Pilgrimage to Austin

Just as people of faith travel to holy places through the world, such as Lourdes or Mecca, music fans also recognize the sacredness of certain locations. One such righteous locale is Austin, Texas, home of the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival.  My wife and I were SXSW rock and roll pilgrims this past weekend, enjoying a belated wedding gift from my sister-in-law who resides just blocks from downtown Austin. 

The festival is spread out in dozens of bars, lounges, outdoor decks and even street corners throughout downtown Austin.  This year over 1,800 bands performed during this 4-day smorgasbord of music.  As wristband holders we were able to walk in and out of clubs at will and take in acts of an amazing variety: blues, hip-hop, country and metal, among many others.  It was, in short, musical nirvana for me.

Musical Highlights—We took in about 20 shows in 2 ½ very full days, which means we saw roughly 1% of all the bands in Austin for the festival!  While not a statistically significant sample, I will nonetheless offer my top three picks of the SXSW weekend.

3. Ben Harper played a fast paced, high-energy show at the Austin Convention Center. Harper needs a new publicist because his radio-friendly hits and soft-rock persona are definitely NOT what this guy is all about. His slide guitar skills are scary and he has mastered hybrid rock—meaning he writes songs that are gospel-rock, soul-rock, funk-rock, never settling for the simple 3 chord ditties some bands offer.

2. The High Dials from Montreal were so good live that I saw them twice.  These guys are a mix of alt-country, psychedelic music, and straight-ahead rock, and their music immediately grabbed me and did not let go.  Normally it takes a few dozen listens to “get into” a band and let their rhythms and melodies settle into my marrow, but the High Dials exhibit so much passion in their playing that I could not help but be pulled into their world.

1. Asteroid Galaxy Tour wins for best band of SXSW (of the 1% that we saw anyway) and most creative name.  It is difficult to categorize this band—perhaps that’s why I liked them so much.  They are a 6-piece group that hails from Copenhagen, Denmark—not exactly ground zero for phenomenal pop music.  In some ways their sound is very minimal—no searing guitar solos or massive drum kit.  The two horns and keyboards fill out their pop-soul sound, but it was lead singer Mette Linberg who I found most intriguing.  She sings in English with a strange accent that, rather than grating on the listener, is actually quite pleasing and almost hypnotic. 

Rock music, I believe, can reveal something about the spiritual nature of human beings.  More on that later.

Dave Nantais

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9 years ago
Dave. Nice assessment. I wish I could have gone. I will have to check out Ben Harper. As you say, his image is one of sappy pop ballads i can't abide. If he is truly a rocker, then I need to scope his stuff.

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