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iPO at SXSW - Music Through Wednesday: Béla Fleck, Van Morrison, R.E.M.
Friday, March 14th, 2008 at 12:40 PM - by
South by Southwest, better known as SXSW, has become one of the most important music festivals in the U.S., as well as an important film and technology event. To kick the week off, I was able to see Béla Fleck, Van Morrison, and R.E.M., and more
Though I lived in Austin, Texas for over 6 years and have been back countless times since, I had never really attended the SXSW Music festival before. I had gone to specific events while an Austin resident, but this week for the first time I am fully steeping myself in the whole experience. And I've seen a lot... with more to come.
My music experience started shortly after my plane landed last Sunday when I slipped into Maggie Mae's ahead of the big crowd, ate some barbecue and then was treated to a solo performance by banjo extraordinaire Béla Fleck. This was actually still technically part of the film festival, as Béla was there with his director, Sascha Paladino, promoting their new film, "Throw Down Your Heart." The two traveled, film team in tow, to the inner reaches of Africa to explore the roots of the banjo and recorded Béla Fleck playing with countless African musicians. After playing a short solo set, they treated us to a few clips from the upcoming movie.
By Wednesday night, the music festival was roaring on all cylinders, and I started the evening by catching Van Morrison's set at La Zona Rosa. He and his top-notch band played a loose-yet-perfect set of tunes from Van's new album, "Keep It Simple," releasing March 17th in the UK and April 1st in the US.
Then I walked the (short) trek across downtown Austin to Stubb's, where I had hoped to get through the door ahead of the crowds for R.E.M.'s late night set. I made it in fine, and caught a few of the earlier bands as a result. The first I saw was Johnathan Rice. If he's from Los Angeles, it must be that Los Angeles that sits squarely between Georgia and Tennesee. And I mean that in a good way. He and his band had a real southern-fried, laid back air about them on stage, and the music was slippery and greasy with Jonathan's smooth vocals sitting perfectly behind the beat. Of course, they were a little *too* laid back when their lead guitarist actually changed a string in the middle of their short showcase set. One would think that an R.E.M.-opening slot showcase at SXSW would warrant bringing an extra guitar. Or three.
Following that were Papercranes, a female-fronted, melodic rock outfit who put on a mezmerizing, almost hypnotizing performance. This was definitely a highlight of the night, and is a band worth watching. After Papercranes, the lead-in act to R.E.M. was Dead Confederate, a heavy grunge band that was a little heavy for my taste. They did play with convinction though, and their skilled drummer possibly hit harder than Tony Williams and John Bonham combined. Worth seeing if you're into that sort of thing.
I've had the pleasure of seeing R.E.M. quite a few times, and for me this was by far and away the best experience I've ever had watching them. And while the band played well, as expected, the venue and the vibe were as much to thank for this experience as anything. Because R.E.M. isn't smack dab in the middle of a tour, they're not in automatic mode with regards to their sets and performances yet, and that made for a very loose atmosphere on stage. Combine that with a bunch of Athens, GA locals in the crowd and a 12:20am set start time, and this felt more like a hometown club gig than it did an R.E.M. production. And it was fantastic. The band tore through tunes from their upcoming album, Accelerate, which is to be released on April 1st, and also treated the crowd to some *way* back catalog favorites, including, "Second Guessing," "Auctioneer (another engine)," and "Fall On Me." The band was clearly having fun, and allowed themselves to lay back and be a little goofy on stage, which was just fine with the packed house. After playing for close to an hour-and-a-half, they left the stage and my night was over.
Thursday was a whole new experience, and there's more on that to come!
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