This article is part of the SXSW Guide / Anti-Guide series.
Y LA BAMBA
MAGGIE MAY'S GIBSON ROOM
SATURDAY, MARCH 17 12:05AM -12:40AM
This is a band called "Y La Bamba," listed on the schedule as "world music." What do you think they'll sound like? If you guessed "creepy rural-folk songs, mostly sung in English, and the band's probably from Portland," you're much better at predicting things than I am. And you want to be better at predicting things than I am, because the last time I did one of these guides, I predicted Salem's set would be cool. (Incidentally, Au Palais is my hot witch-house tip this year, Saturday March 17 at Frank, 11PM -11:40PM, but if you see a stoned dude stumble up on stage and start rapping with them, vacate! VACATE!) Anyway, Y La Bamba boasts all the things people like about Fleet Foxes, like beards and harmonies, plus a dynamic lead vocalist (Luzelena Mendoza) and melodies I can actually remember when the songs end.
MAGGIE MAY'S GIBSON ROOM
SATURDAY, MARCH 17 1:00AM -1:50AM
If you went to see Y La Bamba, you're in luck, because you just saw a great thing and also you're already in place for Agent Ribbons, one of the best bands in the crowded fuzzy- rock/girl-group hybrid category. I was sure Everett True must have covered them in his "Summer Femme-Pop Mix Tape" column; turns out he didn't, but they fit right in with the stuff he talked about, and it's all amazing. Agent Ribbons has a timeless sound, raw and emotionally honest, not a flashback but old-style stuff made now, organically.
KISS AND FLY
FRIDAY, MARCH 16
Dres (from Black Sheep) ranks among the most inventive lyricists in hip-hop history, so I feel bad about the weird circumstances under which I've seen him perform. At one show, not only was there no DJ, but also they were reduced to physically rewinding a portable tape-recorder to prompt the right beat. Another time, Dres strolled on stage with De La Soul at a weird radio festival and did a half-song, much to the confusion of the audience, most of which had come to see Modest Mouse, Flaming Lips and Cake. I have kind of a bad feeling about this showcase, too, given that it happens in two days and the time isn't listed yet. But at the very least, check out this video, it's Dres rapping about Occupy with Jarobi from A Tribe Called Quest, and it deserves more attention. Oh, and speaking of deserving more attention, EPMD performs Thursday, March 15, at Malaia Upstairs, from 1AM -1:50AM. This is one of the most solid rap duos ever, and one of their best tracks has just 40,000 views, so listen to it for fuck's sake.
THURSDAY, MARCH 15 10PM -10:40PM
Since 2000, I've been a huge fan of two relatively obscure singer/songwriters, Shannon Wright and Eleni Mandell. My championing of them has had limited effect, mostly because music journalism lol but also because I've become a lazy promoter in the past few years and telling friends/posting Facebook links only helps so much. Eleni Mandell introduced me to Tammy Wynette by covering "Don't Touch Me" at a show, but she's only a little bit country - she does some garage-rock, some torch songs, but mostly it's about her storytelling, her intense characters, her charismatic presence and her booming held vocal notes.
The New Yorker called her "perhaps the best unsigned artist in the business" back in 2001; Slate followed up with a 2007 article called "On Her Own: Eleni Mandell, a great singer/songwriter who can't get a record deal." Maybe she's wary of the industry at this point - she's the only artist featured in this guide who didn't submit a bio to SXSW's Web site - but she's still putting out quality albums (most recently in 2009), and she's still engaging on stage. See her live if you can; otherwise, all seven of her albums are on Spotify, and obviously listening is mandatory.
SONY CLUB @ RED 7 PATIO
THURSDAY, MARCH 15 9:00PM -9:40PM
Amoral is a metal band from Finland, but not the kind that sings in Finnish about forests or the type where the members are trolls. They used to play technical death metal, attracting fans like the YouTube commenter who said "This song gets exponentially better the longer you listen. It is the Fibonacci Sequence of rad tunes." Somewhere, that dude's furious that Amoral sounds like Skid Row now, and the thought of him crafting new, insulting mathematical analogies to express his betrayal would be enough to land Amoral on the "good" side of the guide, even if I didn't like fun pop metal sometimes, which I do. Besides, it's a pretty thin year for metal at SXSW: Sorted by genre, Amoral's going up against these guys.
ST DAVID'S BETHELL HALL
FRIDAY, MARCH 16 10:00 -10:40PM
One of the greatest musical advantages SXSW has over other music festivals is its church shows. When someone like Shearwater or Mark Kozelek plays in a setting with glorious acoustics and an instinctively respectful crowd, it transcends their normal performances in a way that's impossible to describe or forget. Arborea has the perfect sound for a church show - strong but ethereal vocals; quiet, mournful melodies; minimalist instrumentation in a setting that isolates and magnifies every note. This Arborea video has kind of a black-metal aesthetic, but I'm 99 percent sure they won't burn the church down.
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SA music writers point out cool bands to see at SXSW (or listen to at home, if you're not going). Also they warn about dumb bands you should avoid!