Originally published on KDHX.org
As far as music festivals go, SXSW in Austin, Texas still reigns supreme. The entire event not only covers music but also film and interactive media, making it a hot-spot for startups, tech gurus and film buffs. But the music schedule is the bread and butter.
I calibrate my show schedule and start with the the heavy hitters first. I’ve always wanted to experience the soul salvation of Charles Bradley and it’s an added bonus that Spoon is headlining. After several reports of gray weather, the sky opens up and sunshine beams down, making an idyllic bike ride to Lady Bird Lake.
I catch the end of My Jerusalem, whose Pixies-style rock matches their buzz-worthy reputation – this is a band that could’ve headlined their own gig and I was sorry to have missed the first half of the set. Mac McCaughan takes the stage shortly thereafter. McCaughan alone is an interesting choice for this bill, but he’s a well-known name in music circles. As a founding member of the rock group Superchunk in the early ’90s, the North Carolina native made an even bigger name for himself by creating Merge Records, which would go on to feature some of the biggest bands of the past decade, like Spoon and Arcade Fire. McCaughan’s set is simple yet effective, doling out a Ted Leo vibe that is both bright and sentimental, but maybe not the best opener for a high energy soul machine like Bradley.
Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires tries to make the most of the sunshine on the stage. Bradley is a different animal from contemporaries such as Lee Fields. While both manage to receive the James Brown comparisons ad nauseum, Bradley tends to consistently earn the higher praise. He’s tasteful on flash, but his voice is where the fury is. Every tortured lyric is the sound of his soul leaving his body. After their opening salvo, the band kicks off “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)”, which is sure to make anyone a long-time listener. If you haven’t seen “Soul Of America,” about Bradley’s struggle and rise to soul stardom, put it in your queue. It’s a stellar documentary about a man who is on the fast track to becoming a living legend.
Spoon is late, but you simply can’t be in Austin and miss a free show with these hometown heroes made good and one of the biggest indie bands to ever capture success in both independent and commercial markets. It’s perfect weather for their light show, a backdrop that consists of large, white sheets that display the band’s shadows, looming behind them. It’s a captivating effect from a group that has never lost the public’s fascination. After a half-hour of nothing but hits like “Small Stakes” and “My Mathematical Mind” I grab the bike and head back into downtown.
I’m unable to make Australian folk-duo Luluc in time, so I catch garage-rockers The Stone Foxes upstairs at Maggie Mae’s. The rooftop is packed, people inching-up on tip toes to get a good view. The rock and roll quintet, skilled at taking the garage-revival pastiche and turning it on it’s head, have an infectious energy. Singer Aaron Mort leaps about while blasting harmonica through a bullet microphone. Their set ends with an cover of Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”, and coaxing the crowd into jumping up and down. The entire wooden floor shakes and for a brief moment, I am concerned about structural integrity. But a great band makes you question your safety.
Hip-hop dynamo Earl Sweatshirt is bringing staggering rhymes to a huge stage, but the crowd is so thick, you can’t get close. I spy a folded $100 bill on the ground, crowds of people just walking over it. It buys me my next round of drinks at the Cedar Street Courtyard, where I await the rock ‘n’ roll magical realism of King Tuff. Fashioned in hipster-glam, the band plays several cuts from their latest album, “Black Moon Spell” and close out with fan-favorite “Bad Thing.” A skunk mink is adorned to his guitar strap, while his Gibson SG has been decorated by a wild bedazzler. Bass player Magic Jake keeps the crowd engaged with stylized yowls and long hair glitter, heavy, fuzzed-out bass lines and backup vocals. He’s all smiles during the entire show, as he watches the crowd go wild.
I’d been hearing a lot about Leon Bridges. The promoters are so excited about this show, they’re handing out four free drink tickets, of which I only use two. Bridges is a throwback sound to a time long-gone of dulcet soul tones and R n’ B. Lately, I’ve had a problem with white musicians playing traditional black music for white audiences. If you’ve listened to bands like St. Paul and the Broken Bones, you know what I’m talking about. But Bridges is different. His highest talents come in the form of his voice and subtle guitar playing. He’s an incarnation of Sam Cooke. The second coming of Jackie Wilson. While newer bands are merely impersonating the past, Bridges has potential to bring back a golden era.
Lastly, I opt for Black Pistol Fire. Having played St. Louis twice last year, it’s always a standing order to see them whenever possible. The rock ‘n’ blues duo fire on all cylinders. Singer/guitarist Kevin McKeown jumps in the air for the drum hits, stomps both feet into the floor like he’s trying to break something. Drummer Eric Owen is a behemoth on the skins, pounding away like John Bonham with guttural, jungle beats that rattle your teeth. Owen’s fills sound like cannon fire and McKeown’s guitar lines are a bourbon-soaked whiplash that cuts into spine.
I had thought that arriving towards the end of the festival, the energy might be less, the spirit might be subdued. Looks like the action is just getting started.