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Amid the din of music at SXSW, some bands succeed in standing out

Laura Mac Darby (left) and Emer Ryam, both from Dublin, Ireland, attended Thursday’s free concert at Auditorium Shores, headlined by Spoon, at the South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas.
Laura Mac Darby (left) and Emer Ryam, both from Dublin, Ireland, attended Thursday’s free concert at Auditorium Shores, headlined by Spoon, at the South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas. TNS

On a dreary Saturday night in the capital of Texas, Laura Burhenn is performing on the inside stage of Red Eye Fly, an official venue for the South by Southwest Music Conference. Burhenn is leader of the band the Mynabirds, but this evening she is going solo, trying to get the attentions of about 60 people with just a keyboard, her voice and her pop songs.

She is competing with a few distractions: A TV above the bar is broadcasting a women’s mixed martial arts fight, drawing glances and stares from around the room. In the courtyard outside the venue, Public Access TV, a rock band from New York, is performing, and the sounds of its garage-rock tunes barge through the walls and the back door each time it is opened. And the opened front door admits noises from the street and the conversations of people gathered outside the bar. But Burhenn forges on, singing through the noise.

More than 2,400 bands performed more than 3,000 shows at this year’s conference. That number doesn’t include the unofficial showcases, such as Kansas City’s MidCoast Takeover, which featured 100 bands over four days. That’s a lot of music competing for the attention of about 25,000 attendees.

In many ways, this conference represents the music industry as a whole: The field of performers is enormous and growing unchecked, and the competition for fans and listeners — customers — is fierce. It takes something unique or special to standout amid the legions of bands and singers hoping to make some kind of a living in the music business. It takes some luck, as well.

Some Kansas City bands have generated some attention beyond our local scene. The son-mother duo Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear has been noticed by publications and web sites as far away as New Zealand and by some of its well-known peers. On its Facebook page, the duo posted a photo of the Wards with Chuck D of Public Enemy and another with soul phenom Leon Bridges.

The Josh Berwanger Band, led by Berwanger, a resident of Kansas City, Kan., was recognized by the music website Consequences of Sound. And the Kansas City band the Philistines were blessed some sweet luck: Actor Bill Murray attended their set at Maria’s Taco Xpress and became an instant fan.

At the Warped Tour several years ago, I was sitting in a lounge area when a band sat down at the table next to mine, looking weary and discouraged. One of the band members, who was holding a small stack of CDs, wondered out loud (and I paraphrase): Why would anyone want one of our CDs? We sound like so many other bands here.

It can feel like that here in Austin, where the number of bands and performances is so concentrated and the similarities are so apparent. Buhrenn forged on through her set. Without the support of her band, she was fighting an uphill battle. Though there was little memorable about her set, it did prompt me to investigate her music and listen to her band recordings, which have some unique traits, none of which came through strongly in her solo set.

Saturday was beset with bouts of heavy rain, but there were chances to explore and look for something new and different. One band stood out among the others: No Brain, a veteran punk band from South Korea. The four-piece fronted by the comical and charismatic Bulldaegal, who speaks some English, mostly profanities. The band plumbs a wide range of styles and influences: punk, ska, metal, reggae and rap; the Ramones, Social Distortion, the Offspring, the Pogues and others.

They’re songs are metal-hard but poppy, and the band is tight and fierce, especially lead guitarist, Vovo, who executed several thrash-metal leads and riffs. For one number, Bulldaegal played drums and drummer Hyoonga sang lead vocals on a lively ska-punk number about drinking soju. The highlight of the set was a spot-on cover of Social D’s “Bad Luck.”

Their set was at 1 p.m. inside a large convention center ballroom. Throughout the set, Bulldaegal coaxed the crowd of about 100 or so into singing along, pumping fists and waving arms. No Brains had another performance scheduled Saturday night. No doubt a lot of those watching the afternoon show went to see the band again. This was a memorable show and one worth repeating. Other Saturday highlights:

Black Linen

They’re a quartet from Atlanta, and their set on the intimate patio at the Ginger Man revealed a wide variety of influences, from Buddy Holly to Tom Petty, from British Invasion rock to Detroit soul. Their songs are brief — in an out in three minutes or so — and loaded with melodies, hooks, riffs, catchy bridges, three-part harmonies and sing-along choruses. Lead singer Randy Michael sings in an appealing deadpan voice that resembles Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, and drummer Pietro DiGennaro has a bit of a Questlove vibe going. A memorable set, thanks to the solid songwriting and appealing stage presence.

Chuck Prophet

Dressed in a maroon suit and wearing sunglasses, Prophet played the covered Ginger Man stage as a downpour fell on the crowd, some of whom were covered by tents. Prophet is a seasoned performer and wily, evocative songwriter, and a go-to guitarist. He and his band played songs off his latest album, “Night Surfer,” including “Wish Me Luck.” and “Ford Econoline.” Short sets like these are slam-dunks for such a skilled musician and songwriter with a magnetic personality.

Public Access TV

I’ll remember this group from Brooklyn, a buzz band at the moment. Their sound is new wave/pop with some ’60s/British Invasion accents. Nothing we haven’t heard before but it’s all well-crafted. They are led by John Eatherly, formerly of Be Your Own Pet, who has the rock star aura about him. If you’re fond of bands like the Strokes, check them out. Hear their song “Monaco” here on SoundCloud.

Orenda Fink

She followed Buhrenn and faced the same obstacles: There was lots of noise in the room as she strummed her porcelain indie-folk and pop tunes accompanied by a keyboardist. Before one song, she frowned and said, “This one is even quieter.” Fink has a long music resume that includes art-folk bands like Azure Ray and Art in Manila. This venue wasn’t suited to her music, which would be best served at a seated show before an attentive audience.

Pujol

They’re a rock band from Nashville, led by Daniel Pujol. Their sound is high-energy, stripped down, rough hewn and melodic with a punk attitude, a sound that comes somewhere between the Stones and the White Stripes. Red Eye Fly was an ideal setting for them: a no-frills beer bar. Their set included “Drunk In Love” and “Circle.”

Tiger! S**t! Tiger! Tiger!

At 1 a.m., this band from Italy filled B.D. Riley’s pub with heavy gusts of shoe-gazey, no-wave punk. It was noisy and rapturous but it always clung to a melody or groove. Their name isn’t the only thing memorable about them. They were unlike any other band I saw down here.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to tfinn@kcstar.com. Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.

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