A week of trekking around Austin is enough to wear anyone out, but Florida’s Surfer Blood – who’d been playing about SXSW since Monday – showed no signs of fatigue when they kicked off the second day of Rolling Stone‘s Rock Room. “We’d play all day if you want,” cracked frontman J.P. Pitts. The quartet breezed through cuts from their 2010 debut Astro Coast and their follow-up EP, Tarot Classics, like sun drunk standout “Floating Vibes,” the insistent progression of “Voyager Reprise” with its gliding, last-gasp guitar and the jaunty “Take It Easy,” during which Pitts extended the interactive portion of SXSW by venturing off stage to mingle with the audience.
Surfer Blood also previewed a handful of cuts from their long-awaited follow-up, Pythons, which is set for release sometime this summer. “Say Yes to Me,” a running, rumbling rocker, and “Prom Song,” whose roundabout bass groove and sauntering drums helped lift its best-of-times-worst-of-times guitar riff – exactly the kind high school memories are made of.
Next up was New York-based duo Gus + Scout, whose stripped-down young adult blues – which took an occasional turn toward the heavy – was brought to life by the titular pair’s affecting vocal dynamic: the quivers, quakes and occasional cracks of Gus’ voice bolstered by Scout’s own strong, solid rock bellow. The two played with and against each other throughout their set, hitting harmonies on “Me and James” while on the sobering “Gone, Gone, Gone,” the two duked it out as a couple being torn apart by addiction.
Gus + Scout’s throwback sound and indelible melodies – their penultimate track was capped off by a tear drop guitar progression from Gus – was the perfect lead-in for Nottingham, England, up-and-comer Jake Bugg. Introducing himself with a rather muddled mumble, the voice that flew out Bugg when he started singing opener “Kentucky” was nothing but stunning: a strong, dry, melodic buzz imbued with a confidence that masked the weary elasticity of its scorched drawl. Rooted in 60s folk and blues, Bugg’s knack for melding those sounds with pure pop shone on “Two Fingers” and “Trouble Town,” the latter a deceptively peppy but dire tune about his hometown, with engine-chug drums that carry the weight of going nowhere fast.
A total stoic on stage, Bugg conjured one of the most crowd-rousing performances of the days. (A few shouts of “Two more!” came after he announced his final song.) While his earworm songwriting spoke for itself, Bugg took a few opportunities to showcase his chops, unleashing skittery guitar licks in time with whip crack drum fills on “Lightning Bolt” and the thumping new cut, “Slum” – fingers flying, eyes slack, looking almost comatose yet totally present.
Los Angeles’ Lord Huron followed, closing out their SXSW stint with a boisterous set of their brand of folk, lacing dreamy guitar lines atop a cavalcade of percussion and blossoming acoustic melodies. Opener “The Man Who Lives Forever” – with its windswept snares and swirling guitars – set a fitting mood, as frontman Ben Schneider led his band through cuts like “Time to Run” and the aptly titled “We Went Wild,” the entire group bounding about the stage when the latter reached its stomping apex. On “She Lit A Fire,” bassist Miguel Briseño swapped his electric for a tiny acoustic one, adding a muted, wooden pomp to the track’s ascending guitar lines that seemed to call for even greater things ahead.
It’s a question that’s plagued rock fans forever – well, at least since the 1980s: What would David Lee Roth do? Asked by Free Energy vocalist Paul Spranger, the Philadelphia five-piece went about answering the question with a rowdy, fist-raising set that put a cap on the day’s events. The big riff, big hair pop rockers kicked things into the highest gear from the get-go with “Free Energy,” the lead track from their 2010 debut, Stuck On Nothing, and proceeded to unleash a slew of hand claps, fret taps and plenty of invigorating “woah oh oh” sing-alongs.
Guitarists Scott Wells and Sheridan Fox traded licks and engaged in soaring, scorching duals on Love Sign (their latest LP) cuts “Backscratcher” and the incessant, impossible-not-to-dance-to funk bump of “Electric Fever,” which had the crowd grooving and pumping fists. On “Hope Child,” Spranger and drummer Nicholas Shuminsky helped count the thundering piece of euphoric pop rock with some mighty gleeful high-fives – an apt, rocking image to close out their set, and the day.