Damn David Coverdale...I can never utter "Here I Go Again" again without being plagued by his voice.
Regardless, here I go again because there I went again. 14 straight years I've been slogging thru the madness of SXSW and it continues to get bigger and bigger and wider and wider but it still remains the one can't-miss-event of the year.
And the 27th edition was no exception.
It's funny how many times you're in the moment of a transportive experience thinking to yourself, oh this show is definitely going to make my Top 10.
And then when it's all said and done, you realize you've seen anywhere from 40-80 performances and it's hard as hell to narrow it down. Where to begin?
So, I decided to do a Top 10 and then do one again.
But either way, it all begins with what the Austin cat dragged in: a death-defying high-wire act called KITTEN.
1. KITTEN @ The Belmont, Asos, Sonos, Filter
I first saw Kitten at SXSW in 2010 and they quickly proceeded to make my Top 10.
The Kitten of 2013 is a far hungrier animal. Whereas baby Kitten from a few years ago politely "meowed" for milk, the current version is more like a wild beast roaming the plains with a hunger in its vast belly that cannot be quenched.
Playing nine times...which translates to 9 "Lives," this fearsome fivesome burned brighter than the midday sun and lit the night on fire with an insatiable desire.
Even though I was only able to catch four of the shows, I made a plan to see a trifecta of shows on Friday as Kitten played at high noon, mid-afternoon and early evening. Each one was incendiary and although some of the songs remained the same, the propulsive energy never did wane.
At this point in their young career, a Kitten show is like watching a fireworks display with their signature bombast coming in the form of a song appropriately entitled "Kitten With A Whip".
KWAW is like the grand finale of a fireworks display where it's just a massive explosion of sights and sounds that tends to leave your consciousness in a transcendental state of bliss.
At the core of their high-octane combustible engine is 18-year old singer Chloe Chaidez. Not since Eddie Vedder 20 years ago has anyone, seemingly, wanted so bad to ascend to the top, literally and figuratively. Every performance is charged with an eletro-magentic seething from her being as if her very life depended on it. And not since Vedder has anyone displayed a desire AND the ability to climb EVERYTHING!
Chloe's cat-like agility executing gymnast-worthy excursions are mesmerizing to watch. Match those with her penchant for punching band members intermittently, incessant flailing, then posing with poise, then flailing again and then combine that with her desire to dance in and with the crowd at every show and you have a terminal-velocity tornado gaining speed.
This Kitten is more like a Jaguar that had a Tiger for breakfast and is on the prowl for a Lion at Lunch.
2. Paramore @ The Belmont
When I first saw Paramore at SXSW, it was at a moderately-filled showcase at La Zona Rosa in 2008. I became a Parawhore that night. In the subsequent five years, the band has become a household name, mostly due to its charismatic and incredibly talented orange-haired singer, Hayley Williams, with a little added boost from a vampire franchise called Twilight.
Their Wednesday showcase at The Belmont would be the band's sole SXSW appearance and still one of their initial U.S. performances with their newly configured line-up so it was met with high anticipation as a line of 500 people stretched down the block.
Finally going on after midnight, the band was focused and determined, yet playful and grateful. Live, they've added a third guitar player which makes their already huge sound even larger.
Mixing anthems "That's What You Get," "Ignorance," "Misery Business" and "For A Pessimist, I'm Pretty Optimistic" with fan favorites "Decode" "In The Mourning" (with its Stevie Nick's "Landslide" bridge), "Let The Flames Begin" and "Brick By Boring Brick," Paramore also played "Now," the catchy first single from their forthcoming 4th album and debuted "Still Into You," for the very first time .
During the long wait until the show started, I randomly started chatting with a girl standing next to me. It turned out to be Liz Rosnowski, singer of Phoenix rocktronica band Lost In Atlantis, who was equally as excited to catch this special show.
While we weren't quite Lost In Austin, we did get lost in the moment of watching the triumphant re-emergence of one the great live bands of all time.
Seeing Paramore with special guest Kitten on tour this spring is going to be mind-melting.
3. Krewella @ La Zona Rosa
Comprised of Yousaf sisters Yasmine and Jahan and their main man the "Rain Man," Krewella are blowing up.
Their mottos "PLAY HARD" "KILLIN' IT" "GET WET" and "TOUCH THE SKY" fairly well sum up most of what you need to know, but their intuitive ability to get a crowd amped up and, invariably, Wet is adeptly matched by melodic mainstream anthems.
Add in some live vocals (with both girls on mics, carousing the stage in front of the decks), occasional synchronized stage diving, ferocious mixmaster skillz and a massive LED light show and you have one hell of a death knell in all that's stagnant in EDM.
Krewella has dragged the cat in. And that kitty is soaking wet.
4. The Skins @ Dogwood, W Hotel
I first got turned onto Brookyn-based The Skins last month while flying Virgin America, which has two of their music videos on demand.
Seeing them at both their official label showcase on Thursday night and then the next evening at the Nylon Mag party at the W Hotel (see my #1 "celebrity" moment below), they were electrifying.
Imagine a teenage Tina Turner fronting Led Zeppelin in its No Quarter heyday with her sister on bass and 13-year old brother on the skins.
Musically, it's already earth-shattering, but what really sinks in deep is how much better The Skins will become. So much so that The Skins on the backs of our collective necks will stand tall.
Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro is already jumping out of his skin as he recently tweeted out a link to the video for their song "Killer," which happened to be the opening number at Dogwood.
Bayli McKeithan's handwritten set list:
Comprised of siblings, singer Bayli, bassist Kaya and Reef on drums with dueling guitarists Russell Chell and Daisy Spencer, The Skins debut album Show Me Some Skin will soon be available via Wreckroom Records, Adrian Grenier's imprint.
Time to surf the Wreckroom. Kaboom!
5. Haim @ Stubb's
By, oh boy, was I wrong about Haim. Not sure how I initially missed the boat but I'm now securely on board.
LA-based Haim, which is comprised of sisters Danielle (vocals, lead guitar), Alana (vocals, rhythm guitar, keyboards, percussion) and Este (vocals, bass), are on a crash-course destiny with rock and roll infamy.
After getting signed following last year's SXSW showcase, the girls soon found themselves touring with the likes of Mumford & Sons and Florence and the Machine.
Most often compared to 70s era Fleetwood Mac, the trio also incorporate the silky sweetness of 90s girl groups such as TLC and Destiny's Child into the mix.
And as evidenced at their packed-to-the-back Stubb's showcase on Saturday night, when the girls want to rock, they freakin' ROCK! When they ripped into the opening bars of the 1969 Fleetwood Mac jam "Oh Well," many jaws immediately hit the dirt floor. Mine housed an ear-to-ear grin. It was one of those "moments" that'll be forever etched in my mind.
As an aside, it was cool to see the girls at the airport the following morning, mere hours later. They ended up sitting in the row behind me on the flight back to LA and it was fun to hear them still sharing stories about their triumphant performance.
6. Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs @ Blackheart
TEED was another fresh discovery. I was re-connecting with a friend from Chicago that I hadn't seen in many years and she asked me to meet her at Blackheart, a bar that resides in what is basically a residential house...little did I know that Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs roamed the caverns of said Blackheart. Just reciting this verbiage is rather mythic.
And BOOM, this non-pre-historic futurist set of beats slathered in a heavy dose of old skool West coast house was leveling the place. TEED was bulldozing us. No zoning permit need. Booty shaking was not only required butt necessary.
7. Nikki Reed & Paul McDonald @ St. David's Episcopal Church
Heading into this showcase with only knowledge that one publication dubbed this husband and wife duo, the former an American Idol contestant and the latter, a movie star, an apt replacement for the recently disbanded Civi Wars, I wasn't sure what to expect. And as it turns out, I was completely unprepared for the magic that would soon emanate from the stage.
On song after fantastic song from their The Best Part EP, which they distributed for free afterwards, their elegant voices seamlessly complimented each other. It was so moving that the girl seated next to me in our front row pew position had tears in her eyes after several songs. Wearing red Vans that matched the color of an adjacent Bible, she seemed to be Breaking Dawn, caught up in the poignancy of what was transpiring. I felt it too.
Mirroring the emotional vibrancy of the songs was an incredible visible chemistry between Nikki and Paul as they lovingly gazed into the twilight of each other eyes. It was something really special to behold. Witnessing a mortal love reminiscent of the immortal love of Edward and Bella, it was very apparent that they, too, will love each other for A Thousand Years.
8. Jillette Johnson @ Antone's
I've been a fan of Jillette's since I saw her at the BMI Brunch last year and it was a treat to see her this year at a proper venue.
Accompanying herself on electric piano, her soaring voice is haunting and powerful on emotional originals such as "Cameron" and "Pauvre Coeur" and when she belted out a cover of Radiohead "Creep," its transcendence was in abundance.
Jillette's Wind-Up Records debut album Water in the Whale (her voice is the "Water". The world is the "Whale") releases May 14.
9. The Royalty @ CTC Garden
The Royalty were on hand for our Horseshoe Casinos event on Wednesday afternoon, and ironically, they were one of the only bands that I didn't get a chance to check out online in the time crunch leading up to SXSW.
They began their set in the late afternoon and after a long day in the hot sun, I had taken a seat at the back of the Garden near the soundboard.
By their third song, I was up on my feet and by the end of their set, I was at the front of the crowd to enjoy their classy mix of ska-infused 60s era "wall-of-sound" that could easily double as a deft Mick Ronson-fueled production. Imagine Amy Winehouse flanked by No Doubt on a crisp summer eve.
At the end of their set, copies of their Victory Records' "Lovers" release were up for grabs and my ears were soon treated royally by royalty.
While epic tracks such as "Bartender" and "Mr. Hyde" and "Every Little Bit" provide instantaneous aural pleasure, it's the closing track, the sullen piano-ballad "Won't Be Long," elegantly emoted by singer Nicole Boudreau, that tears a hole in my heart every time I listen to it...which has been quite frequently.
10. Frank Turner @ Cedar Street Courtyard
In what I've dubbed to fellow Frank Turner fans as his greatest and worst show ever, Frank had been battling illness all week, causing him to miss several showcases.
Against Doctor's orders, Frank took to the stage to close out SXSW at Cedar Street Courtyard and promptly admitted to being totally shit-faced...which at 1AM on the last night of the festival, was fairly in line with everyone in attendance.
We all soldiered on.
Mixing Turner classics "I Still Believe" and "Peggy Sings The Blues" with a host of covers including "Thunder Road" by Bruce Springsteen, mass sing alongs erupted as at every Turner show though this one was punctuated by Frank's completely hoarse voice matched against a crowd out-of-tune, off-key voices.
By the end of the set, Frank proceeded to invite every artist on the bill and every last musician to the stage to have a massive folk revival sing-along. It was a big f'in beautiful mess and "the" perfect ending to SXSW.
TOP 10 (Done Again)
1. TOKiMONSTA @ Antone's
I actually only knew TOKiMONSTA by name, as one of the DJs on the Skrillex "train" through Canada last summer.
After not being able to get into the Haim Vevo showcase on Tuesday night, we headed a block over to Antone's to catch a few tracks.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that TOKi was a beautiful Japanese girl and even more delighted at the bass bombs that came out of the speakers for the next 45 minutes.
Highlight of the set was "Percolator". Everything about her set was percolating and that track just put a big fat stamp on it!
2. Zedd @ La Zona Rosa
Dr. Zedd said, how about a big fat BPM injection?
We sedd, yes sir.
Lights, LED, Action ensured a sensory saturated evisceration.
Clearly, we were all in need of some Clarity.
3. Charli XCX @ The Belmont
Between Charli XCX (born Charlotte Aitchison) and Sky Ferreira, the laed-up to SXSW was a battle of two 20-year olds (born three weeks apart) from either side of the pond as to whom is the most eternally fashionable and whom held the most hype.
I'm already on board with Ms. Ferreira, having seen her open for Kitten in LA last fall, but was curious to see the flip side of the collide.
Delivering a spirited set of synth-heavy poptronica, highlighted by her lavacious club hit "You (Ha Ha Ha)" (which contains a sample of "You" by London-based production guru Gold Panda), Charli XCX will continue to fly in the same sky as Ms Red Lips.
4. Joanna Erdos & The Midnight Show @ Dogwood
Arriving to Dogwood just in time for what I thought was a set by The Skins, I was confused as only Bayli McKeithan, their singer, took to the stage.
Accompanied by an exquisite singer on an upright white piano, the emotionally charged songs appealed to my great admiration for songwriting chanteuses Regina Spektor and Christina Perri but this was most definitely not The Skins.
Turns out that Bayli was sitting in on a set by her co-manager and fellow Brooklynite/Wreckroom recording artist Joanna Erdos (& the Midnight Show).
Following the short set, none other than Wreckroom guru / Entourage star Adrian Grenier, who is The Skins other managing counterpart, took to the stage to help clear the piano. How's that for being involved in every aspect of your company. Kudos!
Look for a full-length album by Erdos later this year.
5. Twenty One Pilots @ The Belmont
Another unplanned discovery and one that's common at SXSW, since it's best to get to sought-after showcases early to make sure you can get in, even with a badge AND a line pass.
I'm sure it was no coincidence that Fueled By Ramen put Twenty One Pilots (comprised of Tyler Joseph & Josh Dun and named after the Arthur Miller play All My Sons) on the bill with Paramore to take advantage of the frenetic situation.
And in my case, it worked. With The Belmont operating on a one-out, one-in entry, I finally gained entrance about half way through their set and was immediately blown away by their stage presence, including doing songs cloaked in stretchy ski masks, and just how damn talented Joseph & Dun are.
The duo's FBR label debut Vessel was released in January and judging from what I saw, both in terms of performance and audience reaction/participation, Twenty One Pilots may eventually prove to be bigger than both fun. and Paramore.
6. Noelle Bean @ Burnside's
I saw Noelle open for Megan & Liz in LA in January and she stole the show so I was looking forward to seeing her again. Bean (as she goes by) has a big voice, an even bigger infectious personality and songs that stick with you. From the "Bang bang, bang" refrain of "Cops and Robbers" to the soon-to-be released "Rollercoaster," it only takes one listen and you're hooked.
Song after song of cotton candy melodies and sun-drenched riddims were matched by Bean's eternally feel-good vibe. It was a delicious brew. And after she threw out branded sunglasses, chap stick and requisite "Beanies," we had all the essentials to not be at Burnside's but beachside...ready to shake our hide.
Like Kelly Clarkson before her, Bean is ready to put Dallas on the map, once again, as the home to another American Idol.
7. Sirah @ The Belmont
I met Sirah at the Grammys this year as I was congratulating Skrillex on his three wins.
She contributed vocals/rap to his monster hit "Bangarang," which took home the golden gramophone for "Best Dance Recording".
Having voted for him, it felt like a win for myself as well.
Yo, I'm eating fun dip right now!
Sirah's energetic, hard-charging set showcased her immense talent and her deft ability to fluently weave the worlds of pop, rock, electronic and hip hop with one party-rock song sounding like it came straight off of Licensed to Ill.
Look for a big breakout this year, painted with Double Yellow Lines of the superstar kind.
8. The Moth & The Flame @ CTC Garden
Another band showcasing at the Horseshoe Casinos event, TM & TF delivered impassioned esoteric rock sure to appeal to fans of Radiohead and Coldplay.
And aside from their cohesion as a live band, I also appreciate their quest to preserve the cohesion of the arc of an album by refusing to release their music digitally. Their self-titled debut album is currently only available on CD.
9. Tegan & Sara @ The Belmont
Having seen several Tegan & Sara shows over the last few album cycles, it's been exciting to watch their career shift into high gear.
While many in the audience were there to see Paramore play afterwards, the Tegan & Sara diehards were in full force and though we were packed in like sardines, by the end of their tight-knit energetic set, we were all smiles and felt even Closer!
10. Rhye @ Buffalo Billiards
Rhye is a mood. A regal one that lets you come undone under its sun.
TOP 4 Celebrity Moments:
1. Adrian Grenier
"AG," whom I'm sure is called that by no one, with two "moments".
The first was an impromptu beatbox exposition during his Wreckroom showcase at Dogwood just before his prodigies, The Skins, took the stage.
But topping that was the next day at the W Hotel, when the girl at the Nylon Mag check-in would not let us in to see The Skins dominate once again.
We dejectedly started to walk away and there was Adrian coming down the hall. I told him we were there to see The Skins and next thing you know, he escorts us past security.
Don't need to be on no stinkin' list when AG has your back!
2. Nikki Reed
When I first moved to LA, I like many others before me, sought out recommendations a good doctor, dentist, mechanic and, of course, hairdresser. I've never been one for going into salons so when a publicist friend recommended a lady who does hair on movie sets but also books appointments out of her house, I said sure, I'll give her a try. She ended up doing a good job and we hit it off personally, so I continued to go.
One day, I arrive and her daughter is in the kitchen filming a reel to try and secure interest in landing a deal to chronicle her perilous first-hand account of life as a modern-day teenager. That reel would soon become a documentary called Thirteen. And then came a little skateboarding flick called Dogtown and Z-Boys. Years later, I think she was also in some vampire movie...or so I've heard :)
I hadn't spoken with Nikki since she became a global superstar, so it was nice to chat with her briefly after her showcase at St. David's Episcopal Church.
3. Fred Armisen
Zigzagging through the morass of 6th street on Tuesday evening, I looked up and found myself locked eye-to-eye with Fred Armisen.
With Portlandia being one of my favorite shows, I said 'Hello' and moved along as the swelling nature of SXSW causes you to do so.
4. Mike Dirnt (Green Day)
Eating dinner at Trace, the restaurant in the W Hotel, we were seated next to a curtained-off private dining room.
Not too long thereafter, out comes Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt, who would soon be playing next door at ACL Live.
When we left Trace, I noticed there was no line to get into the Green Day showcase, but I refrained from diverting my attention from the mission at hand which was to see a Kitten, once again, ascend to the highest point of any band in Austin land.
Austin Epilogue: Nary a moment to rest upon my return home as the very next day I headed to San Diego to catch the West Coast debut of The Nearly Deads, one of my favorite bands before heading to the hipster Redbury Hotel in Hollywood on Wed to watch my 5th Kitten show in one week. Me-oW!
My action-packed cross-country musical journey then ended on Thursday as The Nearly Deads put an resounding exclamation point on my amazing 10-day adrenaline rush as they unleashed a supercharged turbo rocket upon The Roxy.