Local Current Blog

Fiona Apple, Alabama Shakes among first SXSW highlights

Credit: Photo by Ben Clark

Thank you, NPR Music, for conveniently lining up several of this year’s indie buzz bands on one bill. After a particularly tedious day of traveling difficulties I wasn’t feeling particularly adventurous when I rolled into Austin last night, but I was pleasantly surprised by the array of talented acts I was able to witness by simply camping out at Stubb’s Barbeque’s outdoor amphitheater.

The main draw for the evening was a rare appearance by Fiona Apple, who has re-emerged with little warning or pomp to promote her new album, The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do. (The next time I need to drive up the word count for a piece I’m simply going to mention that album title as many times as possible.) Apple played to her audience and saved her newer material for late in the set, but it wouldn’t have mattered; most fans were elated to hear whatever songs she was willing to offer up because it was the first time in five years she had played a show outside of L.A. She’ll play one more time at SXSW and then complete a small 8-date tour — and then, who knows? Her unpredictability is part of her mystique and only seems to add to her appeal as an artist.

Live, Apple was captivating yet enigmatic, at times forcibly projecting her voice out into the night air and at others reining it in so close that it could barely be heard over the other instruments. She prowled the stage in a daze, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she was being observed, and sang slouched over with her hands on her hips as if she was casually sound-checking. Her cool disinterest only served to further the crowd’s furor for her set, and the energy continued to inexplicably ratchet up with every recognizable hit as Apple herself got lost in the guitar solos and build-ups happening around her.

Photo by Ben Clark

All of it peaked, of course, with Apple performing her biggest single, “Criminal,” after one of the set’s only lulls, and her body language indicated it was either her most enjoyable or most loathsome task of the night. The song sounded timeless, and it seemed to illustrate just how well Apple’s music has weathered the changing aesthetics of the past few decades; songs like “Sleep to Dream,” “Fast as You Can,” and “Extraordinary Machine” seemed to blend effortlessly with her newer avant-ballads.

Sharon van Etten performed next, taking advantage of the open space to drive up the dynamics of her songs and allow the louder moments to reverberate throughout the amphitheater. Her slower material can be enthralling in the right setting, but the more somber songs seemed to drag her set down in the middle of her Stubb’s show; the crowd seemed to respond best when she was hammering out hits like “Serpents,” which closed the set. You can listen to the performance here.

Photo by Ben Clark

Dan Deacon shifted the mood significantly by creating a follow-the-leader style choreographed dance party that swallowed up almost the entire front half of the crowd — an especially rare feat during an overstimulated festival like SXSW. Deacon has a new record coming out this year, but it was hard to pick out individual new songs rather than get swept away in the overall experience of his live show; at times the songs sounded frenetic and glitchy, while at others his distorted vocals mixed with thrashing electro swaths and rhythms from two live drummers to create a wall of sound so thick it seemed like it might knock over the crowd.

Photo by Ben Clark

Some of the best moments came when Deacon would instruct the crowd to split apart at its middle to make room for a dance circle, immediately unifying the large space and getting everyone to participate; at times it resembled kids playing with a parachute in gym class, while at others it looked like the opening scene from Lion King. You can listen to the performance here.

And then there was Alabama Shakes, who made practically every “band to watch” list heading into the fest. The only thing I managed to tweet during their set was “Alabama Shakes: Worth the hype,” which was about the only way I could think to express the satisfaction of seeing such an authentically talented blues-rock band get so much positive attention. Frontwoman Brittany Howard was unflappable and fierce, shrugging off the accolades and playing a straightforward set with foot-stomping passion. Probably the best thing about the band, at least in the context of all the attention-grabbing desperation of the festival at large, was that they didn’t need to rely on frills or gimmicks to enrapture the crowd. Their set was executed with the precision of a group that came up gigging at dingy blues bars and late-night dives, and their workmanlike approach to their craft seemed to indicate they were in this for the long haul. Good thing, too — with great single “Hold On” just starting to make waves and their debut record coming out next month, Alabama Shakes are just getting warmed up. You can listen to the performance here.

Photo by Ben Clark

The vibe shifted dramatically once again for Andrew Bird’s set, who started off alone on stage looping his own whistling and eventually built into a dramatic, nuanced sound backed by Minneapolitans Martin Dosh on drums and keys and Jeremy Ylvisaker on guitar (hometown sax player and bassist Michael Lewis usually backs Bird as well, but he was not along for this ride as he’s been busy recently touring with Bon Iver). You can check out a brief interview with Dosh and Ylvisaker about playing SXSW and appearing on The Colbert Report here and you can listen to their full performance as well.

Photo by Ben Clark