Once upon a time – when SXSW was a regional-upstart event and Austin, Texas, was smaller and weirder – this was the place and season for the unknown to be seen and signed. Vans pulled into town, and parking was still plentiful. Reputations were made in 35-minute sets, and major labels started doing the math. Albums and even careers, however fleet and frustrating, followed.
This is how much SXSW has changed – and the record industry has receded from the fray. In the conference and festival's 30th year, nearly everyone showed up with something ready to sell – mostly on independent or home-made labels; off the bandstand if necessary. Almost every act I saw over my four nights there came with a new record already out or near delivery. This is not a new initiative – the old ways and money started drying up a decade ago. And it is not a problem. What follows is some of the best of what I experienced live, pressed to go – affirming that I was in the right space at the knock-out time.
Lift to Experience, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads (Mute reissue)
And the last shall be first: I closed my SXSW in the midnight hour of Saturday, March 20th, with this ascension-rock trio from Denton, Texas – reunited after a 15-year hiatus – thundering inside the reverb of Austin's Central Presbyterian Church. There was no more assured and sustained transcendence in town.
"A little rusty but still fucking great": That is how singer-guitarist Josh T. Pearson drolly introduced the band three nights earlier at the Parish, a club where Pearson, bassist Josh Browning and drummer Andy Young often played in their original lunge to glory in the late Nineties. Released in Britain in 2001, Lift to Experience's only album – a two-record set of epic meditations on despair and redemption based on the contention that God's earthly seat was not in Jerusalem but central Texas – was never unleashed in America. It also suffered from a mix that Pearson dismissed in a recent interview as "safe and sound." Lift to Experience were, in their first lifetime, "a pretty punk gut-wrenching sonic assault," he claimed.
That is the band that lit the Parish, then the church and can finally be heard on record as intended in a remastered reissue of The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads. Browning and Young's brute force, cut into dramatic prog-rock subdivsion, is at once lusty and disciplined – a combination enforced with avenging pride at the SXSW shows. Pearson's chant-like singing is clear and, in "To Guard and to Guide You," overdubbed as if gathered in group prayer. But his guitar, strummed in rapid-wrist staccato and rippled with the hovering vibrato of a Leslie speaker, now sounds as alive and certain on record – a sustained baptism in treble – as it did rushing through the Central Presbyterian nave.
"I'm not sure if we're ever going to get to do this again in our lifetime," Pearson noted during that show. That would be a sin. Lift to Experience still deliver a heaven that deserves more time on earth.
BNQT, Volume 1 (Bella Union)
Pronounced "banquet," this supertroupe of indie-rock singer-writer-players was a feast of spaced-country textures and shameless melodic throwback – to the late-Sixties Beach Boys and the bucolic early-Seventies Pink Floyd – in its SXSW appearance, a compact unveiling of this debut album that was BNQT's first live gig anywhere. The vocal and composing front line on Volume 1 comes from grade-A day jobs in the U.S. – Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell, Grandaddy's Jason Lytle and Midlake's Eric Pulido – and abroad: Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos and Travis' Fran Healy, both from Glasgow, Scotland. But the cumulative effect, wrangled onto record by Pulido over three years, is a surprisingly natural, indivisible rapture of fuzz-riff buoyance ("Restart"), rural-saloon daydreaming ("Unlikely Force") and British-pop classicism. The keyboard walk into "Mind of a Man" and the song's midpoint vocal sunrise evoke the gleaming reach of the Zombies' Odessey and Oracle. And at SXSW, "L.A. on My Mind" was a chugging joy of arena-friendly R.E.M. ringed in Crosby, Stills and Nash harmonies.
Cotton Mather, Wild Kingdom (Star Apple Kingdom)
Singer-guitarist-songwriter Robert Harrison does not lack for chutzpah or concepts; he named this Austin power-pop institution after a 17th-century firebrand-preacher in Puritan New England, neatly summarizing its explosive union of literate confrontation and bracing Who-ish dynamics. After an extended break and two decades on from the group's 1997 classic Kontiki, Harrison has launched an extended odyssey – initiated last year with Death of the Cool – in which each song is based on one of the 64 hexagrams in the I Ching. "I don't know how to quit," Harrison admits – and boasts – in "The Cotton Mather Pledge," a punchy anthem that opens Wild Kingdom, the second installment, and came halfway through Cotton Mather's SXSW set. That show drew hard from the I Ching project. Everything arrived, as on Wild Kingdom, like hot, shiny Raspberries fortified with the elevated argument of Squeeze and Attractions-era Elvis Costello. For the philosophy inside the jangle, Harrison has a running log of progress and analysis at ichingsongs.com. For the roots behind the mission, note the lick that opens Wild Kingdom's "Girl With a Blue Guitar" – a treble chip off "Have You Seen Her Face" from the Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday.
Low Cut Connie – "Dirty Pictures" (Part 1) (Contender)
"Touch my body, touch my soul, revolution rock & roll," singer-pianist Adam Weiner sang at this Philadelphia band's SXSW getdown, like a preacher certain that he's firing the Lord's work across the room. Weiner may look and sound like a missionary from a distant age – sporting Marlon Brando's tenement-lothario T-shirt from A Streetcar Named Desire; hammering his ivories like Jerry Lee Lewis, bent over from a standing position on his piano seat. But Low Cut Connie, a roaring quintet that sounds as loud and full as the early E Street Band, are absolutely contemporary in their drive to old-school joy. "Revolution Rock n Roll" and "Dirty Water," both on this album, were highlights of the set. So was Weiner's showmanship in the cover of Prince's pneumatic march "Controversy," also on "Dirty Pictures." He spent the jamming section strutting through the crowd, passing out high-fives; stood on the bar in the back, conducting the Connies like a barroom Stokowski; then, after the big, final chord, jumped to the floor and marched out the door to the street. Low Cut Connie, like the Seventies Elvis, had left the building. For a good time, be there when they get back.
Tuomo and Markus, Dead Circles (Grandpop, Finland)
Full disclosure: The second half of this duo is a longtime friend of mine, singer-guitarist-songwriter Markus Nordenstreng of the Finnish alternative-country band the Latebirds. A side order of embarrassment: I didn't realize he was the Markus in this new project until about a half-hour before its 8 p.m. set on March 16th. The crosstown rush was worth it: He and singer-pianist Tuomo Prättälä lead a band – and have made a marvelous debut album – steeped in the pioneer stories of the Band, the painted-desert psychedelia of the American Beauty-era Grateful Dead and the modernist extensions of Wilco and the Tucson band Calexico. Members of the latter two actually contribute to Dead Circles. There was also a long, striking tangent in the SXSW set, coming out of Nordenstreng's ballad "Vanity Blinds," in which his band summoned the pastoral prog-rock improvising of the great Seventies Finnish band Wigwam. Look 'em up.
Survive, RR7349 (Relapse)
The setting was the absolute opposite of mystery: an SXSW daytime party, outdoors under an 80-degree springtime sun. But the music of this Austin all-synth quartet, founded in 2009, was spell enough: a compelling, freshly composed revival of the Seventies electronic impression and early sequencing hypnosis of Tangerine Dream, pre-robot Kraftwerk, the Greek space agent Vangelis and Italian horror-score specialists Goblin. Survive's live set was not EDM as we usually know it – reductive laptop programming, cheap tidal-beat effects. Band members Mark Donica, Michael Stein, Kyle Dixon and Adam Jones manned their vintage Korg and ARP Odyssey keyboards in real time, as interactive performance. You may have heard Dixon and Stein's analog sorcery on TV, in their original score for the Netflix series, Stranger Things. Even stranger: Survive already had a fat discography – more than half a dozen now-elusive releases, including limited-edition cassettes and the full-length Survive (Holodeck) – before issuing RR7349, their overground bow. Start there. Best of luck going backwards.