SXSW 2011 – Favorite Bands

South by Southwest 2011 has come and gone, and in its path of destruction, it has also left behind a lot of great new music to enjoy. This was the most difficult year for me to navigate the conference, because it was the first where I was working a full time job most of the week. Still, I happened upon some exciting new discoveries and also enjoyed some of my well-established favorites, and am happy to pass it all along to you.

1, 2, 3 — Ever since this group’s grungy pop tune “Confetti” lodged itself into my brain, I was pumped to see 1, 2, 3 live and figure out how they’d come off on stage. Lead singer  Nic Snyder (who you’ll be forgiven for mistaking for Tobey Maguire) has the perfect pop voice, hi-pitched but powerful. The group’s onstage presence is fairly straightforward, but if you’re patient with them, they’ll treat you to a range of loose, beachy rock songs that sometimes even hint at southern influence. This is a band not quite ready to have a big breakout, but with tons of exciting potential. If you like being ahead of the curve, hop on this bandwagon early; I think Frenchkiss absolutely knew what they were doing signing these dudes.

Young the Giant — In my South By preview, I mentioned that these guys could end up being one of my favorite finds of 2011, or they could be another “their hit is all they have up their sleeve” band. I can now say confidently, they are totally the former. Young the Giant are indeed a young, energetic band on the brink. If you’re not too indie for arena rock, look to these guys as possible heirs to the Kings of Leon. The guys took what appeared to be whiskey shots to grand applause before they ripped into their set, and I only found out later that lead singer Sameer Gadhia was suffering from bronchitis that night; I had no idea, he sounded so incredible. The band’s sound is shiny and clean, but their energy is so raw that you don’t leave feeling that sterilized feeling you might with a too-polished rock group. Every band member is fun to watch perform, but Gadhia is unquestionably the show-stealer. The guys excelled at their fast, raucous songs just as well as they killed the slower, moodier tunes, and they left us “My Body” as their goodnight kiss-off. There is all kinds of awesome going on with this band. Listen, listen, listen.

The Dodos — These guys have been kickin’ around for a number of years now, but I’d never managed to catch a live show. I had always wanted to watch singer and guitarist Meric Long’s fingers fly in the fretboard, and watch drummer Logan Kroeber’s arms pump madly as he pitched out rhythms seemingly inhuman. It is as simultaneously whiplash-inducing and effortless as I expected. The guys mostly focused their setlist on brand new tunes, which fit easily into their discography. The Dodos are definitely straightforward performers, but their intense musicianship makes up for a lack of showiness. The band had things working against them; they were playing at 1:00 am, and they were playing fairly gentle folk music at 1:00 am, but they were still a joy to watch and a band I’d see again live. And I’ll always adore their lush, rich records.

Photo courtesy Wye Oak

Wye Oak — When I was scouring the SXSW ’11 lineup, I stumbled across this band’s song “Civilian” and was sold enough to know they were a group I had to see at some point during the week. I finally made it happen on their Friday night performance at the Parish. When they first started playing, I was worried; the music was beautiful, but the whole thing reminded me a little too much of my experience with Beach House at SXSW ’09. In other words, I was worried I was going to be bored to tears. Luckily, Wye Oak have way more backbone (sorry, Beach House fans). Guitarist and front woman Jenn Wasner has vocals that howl like some fantastical mermaid-siren’s, and she is so much fun to watch on guitar. Andy Stack is a perfect compliment on drums, adding to the tunes without overpowering them. I think the song that finally really knocked the wind out of me was “For Prayer,” which punctuates with a screaming wall of sound after each verse. It shocks you awake and alive, and I like that kind of fire. And you gotta love another female presence on Merge Records. Got to.

Sharon Van Etten — Sharon Van Etten is, as an everyday person, too cute for words. She’s clearly a total nerd, but she’s a nerd with this singing voice that can grab you by the throat and punch you in the guts and eat your heart for lunch. Her songs are the heartbreak kind, done with honesty and beautiful, relatable storytelling. Van Etten was an artist whose album I’d already fallen for pre-SXSW, and was heavily anticipating her live performance. She more than lived up to expectations, sounding impeccable in a noisy Mohawk as the sun shone down on our heads. The music sounded good (save for one new song the band had to start over; the bass never did quite sound like it was in the proper key). But it’s Van Etten’s voice that is the show-stealer every time. The instrumentation is ultimately a lovely dressing for her vocals, which are deep and luscious, an absolute treat for the ears and soul.

Sarah Jaffe — Jaffe, Jaffe, Jaffe. My love affair with Sarah Jaffe is now a solid year along in its development, and with each new performance, she affects a new part of me and impresses me even more deeply than the time before. Sarah Jaffe has an incredible honey-toned voice, is brilliant at songwriting, and continues to explore new and exciting experiments that, more often than not, succeed with flying colors. She still has a beloved cache of folk-rock and folk-pop tunes from her EP Even Born Again and debut album Suburban Nature, but she now tends to open her shows with an electro-R&B number that leaks into “Under,” where she sings over a loop of her own echoing chorus of vocals. It’s a show-stopper, and has elicited rabid applause each time I’ve seen it performed. If you’ve ever just felt this fullness in your chest, like happiness could be the fluffy stuffing of a teddy bear, except it’s in you and bursting out at your seams as you grin like an idiot, that’s the kind of feeling Sarah Jaffe’s music will give you. Plus, the woman’s stage banter is so endearing and hilarious and personable, you too will instantly fall in love. I’ll leave you with a couple of crude videos of Jaffe’s tunes, just to give you a taste of what I’m talking about (to really get it, see her live. I can’t stress this enough.)
Where you gonna rest your head?
Intro + Under

Bright Eyes Weekend, SXSW 2011

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.

Watch the Auditorium Shores performance via NPR here.

Two Door Cinema Club Bring the Love

Before the SXSW Music Conference was even officially underway, there were all kinds of amazing live performances to catch around Austin. I spent my Tuesday night with Glassnote Records at La Zona Rosa, dancing up a storm to all of the electronically infused pop they could offer.

Benjamin Davis of Bad Veins (photo by Melissa Montes)

Ueber-openers Bad Veins were the only non-label act to make the set. The crowd totally ate up the duo from Cincinnati; lead singer Benjamin Davis was the perfect balance of nerdy and flirty to win over the audience’s fresh-faced demographic. Personally, I wasn’t so keen on Bad Veins. They were a touch too cutesy for my tastes, with all-too-familiar lyrics and no unique spin to speak of. But Bad Veins were definitely the opening night winners, based on fan reaction.

Drummer Chris Rusk, being a beast. (photo by Melissa Montes)

I prefer the more experimental sounds of Knoxville’s Royal Bangs, though the crowd at large was less receptive. I’d initially seen the trio perform at SXSW 2010, and watched them totally win over a hip New York crowd at CMJ 2010. The band performed a mix of old and new tunes; the standout was the catchy jam “War Bells,” which has an addictive synth bass line. The star of this show was definitely drummer Chris Rusk, who is a beast. Watching his limbs fly as he bangs out rhythms at breakneck speed is addictive — casino online his face is controlled, emphasizing his precision, but his arms appear to be everywhere at once. The guys ended on a new tune that will be included on their upcoming LP, and it shows their country roots much more than anything they’ve done in the past. It’s an exciting and interesting direction to see the band take, and feels like a natural and necessary progression.

Alex Trimble (photo by Melissa Montes)

When Ireland’s finest electro-poppers finally took the stage, the crowd made it clear it could’t have been too soon. The love in the room for the band was delectable, and the band ate it up (it is, after all, good for you). It was the band’s first headlining gig in Austin, and they ripped the roof off straight away with “Cigarettes in the Theatre.” The band is as pitch-perfect live as they are on record, and the most stunning piece to their puzzle for me is always lead singer Alex Trimble’s gorgeous, angelic voice. It is the textbook definition of sweet, and when Trimble sings in a live setting, he clearly has complete control over his instrument. In between songs, bassist Kevin Baird takes the helm, flirting with and pumping up the crowd in equal measure. Sam Halliday is the quietest of the founding band members, choosing to let his guitar work speak for him. Newest addition Glen Thompson has become the band’s glue, pumping out their fast-paced drum beats like a machine.

The biggest crowd-pleasers of the night included bright-and-quick “Undercover Martyn,” earworm “Do You Want It All?” during which the founding trio pass around vocal duties at the chorus, power-of-positive-thinking anthem “Something Good Can Work,” and the encore performance of “I Can Talk,” which inspired more dancing and pogoing than at any other point of the night, rising the room to a fevered pitch before letting people leak out into the night.

Overall, it was a fun night with great energy all-around, and a fun-yet-gentle way to ease everyone into the madness of South By Southwest. The Irish gents will finish up their North American tour at Coachella in April before they head back to Europe, so if you”re looking for a dance party, catch “em while you can.

Crowd at La Zona Rosa (photo by Melissa Montes)

SXSW Preview No. 3 – Who to See

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 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

Admiral Fallow – Squealing Pigs

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

Dry the River – Bible Belt

Fences – Beckish vox, gentle singer-songwriter stuff with a little folksy overtone. (His appearance = TOTALLY deceiving). The Bat Bar, 11pm

Fences – Girls With Accents

Mr. Heavenly – Man Man meets the Ronettes. The Bat Bar, midnight

Mister Heavenly – Pineapple Girl

Surfer Blood – Move the Drums south to Florida to beach up their sound; there you go. Emo’s Main Room at 1am

Surfer Blood – Swim

Wednesday, March 16

Brett Dennen – Paul Simon-y. Pretty voice, pretty songs. Moody Theater @ 7:30pm

Brett Dennen – Heaven

Erland & the Carnival – something familiar about this; like Travis-esque vox with throwback pop rock music. 8pm at Club de Ville.

Erland & the Carnival – Trouble in Mind

The Black Atlantic – saw ’em at CMJ, absolutely gorgeous music. Teitur with more folk leanings than pop. 10pm at Esther’s Follies

The Black Atlantic – Fragile Meadow

1,2,3 – gritty pop-rock with a snarl. 10pm at the Parish.

1,2,3 – Confetti

Sea of Bees – 11:30pm @ Central Presbyterian Church; somewhere between Stevie Nicks and Martha Wainwright. Gorgeous voice, she’ll shine in this venue.

Sea Of Bees – Wizbot

Flogging Molly – the perfect band to get you ready for St. Patrick’s Day on Thursday. 11:45pm @ Moody

Flogging Molly – If I Ever Leave This World Alive

Sharon Van Etten – heartbreaking singer/songwriter with vocal power that overwhelms you. Midnight at Swan Dive.

Sharon Van Etten – A Crime

The Spinto Band – these are my boys. Super fun and smart pop music. Midnight on the Barbarella Patio.

The Spinto Band – Japan is an Island

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.

Young the Giant – My Body

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.

The Dodos – God?

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

Sondre Lerche – To Be Surprised

Phantogram – electronic rock, super catchy, bop-able. Playing Lustre Pearl at 11pm

Phantogram – When I’m Small

The Kills – Allison. Effing. Mosshart. ‘Nuff said. Emo’s at 11pm.

The Kills – Sour Cherry

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

Emmylou Harris – Making Believe

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

Miniature Tigers – Cannibal Queen

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

Maps & Atlases – Solid Ground

Dom – saw ‘em at CMJ, they totally won us over. Fun, dancey, energetic, depth – definitely a must-see. 1am at Club de Ville

DOM – I Wonder

Friday, March 18

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears – local funky rock; the baby-makin’ kind. Moody Theater @ 8:05pm

Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears – Sugarfoot

JBM – A blog favorite. The kind of gorgeous folk music that will make you ache in your guts. Central Presbyterian Church @ 8:15pm

JBM – Years/Cleo’s Song

Alex Highton – sweet singer-songwriter from the UK. 9pm at 18th floor at Hilton Garden Inn

Alex Highton – You’ve Got the Trees

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.

Sarah Jaffe – Stay With Me

The Bright Light Social Hour – Austin’s men of rawk. Put your fist in the air and let loose. Momo’s at 10pm.

The Bright Light Social Hour – Bare Hands Bare Feet

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.

Thao with the Get Down Stay Down – Body

Wye Oak – gorgeous folksy music with stunning lead vox. Great for woods-walking. 11:45pm at the Parish

Wye Oak – Civilian

Little Dragon – gorgeous R&B vox and moody/peppy electronic music from Sweeeeden!!! SVERIGE!! Lustre Perle at midnight.

Little Dragon – Feathers

Saturday, March 19

Man Man – Wild and crazy collaborative party good times. 4:30pm at Auditorium Shores

Man Man – Van Helsing Boombox

Middle Brother – Collab between Dawes, Deer Tick and Delta Spirit members. Old school country-fried rock. 5:25pm at Auditorium Shores

Middle Brother – Me Me Me

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.

Bright Eyes – Road to Joy

Pujol – Jack White’s babies. Raucous and fun. Mohawk Patio at 9pm

Pujol – Black Rabbit

Toy Selectah – mashin’ up the hits for you to get your dance on. 9:30pm at Prague

Toy Selectah – Cousins Remix

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

The Rural Alberta Advantage – Stamp

Ezra Furman & the Harpoons – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! vocals set to folksy pop rock. 11pm at Speakeasy

Ezra Furman & the Harpoons- Take Off Your Sunglasses

Royal Bangs – forceful and fun electronic rock. 11pm @ the ND

Royal Bangs – War Bells

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

Royal Forest – Civilwarland

Deer Tick – Gritty country folk rock. 1am @ Lustre Perle

Deer Tick – Ashamed

Yoko Ono – Yoko! I mean. It’s Yoko. 1am @ Elysium

Yoko Ono – Walking on Thin Ice

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.

The Black and White Years – Two Reservoirs

SXSW 2011 is coming!

The South by Southwest Music Conference is fast approaching, and with it comes a whiplash-inducing amount of music industry visitors and fans from every corner of the world. The conference is actually broken up into three parts — first, there’s an interactive festival that features the brightest minds in social media, web journalism, widgets and buzz-creating. Then there’s a film festival, where some of the biggest critical darlings premiere and bring with them Hollywood’s finest. Finally, and most excitingly for me, there is a four-day music festival that has grown from a conference-oriented event to break bands, to a blurred line of parties and official panels for rep labels and passionate fans alike, and bands who formed just a few months ago to those who have been filling stadiums for years. It’s a hodge-podge, and it can be incredibly overwhelming if it’s your first time attending the conference. This is just a short preview to get your feet wet; we’ll run a follow-up with band recommendations and more extensive tips and tricks as the festival gets closer.

The SXSW Music Conference runs from March 16 to March 19 this year, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit how excited I was that the kickoff lands dead on my birthday. The conference has always landed on my birthday week, and I’ve attended every one since 2006. There are three ways you can attend the conference, and they all have benefits and drawbacks. First, there is the option to pony up for a badge. At this point, Music badges will run you $750. That’s a pretty penny, but if you can dish it out, the badge unquestionably gets you the most access during the conference. I’ve been lucky enough to get badges through press outlets or generous birthday gifts every year, and it’s been wonderful. The Music badge has allowed me to listen to Neil Young and Pete Townshend rap on life and music, got me into a packed Stubb’s to listen to the then-brand new Hazards of Love front-to-back by the Decemberists, and to talk to Teitur and almost get him to sing me a song on my birthday (he forgot, but I never will — you owe me “Amanda’s Dream,” good sir!) I got to network at panels with really cool music folks, and wander around to any party my wild heart directed me to (once I was of age, anyhow).

That said, if you can’t afford a Music badge, don’t despair! You can purchase a Music wristband for $165. There were still some available at press time, but they’ll likely go fast. When you’re in line at most events during SXSW, the badge holders are let into venues first, and then wristband holders head in behind them. There are some badge-only events, but in the past, wristbands could get you into most shows.

After badge and wristband holders are let into venues, the general public is allowed to buy tickets to specific shows until the venue capacity is reached. This is not a surefire way to get into a show, because there are usually a LOT of badge and wristband holders — especially for shows with bigger headliners. Still, if you’re in Austin during SXSW and don’t have a badge or wristband, you can still see tons of music for free. Many parties are free and open to the public with an RSVP; your best bet for tracking these down would be SXSW Baby! and Showlist Austin.

You can also volunteer to work SXSW and attend shows that way. I’ve never done this, but I’ve heard great things from friends; it’s an excellent way to get better access in exchange for your time, doing fun work at events. You can find more information about that here.

Once you decide how you’re going to do SXSW, the next big question is — who will you see out of the thousands of bands rushing to pay stages in Austin? We’ll have a more extensive breakdown of our recommendations later, but I’ve found in my previous years that if you know you love a particular artist on a lineup, you should invest a little time and check out the other bands playing that lineup, because they can be great new discoveries for you; that’s exactly how I first saw Janelle Monae. In terms of the big names hitting SXSW, the most exciting confirmed giants will be Bright Eyes, making their only currently listed Texas appearance on their The People’s Key tour. Not only are they performing, but they’re playing Auditorium Shores, which is a free outdoor performance that anyone can attend. The entire lineup for their Saturday performance is stellar — there’s the experimental-pop ensemble Man Man, indie collaboration Middle Brother (featuring players from Deer Tick, Dawes and Delta Spirit) and folky New Yorkers the Felice Brothers. In addition to this fantastic set, rumors abound for other big-named secret appearances by bands like the Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and (be still, my heart) Radiohead. Queens were reported as being confirmed by the Austin Music Source, but the rest are still just rumors.

Another great free option for folks is the Fader Fort. A major selling point for this event, for those interested in this sort of thing, is an open bar. Musically, the Fader Fort is really impressive, too — I attended for my first time last year for a short 2-hour block, and got to see Neon Indian and Local Natives, some of the hottest up-and-comers at the festival. For all of you trend-chasers, the Fader Fort is a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of the next big thing. Plus, it’s just a fun layout, and totally free with RSVP. Just make sure you plan ahead, ‘cause it can get super crowded by the time big secret headliners (like 2009’s appearance by Kanye West) hit the stage.

There you have it — a crash course in some of the most general bits and pieces to wrap your head around pre-festival. Look out for a more in-depth guide to the bands, and most importantly, as with any festival, remember your number one goal should be to enjoy yourself.

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