We came, we saw, we listened — and bravely sacrificed our eardrums so you wouldn’t have to. (We know, it’s a tough job…) This year, more than 2,400 bands took to the various stages of Austin’s SXSW festival, and we’ve narrowed the list down to our dozen favorites who deserve a few megabytes of storage on your iPod.
The Boxer Rebellion – Mar. 16 @ Buffalo Billiards
You might recognize this band’s name from last year’s hit movie Going the Distance, which starred Drew Barrymore and Justin Long. The band was featured throughout the film and even penned a song especially for it, called “If You Run,” which they played at the gig we saw — it was one of our personal favorites from the show. Other songs they performed included “Memo,” “Cause for Alarm” and “Organ Song” from their newest album, The Cold Still, which was released in February. This was the first show we saw at SXSW, and it was the perfect way to kick the week off. The energy level that the band brought to the stage was over the top, right down to the moment that frontman Nathan Nicholson jumped from the stage into the audience to mingle as he sang (pictured above). Given the number of times we spotted Nicholson at the same shows we were at in the days following (including at The Joy Formidable), we’re pretty sure he’d agree with our list, and his inclusion on it. — A.F.
The Antlers – Mar. 16 @ The Parish
We’ll be the first to admit that the dark lyrics and soaring atmospheric melodies/falsetto vocals of the Antlers aren’t for everyone (although we’d also say you’re missing out big time, if so) — but for us, this was one of the bands we were looking most forward to seeing at SXSW. In the weeks leading up to the fest, the band announced that their new album, Burst Apart, would be dropping in May, and that they’d be playing mainly songs from it. After opening with “Kettering,” one of our personal faves from their 2009 album Hospice, we were pretty much happier than a kid on Christmas morning. But then we heard some of their new songs — and we got even happier. Which we didn’t think was possible. The Antlers closed with an emotionally wrenching and overwhelmingly mind-blowing rendition of “Two.” At NPR’s day show the next afternoon, the band did a special performance of the new album in its entirety, and it’s streaming here on NPR’s website. We highly suggest you check it out. — A.F.
Alexander – Mar. 16 @ The Phoenix
At the end of a long walk and an even longer day, we found ourselves at the Phoenix, late for a 1 a.m. showcase of Alexander’s (he of Ima Robot and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros) new solo LP. But the set hadn’t started yet, and it wouldn’t for another half-hour. Tired, hungry and feeling like the guy who turns into Aretha Franklin in the Snickers commercial, we stuck it out, confident that the show would be worth it. Fortunately, we were right (as we almost always are). As soon as Alexander appeared onstage — with his jaunty stride; permanently affixed, happy-go-lucky grin; and merry mob of backing musicians — he had the crowd head-bobbing and toe-tapping along with his signature brand of Old West-meets-hippie folk rock. Lead single “Truth” got a reggae-fied redo and “In the Twilight” (seen above) made at least this audience member want to turn and hug her neighbor, so sweet and joyful it was. In a festival filled with often-interchangeable indie rock, Alexander didn’t end our night with a bang so much as a breath of fresh air. — J.J.
Pete and the Pirates – Mar. 17 @ Barbarella
Sometimes the best surprises come out of the smallest mistakes. We stumbled upon this Reading, England–based band during the Brooklyn Vegan (an online music blog) party after a mix-up in times caused us to miss the band we were scheduled to see. We actually figured we could use the free time to grab a bite to eat, but as we walked by the front room on our way out of the club, the soaring vocals of Pete and the Pirates lead singer Thomas Sanders, mixed with the rhythmic drumbeat, immediately drew us in. Who needs food when there’s so much music to see, right? When we got home that night (we won’t bother mentioning how ridiculously late it was), we immediately looked the band up and figured out that the song that grabbed our attention so suddenly was “Winter 1,” from the band’s upcoming album, One Thousand Pictures, out May 23. You can download the song here if you like what you hear in the video above. — A.F.