Austin For its 27th year, it seems as though South by Southwest will be a battle between the Davids and the Goliaths.
Walking the marketing-choked streets (the three-story Doritos stage is back, and the sponsored spaces seem at once more carefully hidden and more pervasive), the buzz is centered not on upstarts, but rather heavyweights: Green Day and Dave Grohl's all-star Sound City Players are set to perform later this week, and reports indicate Justin Timberlake and Prince may turn up in Austin before all is said and done. Such star power -- these Goliaths of the music industry -- tends to blot out what SXSW is generally intended to showcase -- talent on its way up, and in need of open ears.
But the Davids of the biz aren't going down without a fight, and bearing that in mind, I set out Tuesday night to find a cross-section of acts who are on the verge of great things, with a few locals mixed in. I started off with singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe, whose recent release Like a Rose is top-shelf country, and despite winning tracks like the slyly funny Weed Instead of Roses, she didn't quite captivate the crowd the way I hoped she would.
From Monroe's breezy, twangy tunes, I spun in almost the complete opposite direction with the Denton-formed Brutal Juice's seething hardcore punk. The band, which split in 1997 but officially reunited last year (and has an album due out later this year), hasn't lost a step in the interim, and they pummeled the folks gathered inside the Metal and Lace Lounge (a new-ish steampunk bar off Red River). There's something purifying about bathing one's ears in such unrelenting sonic fury, and Brutal Juice doesn't let up for a moment.
Things spun back in the other direction with the next two performers, both of whom graced the stage of one of my favorite SXSW venues, Central Presbyterian Church. I was unfamiliar with Guatemalan troubadour Gaby Moreno, but I came away from her short set a fan. The easy shorthand is a Spanish-speaking Norah Jones, but Moreno's sound is more expansive than mere jazz-pop. She spun out a sultry Spanish-language blues, and her lilting voice was cradled by her ace backing band. Hers was easily my favorite performance of the night. That said, she got some hefty competition from the singer who followed, Kelly Hogan. Hogan is perhaps best known as Neko Case's backing vocalist, but she shines brightly on her own, pulling from last year's exceptional I Like to Keep Myself in Pain and displaying an appealing vocal grit.
The night closed out with Dallas' Polyphonic Spree, which is playing multiple SXSW gigs to stoke anticipation for Yes It's True, the band's first LP since 2007's The Fragile Army that's due out in May. Sporting new, psychedelic robes and armed with fresh tunes, ringleader Tim DeLaughter and his bandmates crammed onto Red 7's oh-so-tiny stage and punched out an enthusiastic set that has me eager to hear where DeLaughter is taking his nearly 15-year-old collective next.
The Polyphonic Spree