SXSW 2012: Alabama Shakes Austin

Alabama Shakes

In the early hours of Sunday morning, Ryan Sambol seemed content. Standing outside the Mohawk club, where his band, the Strange Boys, had just completed their sixth and final rocking set of the week, he took in the foot traffic jam of the wasted and weary and seemed pleased that the week was over, but grateful for the fun times he’d had. Based in Austin, Sambol’s is a different experience than most of the artists who play SXSW.

“Everyone in the whole world comes here,” he said, “so you just sit back and let your phone ring and then hang out with some good old buddies.”

SXSW is full of good old buddies if you’re a music journalist. My first taste of SXSW was flavored by veteran favorites Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Cliff and Fiona Apple, who all delivered captivating performances. But there’s so much more reward in finding new artists. So after Springsteen’s set on Thursday night, I set out to find some new good buddies.

It’s so refreshing when talent trumps pop star packaging and a band like Alabama Shakes can create buzz. SXSW is scheduled in such a way that many acts perform multiple shows, creating several different chances to see them. The Shakes benefited from this word-of-mouth/word-of-Web process, so by Friday night they may have been the most talked-about new act; their show had a line around the block. What makes Alabama Shakes so special is singer Brittany Howard, who is essentially 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. 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.

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 unsavory if they check your Internet search history, the band’s website is www.weareescort.com.

In my previews leading up to SXSW, I wrote about J. Roddy Walston & the Business, Michael Kiwanuka, Cloud Nothings and Youth Lagoon. I’m proud to say that because of what I witnessed in Texas from these acts, I’m sticking to my guns, and I guarantee you’ll be hearing a lot more from all of them.

Hip-hop hooray

More than ever, hip-hop was well represented at SXSW, presumably because of the breakout success of Odd Future and Kanye West’s descent upon Austin last year. In the clubs down Sixth Street you could almost hear as many DJs as guitars. A definite standout was Mexican-American MC Eric White, who laid his confessional rhymes down to a DJ, live drummer, guitarist and violin player. On the mainstream level, Nas turned in a nostalgic good vibes show at the Moody Theatre, with a set made to look like Queensbridge, N.Y., complete with subway stop stairs and towering apartment buildings. A little less mainstream (for now), Theophilus London proved that he could both rap and sing like a champ, his gruff baritone a perfect counterpart to Solange Knowles‘ sweet voice on the song “Overseas.” It won’t be too long until the pair is singing this for much bigger audiences.

Boss in Austin

After delivering a speech that was essentially an answer key to his entire career, Bruce Springsteen took to the stage of the 2,700-capacity Moody Theatre for an intense set with the E Street Band that lasted nearly three hours.
   
The set list was similar to his tour opening show at the Apollo earlier this month, but what truly made it special were the surprise guests that joined him onstage, including openers Alejandro Escovedo and the Low Anthem, as well as Jimmy Cliff, Joe Ely, the Arcade Fire and perhaps most poignantly, Eric Burden of The Animals. During his keynote address, the Boss picked up an acoustic guitar and played a snippet of The Animals’ “We’ve Gotta Get Outta This Place” and confessed, “That’s every song I’ve ever written.” Through the magic of Twitter, Eric Burden’s fans let him know about this shout-out, and then conveyed to Springsteen that Burden in fact has been living in Austin, which spurred the gracious invitation.

Cover story

Much of SXSW is about premiering new material for artists’ forthcoming albums, but many bands like to let loose by putting a cover in their sets. Here are a few.
Natural Child: “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan
Michael Kiwanuka: “I Don’t Know” by Bill Withers
J. Roddy Walston & the Business: “Lucille” by Little Richard
The Strange Boys: “What I’d Say” by Ray Charles
Ezra Furman: “Sweet Jane” by the Velvet Underground

For more Metro-related SXSW coverage, visit Chris Leo Palermino’s blog.


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