Alabama Shakes, Escort, Santigold and Justin Townes Earle prove variety is the spice of SXSW

Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes belts out a tune.

The first taste of SXSW may have been flavored with a few too many safe bets, and although veteran acts like Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Cliff and Fiona Apple all delivered  captivating performances,  there’s so much more reward in finding new artists.

It’s so refreshing when talent trumps pop star packaging and a band like Alabama Shakes can create such a buzz. Singer Brittany Howard is Tina Turner, Jack White and Janis Joplin, wrapped up in one unassuming package. She could be the teller at your bank, your company’s IT person or your middle school art teacher, but when she opens her mouth, it’s clear that she was born to sing. The band’s sound bounces between soul and boogie woogie, but genre isn’t their selling point as much as the songwriting and Howard’s expressive delivery. There are singers who can hit all the right notes, but with Howard, it’s not that she just hits all the right notes, but she hits them so hard. On Friday night she worked the packed crowd under the tent on the patio of Easy Tiger into such a frenzy that when the band finished, the way that everybody yelled out felt very primal, like after experiencing such an emotional release it was just an involuntary human response to shout out for five minutes.

It’s about time that somebody ripped off Donna Summer. Escort take all that we’ve learned from sprawlingly huge Canadian bands and put it in a disco context. The NYC-based group includes a string section, a horn section, a percussion section and the vibrant vocals of Adeline Michele. While they’re not doing anything new,  the live instrumentation and the collective energy of the 15 members onstage make it impossible not to shake yo thang. Oh, and just so your bosses don’t think you’re up to something skeevy if they check your Internet search history, the band’s website is www.weareescort.com.

By the way, I’m writing this in a room in the Austin Convention Center.

Oh, “Dominos”! That’s a cool song playing on the stereo in the background. Wait, what? No, that’s Big Pink actually performing it live, sounding awesome.

OK, so back to the reviews. Santigold put on quite a show on Friday also. Flanked as always by her “Video Killed the Radio Star” side dancers, she played the best tunes from her debut as well as previews from her forthcoming album “Master of My Make-Believe.” She really is a master of make believe, indulging in costume changes with the excitement of a child and even welcoming a two-person horse onto the stage at one point.

So while I’ve been writing this, Justin Townes Earle has been playing an acoustic set that’s been making it very difficult to concentrate. And this is not a bad thing at all. Well, I mean, it may have delayed me posting this, but it’s been worth it. Playing songs from his new album,  “Nothings Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” the singer introduced his final song by saying his parents are probably going to be giving him a phonecall when they hear it. Though he said this with a smile on his face, as soon he began strumming he entered into an entirely different zone. He seemed close to tears when he got to a lyric about how his father, Steve Earle, “broke [his] mother’s heart in half.” The song, “Trying To Move On,” is the final track on his new album.

Speaking of trying to move on, I’ve got to get out there and take in some tunes at some of the awesome day parties that Austin has to offer. 



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