The word “discovery” has been used a lot here during the South by Southwest Music Conference. It’s an underlying theme to this festival, which was founded to get emerging bands and musicians in front of music industry folks and music writers and hope the exposure leads to discovery of new talent.
It was spoken by the person who introduced Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear at the Radio Day Stage on Friday, as he talked about the excitement of coming upon music that is new and rewarding. His use of the word was appropriate. Many of the several hundred people in the room were hearing the Kansas City duo for the first time. You could see it in the their reactions: Dozens got out of their seats and moved up front to take photos or record videos or just get closer to the music.
You could see it in another venue inside the Austin Convention Center, at the International Day Stage, which hosts bands and performers from all over the world for three days. Friday, where the Recycled Instrument Orchestra of Cateura — a band of teenagers from a slum in Paraguay — mesmerized several dozen people.
It’s always great to see a band you’ve followed for years and seen several times, but nothing beats that moment of discovery, when a band or singer or song . It happened a couple of times Friday. Here’s a look at the day’s music itinerary.
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The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
They started early, entertaining the standing-room-only crowd awaiting the keynote address by Snoop Dogg, which started at 11 a.m. They comprise a 10-piece band: eight horn players (all sons of jazz trumpeter Phil Cohran), who were the focus of the documentary “Brothers Hypnotic,” plus a bassist and a drummer.
They mix funk, rock, R&B, jazz and hip-hop. A couple of times one of the horn players put aside his instrument and rapped. One of those was the song “War” (see below), which was featured in the “Hunger Games.” It was one of several songs that helped the crowd shake off its sleepiness.
He’s a singer-songwriter from New Mexico who resides in Los Angeles, but he sounds lke a taproot Texas troubadour. Backed by a three-piece band, he delivered a warm, informal set of songs that carried a heavy country/folk/rock vibe. His voice was grittier and raspier than usual — more Tom Waits than Bruce Springsteen — adding a deeper sense of emotions to his lyrics, which are typically filled with detail and imagery. His set focused on songs from his latest album, “Fear and Saturday Night,” including “Broken Heart Tattoos.”
They’re an indie-pop band from Los Angeles that appears to be headed in a new direction.
They drew a large crowd to their set, which lasted a few minutes short of a half hour. It included the title tracks of their two full-lengths, “Crazy for You” and “The Only Place.” Both were indie-rock songs drawn from a variety of influences, including garage rock and indie-pop. They were pleasant and catchy but not too adventurous. The title track from their upcoming album, “California Nights,” however, was something different. It was more ’90s shoe-gaze, and it made better use of the commanding voice of lead singer Bethany Cosantino.
The Recycled Instrument Orchestra of Cateura
The International Day Stage never fails to deliver memorable moments. Last year, it was from the Norwegian band Highasakite. This year, it has been Toffee, from Taiwan, and the Recycled Instrument Orchestra of Cateura, a band of teenagers playing instruments cobbled together from materials pulled from the landfill that dominates their neighborhood in Paraguay
They were led by a conductor and teacher, an adult who speaks little English, so the role of emcee fell upon their horn player, a young man who apologized several times for his rudimentary English. But this band and this project have nothing to be sorry about. The cliche about music being a universal language applies here.
He showcased each instrument — cello, violins, saxophone, clarinet, drums, guitar — and what they were fashioned from: forks, spoons, pots and pans, empty oil barrels, discarded wooden pallets. Nonetheless, the music they made was transcendent, starting with their lovely arrangement of the Frank Sinatra classic, “My Way.” Throughout that song, one of the violinists, who was all of 16, closed her eyes and submitted to the melody and sway. They also reprised their version of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” which they performed live at a Metallica show in South America (see below). “We played trash metal with trash,” the horn player said.
There’s a lot to say about this project — how an impoverished neighborhood found a way to bring music into its children’s lives. There is a documentary about the orchestra called “The Landfill Harmonic.” It was also the focus of a piece by “60 Minutes.” The orchestra comprises 50 musicians, but only a fraction of that travels internationally. It has started its own music school, which has enrolled 300 students. You could feel the deep satisfaction those students, raised in deep poverty, were getting from playing and performing. It was the most inspiring music I’ve heard in a long time.
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear
We’ve written a lot about this son-mother duo, who has been impressing listeners from New York, where they performed on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” to Los Angeles, where they were the highlight of a pre-Grammy party.
Friday, they gave their last of four SXSW performances, on the Radio Day Stage. They opened with “Silent Movies,” the song they played on “Letterman,” then several off their upcoming album, “Skeleton Crew,” due in May. One of those was “Daisy Jane” (see below). The crowd was enthralled throughout. By the third song, a throng was in front of the stage, smart phones in the air, capturing photos or videos. The two have received glowing reviews down here. The Austin Chronicle raved about their Thursday show, but took exception (tongue in cheek) to Ruth Ward telling a Texas crowd Kansas City had the best barbecue. Thus, on Friday, Madisen Ward made peace, saying the two styles were equal but, in an aside, told his Kansas City friend he’d have something else to say later.
Call Me Lolla
Sometimes discovery finds you.
That’s what happend Friday night, as we were dining in the hotel bar, which is also an official SXSW venue, and the band Call Me Lolla started playing. They’re a five-piece from Brazil, and their sound is catchy and fetching pop music. Have a listen: Here’s a link to a YouTube video.
This band was on the bill at Buffalo Billiards before the Church, our destination band for the night. They are led by Natalie Mering, who, despite her youth, already has a very colorful past in the music business. (Read this Pitchfork review.)
She has an arresting, demonstrative voice. It’s operatic at times, but it also can resemble Aimee Mann’s. The music is both progressive and freak folk — amorphous and loosely structured, without explicit choruses or bridges, and the songs were long, four-minutes plus at least. It was interesting. I respected it but haven’t decided whether I like it.
This was a disappointment and for no fault of the band. They should have been at a bigger venue, and they should have had a longer set. Lead singer Steve Kilbey was visibly disgruntled about the shortness of the set, which shouldn’t have been a surprise. He apologizes sarcastically for the hilarious banter he would not be able to deliver because of the time constraint. They started 10 minutes late because it took a while to set up, so their set was barely 30 minutes. They played tracks off their latest album, “Further/Deeper,” like “Toy Head.” I wish they’d played longer and played something off “Hey Day.” Might try to see them again Saturday.
The Juliana Hatfield Three
The former member of the Blake Babies and the Lemonheads is again leading her own trio, which released its second album this year, “Whatever, My Love,” their first since “Become What You Are,” their debut in 1993. Friday night (early Saturday morning, really) they sounded as vigorous as they did 22 years ago. They opened with “My Sister,” the “hit” off “Become” and followed with more from that album: “This Is The Sound,” “For the Birds” and “Mabel.” No discovery here, just reassurance that this band is still good.