Monday, April 4, 2011


Joy Formidable
Joy Formidable performs SXSW.
photos by Steven Thomson

The Bangles
The Bangles
photo by StevenThomson

by Steven Thomson

South By Southwest is an event that every devout music should experience at least once in their life. In addition to being one of the world's great four-day street parties, SXSW is a chance to see and hear music of all genres from all over the world.

I recently attended my 20th SXSW and managed to catch 36 different shows over five days. It requires planniUMEng, proper logistics and the ability to be on your feet all day and most of the night.

In between catching performers from Mexico, Japan and Australia, I had a few chances to catch up with some of the brilliant musicians from the home of SXSW,Austin. If you have a chance to see Sahara Smith, Megafauna, Ugly Beats or Ume on tour, don't hesitate to catch them.

La SeraIn addition to showcases, SXSW is filled with free events. One of the largest is held in the parking lot of Waterloo Records, the best place in Austin to buy music and music related items. Waterloo hosted six or seven acts on each of the four days of SXSW.

It was at Waterloo that I was able to see Wild Flag, the new project that brings together former Sleater Kinney members Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss with Mary Timony of Helium. Wild Flag rocked out and will certainly satisfy fans of former bands.

Vivian Girls bassist Katy Goodman brought her solo project, La Sera, to Waterloo for a brief set of the band's engaging poppish sounds. La Sera played on an afternoon bill that also included the fabulous Dum Dum Girls and England's Joy Formidable, which got a great reception from the guitar playing antics of Ritzy Bryan.

Dum Dum Girls
Dum Dum GirlsDum Dum Girls
Dum Dum Girls performs SXSW.
photos by Steven Thomson

Dance pop sensation Oh Land! also played along with Baltimore duo Wye Oak.

Just about any store front, parking lot, club or back yard that could be set up to host music was pressed into service during SXSW. I went to a small parking lot in front of a strip mall clothing Sahara Smithstore to catch Chicago's Secret Colours, an outstanding psychedelic rock band that brought me back to the 60s.

Spider House combined with some other small businesses to put together four different stages. It did not take much effort to see long running Australian rock legends The Chevelles, Japanese indy pop duo Puffy Shoes and several others.

It took a bit more effort to get to a backyard party presented by Manhattan music outlet Other Music, but it was worth it to see Sharon Van Etten present a half-hour set from her oustanding new album.

Many acts who come to SXSW play multiple shows in addition to their scheduled showcase. Leslie Stevens played eight solo shows in addition to her showcase with her usual Los Angeles band, The Badgers. Stevens is immensely talented and is one of my favorite acts in the crowded So Cal scene.

Leslie Stevens
Leslie Stevens
photo by Steven Thomson

For fans of female fronted rock bands, showcases didn't come much better suited that a Thursday event hosted by Austin's Girls Rock Camp. Pop legends The Bangles headlined a five-act bill that included four younger bands. The show began with Shel, four classically trained sister from Fort Collins, Colorado. Sick of Sarah from Minneapolis and Austin's own Schmillion followed. My favorite of the night turned out to be Smoosh, a power pop band from Seattle that obviously learned a lot from bands such as the Bangles and Go-Go's.

Seattle's Smoosh at SXSW 2011
photograph by Steven Thomson

Wednesday took me on a tour of the variety of music that SXSW is best known for. Starting out with Gold Motel, the new pop project of former Hush Sound front person Greta Morgan. I then went to the world famous Antones, where Nicole Atkins turned in a spirited show that earned her praise from numerous sources such as Time Magazine, the New York Times and the LA Times.

One of my favorite shows took place at 1 a.m. at a small venue called Momo's. It was the first Texas show in more than a decade by Tracy Bonham, a Boston based musician best known as the vocalist and violin player for Blue Man Group. At Momo's, Bonham's set included seven songs from her remarkable new album, Masts of Manhatta. Bonham is one of the music industry's most underlooked talents and hopefully her shows at SXSW will give her career a kick start.

Wild FlagWild Flag
Wild Flag
photos by Steven Thomson

I have never watched a single episode of the reality TV show American Idol. I never cared for any of the musicians until I heard the debut album of Crystal Bowersox, whose lively mix of pop, country and humor is well suited for her voice. Bowersox played a great set at SXSW with new and older songs.

Another new songstress I happened to catch was Ximena Sarinana from Mexico. It was a combination of English and Latin pop, sung in both languages.

I also loved the Butts, a duo from Seattle featuring Rachel Ratner on guitar and vocals and Shannon Perry on drums. Their brief show mixed with short punk songs with bits of off color comedy. It was very engaging and proved that music need not be serious.

Suck Piggy
Suck Piggy
photo by Steven Thomson

Butts played at Headhunters, a venue so small it makes the Redwood seem spacious by comparison. Putting a lot of people into a small space turned watching a show into a contact sport for the Japanese quarter Suck Piggy. Billing themselves as "death punk," Suck Piggy's lead singer combined making a racket with attempts at crashing into members of the audience.

Cloud Control proved to be a lot more sedate, with keyboardist and vocalist Heidi Lenffer leading the Sydney, Australia quartet through some very engaging pop song.

River City Tanlines
River City Tanlines
photo by Steven Thomson

I have been a fan of the Memphis rock band River City Tanlines for more that a decade, so it was an easy decision to catch them again. Guitarist Alicja Trout was in great form, shouting out the punkish songs while playing great guitar licks.