(Disclaimer: In addition to working for KDHX, I am a Twangfest volunteer and organizer.) Set on the small indoor stage and back patio of Jovita's, an old Mexican restaurant a short drive away from the madness of 6th Street, these day parties bring out both a diverse crowd and a diverse lineup, with several St. Louis bands representing (Water Liars, Brothers Lazaroff and Sleepy Kitty on this day).
The highlight of the afternoon is easily Brown Bird. The duo of Dave Lamb (guitar, banjo, bass drum) and MorganEve Swain (upright bass, cello and violin) plays a ragged and fiery brand of folk, full of drama and doomsday shudders. In the same vein as William Elliot Whitmore (who would play later on at the same event), they sound great on record, but burn brightest live. Along with nearly everyone else in the audience, this was my first time seeing them perform. But based on the crowd reaction--and the large group of fans that hung around chatting up the band afterward--I won't be the only one anxious to see them again very soon.
The rest of the afternoon's sets are solid. The weather is beautiful--85 and sunny--the Texas beer goes down smoothly, and folks are having a good time. Sets from Lydia Loveless, the Figgs and John Doe are particularly good.
9:23 p.m. After a late dinner at Guero's Taco Bar, an Austin institution, I head to Maggie Mae's rooftop venue to check out We Are Augustines, whose debut record "Rise Ye Sunken Ships" was one of my favorite releases from a new band in 2011. That record is a powerful narrative of personal trial and loss, ripped from the life of lead singer Billy McCarthy. It's a gut-wrenching album, and the band delivers all of that emotion live. Even on an overfilled rooftop patio, with bad views and questionable sound quality, you can tell that these songs hold deep meaning to McCarthy and his bandmates, and on this night at least, those emotions came through mics and amps with a striking vibrancy.
10:03 p.m. I pop into Club DeVille to pass some time before heading to my main destination of the night, which is to see Nada Surf's acoustic set. Fanfarlo is on stage. I haven't seen Fanfarlo before, but I've been enjoying their new record, "Rooms Filled with Light." The band comes off a little flat. Maybe it's the sound mix or chatty crowd, or maybe this just isn't their best performance. I leave wanting to see them in a different setting, on a different night.
10:28 p.m. I arrive at the Barsuk Records showcase early to make sure I'm able to get in to see Nada Surf. Laura Gibson and her band are on stage, which is fortuitous. Last week a friend sent me an excited text while at one of her shows, urging met to go see her as soon as possible. The set is lovely. Gibson is quiet and confident, and in an unusual way both anxious and self-assured. Her band is barely there (in a good sense), playing sparse but well-placed melodies with flourishes from clarinet, muted trumpet and lap slide guitar.
11:21 p.m. Nada Surf at Red Eyed Fly. What a treat. One of the best spots in the house for a rare acoustic set from the veteran power pop group. Bassist Daniel Lorca is notably missing, but in his place is the band's frequent contributor Doug Gillard, who has played with everyone from Guided by Voices to Richard Buckner to Bill Fox. The set focuses on material from their new record, "The Stars are Indifferent to Astronomy," which pleases me greatly. I love the record, and hearing the high, clear tone of Matthew Caws' voice atop the steel string strum of his guitar is joy inducing.
12:02 a.m. After leaving Red Eyed Fly I walk north on Red River Street toward Club DeVille and Mohawk, which are hosting two of the bigger showcases of the evening. I'm not sure who's on the schedule at this late hour, but once I get close to Mohawk I can hear the unmistakable swirling psychedelia of the War on Drugs spilling out onto the street. I only catch three songs ("Brothers," "I Was There" and "Baby Missiles"), but they're long ones, and they're ravaging. This band is great, and getting better at a staggering pace.
Sharon Van Etten
12:52 a.m. Sharon Van Etten at Mohawk. Ms. Van Etten starts a bit late, due to a complicated stage set up and probably also the luxury of knowing she's the last act of the night, and hence won't have her set cut short if she starts late. Her voice is edgy, and she seems a bit nervous, but after a few songs she settles in. Still, many of her newer songs miss the mark. This is not for lack of performance chops; her band is highly competent, and Van Etten herself performs well. But there's something about them that is sort of like finding grains of sand in the sugar bowl. The lyrics and textures bury and obscure anything that has a significant chance of connecting with me. At that's least that's the case right now, in this space.
1:22 a.m. Outside on the street, with 40 minutes before I meet my friends to head home. Walking past Club DeVille with Youth Lagoon visible from the street (it's an outdoor venue) is too tempting to pass up. But instead of fighting to the front, I grab an empty chair on the patio at the back of the venue, kick my tired feet up and let the midnight blue synths wash over me.
88.1 KDHX DJ, writer and photographer Chris Bay is at the 2012 South by Southwest music conference in Austin through March 17. He'll be passing along some notes from the field.
All photos by Chris Bay.