SXSW 2011: The musical varsity squad

Erland and the Carnival huddle close in an abandoned retail space in Austin to tape an acoustic segment for MTV.

The SXSW music conference in Austin, Texas, has traditionally been about buzz bands who seem to come from nowhere and then become instant stars in the ensuing months. While this year does have a few of those standouts, such as Odd Future — a young L.A. rap act that you will definitely be hearing a lot more about for their punk antics — this year’s SXSW was more about players in the periphery from years past who are finally ready for the big time — or at least the bigger time. It’s as if they have been sitting on the JV bench and are ready to be called up to varsity. Here’s who to keep an ear out for if you hadn’t noticed them on the sidelines before.

Thee Oh Sees
The members of this garage-y San Fran quartet are doing what they have always done, but with more people in the audience matching the manic energy onstage, the band feeds off that and comes across like a bunch of kids who are allowed to eat sugary cereal for the first time. Based on Saturday’s spastic performance at the Mess With Texas party, it seems the world is finally ready for Thee Oh Sees. The boy-girl vocal interplay between John Dwyer and Brigid Dawson has always been strong, but the melodies have become even stronger in the past few years. Dwyer also has that reckless rock ’n’ roll quality that makes it hard to take your eyes off of him. At any given moment he might drop his guitar or begin breaking his equipment.

Deer Tick
Speaking of breaking equipment, Providence-based Deer Tick ended their last SXSW performance by smashing their instruments to pieces in a tribute to Nirvana. The last part of that sentence isn’t just a lazy comparison — the band played a 1 a.m. show full of all Nirvana covers that was startlingly spot-on. But elsewhere in the week, John McCauley and company proved they are ready for the spotlight in their own right. Deer Tick’s Saturday afternoon set was at times bluesy, boozy and bordering on classic rock, a welcome sound in the Texas sun. A highlight was when McCauley took off his guitar, bummed a smoke from an audience member, and morphed into a lounge lizard for a rendition of “Ashamed,” the first song from the band’s debut album in 2007. That the band has been at it this long and is now starting to receive the acclaim they deserve proves that slow-and-steady is an option for SXSW success.

Wild Flag
Another act with a
classic-rock sound, Wild Flag is an unlikely supergroup of sorts.
Guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss used to be in
Sleater-Kinney together, Mary Timony was in Helium and Rebecca Cole was
in the Minders. If these names don’t ring a bell, don’t worry, because
with riffs that could fit right into any AC/DC or Stones tune and
melodies that surpass most of the material from their former bands, you
shall know them now as Wild Flag. The four women bop around onstage,
hardly able to contain their excitement for their songs, and to watch
Timony and Brownstein rock out together, they both deserve “plays well
with others” stickers for their report cards.

And the SXSW MVP goes to …

Twin Shadow was nearly omnipresent at this year’s festival. The new wave revival project of George Lewis Jr. probably banked the highest amount of reliable performances — this based on witnessing them three times, only one of which was planned.

And some more to be on the lookout for…

Friendly Fires

It feels really good to be reminded that the world probably
would have blown up in the ’80s if it weren’t for the healing power of
“Sussudio.” This group of multi-taskers features drums, guitar, a sax, a
trumpet, a bassist who also plays percussion and a singer who dances around
like a happy version of Morrissey and also plays a little bit of keys. It all
mixes together in an energetic and flamboyant sound.

Erland and the Carnival

This British band features guitarist Simon Tong from the
Verve, Blur and The Good, The Bad and The Queen, and they’re fronted by a
secret weapon you’ve previously never heard of named Erland Cooper. He’s so
lanky that he dwarfs his guitar and he dances like the music that the Carnival
plays behind him is shocking him. At times they sound like a grayer, more
English version of the Walkmen.

Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside

This Portland, Oregon group feel right out of the early
’60s, and we’ll be profiling them in depth more in the next few months. For
now, look up the song “Danger” and you’ll hear why they’re so exciting. Ford
herself sounds like an unstable, sex-crazed version of Millie, the singer who
in the ’60s brought us “My Boy Lollipop.”

Baby Baby

This five-piece band from Carrollton, Georgia dressed in jock shorts and sounded the way
that the Arcade Fire might if they were still having fun and not getting so
bummed out.

Yellow Ostrich

There’s a lot of pretty sound that comes from this
three-piece, but it almost seems like they’re concentrating so hard on the
multiple instruments they play and loop for the foundation, that they aren’t
able to exist comfortably within the song. At one point, the equipment that the
singer uses to loop his vocals konked out, and the show was delayed for a
number of minutes. They would have earned more points had they pushed through
and let the other two guys just repeat what was looped themselves. Also,
although we live in times where certain music does depend upon technology,
people do like to see what they’re hearing. And one must ask the question if
the overall audio experience adds up to the innovation you’re witnessing. With
YO, the answer is, sometimes. Despite these gripes, it must be said that this
band’s song “Mary” is absolutely beautiful.

Hayes Carll

This Texan plays music for good old boys and indie kids.

There’s something appealingly sinister about his simple
melodies and the way his hair hangs down and almost touches his strings as he
slumps over his guitar.

The following artists we have included before in the paper,
but they turned in such noteworthy performances that, well, we had to make note
of them.

Cass McCombs

McCombs started out his afternoon show at the French
Legation so slowly and unceremoniously that it was almost a surprise that he
wasn’t simply doing a soundcheck. But what unfurled was an engaging set of
mellow numbers that never full on rocked but occasionally drifted into jams
that sounded almost Allman Brothers influenced.

Wye Oak

This Baltimore duo is often quite moody in their sound, but
watching them live reveals more complexity, as Jenn Wasner smiles unabashedly
during the parts of the songs that she is psyched to play. It also must be said
that she is an absolute monster on the guitar!

Follow Pat Healy on Twitter at @metrousmusic.


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