The Memphis presence at Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival last week was mammoth, but no one wants to go to SXSW — where some 2,000 bands from around the world were playing, according to estimates — and only see bands you can see at home.
The charge to cover the local contingent and the necessity of heading home a day early meant that I saw less non-Memphis music this year than in any of my previous four SXSW trips. But I think my success rate with the bands I did see was the highest ever.
My experience with SXSW is that shows tend to fall into one of three categories: Hyped new bands you want to take the measure of, bands you see accidentally before or after what you've come to see, and old favorites — bands you already know you like — you want to check in on. This year, with such a tight schedule, the pleasant surprises were less plentiful, but I was fortunate enough to see multiple good shows in each of the other categories.
Buzz Bands: With their recent eponymous debut among my favorite early '09 albums, Scottish band Glasvegas was pretty high up on my festival "to see" list, and they had an overflow crowd by the time they took the stage Wednesday night at Vice. The band's set was uneven, but the small club still couldn't contain them. The loud, bass-heavy wallop of the music shook the walls and their catalog of soaring anthems and sing-along refrains demanded a bigger audience. If anything, the band seemed like a younger, less steady companion to Brit/Irish arena bands like U2, Coldplay, and Oasis. But there are crucial differences, and they are not just musical.
Stylistically, Glasvegas carves their sound from a combination of post-punk noise, '60s pop (think Phil Spector), and Springsteenian working-stiff rock. But I'm more struck by the difference in attitude and perspective — how much more literal and modest their music is compared to how big it sounds. When bands like U2 or Coldplay sing about salvation and succor it's invariably in the form of a God, an Ideal, or a Lust Object. When this band sings about an angel on your shoulder, it's a social worker. It's her job. Her name is Geraldine. And they give you the sense that in the hardscrabble world of missing parents, cheating hearts, and football cheers their music presents, the tangible function she serves is really important. People need all the help they can get.
All I knew about New Zealand indie-rockers Cut Off Your Hands before heading to Austin was the reams of good press they've been getting and how engaging they sounded from a cursory spin through their MySpace page. But they were playing just down the road from the Memphis Music Foundation showcase Thursday night, so I ducked out to take a look, and I really liked what I heard. The young, energetic band has a Spectorian pop undercurrent as well, which they polish off with jittery, sugary post-punk guitars and charismatic, florid lead vocals. I'll have to give their debut full-length You and I a close listen to decide if they have songs to match their sound, but the early returns are intriguing.
Friday night, I saw Pains of Being Pure at Heart, a New York band whose eponymous debut mixes a familiarly pleasant indie-pop sound with some strong songwriting. The band's gentle, melodic sound will draw comparisons to twee-pop stalwarts like Belle & Sebastian, but their music is a little rougher and more propulsive.
Old Favorites: Brooklyn's The Hold Steady is one of my favorite bands, so even though I'd seen them live a few times already, when I saw they were playing a day show with Memphians Lucero, that was too good to pass up. I don't think I've seen them in better form.
The band has become good friends with Lucero in recent years (Lucero frontman Ben Nichols sings backup on three songs from the Hold Steady's last album, Stay Positive), but this was the first time the two bands had played a show together, and Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn stood at the back of the stage during the beginning of Lucero's set, dancing and recording the show.
When the Hold Steady took the stage for their closing set, they made a mock-dramatic entrance to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Travelin' Band" (opening line: "747 coming out of the sky/Won't you take me down to Memphis on a midnight ride"), then launched into an ecstatic, tent-revival-like set that drew from all four of their albums. When they played the single "Sequestered in Memphis" (chorus refrain: "Subpoenaed in Texas/Sequestered in Memphis"), it neatly triangulated their relationship to the friends they followed and the city they were in.
Closing my festival experience late Friday night was a set from classic '70s-era glam-rock/proto-punk band The New York Dolls. Back in the early '70s, the Dolls released as good a pair of back-to-back albums (The New York Dolls and Too Much Too Soon) as rock-and-roll has ever seen, then pretty much fell apart. Reduced from the ravages of time to two original members (singer David Johansen and guitarist Sylvain Sylvain), the band made an unlikely comeback with 2006's beautiful, under-recognized One Day It Will Please Us To Remember Even This, an album that put a touchingly autumnal and utopian sheen on the band's hedonistic, provocative pairing of '60s pop and R&B with glam-punk.
The reconstituted Dolls have another record due out in May and were in Austin to drum up interest. I didn't know what to expect live, but I got more than I could have imagined. Johansen's voice and stage presence (imagine a smarter, deeper Mick Jagger) were compelling, the band sizzled, the crowd went nuts. The set drew primarily from the band's 1973 debut and 2006 comeback, with a couple of new songs sprinkled in. Newer gems like the mission statement "We're All in Love" and the party-starting "Dance Like a Monkey" sounded every bit as classic as 1973 untouchables "Personality Crisis" and "Looking for a Kiss."
On the strength of a mere three albums in 33 years, I tend to think the New York Dolls are as good a rock band as America has ever produced. After Friday night, I think they might be one of the best bands we have right now.
The Main Event: The Dolls and the Hold Steady played the two best live shows I saw in Austin, but the most momentous artist I saw was K'Naan, a Mogadishu-by-way-of-Canada rapper whose music blends hip-hop, afropop, and reggae.
K'Naan, who immigrated to North America as a teenager, released his debut album, The Dusty Foot Philosopher, last year. The album is a bit on the folkie side — compelling, but the music can't quite match the back story that drives it. K'Naan's second album, Troubador, was released this month, and it's a quantum leap musically and vocally. It's the best album I've heard so far this year, and if it isn't still in the top five at year's end, I'll be shocked.
Playing an early set at the Austin Music Hall Thursday night with a full live band, K'Naan started playing bongos on songs from Dusty Foot Philosopher, putting the instrument down to launch into Troubador's "T.I.A." It took a while for him to find his footing — the primacy of his voice and the feathery ebullience of his music both a little lost in the live mix. But he found his groove midway through, talking about hooking a beat up to Ethiopian jazz and converting it into hip-hop form as he kicked off "America," smoothing out the rap-metal of "If Rap Gets Jealous," then going a cappella to start the set-closing "Wavin' Flag."
This was a masterstroke, making the case from K'Naan's personal charisma and storytelling abilities unadorned. He instructed the audience on a call-and-response chorus, launched into an unaccompanied rap verse that segued from tragedy to comedy, then brought the band with him for a cathartic closing that made me wish his set were just getting started.
K'Naan's ambition is audacious, but so is his talent: He wants to be the hip-hop Bob Marley, picking up the baton the Fugees dropped. Being the next "Third World" musician to become a Western pop star doesn't seem enough for someone whose music is this accessible and urgent. I can't wait to see where he ends up.