by Jon Black
As I get older, my memory gets a little bit fuzzier. This is my fourth (at least?) year to
have the privilege of covering the annual South by Southwest music festival in Austin
for Awaiting the Flood. Keeping in mind that ATF’s regular readers have probably
read previous years’ coverage, including my often lengthy descriptions of the festival’s
background, I will truncate this year’s introduction and limit it to only what you need to
know: that South by Southwest (“SxSW” or simply “South by” to locals) differs from
other major annual festivals in two important ways.
First, it is specifically built around, and for, the music industry, rather than for fans. In
this, it could be just as correctly called a trade show or a convention as a festival. Labels
and agents show up hoping to find the next new hot sound. Veteran acts show up to
promote new projects or help cement their musical legacy. Young bands come hoping to
be discovered or hit the big time when the right person hears their music.
Second, there is the sheer scale of SxSW. Over five nights, more than 2,000 bands
perform at more than 60 venues, from major stages to tiny holes in the wall. The
downside to this is that even the most determined person can barely scratch the surface
of the festival. If you see a band during each of the official evening showcase slots and
if throw in a few of the informal day parties, you can catch, maybe, 3% of the bands
playing SxSW during a given year. On the upside, with 2,000 bands, covering all six
inhabited continents, playing — any genre or style of music you can imagine (and a few
you can’t) is on offer somewhere at the festival.
As always, I want to thank the Awaiting the Flood team for their support as well as for
their willingness to look the other way when I (not so occasionally) cover an act that is
beyond the site’s main focus. With all that out of the way, on to the music…
SxSW DAY ONE: The Edge of Roosts: Surf, Garage Folk and Punk
Without deliberately trying, I have established a tradition that the first show I see at
SxSW each year is something a little bit outside of the box and off the beaten path. This
year proves no exception, as find myself at Latitude 30, a club just off of 6th Street, the
main drag of Austin’s downtown entertainment district. This year, Latitude 30 is serving
as the British music industry’s official outpost for the duration of SxSW.
Y Niwl (pronounced “Uh Nule”) is a Welsh band (which should come as no surprise with
a name like that) that specializes in delivering instrumental surf rock with a number of
twists and turns. Officially listed as four piece, I only counted three (perhaps it was just a
bad vantage point?): Gruff ab Arwel on guitar and electric organ, Sion Glyn playing bass
and percussion supplied by Llyr Pari.
The band kicks off the first number in their set with classic surf guitar and drums. Their
twangy sound instantly calls to mind the work of genre icons such as Dick Dale or The
Ventures. And, like all good surf rock, looming behind everything is the musical DNA
of guitarist Duane Eddy. Y Niwl quickly throws their first musical twist into the mix,
supplementing surf’s airy twang with some nice electric organ work by ab Arwel.
You would expert surf instrumental songs to be short and, at least in Y Niwl’s case, you
would be correct. The band packs 12 songs into a 40 minute set. Before I know it, the
band is onto their second piece (On a personal level, I love instrumental bands. As a
music journalist, they bring an added degree of difficulty because I almost never know
the names of the songs)
Again, it’s an archetypical surf intro, quickly turning into a flurry of minor chords and
frantic plucking. After a short interlude, another twist appears, as Y Niwl slides into a
style more reminiscent of 60s pop than surf, alternating between styles for the rest of the
song. The number is characterized by very smart guitar work from ab Arwel, appropriate
for surf but also reflecting more contemporary nuances.
The third song shifts to a more mellow tempo and sound, again with strong 60s pop
overtones. There is some nice, subtle cymbal work (I’m not sure I’ve ever described
cymbals as “subtle” before) by Pari, underscoring the song’s more chilled sounds.
The fourth song in Y Niwls is a definite break with the previous sounds of their set,
starting off with sounds that give a nod to psychedelia before settling into a more
contemporary rock aesthetic. This number makes their freest use of the electric organ
thus far, using glorious chords to supplement the baseline while also nodding back to the
psychedelic feel of the song’s beginning.
Their fifth song is another down-tempo surf anthem. I notice, to my surprise, that
instrumental surf rock in its slower forms has odd moments of convergence with ambient
rock and even trance music. As the song progresses, the electric organ again moves to
forefront, providing melody with some inspired, if counterintuitive, chords.
The band then returns to a faster pace, again in the vein of raucous 60s pop music. Y
Niwl continues tweak both surf and pop conventions by emphasizing the organ for
melody, delightfully complimenting Glyn’s electric bass lines. As the song nears its
conclusion, ab Arwel executes some great long organ runs reminiscent of carnival music
before majestically collapsing into a fury of subtly discordant chords.
Seventh on the set, the band returns to hard-charging surf rock, building in speed volume
and intensity throughout the piece. Near the end of the song, the band again throws a
twist into the mix, as the guitar work moves into the kind of frenetic shredding that
definitely postdates the surf rock heyday.
This is followed by more surf rock, this time emphasizing the skills of Pari, whose
relentless drumming drives the number forward.
The ninth song leads with powerful tandem string and percussion work is buoyed by
lengthy ascending scales on ab Arewl’s guitar, lending the number a soaring, upbeat
A slow intro on the next number curiously calls to mind Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”
in its rhythm and tempo, onto which Y Niwl quickly layers their trademark surf sound,
contrasted by a heavy pop spin on the keyboards. In the second half of the song, the band
builds to a powerful crescendo before equally dramatically dialing it all back at the very
Eleventh in the set, the band returns to haunting, thumping twangy surf with hints of
more contemporary rock. It showcases nice alteration between emphasis on strings and
nice percussion work by Pari.
The set concludes with a song anchored in classic surf, but displaying some interesting
and well executed tempo changes. Glyn’s bass work really shines during the final
number, pulling deep sonorous tones out of his instrument.
Of all the bands I put on my Day One schedule, I will admit that Y Niwl was the one
about which I was most hesitant. In retrospect, I’m very glad I did. They offer a great
contemporary take on classic surf rock. They are no simple “surf rock tribute band,”
however, putting a distinct spin on their surf and spicing it up through their extensive use
of the electric organ as well as the influences of 60s pop and more contemporary rock and
THE LONE BELLOW
After Y Niwl, it’s time to hoof it south to the newly trendy Rainey Street neighborhood.
Five years ago a quiet residential area, today Rainey Street is lined with trendy bars and
Superficially, Brooklyn folk outfit The Lone Bellow belongs to the same surge of groups
as Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers—plumbing a sound, that at its strongest (like
those two groups) could be called a Post-Folk reimaging of traditional sounds and, at its
weakest (like the legion of imitators they have spawned) can be written off as “Fauxlk.”
Scratch the surface, however, and the slow, sonorous songs of The Lone Bellow seem to
reach a little deeper down to get to the spirit, if not always the sound, of the golden age of
The core of The Lone Bellows is vocalist and songwriter Zach Williams, vocalist Kanene
Pipkin, guitarist Brian Elmquist, Ben Mars on standing bass and Brian Griffin on drums.
Their music is dominated by the stylized vocals of Williams and Pipkin, delivered with
a traditional folk roughness and minimalism as well as fondness for folksy harmonizing.
The vocal interplay between Pipkin and Williams is executed especially well in their
number “All I Ever do is Wrong.”
The band’s instrumental work, conversely, alternates pleasantly between traditional folk
and post-folk revival influences.
Occasionally, Williams’ vocals morph into something more surprising, building to
a throat growl or even roar during songs. Such transitions give The Lone Bellow a
distinctive sound that is neither folk nor folk-revival and is fascinating to watch: his face
turning red as he sings to the audience with a manic intensity—looking like a vocalist
from the louder, harder corners of rock and roll that has suddenly been dropped in the
middle of a folk-rock combo.
One interesting device, used by the band on several songs, most notably “Two Sides
of Lonely” are openings that are so soft as to be almost, but not quite, inaudible. It is a
risky move, forcing the audience to either completely commit to the music or turn away.
But The Lone Bellow seems to pull it off well. They draw the audience in, straining to
hear, before exploding into music evocative of supercharged Smithsonian Folkways
A final song of special note from their set is a cover of county music singer/songwriter
John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” a song that has lent itself to numerous genre-
crossing covers in folk, rock and even blues as well as country. In their take on the song,
The Lone Bellow chooses an interesting middle ground between Prine’s countrified
original and out-genre interpretations by artists like Bruce Hornsby and Ben Harper.
For fans of post-folk revival looking for something a little different, The Lone Bellows
is a solid bet, eschewing a few conventions of the genre, adding a few of their own and
holding on a little more tightly onto the original material that inspires the revival.
Formed in 1975, The Krayolas are a Texas-based garage rock responsible for such up-
beat, “can’t get them out of your head” numbers as “Aw, Tonight” and “I Just Want to be
with You.” While the band never really went away, they were caught up in and returned
to the spotlight as part of the rediscovery of Texas garage rock, including other notable
acts such as Kenny and Kasuals and The Five Americans, that occurred in the late 2000s.
Both yesterday and today, The Krayolas fuse garage rock with 70s pop as well as the
Southwestern and Tejano sounds of their native San Antonio—producing a delightful
cocktail of happy, melodic and up-tempo sounds that has led some to call the group
“The Tex-Mex Beatles.” Another musical influence is paid tribute to the in band’s name.
Karyola’s lead singer and co-founder Hector Saldana spelled the band’s name with a “K”
in homage to his favorite band, The Kinks.
Four of the band’s five original members are on hand for the SxSW showcase: lead
vocalist and rhythm guitarist Hector Saldana, lead guitarist Van Baines, organist Barry
Smith and drummer David Saldana, The band looks resplendent, many of them donning
pastel-colored, elaborated embroidered jumpsuits reminiscent of (or perhaps actually) the
ones they wore during their heyday.
Like all good vintage bands, even ones like The Krayolas who have an impressive
contemporary discography, they know to lead with a long-time favorite, in this case “Aw
Saldana has pleasing, relaxed vocals, an easy-going stage presence and clearly enjoys
entertaining the crowd. Baines and David Saldana deliver great garage rock licks and
beats polished with decades of practice. Smith’s keyboards are boisterous, uplifting and
deliver much of the band’s southwestern flair.
In the classical sense of the term, “garage music” can vary significantly from local scene
to local scene. Perhaps “Garage” can be said to be an attitude or an aesthetic more than
a genre. The Krayolas, more than anything else, make fun music—the essence of the
garage aesthetic. If garage rock is known for being fun, music that is ponderous, heavy
or serious is typical not part of the genre. On that point, a few Krayolas songs do defy
The song “La Inundacion de Piedras Negras” (The Flood of Piedras Negras) comes
with an interesting back story. It was written in 1954 by Santiago Jimenez, father of the
legendary accordion player Flaco Jimenez, after a flood wiped out the Mexican border
town of Piedras Negras and went on to wash out bridges and cause damage as far away as
As with the title, the lyrics of “La Inundacion de Piedras Negras” are in Spanish. And,
as is often the case with Tejano-influenced music, sounds which to the untrained ear
(including mine) seem upbeat, energetic and even joyous can treat topics that are serious
or even sad. The instrumental work on “La Inundacion” is beautiful, especially the guitar
work by Baines.
A more recent song, “The Ballad of Tony Tormenta” tells the story of the rise and fall
of notorious Mexican drug lord Tony Tormenta. It begins with a slow, acoustic-flavored
intro on the guitar by Saladna before being joined by the rest of the band. Saladna
delivers his vocals in a more reserved manner than most Krayolas numbers, at times even
approaching a spoken-word performance. This is a slow ballad, full of sounds of regret,
not for the titular Tony Tormenta, but for the pain and grief he caused. The song pulls no
punches in its lyrics, consider the verse:
Beheaded priests in the church archway
Burned-out ranchitos on the old highway
Killing babies in the street
Strike a deal but it just won’t keep
Nobody crying for Tony Tormenta
No time for tears once the storm has passed
Nobody crying for Tony Tormenta
The last man he killed this time was his last
Another song in The Krayola’s set with interesting origins is “Little Fox.” The song was
written in 1967 by musician Augie Meyers, seminal member of both the Sir Douglas
Quintet (fronted by Doug Sahm) and The Texas Tornados. None of the groups with
which Meyers performed ever seemed right for the piece so, in 2007, after the song had
been sitting on the shelf for forty years, he approached The Krayolas about recording
it. The Krayolas agreed (along the way, the Saldanas’ mother added a few lyrics) and
Meyers produced the recording session. “Little Fox” begins with a strong nod to Tejano
flavor before kicking a little rockabilly into The Krayola’s heady guitar mix.
The Krayolas have pulled off a tough balancing act: being known as a “classic” or
“iconic” band while continuing to release new material that is high quality both musically
and in its content. I suspect the secret may be that, unlike many bands in that position,
they don’t seem to worry too much about it. They love to play, the audience loves to
listen. What else really matters?
As part of that ethos of putting their love of making music above all else, The Krayola’s
new record is current available free through Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/The-
Krayolas/e/B001LH48HC). But, while you’re there, I’ll bet you can’t resist checking out
that back catalogue.
There are few bands at SxSW this year that I am as excited to see as the Turnpike
Troubadours. Based out of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, this five piece specializes in good old-
fashioned Red Dirt country music, with an emphasis on traditional instrumentation and
vividly descriptive lyrics.
Active since 2007, the Turnpike Troubadours really began to gain traction and attention
with their 2012 album, “Goodbye Normal Street,” which hit #14 on the U.S. country
charts, 7th on indie and 3rd on folk. Your reviewer would argue those numbers still do
insufficient credit to an album that featured some of last year’s strongest output from any
corner of country music, especially the track “Gin, Smoke and Lies,” which was easily
one of the year’s best country songs.
The Troubadours played at the White Horse, a venue at the far eastern edge of
downtown. It is a venue with which I, admittedly, have a love/hate relationship. On one
hand, it is one of the best places in Austin to see a country show. It has great acoustics
and it looks and feels exactly like a honky tonk in a hip country music town should. On
the other hand, it is one of the worst places in Austin to review a show. The stage is short,
inconveniently placed and the venue is often packed. The upshot is, especially during
SxSW when I’m popping in for a forty minute set before running back out to another
showcase elsewhere, I often have a terrible view of the proceedings.
The Turnpike Troubadours are singer and guitarist Ryan Felker (also the source of much
of the band’s songwriting chops), Ryan Engleman on electric guitar, Kyle Nix on fiddle,
R.C. Edwards on standing bass and Giovanni Carnuccio on drums.
First number leads off with a sonorous fiddle, hoedown drums and fierce country
harmonizing. “Long Hot Summer Day” is a song of ‘hard work, bad pay and worse luck’
in the tradition of Tennessee Ernie Ford.” But the music is louder, more intense and more
danceable than Tennessee Ernie ever was. But the end of the first chorus, the crowd is
clapping, swaying and dancing along.
The Turnpike Troubadour’s set is sprinkled with songs from each of their albums. While
anchored in Red Dirt territory (both musically and geographically), their numbers present
a variety of influences, themes and instrumentation. The entire set is solid but there are
On the surface, “Every Girl” is a classic country chronicling of a man talking about his
woman. In some ways, the song is like is a thousand others from every genre of music.
What lends “Every Girl” a distinct charm is that, rather than falling back on country’s
relatively short list of relationship archetypes, the Troubadours paint a picture of a
relationship that is a mixture of sweetness, frustration and irony—in short, a believable
portrayal of a real relationship.
“Easton and Main,” a reference to the geography of Tulsa, the closest city of size to the
Troubadour’s Tahlequah, is a song of hopeful but as of yet unrequited love. Musically,
it’s a little bit less traditional than most of their repertoire, with rollicking, upbeat
instrumentation that invokes ‘90s country radui and vocals that remind me of the Old
97s’ Murray Hammond.
In “Blue Star” the Turnpike Troubadours turn away from romance to examine the
challenges of being a veteran or loving a veteran in the modern world.
“Shreveport” chronicles the adventures and misadventures of a trip to that eponymous
northwest Louisiana city. It features some beautiful guitar work by Engleman and nice
bass fiddle Edwards. As a shout out to their SxSW audience, Felker reworks some of
the lyrics to revolve around Austin rather than Shreveport. Musically, the instrumental
breakdown at the end of the number is especially delicious, including some guitar
One of the tracks off “Goodbye Normal Street” to have received a lot of airplay, “Good
Lord Lorrie” is another Red Dirt country song detailing a hopeful relationship gone
wrong. It is little surprise that the song has proven popular: the melody of the chorus is
one enormous hook. The Troubadours’ live rendition of “Good Lord Lorrie” shows off
some impressive harmonizing that is less obvious on the recorded version.
“Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead” is one of the most instrumentally impressive
numbers in their set. Straying slightly from Red Dirt, it moves towards a speedy, joyous
and almost reckless bluegrass with a few hints of Cajun. The song offers perhaps Nix’s
finest fiddle work of the night—long, bold runs and reels that would elicit a satisfied nod
even from the likes of Charlie Daniels.
The final song of the evening is the one much of the crowd has been waiting to hear,
“Gin, Smoke and Lies.” The biggest hit off “Goodbye Normal Street,” (even generating
a music video) the song has received significant amounts of airplay, especially in the
Red Dirt homelands of Oklahoma and Texas. Like most critics, I may occasionally look
disdainfully at a song precisely because it has mass appeal. “Gin, Smoke and Lies,”
however, has found popularity for a reason. It is one of the finest good ol’ fashioned
country murder songs ever written – bar none.
Instrumentally, “Gin, Smoke and Lies” may be the Turnpike Troubadours’ most
traditional song: pulling away from their typical confines towards traditional
American folk music with more than a hint of Appalachian music on the Nix’s fiddle.
The instrumentation and vocals of “Gin, Smoke and Lies” are unrelentingly and
unapologetically bleak, mournful and fatalistic. Even the most ardent Goth could find
nothing at which to sneer in the song’s attitude or approach. The Troubadours’ live
rendition of the song at White Horse is slower and less rushed than the recorded versions,
accenting its darkly irresistible elements.
The lyrics of “Gin, Smoke and Lies” are masterfully crafted, arguably Felker’s very best
work. Like most country murder songs, the motive is adultery. The song’s chorus sets the
“Well, if you’ve been true,
You better look me in the eyes.
Cause all I smell is cheap perfume,
And gin, and smoke and lies.”
And, like all the best country murder songs, “Gin, Smoke and Lies” flashes past the dark
deed itself to grimly but subtly capture the aftermath with vivid descriptions.
“Well, a spade is make for digging dirt,
And an axe is made for chopping.
And darling, my heart is as hard as nails
They hammer in a hardwood coffin.”
Taking the song’s post scriptum/postmortem one step further, the final verse takes the
song back to scene long after the event itself:
Well, way down in the bottom land,
A big black crow is laughing.
No one dares to go down there.
Wonder what has happened?
Many bands have big shoes to fill. The Turnpike Troubadours are an unlikely position
in which the shoes they must fill are their own. After a band that had never charted
before busts out with an album like “Goodbye Main Street” and songs like “Good Lord
Lorrie” and “Gin, Smoke and Eyes,” a lot of eyes are on them and a lot of questions
are whispered. This reviewer, for one, doesn’t expect “Goodbye Main Street” to be a
fluke. Songs like these don’t come from nowhere and the band has proven they have the
performance chops to delight a crowd. The Turnpike Troubadours have given themselves
a very tough act to follow but I expect to hear a lot more really good music coming out of
the boys from Tahlequah.
Something fierce is a three-piece punk outfit out of Houston, a city with a punk scene
that, quite frankly, has never gotten the love it deserves. Unlike a lot of young punk
musicians, singer/guitarist S. Garcia, bassist Niki Sevven and drummer Andrew Keith
seem indifferent to many of that mutable genre’s later incarnations, deliberately reaching
back to the sound and attitude of First Gen punk rock.
From the first song of their set, Something Fierce lives up to their moniker, delivering a
hard-hitting wall of loud, fast fuzz punk, with the occasional harmony that harkens back
to a 1970s punk that had not forgotten its roots in surf and old time rock and roll.
Garcia is a compelling punk front man. Again the band’s name is appropriate for his
vocals: fierce and energetic. As he bellows out their lyrics, he is red-faced and at times
seems in danger of swallowing his microphone. Sevven peppers the band’s numbers with
a biting punk bass line. Drummer Keith is a standout for several reasons. He appears to
have rejected the standard punk percussion ethos of sacrificing precision on the altar of
intensity. His drumming, while full of punk fury, is also tight and precise. That seemingly
small, subtle change goes a long way to lending Something Fierce a truly distinctive
The lyrics are little difficult to follow, but whether that is due to the acoustics of the
venue, the sound technician or that this is the punk, I can’t tell. There is the occasional
hint of post-punk or even alt-rock to the sounds of Something Fierce, but those brief
touchstones are few and far between. It would be inaccurate to describe Something Fierce
as simply aping the style of First Gen punk. One gets the impression that Something
Fierce is doing what they want to do but, most of the time, that’s making the inspired
noise of original punk. SxSW 2013 ultimately gave me a lot of hope for the future of
punk rock, and Something Fierce is the first taste of that.
Some other music journalist out there is doing his or her job. When I saw Elle
(pronounced like the letter between “K” and “M”) King described as sounding like
“Billie Holiday having a shot of whisky with Johnny Cash,” she went straight onto my
SxSW schedule. After hearing her performance, I might tweak that analogy to “A young
Tina Turner having a shot of whisky with a young June Carter Cash.” Still, that is a
In addition to vocals, the Brooklyn born and raised King plays banjo and other
instruments. Her backing band includes electric bass, keyboard and drums.
King’s voice is, indeed, a commanding one—a husky, smoky blend of (as suggested
above) June Carter, Tina Turner and Billie Holiday (yes, I do hear it) with perhaps just a
dash of Kim Carnes. Her music is a rootsy blend of country, blues and southern-fried soul
with an occasional old time rock and roll kick—all with lyrical stylings to match:
“Good to be a Man” is an examination of gender double-standards, seemingly with a
specific eye towards the conventions and lyrics of roots music. As King sings about
wanting to be the kind of man who either just “done someone wrong” or is about to, she
belts out the number in an enchanting fusion of southern soul and folk
With “No One Can Save You,” King wraps her glorious voice around another classic
roots music theme: the righteous recriminations of someone wronged after a failed
love affair (“I’ll bet you’re sorry, but you did this to yourself). King clearly enjoys the
number, gliding and striding around the stage as she sings.
My personal favorite is “Ain’t Gonna Drown,” a soulful, bluesy piece full of religious
imagery (“Preacher man can’t save a soul like mine. Miracles are just too damn hard to
find. Ain’t gonna drown in the water.) The song features great instrumentation, especially
on guitar, and an inspiring instrumental breakdown towards the end. Musically, however,
my favorite aspect of this number is its extensive use of electric organ—inviting
comparisons to church music and, therefore, musically playing off of the lyrical imagery
of the piece.