Tragedy Hangs Over SXSW After Two Days of Music

Wednesday, March 12

Dana Plonka
La Luz

At Waterloo Records I took in four female-fronted bands over four hours: La Luz, Ex Hex, Speedy Ortiz and Hospitality. The strong lineup for the free parking-lot party began with La Luz, a primitive surf-rock band that stressed Shana Cleveland's fleet leads and three-part harmonies on more "Oooo Oooos" than you ever imagined could fit in a single set. Even better was Ex Hex, led by Mary Timony (of the bands Helium and Wild Flag), a terrific proto-punk songwriter and singer, and underrated guitarist. Every song is like an homage to "Sweet Jane" and the Ramones -- and this is very good thing. Ex Hex is playing in St. Louis at the Firebird on March 17. Do not, I repeat, do not miss them.

Dana Plonka
Ex Hex

Speedy Ortiz lived up to its notices with a cascade of fuzz, furious drumming and tart songs that came and went before I had a chance to pinpoint just what I liked about them. Favorite moment: "This song is called 'Taylor Swift, Showcasing Artist,'" followed by a wall of sweet sludge. I contrast, what Merge Records band Hospitality lacks in charisma it compensates for in increasing instrumental expertise, rotating members across keys and guitar and drums. Still, somehow the band doesn't quite capture on stage what it has on record.

Dana Plonka
Speedy Ortiz

Dinner would have to wait (and never happen now that I think of it) as the Hold Steady was performing at sunset at the IFC Fairground stage. I've loved no rock band more in the last decade and here's why: Craig Finn and his band play every show, not quite like it's their last, but because it might be your first. Starting with "I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You," from its new album Teeth Dreams, the band celebrated its third day in Austin and invited everyone to clap along. The new material has a darkness on the edge of the towns Finn revisits, and for all the joy the Hold Steady expresses, those songs really have been dark all along. But somehow the thrill of living and singing and raising one more beer to a great American band never fades, at least not for me, and I'm always transported at its shows, no matter where they take me.

One should always take musical chances at SXSW, so I did just that at bar called Rowdy's Saloon with an actual, operational mechanical bull (no riders though) and a band from New Orleans called Deslondes, featuring former members of Hurray for the Riff Raff. The hillbilly honky-tonk swing sounded just right, somehow. Danceable, lonesome music often does.

Roy Kasten

There are giant names at SXSW (Lady Gaga, Neil Young, and appearances by Kanye West and Jay-Z if you have the right kind of phone or know someone who does) and then there is Donnie Fritts -- a giant, if ever there was one, of the Muscle Shoals soul scene, a songwriter who worked with Arthur Alexander and Kris Kristofferson (to barely scratch the service) and new friend to fellow Alabama resident John Paul White of the Civil Wars. White joined Fritts on stage at the Market Tap Room, and the two played some of Fritts' best-known songs, including the gorgeous hit "We Had It All," as well as some new material from an album produced by White. Fritts was in great spirits and excellent voice, and I was lucky to have seen his set.

But one doesn't always have to chances at SXSW, and a sure thing like the Felice Brothers at the Cedar Creek patio was just that. Hitting on just few new songs the band focused on sing-alongs like "Run Chicken Run" and had a packed house twang-moshing along for the full set. I was struck by just how good the Brothers are as musicians -- and then they throw all their skill to wind and just play their hearts out.

Roy Kasten
Felice Brothers

My first and surely best punk band of SXSW 2014 turned out to be New York's So So Glos at Karma, a club with a "dance floor" barely big enough for a mosh pit, but mosh we did. The lead singer nearly crippled a young woman in the front row with a shoulder hug before realizing she wasn't the close friend he thought she was. She didn't care and kept right on dancing.

Roy Kasten
So So Glos

Then, to end the night, it was X at Mohawk at the scene of the crime that I was lucky not to witness. Inside, John Doe, Billy Zoom, Exene Cervenka and D.J. Bonebrake blasted through a full set with everything and nothing to prove. There could be no better rock band in town this evening. From "White Girl" to "We're Desperate" to "Breathless" to a furious version of "Soul Kitchen," the band really did seem ageless. And Billy Zoom's guitar rig should be studied by every rocker in town; the tone and force of his riffs just roared and roared. People crowd surfed. Beer flew in the air. Only the crew backstage and the VIPs on the balcony knew what was happening out in the street.

Roy Kasten

And so, as many have already said on this very sad day, my thoughts, while still filled with the power of music, are with those who might need such thoughts. Be safe tonight and tomorrow and all the tomorrows after.

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