin City Limits Music Festival for 2010, and why someone might gasp out loud to be in their presence.

For the ACL taping, the group focused on the collaborative songs from their debut self-titled release. “Say Please” kicked the night off with energy, as the guys sang in-the-round, each tackling his own verse (except Mogis, whose voice comes in the form of his various electric and slide guitars). “The Right Place” followed, and its smoky piano-bar riff and chorus of, “I’ve got the right feeling, I’m in the right place” made for a friendly, warm vibe.

Each artist performed a tune from his own discography. Oberst was even granted two, and his first came in the form of Cassadaga’s “Soul Singer in a Session Band,” which allowed him to tease the crowd, just hinting at his explosive vocal energy. Johnson’s song was one of the most hauntingly beautiful of the evening; he and James were left by themselves onstage with two acoustic guitars as they played “Just to Know What You’ve Been Dreaming.” The crowd response was loving and proud, as Johnson was officially crowned the fifth Monster. James’ “Smokin From Shootin” was probably the biggest crowd-pleaser of the night, though, and climaxed in wild guitar playing, banging heads and a lightning-storm of applause. “To Save Me” allowed Ward to throw it back and boogie down on the piano before the group closed out the night with James blowing everybody’s mind.

“His Master’s Voice” is a standout track on Monsters of Folk, and listening to the record, one wonders how the group produces those eerie, echoing siren calls and God-like bellows. When Jim James is revealed to be behind all of the aforementioned sounds, it is a mind-blowing revelation that can cause tear-streaked faces. The musical experience this song is in a live setting is completely overwhelming, and such a pitch-perfect end to any set.

However, the crowd wasn’t having it. Rabid applause begged the band back onstage, and they (and the kind ACL crew members) obliged. They started their two-song encore with a repeat of “Baby Boomers,” in which Ward had accidentally switched his opening verse to earlier. The group closed out the night with another Oberst original, “At the Bottom of Everything,” and it crashed us all together blissfully into the sea.

Five musical monsters packed one-and-a-half hours with Americana-infused folk ballads and raucous Southern rock romps for an audience of overtly appreciative fans. The gents will play two more times in Austin this weekend, at an ACL Festival after-show on Friday and for a two-hour block at the fest on Saturday.

Full Austin City Limits Taping Set List:
1. Say Please
2. The Right Place
3. Soul Singer in a Session Band
4. Slow Down Joe
5. Man Named Truth
6. Dear God
7. Just to Know What You’ve Been Dreaming
8. Ahead of the Curve
9. Whole Lotta Losin
10. Baby Boomer
11. Smokin’ from Shootin’
12. The Sandman, the Brakeman and Me
13. Map of the World
14. Losin’ Yo’ Head
15. To Save Me
16. His Master’s Voice
———————-
Encore:
17. Baby Boomer (Again)
18. At the Bottom of Everything

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