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At SXSW, the Cult showcases new songs, but the classics stir a big crowd

Archie Powell and the Exports played at the MidCoast Takeover stage at the Shangri-La on Friday afternoon, Sponsored by Ink’s Middle of the Map Festival, Midcoast Takeover featured bands that will perform at the festival in May.
Archie Powell and the Exports played at the MidCoast Takeover stage at the Shangri-La on Friday afternoon, Sponsored by Ink’s Middle of the Map Festival, Midcoast Takeover featured bands that will perform at the festival in May. tfinn@kcstar.com

The Cult has been a band for more than 30 years, surviving revolving-door changes in its lineup and seismic changes in the music industry.

In February, the British rock band released “Hidden City,” its 10th studio album and its first recording in four years. Not content to be a heritage act peddling its glory years, the Cult wants refresh its catalog and remain current and relevant more than three years into its third decade.

Friday night during their SXSW showcase at ACL Live, the Cult proved it is still a formidable and dynamic live act, no matter how essential or interesting is new music is or isn’t.

The band is led by lead singer Ian Astbury and guitarist and fellow songwriter Billy Duffy, its only two founding members. They were joined by a trio that included sideman Damon Fox, who added plenty of color and edge on keyboards and guitar.

Astbury, 53, is a charismatic live performer, a mix of menace and cool. Dressed in black from head to toe, including sunglasses, he prowled the stage throughout the show, swinging his microphone like a lasso during some songs, banging a tambourine against his hip during others. His voice remains strong and commanding and a definitive trait of the band’s signature sound: a mix of blues, post-punk, metal and gothic rock.

They opened with “Dark Energy,” a rollicking track from “Hidden City” that rides a jackhammer guitar riff and that recalls the band’s best early sounds. Next came a true version of “Lil’ Devil,” one of three tracks they’d play from the classic “Electric” album. “Hinterland,” a generic metal-blues track from “Hidden City,” followed. Then “Wild Flower” detonated the room.

Astbury preached and lectured a bit between songs, including about politics (I believe the name “Trump” was mentioned). He thanked the crowd several times but also chided it a bit when not satisfied with its reaction. As he left the stage before the encore, he basically said: If you want to hear more music, you’d better make some noise. Otherwise, he was gruffly congenial and showed his appreciation for a crowd that show him and his band plenty of love all night.

Duffy displayed his usual guitar-slinger cool, delivering precise and inventive leads in his signature tone and style. Bob Rock, who has produced several Cult albums, including “Hidden City,” joined the band and played rhythm guitar on one of the encores.

The highlights of the set were the songs everyone had come to see, each played with intensity: “Sweet Soul Sister,” “Fire Woman,” “She Sells Sanctuary” and “Love Removal Machine,” which set off the loudest reaction (and the most smart-phone recordings) of any song all night.

With or without new music, the Cult remains a vibrant band worth seeing.

Blue October: I caught the last few songs of their set, which preceded the Cult’s. In April, they will release “Home,” their eighth studio album. They showcased some of the new material Friday night at ACL Live, and it’s more of the same winning formulas: dynamic, soaring and emotive rock anthems, issued with dramatic passion by lead man Justin Firstenfeld.

Ink’s Middle of the Map Festival sponsored the MidCoast Takeover stage at the Shangri-La on Friday afternoon, featuring bands that will perform at the festival in May. I caught three of them:

Archie Powell and the Exports: This five-piece from Chicago traffics in catchy, guitar-driven pop-rock songs with a garage-rock or new-wave edge, like they’ve listened to the “Nuggets” collection and lots of early Elvis Costello. Their entire set was lively, personable and engaging.

The Rocketboys: They’re from Austin, where they have a hefty following, and they drew some of their loyal hometown fans to the Shangri-La. Their sound mixes a few influences, starting with Death Cab for Cutie. Coldplay appears to be another. But they apply their own accents and twists to songs that typically ride a light groove but are melodic, often polished with keen vocal harmonies. Their down-tempo cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” was interesting.

Sharks in the Deep End: Another Austin band that explores the pop realm. Their set showcased their very accessible and groovy sound, which blends pop and soul.

Other recommendations:

Panaquonpe: They’re a duo that has developed a significant following among fans of electronic dance music, and they opened Japan Nite at the Elysium. A little EDM goes a long way for me – watching DJs can be a dull, static experience – but they had the stage show and the musical whimsy to make it worthwhile. And they had a full room moving and grooving.

The San Juan Project: A mostly instrumental quartet from Guadalajara, Mexico, the San Juan Project fuses jazz, electronic music and a few hip-hop elements via drums, electric standup bass, synths/keyboard and trombone, generating a sound that is as instantly likeable as it is inventive. Their performance at the International Stage inside the Austin Convention Center drew a small but appreciative afternoon crowd.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain

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