SXSW 2012 Days Two and Three: Bruce Springsteen, Of Monsters and Men, Chiddy Bang, 2:54, Balconies, The War on Drugs, Howler and more

March 16, 2012

Thursday, Day Two, was my first day on random international band watch. I decided to head to some international showcases. My first stop was at the German Wunderbar lunch at Parkside Restaurant, where DJs Apparat, Bonaparte, Coma, Touchy Mob and more spun tues. I can't tell you who was on when I was there nor did it sound distinctly German, but the tasty fare and friendly folks made it a fun stop. Next I ventured to Taiwan, by way of 6th Street. Inside Soho Lounge, the female-fronted The White Eyes were playing a poppy, punked-up set. Not sure what they were singing about, but it mattered little. The energy was enough to keep me there until they left the stage. Plus it didn't hurt that there were potstickers and shrimp egg rolls to go along with the music.

Since there were more opportunities ahead to catch some relatively unknown international acts in the coming weekend, I thought I'd detour from my virtual globe trotting to catch a bit of Mississippi's Big K.R.I.T at Fader Fort, who had the crowd pretty pumped. Last year he had a backing band, but his stripped down version of hypeman and DJ sufficed for the revelers at the Fort, especially during "Money on the Floor." On the hip-hop tip, I also made a stop at the mtvU Woodie Awards Festival in time for Chiddy Bang (full disclosure, I write for MTV's Buzzworthy). The Philadelphian duo were backed by a band that included a string section, which buoyed their clever rhymes that were married with indie rock samples. They had been making waves on the blog and mixtape circuit, and having just dropped their debut album, Breakfast, there was a large audience in attendance. 

But it was Bruce Springsteen that won the night, and it very well might eclipse everything else I'll see at SXSW. The intimate show was held at Moody Theater, the home of Austin City Limits. Attendees were picked via a lottery and I luckily scored a ticket. First, I must admit, I've always respected him and understood why he was so beloved, but I was not a rabid fan or early convert. I suppose early on his lyrics didn't resonate with me.  As the daughter of Asian immigrants, songs like "Born In The USA" didn't feel relatable. My born in the US experience was entirely different. "I'm on Fire" downright creeped me out as a young girl, and kinda still does. However, as I grew up, his protest songs, politics and man-of-the-people ways spoke to me.  And this show, my first time seeing him, sold me. He and the 17-piece E Street Band were consummate performers, their synergy was so well orchestrated. Their already full sound was augmented by a number of guests, including Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello who played guitar on several tunes, Jimmy Cliff, one of his musical inspirations, and The Animals' Eric Burdon who fronted "We Gotta Get Out of This Place." The encore "This Land Was Your Land" included openers Alejandro Escovedo and Low Anthem, Joe Ely, members of Arcade Fire and more. From "Promised Land" to "The Rising," "My City of Ruins" to "The Ghost of Tom Joad," each song of the close-to-three hour set was delivered like it was their last rousing moment. Springsteen volleyed several guitars across the stage to his guitar tech, did a bit of front-of-crowd surfing and worked the stage and audience showing us exactly why he is The Boss. 

Friday I planned to take a cruise with some German bands, but unfortunately my cell phone died, which is essentially a life line when covering a festival. As I mentioned in my first SXSW 2012 post, sometimes what's on schedule doesn't always go as planned. After finally getting that in order, I was ready to make up for lost time. First stop was to catch Minneapolis band Night Moves. Perhaps their set was too early in the day for them or it was too hot, but they seemed a little lethargic in comparison to their catchy recorded music, which ranges from psychedelic-electro dance to a little countryish. Next up was a stop at Fader Fort for Southside Chicago rapper Paypa. His laidback flow sounded radio ready (minus the swears). Shoegaze-tipped UK group 2:54 followed. The fuzzy guitars of sisters Colette and Hannah Thurlow and dark-droney melodies contrasted well with singer Collette Thurlow's wispy, ethereal vocals.

I finally got to catch The War on Drugs, who've been on my list of bands I've wanted to catch live, and they were worth the anticipation. Their sprawling Americana stylings with trilling guitars coupled with Adam Granduciel's beat-poet-like cadence was engaging. Next stop: at trip to the Great North via Canada House where The Balconies was holding court. The Toronto trio's hooked-up pop rock was particularly vibrant due to its exuberant singer Jacquie Neville, whose rock star poses, including semi-splits and dance shuffles with her guitar as partner came off, natural and were pretty adorable.  

The night kicked off with the glorious Of Monsters and Men, one of my favorite acts I caught at Iceland Airwaves in October. Their fanbase has grown exponentially in a short time given their soaring, swoon-worthy style and thanks to radio play of "Little Talks," an infectious "hey" peppered tune that received crowd sing-alongs at the crowded Stubb's. Their expansive orchestral sound included a horn and accordian player. While their debut album is already out in Iceland, they signed to Universal and it will be re-released with additional songs Stateside. Their lush, folky-orchestral approach coupled with the female-male  vocal interplay of Ragnar Thorhallsson and Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdottir buoyed "Lakehouse" and "King and Lionheart."

Jack White's Third Man Records showcase was unsurprisingly a complete madhouse, and queuing in line an hour before the set, it was already too late to gain entrance. I watched from outside for a couple of songs, before swimming upstream through a sea of people on SXSW's main artery, 6th Street. It was complete carnage, so much so that navigating through garbage-strewn, pee-filled alleyways was more appealing. I eventually arrived in time to see Howler at Latitude 60, who pretty much summed up my feelings for the night when frontman Jordan Gatesmith announced, "I'm f****** scared of SXSW." It can be pretty overwhelming. Their indie rock mined a retro sound, fueled with youthful spirit. Paired with their wry lyrics and a snide manner – I'd bet we'll be hearing a lot more about them soon. While they behaved their ages with penis jokes and other silly banter, their cohesiveness was much wiser.