The amazing thing about the South By Southwest Festival and why I keep coming back year after year despite the obvious toll it takes on my body is that you can see the hottest, most talked-about bands the same day you see some all-time classics, sometimes in clubs literally next door to each other.
There’s simply too much to write about to fit into 1,000 words, which is why you should check out the full coverage online at thereader.com. Here’s a capsule summary of the best of the best the festival had to offer over the course of my three days spent in Austin.
The Ettes — Despite having a tough(er) garage punk sound, the Nashville band will never shake its “cute factor” with adorable little Lindsay “Coco” Hames at the lead, her sassy voice bordering on boopsy at times (but Patsy at most). Countering her cuteness was the vicious cool of drummer Maria “Poni” Silver, who looked like she could take you AND your buddy in a fight, and look damn good doing it.
Blood Orange – You might remember him from his other band, Lightspeed Champion, which recorded its debut at Omaha’s ARC Studio four years ago. As Blood Orange, Dev Hynes stands alone torturing an electric guitar Prince-style, backed by prerecorded tracks. With this project, Hynes has turned his back on chamber pop for something more rock, soul and funk-based, fueled by astringent guitar solos.
The Wedding Present – It’s as if time has stood still for the classic British band’s frontman David Gedge. He looked and sounded as he did in the ’90s, despite being in his early 50s. If you’re going to do a reunion, you best do it like this, without missing a single, stripped down, bass-fueled, cocksure, angular beat.
Fiona Apple – Thousands were on hand at the massive Stubb’s outdoor amphitheater to see the same ol’ flaccid Fiona I remembered from the ’90s, a woman who always got by more on her looks than her talent. Her music this night had more in common with wonky Broadway show tunes than rock, fueled by awkward arrangements and her own awkward stage presence (though the crowd ate it up).
Sharon Van Etten followed Fiona on the same stage. Backed by a four-piece band and with guitar in hand, she performed a stunning set of indie folk reminiscent of Chan Marshall (Cat Power), but with better melodies.
Zola Jesus — The most hyped indie act since Lana Del Ray, though LDR has managed to leverage her hypeness into international fame. Zola Jesus is merely creating a rather massive cult of followers who view her as a second coming, and based on this performance, they may be onto something. Frontwoman Rosa Danilova is an indie Gaga — slight and almost fragile, wearing a ghost-white silky one-piece translucent draped dress, the tiny woman exploded into stage calisthenics the minute her band broke into their dreamy, spiritual post-ambient rock that featured synths, guitar and drums.
Freedy Johnston – Played to a half-empty lounge on the 18th Floor of the Hilton Garden Inn, the ‘90s indie legend complained of a rough throat and apologized for his voice, but sounded just fine as he played all the favorites, including “Evie’s Tears” “Bad Reputation” and “Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know.”
Neon Trees — The Provo-based band has one of the best frontmen in the business — the amazing Tyler Glenn. The second he takes the stage in his faux hawk and gold leather pants you know he means business, and if you don’t, he’s going to let you know, right to your face. Musicwise, someone obviously grew up listening to The Cars, along with more modern pop like The Killers, a band that helped Neon Trees get signed to Mercury.
Glen Hansard – Known for his bands The Frames and The Swell Season, as well as being the hunky leading man and Oscar winner for the music in the 2007 film Once, Hansard played a half hour of fantastic personal folk, just him and his worn-to-shit acoustic guitar.
Purity Ring – Performing in the massive Central Presbyterian Church, the electronic dance duo played a haunting set lit only by colored electric lanterns made all the more dramatic from the church’s spooky confines.
Jesus and Mary Chain – The Reid Brothers may be older, but they haven’t lost any of their style. Jim’s voice was distinctively lower and grainier, but still had that thing that makes it unique. Meanwhile, brother William slouched off to the side with his axe and blew us all away with shear volume. Among the hour-plus of hits: “Just Like Honey” and “Head On.” A perfect moment.
Grimes — Pixie-ish DJ/vocalist Claire Boucher worked electronic backing tracks and sang brittle dance music cast with a gothy Japanese sheen. Thick, deep beats balanced her light, cooing voice. Later in the set a guy/person added even more percussion, but despite the head-bouncing beat, few (if any) were dancing.
The Men – Performing at the coolest bike store you’ll ever see — Mellow Johnny’s – the red hot Brooklyn punk band played an afternoon show for about 50 fans and bike enthusiasts. Loud and fast and raw, they sport dueling guitars and a couple solid vocalists/screamers, but like a lot of bands in this genre, it all began to sound the same after three songs.
Icky Blossoms – Saddle Creek’s most recent signing kicked off the label’s showcase at Lamberts, a barbecue restaurant on 2nd St. So many people from Nebraska were in the room it felt like watching a show at O’Leaver’s or The Waiting Room. Needless to say, the audience was gracious with its applause for IB’s always-sexy set.
Eleanor Friedberger — After a day of ear-bleeding noise, it was a treat to hear the Merge Records artist perform an intimate solo acoustic set. Friedberger is a modern-day Joni or Janis (or Bowie), but with a self-assured lyrical voice that’s never cloying. Her songs can be sad, but are sung with a voice laced in persistence, sounding not so much like an optimist, but a survivor.
Crooked Fingers — In addition to once releasing a solo album on Saddle Creek, frontman Eric Bachmann has the distinction of (at times) having a voice that’s a dead ringer for Neil Diamond. With a solid backing band and a rack filled with guitars, Bachmann and Co. ripped through a set of folk rockers that at its finest moments recalled Richard Thompson.
Imperial Teen – They’ve been around literally forever, and by that, I mean since the ’90s. Beyond that, I knew virtually nothing about the band, which resembled a group of aging schoolteachers. Don’t let appearances fool you — they rocked like The Pixies but without the pretention.
Bob Mould – The hero from such bands as Husker Du and Sugar strode on stage with his classic blue Fender, surrounded by a stack of Marshall amps. These days he looks like a wizened college professor or scientist, sporting a gray beard and extra pounds around the middle. With no fanfare, he glanced over at bassist Jason Narducy (Telekinesis, ex-Verbow) and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk) and said, “I guess let’s just go” and tore into the opening chords of “The Act We Act,” the first song on Sugar’s landmark album, Copper Blue. The crowd, of course, exploded. Mould sounded fantastic, his guitar work as lethal as ever, his voice achingly familiar. From there it was right into “A Good Idea,” “Changes” and “Helpless,” one after another from the same record, each a heartbreaking anthem. Unreal.
So much for South By Southwest for 2012. The old guys — Jesus and Mary Chain and Bob Mould — were the standouts this year, though performances by Sharon Van Etten, Zola Jesus, Neon Trees, Eleanor Friedberger, Grimes and our very own Icky Blossoms also were on top of my list. And you’re goddamn right I’m coming back next year.