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Monday, 19 March 2012 13:48

SXSW days 3 and 4: Titus Andronicus, Crooked Fingers, Justin Townes Earle and the Belle Brigade, Friday, March 16 and Saturday, March 17

Titus Andronicus Titus Andronicus Chris Bay
Written by Chris Bay
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Friday, March 16

12:30 p.m. Home Slice Pizza. This New York-style pizza joint in south Austin hosts a fantastic day party each year, and this year's lineup is quality.

In addition to the bands that I'll see there during the early afternoon, Yellow Ostrich, Great Lake Swimmers, Dan Mangan and Hospitality are also on the bill. I just miss Imperial Teen, who went on a 11:45, but I'll end up seeing them later tonight anyway.

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Yukon Blonde

Yukon Blonde takes the stage and plays a tight, inspired set. There are smiles all around the stage (and on my face, as well) as the band pounds through a short selection of tunes from it's new release, "Tiger Talk." The songs lack the heavy production of the record, but are missing none of it's magnetism. This is power pop at it's punchy best.

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Jump Starts

12:56 p.m. A friend and I walk around the busy South Congress business district scoping out other day parties in the area. As I'm in the middle of a crosswalk I hear a familiar sound coming from a half block or so down a side street. Turning around, I spot St. Louis' own Jump Starts, playing in front of a video store. We stop to catch the last few songs of their set before exchanging hellos and handshakes and moving on. We'll see them again on Saturday at the second Twangfest day party.

2:00 p.m. Back at Home Slice. After a slice (inside, at the bar, since this will be one of my few chances to sit for a spell) it's back to the stage, where Australian folk pop group Husky is finishing up their set. They're reminiscent of mid-tempo Rural Alberta Advantage or Great Lake Swimmers, pleasant and inoffensive.

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Strand of Oaks

Strand of Oaks plays next, performing with a full four-person band for only the second time ever. Guided by Tim Showalter, Strand of Oaks has already taken many guises in its short lifespan, most of which have hinged on a haunting and introspective minimalist sound. But this band rocks. Many of the songs are new (from a John Vanderslice produced record that's in the can, with release date TBD) but the biggest treat is hearing a familiar voice and well-known words in a new setting. "Sterling," in particular, sparkles with this more robust backdrop.

4:07 p.m. In the effort to catch Built to Spill after my disappointing experience on Wednesday night, I arrive early to the Mess With Texas party in east Austin. Titus Andronicus preceeds them on what has been billed as the Indoor Stage, but what is actually a football field-size warehouse. It's hot, sweaty and packed near the stage, in other words, the perfect setting for a punk show. Titus plays one of the best sets that I'll see all week, with nary a slumping moment. The punk ethos flows from lead singer Patrick Stickles as easily between songs as it does during them. The banter is golden. Here's a snippet: "We're here to mess with Texas. I know we're not supposed to, but we don't accept those rules. We don't have any rules except for those that we create for ourselves about mutual respect. We don't need the rules handed down to us by society. We're smarter than that."

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Built to Spill

5:03 p.m. Built to Spill begins a long, sometimes droning set. The massively loud PA (the loudest system I've ever heard) benefited Titus Andronicus' set, but it hampers Built to Spill. The contours of their textured sound are compressed by the bounceback from the metal walls and concrete floor. The performance is solid, but the overall experience is nowhere as enjoyable as their set a LouFest a couple years back, where their chunky, guitar-driven kaleidoscope had the space to spread out and breathe.

8:32 p.m. At Frank in downtown Austin for the Merge Records showcase. Frank is a supposedly a hot dog bar, but I don't see a single frank all night. I miss M. Ward, who started the show at 7:30 p.m., while waiting in the one-in-one-out line at the door. The venue is a fraction of the size of the Parish, where this showcase was held last year, which means that it'll stay this full all night and I won't have the luxury of bouncing between venues. I want to see a few bands on the bill--including Imperial Teen, who plays late--which means I'll have to stay put. Hospitality is up now, with a sprightly and endearing set. The songs are just nuanced and smart enough to avoid being saccharine.

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Eleanor Friedberger

9:15 p.m. Eleanor Friedberger follows, playing solo with acoustic guitar. One half of the Fiery Furnaces, her debut solo record released last year was likeable, with plenty of strong tunes. But this set makes clear that without the tasteful pop band filling out those songs, there's not much to them. The songs are several shades of gray, and the appeal isn't helped by her dry, matter-of-fact vocals.

9:55 p.m. Still at Frank, bleeing heart pop quartet the Love Langauage take the stage. I loved their 2010 release "Libraries," with its jangly swing and tip-of-the-hat to 50s and 60s pop stars like Roy Orbison and Frankie Avalon. This is the first time I've seen them live and their sound is decidedly beefier than on record, with thick, squalling guitar leading the way. When they end their set with an extended jam that I never imagined them capable of, a friend leans over and exclaims, "Why did they stop?"

10:46 p.m. Crooked Fingers follows with a business-like performance. It's enjoyable, but being smashed in the middle of a marathon showcase like this doesn't give them time to relax. I'll catch them again on Saturday in a more relaxed environment--outdoors, with some sun and breeze and without such a tight schedule to keep--and they'll settle into their songs much more nicely.

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Imperial Teen

11:35 p.m. Imperial Teen may look nearly old enough to be my parents, but they play like they're still 22. The pace of the band's releases and touring has never kept up with the hype machine, and maybe that's why they seem more excited to be playing than nearly every other act I see all week. The set is less polished than their excellent new record, "Feel the Sound," with less prominent synthesizer and more guitar, and with vocals settling in amongst the arrangements rather than atop them. But it's no less invigorating.

Saturday, March 17

Noon. The second of two Twangfest day parties, presented by KDHX, at Jovita's. I'm working all day, directing bands, running errands and playing emcee, but I manage to catch a bit of all 12 acts. Both outdoor and indoor stages remain packed nearly all day, and bands and audience alike seem drunk on the weather (and, perhaps, the margaritas). At 1:00 p.m. Chuck Prophet packs the indoor venue tighter than it's ever been, by the accounts of those that have been coming to this party for many more years than I have, and the room was no less crowded during the Waco Brothers' set. The highlights of the day for me, though, are outside where Joe Pug, Glossary and Crooked Fingers play.

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Joe Pug

Joe Pug plays the outdoor stage at 1:30 p.m. I first saw Pug at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival in January of 2009, when he was still playing solo and working as a carpenter in Chicago. Now, he nearly always has a top-notch band in tow, and hundreds of gigs over the past few years have honed what was already a sharp stage presence to a fine point. Pug comes across as being so honest that he could probably pull off any lie to any crowd. That honesty makes you feel that no matter how many times you've heard these songs, each performance is special.

Later on, Glossary plays a set of soulful, gut-wrenching rock, proving that sometimes that most powerful delivery is the most direct.

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Crooked Fingers

Following them at 4:30 p.m. is Crooked Fingers, who, on this large patio next to a small stream, are a world away from their set at the overcrowded Frank the previous evening. Lead singer Eric Bachmann is visibly more relaxed and happy. "I don't really like South by Southwest, to be honest" he quips. "But this, this is wonderful." Nobody in attendance disagrees.

9:03 p.m. I've seen Justin Townes Earle many times, mostly solo but sometimes beside a fiddle player. And probably every time, I've thought to myself that a full country band behind the lanky troubadour would sound incredible. So when JTE walks onto the stage at Stubb's with just that--electric guitar, upright bass, drums and fiddle--I can't help but smile. Playing a mix of tunes from both his last record, "Harlem River Blues," and his forthcoming record, "Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now," Earle seems a bit nervous to be on such a big stage with such a big band (by his own admission, the newness of the latter indeed makes him uncomfortable). But his performance isn't affected. The sweet songs, tight band and cool evening air make the large outdoor venue seem a world away from the madness of 6th Street, just a few blocks away.

10:01 p.m. I make the long trek to the southeast edge of downtown to catch the Belle Brigade at Clive Bar, a small, classy cocktail joint with a large outdoor patio. The Gruska siblings, little brother Ethan and big sister Barbara, front the group, looking more like full-sized elementary school students than touring musicians. Barbara wears a threadbare No Fear t-shirt and short, curly brown hair and Ethan a messy frock of red locks and a faux leather fanny pack. They're adorable. And they rock. The sound is plagued by feedback issues, but nobody really cares, such is the infectiousness of their soulful sing-alongs. In the front row are KDHX DJs Roy Kasten and John Wendland, with wide smiles, bobbing their heads fiercely and occasionally throwing a fist in the air. And I am right behind them, doing the same. This is the magic of SXSW. Just when you're sun burned and burnt out, tired of cheap Texas beer, pizza by the slice and the melee of 6th Street, out of nowhere comes a set that makes it all worthwhile.

I'll see a few more sets before the night is over: Blitzen Trapper, Twilight Sad, We Were Promised Jetpacks, El Ten Eleven, Lydia Loveless and JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound. But it's all inconsequential. I should've gone home right then and there, because the chances that anything would top that set from the Belle Brigade at that late hour were next to none. The Belle Brigade not only made my night, they made me excited to return next year, despite the long car ride and continued sleep deprivation that still lay ahead.

All photos by Chris Bay.

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