The dilemma at the annual South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin is choosing between great bands you’ve seen before and taking a risk on acts you’ve only heard or heard about.
For me, the latter approach usually wins out and this year, I didn’t see anyone I didn’t like. I did, however, discover seven artists that I loved:
1) Wussy – Chuck Cleaver of the Ass Ponys traded lead vocals with Cincinnati guitarist-singer Lisa Walker on a ferocious set of soul-ravaged, Southern-tinged diatribes that didn’t lash out at ex-lovers and broken promises so much as lacerate them. Don’t believe the name – Wussy rocks. Hard.
2) Tilly and the Wall – This Omaha co-ed quintet’s spirited unison vocals and perky melodies were enough to qualify them for most adorable band of the festival. But tap-dancer Jamie Pressnall, who gives their concerts their percussive clout as well as their fun focal point, clinched it.
3) The Ting Tings – Indescribable British alt-pop duo lived up to its buzz with thundering beats, thrashing guitars, loads of shouting and a frenetic showstopper (“That’s Not My Name”) that deserves to become this year’s “Hey Ya.”
4) Jeremy Fisher – In concert, this Vancouver singer-songwriter channeled his heroes in their pop prime (“Me and Julio”-era Paul Simon, “Highway 61”-era Bob Dylan). But his youthful exuberance and lyrical flair clearly establish him as more of a fan than a follower.
5) Dan le Sac vs Scroobius Pip – Everyone came to hear “Thou Shalt Always Kill,” the pulsating mp3 sensation that made this British DJ and spoken-word poet overnight stars (if only for the couplet “Thou shalt not judge a book by its cover/ thou shalt not judge ‘Lethal Weapon’ by Danny Glover”). But they tolerated the overcrowded dance floor and poor sight-lines for a fierce set that found Pip rapping about everything from pop culture to the periodic table of elements with equal passion.
6) Care Bears on Fire – This Brooklyn trio of seventh-graders romped through such age-appropriate punk anthems as “Met You on Myspace” and “(Don’t Wanna Be Like) Everybody Else” like they were headlining CBGB’s on a Friday night instead of a bar-room patio on a weekday afternoon.
7) Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears – This Austin blues-soul collective’s first song sounded like “Soul Finger.” Their second sounded like “Cold Sweat.” By the third song, I didn’t know what year it was – I just knew I didn’t want to leave it.