I think a part of the reason I like to make lists of my favorite albums of the year is selfishness. It helps me take stock of the art that was put out over the course of the year. It helps me remember shows I’ve seen, or moments I shared with new music. It helps me feel fonder about the year that has passed, and more hopeful for the year that is coming. It forces me to examine what this music meant to me, and why it meant that. I tend to favor albums whose tracks I loved, start to finish, that had meaningful lyrics or were soundtracks for important moments. Plus, I always favor risks. If I feel like a band played it safe and made a solid record, I’ll dig it, but for those who try to tackle huge topics through their art, I always admire it and end up loving it more.
For these reasons, I really could just jot down a list to myself, smile smugly, and move on. That said, I do think there is value in sharing lists, because it sparks conversations (or arguments, if you’re into that) and can potentially (and hopefully) help people discover new albums they may not have heard of before. This year, I found myself leaving off albums that contained a handful of unforgettable songs because the rest of the album was weak. I also found myself extending my list to a top-15 instead of top-10, including in my final 5 growers that I still need to spend more time with, but that were so striking in their own way that I had to include them. Without further ado: my 2011 best-of list! Enjoy, be angered, argue and discuss. All is welcomed.Read More...
Growing up adoring live music is a strange thing. All of us have to come to terms with aging, and I am by no means old — I’m only 24, well aware of how much more youth is laid out in front of me. But even though it’s six years until my thirties and that’s even so young in modern times, I feel like every year that passes, my live music experience is tweaked enough to make me notice that I’m growing.
Austin City Limits has so often been the backdrop of my slow and steady coming-of-age, that my experience with the festival, the fans, the weather, the bands and the music itself shifts all the time. I remember my first Austin City Limits festival in 2005, when I was just starting to find out exactly how much I was in love with music. I focused more on meeting my heros, spending a lot of time at the Waterloo tent, getting signatures and goofing around with Tristan Prettyman, Rachael Yamagata and the Blues Travelers — I’ll never forget John Popper spouting off to me in French and kissing my bandaged-from-rowing-tryouts hands. 2006 was a huge turning point, where I totally lost myself during Muse’s set, moshing just a little and sweating like it was detox therapy. My tastes were splintering off in a thousand directions, and ACL catered to that beautifully. I was always the one to camp out for artists, to dance with reckless abandon and spend the whole day in a field with strangers. I’d never care that I was attending the festival alone, because I’d inevitably make new friends sitting around on the grass.
Now here we are, at the festival’s 10-year reunion and what was my sixth time attending (would-be seventh, if it hadn’t been for my broken ankle ’09 debacle), and it’s a completely different ballgame for me. First of all, I’m not a student anymore. This means I had to work for a better part of Friday — I managed to take off three hours and make the shows I was dying to see, but was still a bit bummed not to catch morning gigs and make a day of it. I also find that I don’t enjoy the festival as much when I’m by my lonesome. I can (and will) still go it alone when it means making a performance by my favorites, but if I’m with people I love and they want to move back in the crowd a bit, I’ll tend to oblige. I feel the physical taxation of festivals a lot more now, too. I used to just get sick after a weekend of rocking out, but this year was the first where I felt I was coming close to fainting. Finally, I find myself a little more jaded by my surrounding festival-goers — I’m more easily annoyed, and a little more judgmental of the very young kids I see wandering around the festival grounds. When I catch myself being a grump, I try to remind myself of being that girl or boy, and having that experience. And sometimes, I’ll still meet people who remind me of how awesome festival-goers tend to be.
Of course, it’s not all grouchiness and disillusion. With my age, I have fallen in love with far more bands, and even more genres that allow me to enjoy more bands. I have also fallen in love with more people, and get to see festivals through their eyes, too. Just because it’s different doesn’t make it worse, and even though it’s harder to get the same detox high that I regularly felt when I was younger, when it hits now, it is euphoric.Read More...
I have been excited about this year’s Austin City Limits Festival for a while, but the giddiness just hit me on Sunday. It is indeed that time of year where Zilker Park closes to lazy weekends with your dog to make way for tall white tents, towering stages and tons and tons of your favorite bands. My all-time top two will both be performing this weekend, so I’m more than ready for it all. Mostly, I’m excited to stumble upon some new bands I’ve never heard before – there are quite a few that could fill some empty spaces in my schedule. For now, I will recommend the bands I feel secure in signing off on. Below, you’ll get a song and a snippet about who I think you should see. Drink tons of water, reapply that sunscreen, and rock out with abandon.Read More...
We kicked off our day early, because I haven’t been able to stop listening to Wye Oak’s debut on Merge, Civilian. Lead singer and guitarist Jenn Wasner has a deep voice she layers over her guitar shredding, and as a young female interested in music, this alone gets my blood pumping. Andy Stack is a great partner for Wasner. He plays a bellowing, heart-stomping drum and occasionally multitasks on the keyboard. The pair have painted a gorgeous, haunting picture on their album, and in the right setting, they can take their songs to another overwhelming level. Unfortunately, on a toasty day in the afternoon at a giant outdoor venue, the duo was plagued by technical difficulties, and the timing just seemed off. Wasner’s pedals were in and out during the first three songs, and you could see this talented musician slowly falling apart as a huge opportunity to gain new fans turned into a nightmare for her. After stopping in the middle of “Plains,” she looked to be at a loss, saying, “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me.” Finally, with some finagling and a bit of magic, things seemed to come together and the band started “Plains” a second time to loving hoots, hollers and applause. Highlights included the single and title track “Civilian,” which is a driving song that the audience recognized and got into, “That I Do,” which sounded much folksier than the remix by Mickey Free that was released on an old EP, and “I Hope You Die,” which is a desperate, destructive love song that was a sad but lovely send-off as the set winded down. Ultimately, it wasn’t the best venue for this band, but I think they pulled in some new fans and ended up having a good time.
We raced to Young the Giant as soon as Wye Oak’s set ended. This was a band that promised high energy, and they did not disappoint. Out of the gate, lead singer Sameer Gadhia’s voice was soaring, with crooner-style vibrato and intense power. The entire band is talented, but Gadhia is the show-stealer every time. As he beats himself up with his tambourine, dances and leaps up and down, it’s near-impossible to take your eyes off of him. “I Got” was the opener, and the crowd seemed involved immediately. Highlights were the best tracks off of the group’s self-titled album, including “My Apartment” and “Cough Syrup.” The latter song saw the first sing-along of the day, with hands in the air early on a Friday morning. A few slower tracks and an old one cooled everyone off before the one-two punch closer of “God Made Man” into “My Body,” which was clearly the most beloved song the band played. The entire audience was into it, dancing, singing and leaping along in the hot afternoon sun. Gadhia held nothing back, letting his voice rip out like a fighter jet. The swagger and energy of this set made it one of my favorites of the day.
Grace Potter was up next, and the boys in my party were giddy with excitement for her set. She and her Nocturnals came out, guns a’blazin, as Potter channeled Tina Turner and roared out upbeat blues rock to heat up the afternoon. Potter is hard to take your eyes off of; she owns the stage, strutting from instrument to instrument (she plays guitar and organ) and often dancing harder than most audience members. Her long blonde hair whips around her face like a weapon, and at her Lollapalooza performance, her sparkly flapper dress accentuated her movements. My favorite songs were the ones with oomph, that came barreling out of the speakers with speed and force. The band slowed things down for three songs in a row in the middle of the set, and with the heat of the afternoon sun beating down on us, it felt a little like swimming through tar. The set ended wildly, though, with the Nocturnals’ big hits, “Paris (Ooh La La)” (edited to “Ooh la la Lalapalooza” in honor of the fest), and “Medicine,” during which the entire band circled up around the drum set and banged away. Grace herself threw as many objects as she could reach into the crowd, including a big fuzzy tiger mask and a white tiger stuffed animal, which nearly took out a mic stand on the way down. This throw was reminiscent of a time a tried to toss a garbage bag into the giant bin behind my apartment complex, and Zack bore witness as I overshot far wide to the right and the bag ripped open on its sad, sloppy way to the ground. I appreciate a fellow klutz.
Before the Kills came onstage, a firework for later in the night went off a bit early, erupting in smoke and gold sparkles. It was a nice transition between the two sets, sending Potter out with a bang and making way for some darkness. Whereas our group’s men fell for Grace Potter’s feisty sensuality, I prefer the subtle sex appeal of one Alison Mosshart. I fell in love the moment I first saw Alison, in the video for the Dead Weather’s “Treat Me Like Your Mother.” She seems so sure of herself in a way that is more understated than diva Potter, and moves around the stage like a woman possessed. The duo of Mosshart and Jamie Hince were clearly beloved, as they played a nice mix of tunes. My favorites were from the album Midnight Boom, including “Tape Song,” “Sour Cherry” and “U.R.A. Fever.” As soon as the telephone boops signaled the coming of this latter song, hands shot up in the air and screams bounced around the audience. Mosshart stomped around stage, balancing on speakers in her shiny black boots, shimmying and shaking and mostly entrenched by a waterfall of black hair. At one point, two back up singers came quietly onstage, and then disappeared a few songs later. It’s kind of representative of the Kills — like a thunderstorm, they rumble along, striking with force in a storm of sound, leaving an uneasy calm in their wake. I tend to leave festivals obsessing over a few bands for a number of weeks. I have a feeling the Kills will join me in my car for a while.
The band I thought would be my show of the weekend was next, and I was jittery with excitement, clinging to our little stretch of festival gate we were leaning against like I would float away if I let go. Bright Eyes is my band and Conor Oberst is my man, with fierce political motivation, clear and rich imagery and melodies in most genres you could imagine. The bands’ catalogue is so robust that it is always a crapshoot as to what the setlist might contain. This tour has seen a good mix of old and new, and I expected a number of songs from this year’s The People’s Key, but we only ended up with three. “Four Winds” kicked everything off in an angry hoedown, and Conor didn’t address the crowd until a few songs in. He seemed especially confrontational at this Lollapalooza performance, which I tend to enjoy, but seemed to be a complete turn-off for a lot of people in the audience. The band’s fans just didn’t show up, which made the performance feel a little bit flat, particularly in comparison to their Auditorium Shores performance during South by Southwest. Still, despite lackluster crowd participation, the band sounded impeccable and pulled out tons from my favorite album, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order)” was emotional, with Conor angrily screaming out, “Just when I get so desperate I can’t speak!” “Another Travelin’ Song” was dedicated to all of the bands stopping in at Lolla, and “Land Locked Blues” was a tune I’d yet to hear the group perform live. It was missing Emmylou Harris, but more fists flew up during this song than any other preceding it. Conor announced “Shell Games” for “all the phonies in the audience,” to which nobody really knew whether to hoot or boo, so we just kept quiet and looked bewilderingly at one another. He brought everyone back together for the one-two punch of the set’s end, “Road to Joy” and “One For You, One For Me.” Kids got together behind the “Road to Joy” line, “So when you’re asked to fight a war that’s over nothing/It’s best to join the side that’s gonna win/And no one’s sure how all of this got started/ But we’re gonna make ‘em god-damn certain how it’s gonna end,” as Oberst spat the words with as much venom as he could muster. He thanked us as his friends and ultimately left a sweet aftertaste with “One For You, One For Me.” He was the first musician I saw all weekend who jumped down into the crowd, and he wandered just feet away from my little section, once again evading my hyper fangirldom. My heart beat in my throat when I saw his small frame hugging luckier kids a few feet ahead of me, before he turned around and headed back to the stage as Denny Brewer was played on repeat, saying, “Mercy.”
Because of our excellent positioning, we decided to remain at our fencepost to let Coldplay end our night. We were 100% sure that Chris Martin would jump out into the crowd and run around, as he had in 2005 at Austin City Limits. We were 100% wrong. However, despite this slight disappointment, the Brits played tons of hits, with a number of new songs mixed in, and were so wide-eyed and thankful that you couldn’t help but love them. Lasers shot out from the stage, creating a giant nightclub in the middle of a field, and emphasized songs like “Yellow,” “Lost!” and “Clocks,” which were all huge sing-alongs. Really, every song was a sing-along, proving the depth of these hitmakers’ song cache. As Zack mentioned in his review of this show, we had a rolling bet for the weekend about how many times I would cry at performances: over or under 3 times. I picked under, thinking Bright Eyes, Coldplay, and My Morning Jacket might get me. Zack figured they all would for sure, and went over, hoping for a twofer at one of the performances. I ended up crying just once, during Coldplay’s performance of “The Scientist.” As Martin crooned, “Nobody said it was easy/No one ever said it would be so hard” over devastatingly tragic piano chords, I let my mind wander and lost myself in a stereotypical 20-something mini-crisis, and it was simultaneously so goofy and freeing that it made the moment a highlight of the weekend for me. Coldplay create songs that can soundtrack the overly dramatic moments of your life. If you’re like me at all, and fancy yourself a bit of a star of your own personal movie, I recommend digging through Coldplay albums for the slow-mo moments. Coldplay were the only headliners we saw who played an encore, and they killed it, with fireworks illuminating the night sky (and firework debris raining down on us) during “Fix You” and their new single, “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall.”
It’s that festival time of year again, and I’m kicking off my season with the 20th anniversary of Lollapalooza in Chicago. Whether you’re going to be up in the Windy City, or if you’re just tuning in online, here are my picks for acts to see and hear.
Wye Oak – Noon, Sony Stage
A woman with a deep, warm voice who shreds guitar in a duo that writes songs to shake the earth. Get up early, or you’ll be saying “if only” down the line.
Young the Giant – 1PM, Bud Light Stage
I was lucky enough to catch these guys at South by Southwest, and they put on a forceful, high-energy show that will set you on fire. After the cool tones of Wye Oak, nothing will be a better system reboot than Young the Giant. Their Jools Holland performance really speaks for itself.
Grace Potter & the Nocturnals – 2:30PM, Bud Light Stage
No matter who you are, if Grace Potter doesn’t turn you on, you’re not paying attention. The sexpot songstress has a powerful voice and booming stage presence, and with her hard-rocking band backing up her soulful tunes, you’ll be sweating ooh-la-la’s before you know it.
Foster the People – 3PM, Sony Stage
I doubt I’ll be pulling myself away from Grace Potter, but in the event that you’re looking to go a little more indie, Foster are your people (oooh, forgive me). There are a lot of things about this band that make me want to call them Yeasayer-lite, but they’re such a new band that I don’t think it’s worth pinning them down like that yet. “Pumped Up Kicks” is their big hit, with a catchy chorus that has some punk attitude.
The Kills – 4:30PM, Bud Light Stage
The Bud Light Stage is where it’s at for afternoon female ferocity. I’m almost tempted to write “Alison Mosshart” and leave it at that, but for those of you unfamiliar with the siren who partnered with Jack White in the Dead Weather, the Kills are her original home. It’s raw, with some pop inclinations drizzled on top of its rock core.
Bright Eyes – 6:30PM, Bud Light Stage
To me, there is nothing else going on at this time. The world stops when Oberst opens his mouth. My fangirldom is no secret, and it does make it difficult to pitch to people who may be unfamiliar with Bright Eyes’ immense catalogue. If you’re unsure about this one, I’ll put it to you this way: if you love incredible, moving writing matched to tons of different musical genres, performed by people who put all their heart and soul on the line, this is your show.
OK Go – 7:15PM, Google + Stage
I won’t be leaving Bright Eyes early, and our team may decide we have too great of crowd positioning to leave, but I’ll be a bit heartbroken if I don’t see some of OK Go’s set. Their 2010 release Of the Color of the Blue Sky is quickly becoming one of my favorites. They are creative artists not only in their musical talent, but also their visual spectacle, and they write hella fun pop rock music that’ll get you grooving.
Coldplay – 8:15PM, Bud Light Stage
It is an honest toss-up for me between Coldplay and Muse; I’ll likely be at Coldplay because I’ll have been standing over on their side of the park the whole day, and because I’ve seen Muse 5 times and Coldplay only once. At their 2005 Austin City Limits performance, Chris Martin was the perfect big rock showman, running through the crowd and climbing soundstage scaffolding, making us all forget our lungs were filled with dust and we were sweating mud. If you’ve never seen Coldplay, don’t let yourself miss out because the hipsters of the world like to make fun of this British hit-making machine. I’ll be the one near the front, singing along to every song.
Maps & Atlases – 2:15PM, Google + Stage
I have only ever heard this band’s name thrown around, but they sound similar to Dirty Projectors and other guitar-leaning indie rock groups, so I’m very interested in seeing what they can do.
Dom – 3:30PM, Google + Stage
I saw Dom perform at CMJ 2010, and they really surprised me. They were tons of fun, like the best parts of MGMT minus the pretty-crappy-live aspect. They can get far punkier and beachier than MGMT, too, and they wrote a song about a cat (“Bochicha”) – I’m sold.
The Drums – 4:45PM, Google + Stage
The Drums are another CMJ 2010 discovery, but beyond surprising me, this band knocked me on my ass. Lead singer Jonathan Pierce is intoxicating to watch – he has some of the strangest mannerisms and dance moves since perhaps David Byrne, and his voice is showy in a playful, almost sarcastic way. The band are all fantastic performers, and the music is catchy and danceable. You will fall in love.
Local Natives – 5:30PM, Sony Stage
My history with this band has been well documented, so I’ll just say – if you somehow haven’t managed to see this band put on their incredible live show, you really can’t miss this.
Ween – 6PM, Bud Light Stage
I’ll be at this show for two reasons. One, because my boyfriend loves this band. Two, because I actually really enjoyed their set at Free Press Summer Fest, because they were silly, haunting, rocking and, above all, entertaining. They’re underground legends and very much worth seeing live.
My Morning Jacket – 8PM, Bud Light Stage
Jim James is the hero of so many people I know. He seems universally beloved for his bear-like appearance, angelic voice and everydude sense of humor. His band crafts huge rock epics that are unafraid of veering into the sweet and simplistic, or out on a jammy limb.
Titus Andronicus – 12:45PM, Music Unlimited Stage
I’ve been curious to see this group for a while. They’re a political, heart-stomping rock group with smart, straight lyrics, which is definitely up my alley. I’m excited to see what they’re like in a live setting.
Noah & the Whale – 2:30PM, Bud Light Stage
This is another band I’m curious about, and know very little about to date. They’ve been spun frequently on turntable.fm, and each song I’ve heard is beautiful and heartfelt. They remind me of a slightly happier Frightened Rabbit that plays a little bit more synth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – 3:15PM, Google + Stage
This band came through Austin and blew audiences away. Unfortunately, I missed their set, so I won’t make the same mistake at Lolla. I expected something like country rock based on the group’s name, but they’re a prefect blend of airy and poppy.
Flogging Molly – 4:15PM, Bud Light Stage
Raucous, familial Irish punk rock on the same label as Gogol Bordello (and rightfully so). After a rocky first experience with Flogging Molly (when another concert-goer threw up on my shoes), I’ve never been disappointed in their live show. They stopped by Stubb’s a few months ago and totally blew me away. Be careful, though – Chicagoans have proven to me they’ll crowd surf and circle pit for just about anything, so this is bound to be wild.
Lissie – 4:30PM, Google + Stage
It excites me to see so many strong, incredible, uplifting female voices on the Lollapalooza lineup. Lissie has a classic attention-grabbing voice that emotes over folksy rock tunes. She can use it subtly, and then let it explode when it’s called for. She’s also totally precious, the kind of artist you root for because she is deep-down good-natured.
Cage the Elephant – 5:15PM, PlayStation Stage
I tended to roll my eyes at Cage the Elephant at first – their two big hits, “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” and “In One Ear” sounded near identical to me, so I wasn’t particularly interested. However, “Shake Me Down” won me over immediately, and I’ve heard stories about how wild and energetic the bands’ live show can get. Seems to me like this is gonna be straightforward alt-rock fun, and I wouldn’t miss it.
Foo Fighters – 8PM, Music Unlimited Stage
I’ve never been a huge fan of the Foo Fighters. I loved “Learn to Fly,” but all the other songs in their enormous catalogue sounded the same to me, and I wasn’t a Nirvana diehard, either, so it was hard for me to be nostalgic about them. However, I’ve recently fallen in love with their covers album, and have enjoyed Dave Grohl’s sense of humor in various online forums. Plus, I have been promised time and again that they put on an unforgettable live show, and I wouldn’t want to end my festival experience without the Festival Crashers, so this is where you’ll find me, happily head-banging and fist-pumping along.
Kid Cudi – 9PM, Perry’s
I won’t be able to sneak away for this, but if you can, I highly recommend running over to see Kid Cudi on festival founder Perry Farrell’s stage. Cudi bends genre rules, rapping and singing with indie rockers to make music that appeals to all stripes. My younger brother introduced me to Cudi, explaining his intense past and how impressive his mixtapes were when he was starting out.
All things considered, I’m a new Bright Eyes fan. I wasn’t one of the lucky ones — one of the kids who got to hold tight to Conor Oberst’s brilliant imagery warbled out in his heartbreakingly emotive voice during their lonely high school years, who got to think, “Thank God, me too!” when he was spewing his justified rage at a moronic president and corrupt nation, who dried their tears between the swells of orchestral self-pity bravely exposed on record after record of incredible music. I was just a lonely, nerdily academic high school kid getting her Kerry ’04 bumper sticker ripped off her truck and scattered threateningly across her dashboard, in a sprawling Texas town full of racism and entitlement. I heard a song or two — a cover of “Kathy With a K’s Song” by Jason Mraz, during my pop singer phase of life, and “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” that I was far too naive to appreciate. My fandom kicked into high gear after Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band performed at the Austin City Limits Festival in 2008, and I just happened to check them out. That was all I needed; I was sold.
Going into South by Southwest 2011, I’d seen Conor with the MVB 3 times (the best being a free gig on the 4th of July in New York City across from the Statue of Liberty), and I’d seen the Monsters of Folk four times, which allowed me to sample some Bright Eyes tunes with Oberst and Mike Mogis. But I’d never seen the real deal; I’d never experienced a full concert worth of unrequited love, of political unrest, of revolution and of unity.
I got a taste of all this on Friday at a surprise pop-up gig at the Austin Club Hotel. I showed up at 5:30pm, which I thought was a mere three hours early. It ended up being five, as AOL and T-Mobile fed us free ice cream sandwiches, gave us free water, and put free hats on our heads and posters in our hands. Apart from not knowing why we were held up for an extra unaccounted-for two hours, it was a very pleasant line experience. Unfortunately, for all of the patience of every hardcore fan in line with me, AOL sponsors were the favored attendees, and only 150 of us made it into that tiny performance space. We’d all guessed at what the band would open with while we waited in line — would it be the first track off of their new release (The People’s Key), “Firewall?” Would it be the first single from that album, “Shell Games?” Would it be one of his old hits, like “Lover I Don’t Have to Love?” When Oberst quietly took the small stage, he surprised us all with the understated Fevers & Mirrors track, “An Attempt to Tip the Scales.” The band sounded incredible as they erupted after the line, “So close to dying that I finally can start living.” The setlist was a smattering of songs from almost every Bright Eyes album, including “Hot Knives” from Cassadaga, “Take It Easy (Love Nothing)” from Digital Ash In a Digital Urn, “Jejune Stars” and “Beginner’s Mind” from The People’s Key, “Bowl Of Oranges” from Lifted…, “The Calendar Hung Itself” from Fevers & Mirrors, “Poison Oak” and closer “Road to Joy” from I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, and even “Falling Out of Love at This Volume” from A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997, the first-ever Bright Eyes release. It was an intimate set, and felt off-the-cuff, practically piecemeal. Despite the spontaneous mood, the band sounded tight, at the very peak of performance and emotion. Oberst only hinted at the political unrest bubbling inside of him with a few choice words in between songs. The most notable was his introduction to “Beginner’s Mind,” when he spoke to the mixed room, “This next song is about trying to not become a cynical asshole. Tall order, I guess. But South by Southwest is a good place to explore that, because you have the greenest of the green and the most poisoned of the poisoned, walking next to each other.” The song I was most banking on was “Road to Joy;” my own business cards reference the tune, and I’ve been dying to experience it live since my fandom really bloomed. When they rolled it out at the end of their set, I was ecstatic. The size of the room seemed to contain its energy just a touch, but when Oberst came to the line bemoaning his voice, he was not shy about dropping an F-bomb (and neither were the fans in the crowd). Despite our desperate pleas, there was no encore; it was ten songs and out, neat and tidy. You can relive this entire set here.
You’d think finally seeing a live Bright Eyes show would have me feeling satisfied, but it only whet my appetite. The next morning, I was more than ready for a second outdoor full-blown Bright Eyes performance at Austin’s beautiful Auditorium Shores, with the shining Austin city skyline at night substituting a backdrop Oberst described as “Disney World’s Haunted Mansion” the night before. More than anything, these two back-to-back shows made me totally aware of how important a crowd is to a live show experience. It was a night-and-day difference, sharing a show with corporate types versus adoring, enthusiastic fans. I was treated to the latter on Saturday, and they enhanced the experience tenfold. I showed up to this event just three and a half hours early, which allowed me to watch Kurt Vile, Man Man, Middle Brother and the Felice Brothers. All were talented and enjoyable, but ultimately just passed the time as we waited for our hero-poet to take the stage. After the sun had gone down, Texan Denny Brewer’s familiar vocals rang out in the air, describing reptilian people and universal oneness. I ended up in the front of the crowd, and from where I was standing, it seemed that the crowd was mostly unfamiliar with The People’s Key (compared to the massive singalongs that occurred for songs from every other album). Still, this song — this opening — people knew. We were ready. When the band took the stage about two minutes in, it was to sincere, loving applause, energizing “Firewall,” which sounded as forewarning and destructive live as I had imagined. It burned in the Texas night, and Oberst’s energy increased exponentially in that outdoor space, finally given room to expand.
The Auditorium Shores setlist included many more new tracks, like “Approximate Sunlight,” during which Oberst wandered around the stage, gesturing out to the crowd. One fan nearby joked, “It’s his rap song!” The wide variety of tunes the band performed definitely displayed their depth; there were country tunes, folk songs, electro-rock and near-hip hop jams, and the crowd sang along to literally every single one.
The entire show was totally solid, but there are individual moments that stick out strongly in my memory. As the band launched into “Something Vague,” one of the new friends I’d made turned to me and said, “Oh my God, this is the saddest song of all time.” He then joined his voice in singing every lyric, and although there was no physical hugging, it felt like we were all together in that moment. “No One Would Riot For Less” made a huge impression on me; in that live setting, with Oberst’s stark vocals facing the crowd dead on, the brevity of the lyrics about impending hell really hit me. I’d been thinking a lot all week about Japan, about nuclear meltdowns, about hurricanes, natural disasters and my own sense of helplessness. As Conor cried out, “Hold me now, hell is coming/Kiss my mouth, hell is here,” the words had never felt more apt.
Oberst is one of the braver voices we have in the public sphere. I knew I was going to cry at some point during the night, but I was surprised that it happened during “Old Soul Song (For the New World Order).” Throughout the evening, Oberst thanked us, calling us all his friends and keeping things warm and jovial. The only time he strayed from this banter was to talk about Libya. “I don’t know if y’all read the newspaper or whatever, or watch the television but today, on this very day, we started our third war that we’re in as a country right now. We started our third war. It’s kind of incredible. It doesn’t even matter anymore, right? No one even — it doesn’t even bother anyone. But today, on this very day, they dropped bombs from planes, and they landed on houses where children were asleep, and people died. That’s exactly what happened today in the country of Libya. Actually, four wars – Iraq, Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan. Anything with a ‘stan’ at the end of it, we blow it up. So, I think it’s worth noting. Today, we murdered children, as a country. Sorry to bring it down like that.” From here, the band launched into “Old Soul Song,” and the line, “And just when I get so desperate, I can’t speak!” raged from Oberst, frustrated and at his wit’s end. The singalong for this song felt different, too; our voices sounded close to frenzied as we all felt the weight of these words.
“Lua” was another tune I’d been eager to hear live, and stripped down with just Oberst on acoustic guitar and Nate Walcott on trumpet and keys, it was as beautiful and haunting as I could have hoped for. It was a great closer to the opening set, but this time, when the fans insisted on an encore, we weren’t going to let up until it happened. “Gold Mine Gutted” and classic “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” kicked it off, and then “Road to Joy” made a second, and much more explosive, appearance. This was the “Road to Joy” I’d always wanted to hear; the one that got thousands of fists pumping in the air as we were instructed to “fuck it up, make some noise!” It was the “Road to Joy” that fell completely apart in perfect, cacophonous anarchy. It was the “Road to Joy” that held nothing back; what did we have to lose? Oberst had started losing his voice far earlier that night, so why not rip it to shreds? After an evening of raw emotions and political unrest, this was the catharsis we demanded. Rocking through it felt like running a marathon; all that was left was to cool down.
As Oberst talked about Libya earlier in the night, one young fan yelled, pleading and sincere, “What do we do? Tell us what to do!” Oberst finally answered with the night’s closing song, “One for You, One for Me,” instructing us all to love each other and be good to each other. As soon as the band launched into the tune, the city of Austin took their cue and let hundreds of breathtaking fireworks loose in the sky. The band was apparently taken by surprise, as each member in turn spun around to watch the show; Oberst even skipped part of the opening verse to join the audience and just observe, looking every bit the bright-eyed Peter Pan he can sometimes transform into. At the end of the song, drummer and Faint member Clark Baechle pulled out a camera to snap some shots of the colorful sky. Oberst, on the other hand, hopped down to the audience’s level and gave front-row fans really excellent, long, meaningful hugs. Denny Brewer’s final line, “Mercy,” was echoed on a loop, and we cheered until the stage completely quieted down.
For a show three years along my road of fandom, Bright Eyes met every possible expectation on a warm night in Austin, Texas. Oberst may be slowly breaking into his thirties, but the man has every bit of emotion he did when he was starting out as an angsty teenager. The difference is, where his energy was focused inwardly before, now he spreads it out, which really just makes it more powerful.
Here it is – the last preview before the South by Southwest Music Conference descends and we all lose our minds. I scoured the band list to try and find the best groups I could to recommend. Below, you’ll get a quick-hit description of the band from me, a link to a song that exemplifies their sound, and the time and venue the band is performing at. I break it all down day-by-day; if you really love a band, check the sxsw.com schedule to get all of their performance dates (a lot of ‘em are playing 3+ shows). Read on, and then get out there and rock!
Tuesday, March 15
Admiral Fallow – upbeat orchestral pop from Glasgow; like if Freelance Whales had Frightened Rabbit’s accents. The Bat Bar, 9pm
Dry the River – Bon Iver-ish vox over sweet, smooth tunes. Like a brighter Margot and the Nuclear So & So’s. The Bat Bar, 10pm
Fences – Beckish vox, gentle singer-songwriter stuff with a little folksy overtone. (His appearance = TOTALLY deceiving). The Bat Bar, 11pm
Mr. Heavenly – Man Man meets the Ronettes. The Bat Bar, midnight
Surfer Blood – Move the Drums south to Florida to beach up their sound; there you go. Emo’s Main Room at 1am
Wednesday, March 16
Brett Dennen – Paul Simon-y. Pretty voice, pretty songs. Moody Theater @ 7:30pm
Erland & the Carnival – something familiar about this; like Travis-esque vox with throwback pop rock music. 8pm at Club de Ville.
The Black Atlantic – saw ‘em at CMJ, absolutely gorgeous music. Teitur with more folk leanings than pop. 10pm at Esther’s Follies
1,2,3 – gritty pop-rock with a snarl. 10pm at the Parish.
Sea of Bees – 11:30pm @ Central Presbyterian Church; somewhere between Stevie Nicks and Martha Wainwright. Gorgeous voice, she’ll shine in this venue.
Flogging Molly – the perfect band to get you ready for St. Patrick’s Day on Thursday. 11:45pm @ Moody
Sharon Van Etten – heartbreaking singer/songwriter with vocal power that overwhelms you. Midnight at Swan Dive.
The Spinto Band – these are my boys. Super fun and smart pop music. Midnight on the Barbarella Patio.
Young the Giant – This band has a song in heavy rotation on 101x right now, and it hooked me. I’m weary that they might be another ‘The Hours’ for me (where “Ali in the Jungle” is amazing but everything else falls flat), but seriously – watch that video and tell me you’re not curious. Midnight at Buffalo Billiards.
The Dodos – I’ve been a fan of these guys for a while. If you’re into heavy rhythms and incredible guitar playing, check ‘em out. The Parish @ 1am.
Thursday, March 17
Sondre Lerche – gorgeous intricate delicate pop music. I’ve loved this Norwegian since I was 16 (I’ll be 24 on March 16). Not to be missed. Maggies Mae’s @ 9pm
Phantogram – electronic rock, super catchy, bop-able. Playing Lustre Pearl at 11pm
The Kills – Allison. Effing. Mosshart. ‘Nuff said. Emo’s at 11pm.
Emmylou Harris – Classic country darling. Plus…will Conor make a guest appearance? She’s play his set at Auditorium Shores for sure. Antone’s at 11:15pm
Miniature Tigers – saw these dudes open for the Freelance Whales, and fell in love. Incredible onstage charisma, great pop tunes – winners. Lamberts at 11:45pm
Maps & Atlases – really great vox, deep and luscious, plus uptempo rock to back ‘em; reminded me a little of TV on the Radio, but I like this better (keep in mind I’m not a fan of TVotR). Midnight at Red Eyed Fly
Dom – saw ‘em at CMJ, they totally won us over. Fun, dancey, energetic, depth – definitely a must-see. 1am at Club de Ville
Friday, March 18
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears – local funky rock; the baby-makin’ kind. Moody Theater @ 8:05pm
JBM – A blog favorite. The kind of gorgeous folk music that will make you ache in your guts. Central Presbyterian Church @ 8:15pm
Alex Highton – sweet singer-songwriter from the UK. 9pm at 18th floor at Hilton Garden Inn
Sarah Jaffe – You know where we’ll be at 9pm on Friday. Jaffe is stunning, stunning, stunning. If you haven’t caught her yet – you must. She’s at Momo’s.
The Bright Light Social Hour – Austin’s men of rawk. Put your fist in the air and let loose. Momo’s at 10pm.
Thao with the Get Down Stay Down – Thao is a beast. She’s emotive and fabulous and crafts kickass pop rock tunes. See for yourself – 11pm at Antone’s.
Wye Oak – gorgeous folksy music with stunning lead vox. Great for woods-walking. 11:45pm at the Parish
Little Dragon – gorgeous R&B vox and moody/peppy electronic music from Sweeeeden!!! SVERIGE!! Lustre Perle at midnight.
Saturday, March 19
Man Man – Wild and crazy collaborative party good times. 4:30pm at Auditorium Shores
Middle Brother – Collab between Dawes, Deer Tick and Delta Spirit members. Old school country-fried rock. 5:25pm at Auditorium Shores
Bright Eyes – I don’t even know what to say about this. This will be my first ever time catching Conor with Bright Eyes. He’s my musical soul mate. Dig it. 7:30pm at Auditorium Shores.
Pujol – Jack White’s babies. Raucous and fun. Mohawk Patio at 9pm
Toy Selectah – mashin’ up the hits for you to get your dance on. 9:30pm at Prague
The Rural Alberta Advantage - kinda whiny vox (think Neutral Milk Hotel) but if you can get into it, the music is great. Great energy. 10:30pm at Central Presbyterian Church
Ezra Furman & the Harpoons – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! vocals set to folksy pop rock. 11pm at Speakeasy
Royal Bangs – forceful and fun electronic rock. 11pm @ the ND
Royal Forest – Austin heroes; will sometimes cover Neil Young and the Talking Heads. (Full disclosure – I help manage these guys and they’re the bomb. See them.) 11pm @ the Marq
Deer Tick – Gritty country folk rock. 1am @ Lustre Perle
Yoko Ono – Yoko! I mean. It’s Yoko. 1am @ Elysium
BONUS: The Black & White Years are quickly becoming my favorite Austin band. They don’t have any official showcases, but they’re playing gigs every day until SXSW ends. Check out their show list here.
I’d always wondered if Conor Oberst considered his found sounds to be part of his songs. He and his Bright Eyes crew have been involving phone conversations, practice reading sessions, street noises and storytellers on their records since their sophomore breakthrough Fevers & Mirrors, and their newest record, The People’s Key, is no different. It opens up with an interview clip featuring El Pasoan Denny Brewer explaining his views on the origins of the universe, describing reptilian people and parallel visions of good versus evil. Oberst previewed the entire album on YouTube, posting an intimate (and very low-key) video of a listening party, where he, Bright Eyes bandmate Nate Walcott and other Saddle Creek friends sit around with the adorable and tail-wagging pup Shatzi and run the entire album from start to finish. Each song is bookmarked by its title, a graphic that slides into and out of view at its start. “Firewall,” the opening track, doesn’t get its label until after Brewer’s voice fades out a la Wayne’s World dream sequences, insinuating that Oberst views it as a prologue to the album — a mindset to place yourself in, or perhaps a narrator who guides us along this sonic journey, popping in to remind us about the overarching themes and the progress of a thought.
Sitting in the dark with no distractions, “Firewall” overwhelmed me immediately on first listen. The guitar creeps in, dark and menacing, and Oberst’s vocals match the mood. The song builds slowly, adding quiet percussion, then a bass line as the lyrics become a little more frustrated. It’s a song that sounds like it comes from the same place as 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, but with Bright Eyes’ last release, Cassadaga’s sweeping vision. This is a song that bowls you over.
“Shell Games” was the first single released by the band, and it’s an anthem. It brings the energy of the album up, with tons of synth and even more classic Oberst lyrics: “Distorted sounds on oscilloscopes/Distorted facts, I could never cope/My private life is an inside joke/No one will explain it to me.” “Jejune Stars” swirls in frustration, as Oberst deconstructs the phenomenon of becoming immobilized by fears about the unknown. Punk-rock drums pound out like a machine gun, as if someone were trying to punch their way through a plastic cage.
The only song Oberst didn’t write by himself is “Approximate Sunlight,” which Walcott had a hand in. It’s one of the slowest tracks on the album, and it is arresting as Oberst laments, “It’s been said we’re post-everything.” One of the most bone-chilling features of a Bright Eyes song is the way Oberst will break the fourth wall, addressing listeners with a dead-ahead stare; you can feel it when he sings, “The crowd was small and mostly blind/But kind — you’re too kind,” with a sneer. Whining steel pedal and dark synth landscapes open up near the end of the song, offering just a little relief from an otherwise grim tune.
“Haile Selassie” was the second song released, and it ups the anthemic ante. The drums and gritty guitar push at the edges of the rhythm, driving it eagerly forward as Oberst insists, “You’ve got a soul/Use it.” This song delves deepest into Rastafarianism, but its themes are still universal enough to relate to. “A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key)” is practically jolly; there’s an upbeat clap-along, and the chords and melody are bright. The lyrical content is filled with odd imagery, from kid-Hitler to columns of purple light, which are literally visualized in the album artwork. The song breaks apart into eerie fragments at the end, and Brewer insists, “If you’re hearing it, it’s cosmic. You’re supposed to be hearing it.”
I was raised Catholic, so “Triple Spiral” especially hits a nostalgic nerve for me. Anyone who has ever studied, questioned or struggled with religion will find something to relate to. Musically, it’s a catchy pop-rock tune. Lyrically, it bemoans, “I loved you, triple spiral/Father, son, and ghost/But you left me in my darkest hour, when I needed you — when I needed you/Now that the dream is over, I want it to be known/I never saw it coming, from my little human prism/How sad it is to know I’m in control.” Oberst was also raised Catholic, but has said in interviews that he doesn’t subscribe to any religion anymore. Instead, he is fascinated by the true believers, and this is a powerful song deconstructing all of that.
“Triple Spiral” flows readily into “Beginner’s Mind;” in fact, the songs sound so similar, I almost thought it was one long two-parter when I first listened to the record. Of the two, “Beginner’s Mind” is the weaker; there’s less of a memorable melody or lyrical gut-punch. However, the content of the song is moving — it’s Oberst’s letter to his younger self, pleading with that inner child to hold on to optimism and innocence.
Perhaps the most striking song on The People’s Key is the devastating “Ladder Song.” It is the slowest and most simple track — for a majority of the song, it’s just Oberst and a piano, which allows the lyrics to echo out, haunting and full of melancholy. Bright Eyes lyrics seem to be the defining feature of the band, and “Ladder Song” plays into that, as one of the most straightforward and personal songs on the record. There are so many tear-jerking recognitions here, like, “You’re not alone in anything/You’re not unique in dying.”
Luckily, Oberst decided to spare us from ending on a completely downtrodden note — instead, we get a spoonful of hope taken with a glass of reality in “One for You, One for Me.” Like opener “Firewall,” “One for You, One for Me” also feels like it could have fit comfortably on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. It’s sweet and beautiful, and couches the world in a universal one-ness, proclaiming, “You and me, you and me — that is an awful lie/It’s I and I.” Our trusty narrator, Brewer, returns to finish what he started. Instead of feeling menacing, though, the mood has lifted and become peaceful as Brewer explains that understanding universal one-ness will lead to bliss. The album ends on the word “mercy,” a perfect takeaway message and a brilliant way to end an album.
Though Bright Eyes have traveled far from the ueber-personal storytelling of their first few albums, the themes on The People’s Key are as relatable as ever. In fact, because Oberst and crew are painting in broader brushstrokes, it ends up being even more universal. There is hope and peace in this album that didn’t exist as deeply on any other Bright Eyes record, and it is heartening to hear that kind of growth. There are huge themes tackled on this record — origin, religion, purpose and humanity are all examined in striking images and fittingly complex musical landscapes. Dig in.