SXSW | 03.21.09 | Austin, TX - Day 4

Words & Images by: Sarah Hagerman

Abalone Dots

Abalone Dots :: SXSW :: 03.20.09
As I approached the tent at Opal Divine's, I could hear them plucking, calling me with their siren song. This female four-piece, joined on stage by a banjo player who sat behind them, certainly had folks, particularly the menfolk, in the tent swooning. This impressive group of musicians channel both the folk starkness of Gillian Welch and the pretty light of Nickel Creek, but with a real sense of mystery to their sound. Maybe because they are from Sweden and not America there's a fresh approach to their imaginative revision that moves beyond borders. They'll coax you down a lovely, winding path and then tear through faster numbers with gravel and fire and songs about running down roads and shooting husbands dead. Rebecka Hjukström (guitar) has a mighty wail to shake the rafters, and she completely owned their cover of "Man of Constant Sorrow." Sophia Hogman's multi-instrumental skills were equally inspiring as she switched between mandolin, cello and a crazy looking Swedish instrument called a nyckelharpa, or key harp. They kept talking about beer, too, so they seem like gals with their priorities straight once they finish tearing down the stage.

Felice Brothers

Felice Brothers :: SXSW :: 03.20.09
"We're just a bunch of dirtbags that live in a car!" Ian Felice yelled. But what a fine bunch of dirtbags! Their scratchy joys, roughneck charms and ragtime wallops translate into total release, and they shook that tent behind Habana Calle loose, cigarettes, whisky and sweat seeping out of our pours. It was a spirit that moved out into the street, where folks were packed up against the fence, craning to see through the bars. A swooning beast of a band, the Felice Brothers' spit and grit is nothing short of cathartic. Songs become effortless anthems, even in the darkest of territories that they explore. "Whisky In My Whisky" got the crowd buzzed, and "Greatest Show on Earth" baptized us in swathes of ragged piano. With a forthcoming album they busted out some new material as well, including the stark "Ambulance Man" and "Penn Station" about architect Louis Kahn who died in that famous train depot. Like the best troubadours, they dig into the American underbelly and expose its darkness. They are just such a flat out fun band to watch, too. Farley was an unpredictable storm, showing off his rapping skills, laying waste to that washboard, sawing that fiddle to pieces and screaming red-faced into the microphone. And James Felice can take even a simple act like drinking a bottle of water and make it look badass. In a few seconds flat he downed the whole bottle, crushed it in fist and threw it against in the back of tent. This is a band whose full throttle drive pushes you through the hardest times and helps you celebrate the best times. I've experienced both trials and highpoints this weekend, and as I lifted my face up to let the spirit in that tent wash over me, I felt rejuvenated.

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit :: SXSW :: 03.20.09
So much heartbreak, so much heat. Jason Isbell's evolving in exciting ways, and it was a privilege to see his journey unfold, sipping a Lone Star, the cool wind whipping through my thin plaid shirt, feeling grounded in genuine soil. Although the sound seemed muddy, this was a fine set that drew from Isbell's Truckers-era material through his superb sophomore solo album (see JamBase's recent feature). Isbell pays close attention to those moments in life that make you take stock, and he can shift and break you in two with numbers like "Try" and "Dress Blues." The latter is an especially powerful piece about a soldier's funeral and the depths of grief that take over a town, and the two gentlemen behind me sighed, one saying, "This gets me every time." Similarly, "Danko/Manuel" has always been one of my favorite songs, and seeing it performed with a horn section swelling it settled in my heart as I clutched its lessons against self-destruction inside. But, this show also flat out rocked the tent off its hinges, and I got to appreciate Isbell's fine guitar skills, as well as the fantastic Browan Lollar, who pounded drums at the front of the stage when he wasn't shredding and sliding. Swirling rhythms, dense muddy layers of humid guitars, crunching bass and the horns and keys driving brilliant shafts through the heart of it all.

Bonus Props: Playing for Change

Playing for Change :: SXSW :: 03.20.09
I only caught a few songs from this group but they were inspiring folks to get down with at the Opal Divine's tent. With kicking reggae beats and a soulful cover of Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason" performed by a collective of musicians from Africa and America whose own stories could each fill volumes, they support an amazing organization, whose stated mission is to "connect the world through music," focusing their efforts on arts programs in Africa. The strength of music is often bigger than what connects us in the immediacy of a live moment. At a festival filled with a buzzing, who's who energy, it was a powerful, uplifting reminder of the limitless potential of art in a world that needs it more than ever.

JamBase | Austin
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