Austin’s own Gary Clark Jr. opened Rolling Stone’s second showcase around noon on March 17th with a potent electric-blues set at La Zona Rosa. The charismatic 27-year-old guitarist, whose instrumental skills earned him a spot at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads festival last year, tore through hot licks and eloquent solos with a three-piece backing band to help fill out his sound. He was a strong vocalist, too, breaking out a yearning Smokey Robinson-style falsetto for a love ballad called “Please Come Home.”
Raphael Saadiq held the club in thrall with the day’s second set. He was a consummate showman, energetically leading seven backing players in a spirited rock’n’soul revue. Saadiq has always been interested in vintage R&B sounds, and this performance was largely true to form. But he also took his set in a louder, more rocking direction for several selections from his upcoming album Stone Rollin’. New song “Heart Attack” was as hard-hitting as its title suggested.
All eyes turned next to Tracy Bonham, who took the stage at 2 p.m., pulling keening notes from an electric violin while she sang in smoky tones. A backing band including accordion, bass, guitar and drums added Americana accents and spy-film atmosphere to the set that followed, though Bonham was an assured enough performer to easily hold the spotlight by herself on a few solo numbers. Highlights included a stormy take on her 1996 breakout single “Mother Mother” and a spare Southern Gothic version of folk standard “In the Pines” (a.k.a. “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”) featuring cellist Ben Sollee.
One concertgoer was overheard describing Mona’s lead singer Nick Brown as “Bruce Springsteen’s nephew.” While he’s not actually related to the Boss, it was an apt comparison. The Tennessee band, who are supporting Kings of Leon on a U.K. tour soon, got some of the afternoon’s strongest crowd reactions with their meat-and-potatoes rock set at 3 p.m. After the set, Brown said he’d gotten an encouraging note from the Kings’ Jared Followill, who was watching rollingstone.com’s live stream. (Keep an eye on our complete SXSW coverage for video of the stream.)
Meat Puppets closed the afternoon festivities in excellent fashion at 4 p.m. Their set was classic Puppets -- a strange but mesmerizing mix of psychedelia and bluegrass. The Puppets played one new tune, “Vile,” from their forthcoming album Lollipop, but the set’s focus was on jammy versions of gloriously weird oldies like “Plateau,” “Lake of Fire,” and “Oh Me.” It was clear that brothers Curt and Cris Kirkwood (joined here by newer drummer Shandon Sahm) were having a blast running through their back catalog, and so was the audience.