Wednesday, March 19, 2014

SXSW 2014

Okay, so I went to SXSW this year.  I didn't have a wristband or a badge or anything, but I went to some shows to see some bands and drink a beer or two with my friends.  I had a lot of fun.  For the most part, we had nice weather and the folks were friendly and having a good time.
I saw a number of bands, and I think that every single act that I saw was new to me.  Most of them I had never heard at all, either recorded or live.
I saw a bunch of different acts, but, in keeping with the spirit of this blog, I'll just sort of highlight the ones here that were actually from the Austin area.

(The Rocketboys)
I started out on Wednesday afternoon seeing a band called The Rocketboys at Javelina Bar over on Rainey Street.  The Rocketboys were pretty good.  A friend of mine, Josh, was friends with some of the guys since college, so he turned me on to their show.  We wandered around for most of the afternoon listening to music.  The Rocketboys played what I would describe as a sort of very listenable power pop.  Their music had lots of layering and effects.  It was very accessible, had a quick enough tempo to keep your foot tapping, and seemed pretty tight.  The Rocketboys were pretty good.

Later on Wednesday I saw The Loblolly Boy and Good Field at Up Collective on Cesar Chavez. 

In fairness, I only saw part of The Loblolly Boy.  Apparently normally they have more members, but on Wednesday they were playing as a sort of singer-songwriter two piece. An acoustic guitar and two singers, a man and a woman.  They had nice melodies and good voices.  They were pretty mellow,and I only caught about three songs, but I liked what I heard.

(Good Field)
Good Field came next.  My friend, Josh, was also friends with guys in this band, and I met Dan, their guitar player and hung out with him a bit before the show.  Good Field is also from Austin, and I guess I would describe their music as sort of pop/alternative.  Their lead singer had a good voice, their music was easy to listen to, and they had pleasant melodies.

In the end, I guess I felt like both Rocket Boys and Good Field were pretty good bands, each one easy to listen to, but from the limited amount that I heard, they didn't really stand out a whole lot.  I feel kind of weird being a little critical of bands where I'm sort of a friend of a friend of the members, but I'm writing a music blog here.  Also, this is only my opinion, and it's not as if I've never gotten any criticism of my own band from friends and family.  You gotta have a bit of a thick skin if you wanna make music.
Neither band was bad!  It's just that when you're seeing shows at SXSW, you're typically seeing a lot of music in a week.  If a band is just pretty good, but sounds a whole lot like a bunch of other pop bands without anything especially distinctive about it to make it stand out, you sort of realize that the band has a pretty good chance of getting lost amongst the huge number of other bands that are out there.  Of course, I'd never heard either band before, and I was listening to both The Rocket Boys and Good Field in outdoor venues where the acoustics weren't perfect.  I couldn't really make out many lyrics, so maybe that was part of the problem.  Each band, though, seemed to be heavily invested in accessible melodies, guitar and keyboard effects, and mildly catchy tunes.  In short, both bands seemed to be focused on remaining tasteful, inoffensive, and enjoyable.  All of that is fine, but ultimately, I didn't find the tunes or rhythms to be attention-grabbing or the musicianship to be exceptional.  There wasn't anything in these bands to hate, but I was having a hard time finding something to love.

After Good Fields I got on my bike and pedaled my way back across town through the gridlock of SXSW traffic (easier to navigate on a bike!) to Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop where I met up with Amy.  I met up with her to see Rhettt Miller, the lead singer of the Old 97's, who played an acoustic set at the KEXP showcase.  The Old 97's are technically a Dallas band, but Miller is originally from Austin, and he was playing by himself, so I guess that's good enough to qualify him for this blog!
Miller's set was good.  He played mostly all Old 97's songs, including some new tunes as well as old favorites.  Miller isn't the most amazing guitar player (he doesn't play a lot of solos or tricky guitar licks or anything), but his performances are fast, intense, and full of energy.  I like his voice, and his lyrics are just about perfect for the sort of modern country dance hall rock that he plays.  It was a fun set.

On Thursday I took some time off work in the afternoon and met up with Josh.  We wandered over to the roof at Whole Foods and saw some music.  We saw Los Lonely Boys.  Technically I guess Los Lonely Boys are from San Angelo, but they've placed in Austin enough to have a semi-local feel, so, once again, I'm deeming them eligible for mention.
Los Lonely Boys were really good.  They've been getting radio play for years, so it might be redundant to describe their sound, but for those who haven't heard them, they have a style that combines sort of classic blues guitar rock with some Latin beats and soulful harmonies.  They were a really fun band to listen to.  Henry Garza is a really strong guitar player, with some catchy rhythm parts and some smooth, melodic solos.  Los Lonely Boys aren't terribly original, but they write some music that makes you feel good, and they support it with talent.

I think Josh took off sometime during Los Lonely Boys, but my friend and fellow bandmate, Reed, showed up in time to see SPEAK, another local Austin band.  SPEAK were pretty good.  They were a really tight band.  They had not only a strong lead singer, but good backing vocals.  They had a sound which once again sounded a bit like guitar and keyboard driven pop, but their guitar, rhythm and vocal parts seemed a little more complex and interesting than some of the other stuff I had heard.  I have to admit that it took me a moment to get into them because they were sort of decked out in semi flashy hipster outfits, but when I actually tuned in more carefully to the music, I realized that they were actually playing some fairly intricate stuff and performing it well.  Both Reed and I were grudgingly admitting by the end of their set that they were (despite the white leather shoes, coiffed hair, and skinny jeans) actually a good group.

(East Cameron Folkcore)
Probably the last local act that I saw was East Cameron Folkcore.  They're a band with like eight or more members, including trombone, cello, mandolin, guitar, bass, drums, multiple backup singers, etc., from Austin, Texas.  I really liked them.  There were quite a few larger bands this year at SXSW.  It seems to be the new trend, following the success of other large acts like Arcade Fire, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and others.  East Cameron Folklore stood out, though.  They had a lot of energy, a lot of attitude, and an interesting sound.  There was a bit of country-ish wailing in their vocals and harmonies, but at the same time, I felt like their attitude almost bordered on punk (the musicianship was better than in a punk band- I'm just talking attitude).  East Cameron Folklore gave off the vibe of a small backwoods clan who had wandered onto a stage together looking to start a bar fight.  They were cool.  If they reminded me of Arcade Fire a bit, they would be Arcade Fire with a few members of The Pogues thrown in for good measure.
I would definitely check out East Cameron Folkcore again, and I plan on doing so if I get the chance.

So that was SXSW from a local perspective for me.  I saw other acts, but not local ones.  Our local bands did us proud!  I didn't see any Austin acts that I thought were bad.  SPEAK and East Cameron Folkcore, in particular, both stacked up their pretty well against most of the national and international acts that I saw from around the country.

Looking forward to next year!!