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Thursday, March 17 at SXSW was another rush of good music and good times. My choices were a fair distance apart on this night, so in addition to lots of music was lots of walking exercise. The highlight of the night was seeing The Rocketboys at a restaurant/bar called Lamberts. O’Brother played previous, followed by an exciting band I’d never heard before – River City Extension, from Toms River, NJ. They had several members (8) on stage, all seeming to be multi-instrumentalists. They mixed pub band sing-alongs with vibrant story-telling folk. The set culminated (as always) with a grand drum circle sort of thing with the entire band in the middle of the audience, singing along without the aid of microphones while the crowd clapped and sang along. It was a burst of musical energy that was pure genius and Irish St. Patrick’s day celebration worth remembering.

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The Rocketboys, though they didn’t announce it from the stage, were making a special last appearance with the current lineup. (At least that’s what I was told). Frontman Brandon Kinder’s voice filled the room with part melancholy ache and part rock and roll swagger. “Half the bands playing tonight are staying at our house,” he stated, which is often par for the course with bands during a busy week like this. It was fun looking around the stage. Whether it was keyboardist Justin Wiseman dancing as if his keyboard held him down like gravity, bassist Josh Campbell gyrating and bouncing about, guitarists Mitchell Holt and Daniel Wheeler doing the same or drummer Alex Bhore twisting his face as he kept a steady beat and the occasional subtle but progressive fill. It was a good show, with build-up and payoff throughout the set. I stood at the end to watch and see if there’d be any big emotional announcements at the end, but there were none. Just another day’s solid work turned in.

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Friday, March 18 was packed with performances all day at various day parties and showcases at night. Denison Witmer played an intimate set at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room, which is adorned with lots of guitar memorabilia. His between-song banter was funny. He described recent Southwest Airlines flights, including the one that got him to Austin for SXSW. A bad experience on a flight can turn into laughs with the right perspective, which Witmer seemed to have. HIs last song was a cover of a Nada Surf tune. He anounced a new album coming out soon, too.

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Damien Jurado came up on stage to set up, sat down, did a little tuning and just started playing. He filled the room with his low, brooding and soft voice. His words and stories latched onto ears easily. At least that was the case until an emcee interrupted his set and asked everyone to stand up and move closer to the stage to make room for the line up people outside waiting to get in. Most of us were sitting down for an enjoyable lounge-fest, but we were all happy to oblige and let more fans in. It wasn’t long until it almost felt like we were all gyped by the situation, though, as a din of people chatting buzzed loudly throughout the room. It seemed to rattle and annoy Jurado as well, as he spoke up about it and yelled at the people in the bar to shut up and move. It was funny. He apologized and called himself a jerk, but he said he was serious. I doubt those were really fans that came in, because why would they be talking? Anyway, he actually sang a guitar solo during a new song, prompting the brave audience to join in a little. He decided to make the ocassion a little more festive by playing a sing-along and we obliged: “…let us all in, let us enter…” It almost seemed like a Pedro the Lion show, as a couple times audience members shouted out questions: “Whose that sticker of on your guitar?” He explained that it was a photo of Richard Swift (a really good artist, who produced his last album). I thought it looked kinda like Jim Croce…

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Andy Pratt looked closer to Back to the Future‘s Christopher Lloyd, with his wild, wiry white hair. He almost had that crazed look in his eye, too. A couple of times he humorously made reference to his fame and notoriety. “You can find me all over the internet,” he said, “if you look.” He started off with “It’s Not the End of the World.” His vocals remind me a lot of Larry Norman’s 80s era. The band, which featured drums, bass, guitar and Pratt’s keyboard, sounded somewhat “thin” as if it were missing a fat rhythm guitar that surely would have beefed up the sound. At a couple of times during the 45-minute set he actually motioned and spoke to his guitarist (and producer, Fernando Perdomo) to stop, as if he was off key or time. It was a bit awkward, to say the least. The set took a full-bodied turn for good, however, when they went into “Masters of War,” with a rumbling rhythm with big crashes. Quite a moving tune. He finished things off by announcing, “I’m going to play my hit (which he said Roger Daltry “butchered”). If anyone knows it, please sing along, cuz my voice is shot!”

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One of the great things about SXSW (which can drive anyone crazy) is the number of various things to do. I found myself with an hour and a half to kill between the Andy Pratt and Viva Voce sets, so I went over to the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz Theater to see what was showing. They have two theaters and I was directed to Detention, since it had just started. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew if I couldn’t sit down and rest my legs and also occupy my mind, my body would just give out and I’d miss a band or two I wanted to see. The Appleseed Cast was on my radar, too, but it was at the same time as Viva Voce and the VV gig was just across the street. Anyway, being a film festival that showcases independent films, sometimes the quality looks and feels low budget. I was kind of expecting such from this midnight movie. While the plot was ridiculous (making a mockery of teenage slasher films), it was pulled off with great lighting and filming. It looked fantastic. The gore and gratuitous teenage banter was almost over-the-top, but they showed enough restraint to be really funny. It was like a slap in the face to leave the relative calm atmosphere of a theater to a street bustling with lights, music and probably 40,000 people. It’s loud! Anyway, that little excursion was a pleasant surprise.

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Viva Voce held court back at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room. This husband and wife team of Kevin and Anita Robinson has been doing the duo thing off and on (as opposed to their full band performances) for over a decade. If you like the White Stripes, this couple might be your new best friends. They don’t sound anything like the raw, garage noise (albeit lovely) of Jack White’s band, but the similarities are fun. Kevin lays down the drums with an effervescent face that seems to convey the feeling that he’s lost in the music, in complete command of it and having a heck of a great time. He reaches over and starts and stops samples that provide a nice fat bass line (departing from the White Stripes formula by a long shot) and his wife plays some mean lead guitar – with lots of feeling as well as technical proficiency. It was both primal and melodic and, at times, channels all that is wonderful about rock and roll. They announced that their new album (The Future Will Destroy You) will be coming out on Vanguard Records in June. I can’t wait. (Kevin also told me that they play in another sideband that plays Southern Rock called Blue Giant).

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Saturday, March 19th brought six Tooth & Nail artists to the Bat Bar, which is where I planted myself for much of the night. Rocky Loves Emily was loud and bursting with frenetic energy. Several people had taken their two giant banners up and down the throngs of people in the middle of 6th Street the night before and the pre-event publicity might’ve helped, because people showed up. Their really tall frontman (Brandon Ellis) towers over his bandmates and mic stand, but never stands still long enough to be officially considered “lanky.”

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A well-kept secret called Tres Mts. performed over at Stubb’s outdoor venue. While it was packed, I think most of the crowd was there to see Panic! At The Disco and The Bravery. This band consists of Jeff Ament (Pearl Jam), Richard Stuverud (The Fastbacks) and Doug Pinnick of King’s X on guitar (!) and vocals. They were conveniently joined on lead guitar by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready. I didn’t know what to expect, but knew the musical quality would be high. I was not disappointed.

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It was fun to see Dug Pinnick handling lead vocals (and rhythm guitar) without having to hold down the rhythm section in the trio he’s played in for so many years. There was one song where he ditched the guitar and just held the mic stand. The music was pretty much straight-up blues-influenced rock, kinda like a marriage between the majority of Pearl Jam tunes and the soulful ballads of King’s X. I heard a few spiritual lyrics that kinda jumped out, which surprised me as well (I think I was prepared for a decidedly angry or “running from God” vibe, like what I might hear in the song “God Told Me”). Granted, the first single is “My Baby,” but I heard the phrase “peace that passes understanding” in another tune. Not sure which member is responsible. I know I’m going to enjoy this band’s output. The album is out now on Monkey Wrench Records.

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I was told Sainthood Reps sounded “like Nirvana” and, after hearing the second song of their set, I remembered the description and suddenly felt like it was a true description. Not a copycat, but plenty melodic and plenty heavy and just the right amount of punk angst. This band from Long Island spits out the aggressive tunes relentlessly and unapologetically. Seeing them live is a really good first impression.

Saw a couple of songs by Memphis May Fire over at the Dirty Dog Bar. The lighting was terrible for photos, but the rock was intense and the band was playing at high speed. They had the crowd in their back pocket, it seemed, and they were certainly putting out.

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The Almost took the tiny stage at The Bat Bar, which is right in front of a big picture window, with shutters that open to make it a big open-air room. This allowed a packed narrow hall with an upstairs look-down balcony railing and those on the sidewalk to get a good look and listen. Aaron Gillespie jumped right into the set and, like a consumate professional, held court on the tiny stage with lots of friendly “conversation” with the audience. At one point he was introducing a song and he suddenly stopped. “What?! Oh, okay. We’re doing a high-five. We’re interrupting this for a high-five moment. Alright!” It was fast and funny and one energetic fan got his palm slapped. “Southern Weather” got a quick placement in the set, which the crowd sang along to and their big, energetic hit, “Say This Sooner,” did as well. The crowd went nuts, moving, jumping and waving their arms. It was glorious, it was sweaty, it was loud and it delivered.

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Emery came on at 1am, which on the last night of a four-day festival means that many in the audience are “running on fumes,” yours truly included, but once they lit the fuse to their set the room just took off. Within a few seconds it was apparent as to why they were on Solid State now instead of Tooth & Nail. The screams had a distortion and bite that spoke “heavy” and “hard.” What was most impressive about this raccous set was how their multiple frontmen worked both the inside and outside crowds. What a killer way to end a great year at SXSW.

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