Our busy Saturday started shockingly early. Local Austin station (and fellow VuHaus partner) KUTX hosted several days of music showcases along the river at the Four Seasons Hotel. These are undoubtedly for hometown folks (Surely no out-of-towners made the 7am start time!). The large hotel ballroom was overflowing with people when we arrived, in time to hear Austin pop collective Sweet Spirit work through a high-energy set. The impressive KUTX events are a hit with the station’s members and listeners, who pay $10 for a breakfast burrito and coffee, and 3-4 hours’ of music. The proceeds all benefit a local charity.
After a quick nap, we were at it again. And early on, a theme of bouncing between indie/rock and folk artists quickly emerged. LA’s SWIMM started the night with soaring rock vocals, which was followed by Toronto’s The Strumbellas, whose jangly folk had the near capacity crowd singing along. The jumpy electro pop/rock of Montreal’s Caveboy gave way to the quiet folk of a trio fromDes Moines, Iowa called Field Division.
Our final night of SXSW also signaled the penultimate performances of a few other notable acts. David Wax Museum played a sold-out unofficial day party at Licha’s Cantina; emerging Country artist Margo Price played indoors at Cheer Up Charlie’s with the crowd spilling out the doors; and Sunflower Bean was first on the bill at Hype Hotel, finishing an exhausting run of 12 shows throughout the festival.
Beloved Philly hip-hop collective The Roots also played a at Brazos Hall along with Big Boi and Phantogram collaboration Big Grams, but the line to get into the undersized venue stretched the length of an Austin city block on 4th street, then doubled back, then tripled back again, then started up Brazos Street around the corner. By our poor estimating skills, that appeared to be about 1500 people in line in front of us. At that point the venue was full and under a “one out, one in” policy, so it didn’t take long to calculate our odds of seeing The Roots. A three hour wait? No thank you. This had us looking to lesser know acts.
One such newcomer was Seattle native and former Portland Trailblazer Martell Webster, the latest NBA player to cross over into music. Webster was drafted by Portland out of high school in 2005 and has since played in Minnesota and Washington as a 3-point specialist, though his basketball career has been shortened by injuries. Last fall, Webster began to perform his music in public, and he released a new single last week called “Give it Up.” His debut album this summer will be on the Portland label EYRST.
Webster played a short 15-minute set at the Clive Bar patio, with producer Neill Von Tally. The crowd was fairly sparse and probably comprised a mix of the musically curious, and those just curious to see an NBA player make a move on a different kind of stage. Webster seemed to enjoy himself and worked to get the crowd warmed up. The set abruptly ended just as Webster found a good flow.
As the evening wore on, we caught a fantastic double-bill at Bar 96. Brooklyn’s Big Thief might have been the surprise of the festival. This relatively unknown act (at least to us), who just signed to Saddle Creek, is set to release their album, Masterpiece, in May. If their live show is any indication, the record will be a monster debut. The four piece group churned out song after impressive song of Americana-tinged indie rock with lead singer Adrienne Lenker delivering an attestation to the realities of life behind pleasantly messy guitar. All kinds of awesome here. Luckily, they’ll be at Mississippi Studios on Monday, March 28th if you want to catch them live yourself.
Next, Seattle’s Hibou rolled out an equally-impressive set filled with songs from their self-titled debut album. Frontman Peter Michel whispered his lyrics, but the surprisingly energetic performance captivated the crowd with soaring guitar hooks that almost sounded like synths and answered the question of what Duran Duran would have sounded like had they grown up in the Pacific Northwest.
At the outdoor venue Stubbs, The Heavy frontman Kelvin Swaby worked the crowd along the front of the wide stage, James Brown-style, imploring them to sing along, to dance, to make noise. And they did. The Heavy’s brassy swings from gritty Black Keys territory to roadhouse soul and back were tightly played and connected with the large audience. Swaby left the stage to work in the crowd at one point, disappearing from sight but still possible to track by the moving roar that followed him. The band’s staccato horns and Swaby’s voice are familiar from their many licensing deals (“How You Like Me Now” and “What Makes a Good Man” are almost ubiquitous on NBA and NFL broadcasts). This show was a reminder of what an entertaining live band they are.
The Heavy were impressive, but late night show that tied our journey together was Oklahoma City’s Horse Thief. Set in one of the wood-paneled halls of St. David’s church, they filled the room with guitarmonies and atmospheric songs. They managed to create an impressive contrast in dynamics that showcased all of the members and their ability to craft well-rounded songs. Singer Cameron Neal’s voice has a sort of frenetic patience, and the slow build to a climax is always wrought with tension. A new single is due in April with a full-length to follow later in the year.