Unfortunately, I wasn't able to score passes to see Bruce Springsteen at ACL's Moody Theater on Thursday night, but that left my evening open to do more. As a hardcore Springsteen fan, however, I wasn't about to miss his keynote address on Thursday morning, and I wasn't disappointed. If anything, I was pleasantly surprised. In years past, the keynote speaker has nearly always been a detailed couch interview that eventually found its way to the state of the music industry. This year was different, however.
Springsteen took his role seriously and arrived with a stack of loose notes and a prepared speech in which he didn't talk about himself so much as his inspirations and what drives musicians forward. Insightful, reflective and humorous, he paid homage to the greats that came before and nodded to the young bands that will carry the torch forward, both for rock and roll and for music in general. And after reciting a long list of music sub-genres represented at SXSW that left him and the audience both chuckling and gasping for air, he returned to that list to close, stating, "I think I may catch some black metal tonight."
Taking the Boss' words as a queue, I tried to keep my playbook as open as possible for the week and took in a little of everything. And by keeping an open mind and following the buzz on the streets, I reconnected with much of what I've come to love about SXSW and its diversity: a patio set by Thomas Dolby let me relive a touch of the '80s while Sleigh Bells took the big guitar riffs of that era and drug them kicking and screaming into the modern era. Jam bands coexisted with stoner rock, punk and singer-songwriters and although it all seems like a huge conflict, it all made sense in the grand scheme of things.
Mostly, magic abounded on the streets of Austin for four days and nights. And although I can't give you the entire rundown, I can share a few of the highlights.
Let it Rock
Over the course of the week, I got to indulge my rock fix. While I had a blast in the pit with an audience largely 10-15 years younger than me with Say Anything and was blown away with the muscular roots inflected rock of Heartless Bastards, the most defining rock moment of the week was catching Band of Skulls at The Haven on Wednesday night. After being introduced to the band by a friend last fall, they've become one of my favorite newer bands, but this was my first chance to see and hear them live. Throwing down a smoldering rock show that falls somewhere between The Black Keys and Led Zeppelin, I walked away fully impressed and with an ear to ear grin, especially after meeting bassist Emma Richardson briefly on the sidewalk on my way out to the next show. Yes, standing right outside -- that's part of the magic of South By.
While there are plenty of big name bands playing SXSW, their sets aren't just about playing the hits. In most cases, the major acts have either just released new albums or have new releases on the horizon. With that in mind, I caught a mix of old favorites and new tunes when Keane played at Stubb's, but I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see Norah Jones at La Zona Rosa when I found out that her set was strictly a preview of her new album, Happy Pills, which was produced by Danger Mouse and is due for release in May. Armed with a new band as well as new songs, it was the perfect way to open my Saturday night and get the kind of new music fix that only SXSW can offer.
Sometimes it the small things like bumping into Emma Richardson on the sidewalk or looking up in the convention center and realizing you're standing next to both Matt Pinfield and Thomas Dolby that make you think, "Only at SXSW." Those moments are merely a hint at what's to come on stage however, if you're in the right place at the right time. This year's surprises came when Chuck Ragan jumped on stage to join Dan Andriano (of Alkaline Trio) when he broke a guitar string and when Wayne Kramer (of MC5) called Tulsa's own JD McPherson on stage at the Swan Dive on Friday night. And even though Springsteen didn't make a cameo appearance at Tom Morello's Friday night gig, I couldn't help but be giddy when Morello, Wayne Kramer and Billy Duffy (of The Cult) all appeared together during Kramer's set or when Morello closed out the night by taking his show outside and onto the streets to close out with "This Land Is Your Land" and "World Wide Rebel Songs."
Best Band You Haven't Heard
When an a single band cleaned house at the Austin Music Awards, winning six trophies including band of the year, male vocalist and album of the year, I had to find out just who Quiet Company was. As a result, I cleared my calendar on Saturday night and made sure to be there when the band hit the stage for their final showcase of the week.
What I got wasn't what I expected at first glance. Six young bearded guys, all clad in dark shirts and ties started off into what could have become just one more exercise in self-important indie rock, but turned into something more. Yes, all the indie touchstones are there, but this group bends barriers and expectations and leans into the experimentation of MuteMath at one end and the modern rock psychedelia of School of Fish at the other. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for these guys, because they won't be sequestered in Austin for long, and I'm sure Tulsa will be early in their list of cities to hit once touring commences.
The Final Verdict
By the end of the week, I was both refreshed and exhausted. Sunday arrived, and although I was ready to head home and sleep in my own bed, I couldn't bear to leave just yet, so a final stop on Sunday afternoon led us to one last beer and a solid set by Nashville singer-songwriter Allen Thompson, who would fit in nicely at The Colony on a Friday night -- yet another reminder that I needed to head home.
More than anything else, though, the week immersed in music rekindled that old love affair with music and reminded me why I always circle back to the mysterious mistress. After all, like the Stones said: "It's only rock and roll, but I (love) it."
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