Austin, Texas ' SXSW 2013 really got going Wednesday, its first full-on day and night. Music was everywhere in the Texas capitol, from patios to bars, street corners to sandwich shops, hotel lobbies to courtyards.
Our approach to SXSW Wednesday: To see music we'd never seen before. Sure, we could have waited in line for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at Stubb's or caught his legendary rock peer Iggy Pop across the street at the Mohawk. But instead we started out with a one-man, Austin-rooted explosion of Americana called Shakey Graves and closed out with the revisionist sounds of Northern Ireland's Girls Names.
Shakey Graves was our first band of the day, playing the Music Media Welcome Party in a gallery outside the popular ACL Live venue. The band's creative force, Alejandro Rose-Garcia, recognized that he was playing a chatty networking event. But wearing a simple wife beater and suspenders, he went ahead with his alt jive and made the most of it, making a few fans along the way.
Later on we caught Rosco Bandana, a six-piece indie folk act from Mississippi playing the downtown Omni's hotel lobby. While that venue sounds obnoxious, it's one of the better hotel-rooted venues ' as the lobby's atrium stretches up 14 stories, allowing the music to hang in the air and linger. The band's harmonies were legit, as was the two-guitar-and-mandolin approach, but at times they were a bit precious. And yes, one of them (the dreaded-out mando player) did wear a bandana. Sigh.
We hopped back across town to ACL Live proper to see Spinner's excellent showcase. The room, only two years old, is unquestionably the best large venue at the festival. And seeing L.A.-based Family of the Year there, with its melancholic Triple A radio-bait songs, was a pleasure. The band has one of those dynamics that makes it really listenable, going from a wistful folk-rock ballad to a grandiose take on indie rock that sounds almost too similar to the Shins with ease and legitimate grace. (Or maybe singer Joe Keefe just sometimes sounds like James Mercer?) The band's four dudes handled the harmonies ably, but they were at their best while singing in unison, with the backing of an athletic drummer who drove the songs along.
One of the festival's buzziest bands is clearly Lord Huron, another L.A. band, and its set at Spinner's party was quite pretty ' lulling, even ' though not as memorable as Family of the Year's set. The five-piece's music thrives on its strong melodies, driven by three guitars, a lovely voice and Abercrombie-styled good looks. Singer Ben Schneider had a snare drum in front of him, and he didn't hesitate using it, or its rim, which gave the songs a crackling crispness.
Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines ' rocking very dark, very short hair ' was next at ACL Live, and her solo return to the world of live performance is some of the biggest news in Austin this week. Her set, complimented by the guitar work (and songwriting) of Ben Harper, was a subdued, covers-heavy collection that never transcended its potential. Her seven-piece band took on Pink Floyd's "Mother' and Jeff Buckley's "Lover, You Should've Come Over.' Neither cover was brilliant, but they were stylistic touchstones on what filled in the rest of the set. Maines credited Harper with a couple of the far-from-memorable originals. To her credit, Maines was the most comfortable on the stage, owning the expansive space like the experienced bandleader (with history in many, many stadiums) she is. Her voice is still completely intact, and that was the best part of her set: She still sounds amazing, with that authoritative, slightly-twanged howl that ruled over FM radio for so long.
We finally left ACL Live for the cozier, divier confines of Rusty's Austin, just one block off the main 6th Street drag, for the guitar-driven madness of Reignwolf. Reignwolf is Jordan Cook, and he started his frenzied set with a fierce "Electric Love.' The 30 minutes was the highlight of the night, with sweat dripping from his brow and him crawling all over the stage's speakers/drums. After three songs, he was joined by a guitarist (playing through a bass amp) and a drummer, and even though the set was plagued by technical difficulties, for all those times his guitar came unstrapped and his kick drum pedal fell out of place, his passionate, adrenaline-inspired ingenuity shined through. At one point, before the band joined him, he wandered to the back corner of the stage while still playing his guitar, then moved to behind the drum kit, sat down and began playing both instruments simultaneously. Surely this is what he does, his shtick, but it's a beautiful shtick that works ' the percussion of a drumstick violently slapping his guitar strings and inspiring wild screams from the packed bar. Did I mention he then covered Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain' by himself on an electric mandolin? Yeah, another shtick, but who cares ' it was the best moment of our day. A+ for sheer creativity and enthusiasm.
Our last band of the night was Northern Ireland's Girls Names, a Cure-inspired, noise-loving act that played a late-night slot at the Iron Bear. The small crowd at the set was treated to a loose but inspired set of revisionist rock. At times it seemed to lack direction, but surely all that swirling reverb was intended. It's the kind of music that works better on record than on stage, but still, we could use more of that shoegazey aesthetic.