SXSW ’09: Day One — The Music

Written by Music, SXSW '09

Justin Townes EarleThat’s Justin Townes Earle in the photo. I took a lot more pictures yesterday. If you’d like to take a look at them, check them out at Picasa.

It was not only a glorious day in terms of the weather here in Austin yesterday, the music was easily a match for the blue skies and 80 degrees. I began the day by shuttling to the downtown, and heading for the Fado Irish Pub. The event was the Guitartown/Conqueroo festival kick-off party, and the bar was hosting a full day and night of songwriters on two stages.

II got there in time to see a very good set by Brooklyn’s Andy Friedman, who was followed by Austin-native Randy Weeks with another impressive performance. The standouts of the afternoon for me were Nashville’s David Olney, who delivered a blistering set, accompanied by the fiery guitar playing of Sergio Webb, and the magnificent James McMurtry (also an Austin resident), who just blew me away with his incisive lyrics and excellent guitar skills. If you haven’t picked up on Olney or McMurtry, try to make it a point to do so.

After a brief respite at the press room in the Convention Center, it was off to a venue called Paradise for a set that I’d really been looking forward to. I think Justin Townes Earle is going to be a very big star. I recently gave his second album, Midnight at the Movies, a very good review, and I was really excited about seeing him perform live again.

The sound in the second floor room left something to be desired for the musicians, Earle was accompanied, as always, by multi-instrumentalist Corey Younts, but it sounded fine out in the audience. Justin has so much talent and obvious star power that you can just see it burning to get out. He is an intense but charming performer in the tradition of Hank Williams. If you’re expecting him to sound like his father, Steve Earle, forget it. Justin brings it old school style. According to the large crowd there for his late-afternoon set yesterday, he already is a star.

My plan called for me to walk way down Sixth Street for a set by Eric Lindell, but when I got to the venue, I was informed that he wasn’t on the list for that last night. Venues do change all the time here, but I did sign up for SMS alerts about that, and I didn’t get one. So, another lengthy walk followed (you do a LOT of walking here) back in the direction I came. I was headed for Central Presbyterian Church for a 9 p.m. set by M. Ward. When I arrived at the venue, at about 8 pm., the line was already around the block. Keeping in mind that M. was scheduled for more appearances this week, I moved on.

I headed for Stubb’s BBQ for what I saw as the centerpiece show of my time here. It was also arguably the most popular show this week, featuring several major acts. There was a long line for walkups, but my badge got me right in. Stubb’s holds shows in a large field that they’ve created next to the renowned restaurant. There’s a large covered stage at one end, with full production values.

I was there earlier that I had anticipated, and so I had to endure a set by New Zealand electro-popper Ladyhawke. I don’t know if it was bad, the Eurotr … uh our friends from other nations, seemed to be loving it. Just wasn’t my thing I guess.

The show started in earnest for me with the next band Heartless Bastards, led by songwriter/guitarist Erika Wennerstrom, who turned in the best set of the night, and maybe of the whole week so far. Equal parts Patti Smith and Lucinda Williams, Wennerstrom brings an amazing intensity to her songs, not just vocally, but in her guitar playing as well. I really like the band’s new album, The Mountain, and I reviewed it for Popdose recently, but the live performance was even better. Together with her powerful band, Wennerstrom delivered an amazing performance.

Next up were North Carolina’s Avett Brothers. I had seen the band at Newport last summer, and been mightily impressed by their manic energy. There was something missing last night. The band got started a little behind schedule because their setup took too long, and their set was shortened. The set started with the kind of energy that I remembered, but that seemed to drain away pretty quickly. The band just never seemed comfortable up there last night. They’re a wonderful band. I’ve seen evidence of it, but for me, last night was just not their night.

The most anticipated set of the entire festival (along with a scheduled Metallica set) was the Decemberists doing a full performance of their new album, The Hazards of Love. I really liked the last Decemberists album, The Crane Wife, and I’m still making up my mind about this one. Look for my review here next week. I’m not sure when this band went from a very good alternative-folk band to the stars they are today. They brought a huge crowd to Stubbs last night for the show, and the production was like something out of Pink Floyd. Led by Colin Meloy, the band made their way through the album, helped out by guest vocalists, and fine lights and sound. In the end, I guess it comes down to whether you like the new album, and as I said, my mind is still not made up.

By the time it was all over, it was after 1 a.m. and the end of another long day, with three more in front of me. Back to the hotel. I’ll be back out there today, so please follow my adventures on Twitter @popdose, assuming that AT&T cooperates.