Yesterday marked a tonal sea change in Austin, as South By Southwest’s “Interactive” attendees began to trickle off and the music types poured in. The first four days of the festival, mad as they seemed, were in fact the calm before the ukulele-storm: The ground now is thick with humans, they’re hungry, and they come seeking music. The only refuge is in flight—or a VIP laminate to the Lionsgate party.
What you probably won’t read about elsewhere is all the acts that could and should have performed last night—like The Jane Doze, an interesting duo who got screwed out of a gig through a byzantine series of unfortunate events. But then, if the Jane Doze hadn’t been screwed out of a gig, we wouldn’t have found them dancing at the Paste-Sennheiser showcase at the Blackheart, a treat for pretty much anyone on either side of the proscenium. A tiny dog lapped beer from his owner’s glass during a propulsive demi-set by Houndmouth, an excellent folk act buoyed by four voices, each strong enough to lead in its own right; the harmonies smack of fellow neo-folksters the Head and the Heart, but Houndmouth, who also have the better band name, writes funkier songs in the folk-narrative/dramatic-monologue tradition of Gillian Welch. The group’s first song was about “going down to the penitentiary”—not, say, a well-harmonized meditation on what angst might feel like. Singer-organist Katie Toupin exudes a crackling stage presence, and Shane Cody shapes the delay in his beats almost as easy as Levon Helm did.
Houndsmouth kept the heavily populated beer garden crackling with sing-along moments, as did The Lone Bellow, a somewhat more seasoned act that seemed warmest on its covers, including John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” The lead singer, whose face contorts into the exuberant, near-rigor-mortis smile of a young Steve Martin when he sings, conducted the crowd, prompted us with lyrics, and induced surprisingly decent harmonies from the hundred-plus watchers. Promotional Sennheiser tambourines with flickering neon lights made jangles through the Blackheart, as the group closed with a gorgeous, come-one-come-all rendition of “Carried Away.” It was, in its way, a classic SXSW conciliation: The big-heartedness of the music eclipsed any cognitive dissonance between the corporate and the country.
The chief referent for both these bands is, well, The Band—difficult beats within ostensibly traditional, even reactionary folk material. There’s something startling in the Band’s potent influence on increasingly mainstream acts over the past decade and change. Culture is cyclical, and a mandolin may well signify authenticity the way garage-fuzz did in the Pacific northwest in the early ’90s. What’s refreshing about Houndsmouth and the Lone Bellow, though, is that neither feels like a statistic, the offshoot of a trend, or anything other than a damn good band. A small stage can be deceptively hard to conquer—both groups did so with ease verging on grace. Full disclosure: I missed Jason Isbell’s set because of a goofy prior engagement: music-critic karaoke, hosted by Billboard’s David Greenwald (an off-the-record event, to protect the cultural gatekeepers).