Words & Images by: Kayceman
SXSW :: 03.20.09 :: Friday :: Austin, TX
With tired legs, tired eyes and a singed head it was an early afternoon set by M. Ward that brought this writer back from the depths of a serious SXSW hangover. Ward lives in his own little world, every nuance, note, hushed storyline and song is played through his unique style and I'm pretty sure he's using some alternate tuning to his guitar to further differentiate his sound from the pack. Through his timeless tales Ward is carrying the songwriter tradition forward similar in some ways to how Dylan and Cash plied their trade. While often praised for his songwriting and contemporary classic albums, Ward's mastery of the guitar is often overlooked - and this guy can manhandle the six string, wrestling it into submission or letting it ring out in clear beauty, effortlessly playing rhythm, slapping the top bass string and picking lead over the top. He's one guy on stage but he fills the room with music. The fantastic set closed with one of the coolest moments of the weekend. Before playing the final song Ward looked out over the crowd and said, "I need someone who can play the piano," and asked a member of the crowd to join him on stage. A brave local boy walked up and Ward stood over the piano with him and taught him the relatively (and I use that word lightly) easy piano part. With a nod they were off on "Rollercoaster," and when our new piano player came in and linked up with Ward the crowd went nuts. The show ended with Ward looping his guitar part, walking off stage and letting the piano player stretch out a bit. As he found some confidence he really stepped up and closed the set in triumphant fashion. In a world of "look at me!" it was refreshing to see Ward be so totally ego-less and letting someone from the crowd take the limelight.
| M. Ward :: SXSW :: 03.20.09|
Our second slot belongs to the Marco Benevento Trio featuring bassist Marc Friedman (The Slip, Surprise Me Mr. Davis) and drummer Jeremy Black (Apollo Sunshine). Friedman and Benevento have been playing together a bunch lately, but this was the first time Black was brought into the fold, but you never would have known it judging by their loose, flowing, well executed set. Sitting at the beautiful, big piano with his plethora of knobs and electronic devices, this is clearly Benevento's band, but it's Friedman who holds it all together. And good gravy, that Friedman boy can play, moving up and down the neck of his instrument, casting a huge, thick wake. Highlights included a spirited take on My Morning Jacket's "Golden" featuring a nice jazz shuffle by Black, a devious, heavily processed "Heartbeats," a dance-inducing "The Real Morning Party" and The Zombies' "She's Not There." But perhaps more than song selection, what really sticks out about this show is how much fun these three were having. Benevento is in a league of his own, able to move from classical precision to new-age knob-twisting without ever missing a beat, and regardless of who he plays with his smile and his sound always fills the listener with fuel for the long road ahead.
| Marco Benevento Trio :: SXSW :: 03.20.09|
Coming in at #1 is Alberta Cross. If the name isn't familiar to you yet, take note - it soon will be. This five-piece rock band is playing in the same big, dark field as Dead Confederate and lead singer Petter Ericson Stakee has more than a touch of Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon) in his delivery (and his look). But, where a band like Dead Confederate dips into Southern gothic, Alberta Cross are pulling from Neil Young, early My Morning Jacket and even "North" or "Road To Damascus" style Jerry Joseph. They played a bunch of new songs as well as several from their stellar debut, The Thief And The Heartbreaker, whose title track really got the crowd into it, causing us to sing the words back to the band as they built it up, pushing the song until it crossed the peak and rolled down the other side. In addition to their excellent songwriting, it's their ability to crank the instrumental sections into dark, murky, psychedelic waters with ringing guitars and smashing drums that made the live show so compelling. Towards the end of the set, Stakee put down his guitar and picked up a tambourine as he led the band and his now devoted congregation through a gospel rock number that had us clapping, stomping, swaying and falling completely under their spell. All the parts are in place, but what sets this band apart is Stakee's vocals. He's got a high-range wail that cuts through your marrow and he sings as powerfully as anyone I've heard this weekend. This is a band on the rise. Look for Alberta Cross at Coachella and Bonnaroo.
| Alberta Cross :: SXSW :: 03.20.09|
Honorable Mention To The Heavy Stuff: Earthless with Mascis & Crystal Antlers
Earthless featuring Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis was a shred fest of super stoner rock. With only one stack of amps Mascis may have felt a big naked, but he still blazed a linear path through to the back of our heads as Earthless created seizure-inducing bombast.
We'd be remiss to not mention Crystal Antlers's super heavy attack. Screaming guitars over screaming vocals and as much percussive power as any band all weekend, Crystal Antlers worked the small crowd into a lather. With hints of The Mars Volta they performed one of the most unique versions of Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue" I've ever heard. If you dig it heavy, check Crystal Antlers.
Continue reading for Sarah Hagerman's SXSW Day 3 highlights...