Nick Rallo Sharon Van Etten, at the NPR showcase, was a stunner. Plus, there was a box accordion.
Christopher Cross - Austin Music Hall
Yacht Rock was so 2007, but Christopher Cross is one cool customer. His 20 or so minutes during the Austin Music Awards on Wednesday at the Austin Music Hall was set on maximum smooth, but with teeth. The Austin music scene has always been associated with hippies and then indie-rockers, but Cross has more Grammys than anyone else in town outside Asleep at the Wheel's Ray Benson. The four players the fedora-clad Cross had with him had Steely Dan-level chops too. He gritted out "Ride Like the Wind" with quiet anger and yearning for freedom, then brought out local string ensemble Mother Falcon and Austin Symphony Orchestra conductor Peter Bay to cruise through "Sailing."
Bonus: Watching Rolling Stone senior scribe David Fricke secretly enjoying himself during Cross' set, or at least try not to fidget too hard waiting for Alejandro Escovedo and reported special guest Bruce Springsteen. Eat your heart out, Kenny Loggins.
Random Thought from Wednesday: Supposedly Kenny Rogers is in town. Anyone know why? -- Chris Gray
Ben Westhoff Toy Bombs
Fiona Apple - Stubbs BBQ
Fiona Apple's set at Stubb's last night, the first act on a bill with buzz acts Alabama Shakes and Sharon Van Etten, was the first hottest ticket of this young SXSW. Lines for badges and wristbands wrapped around the venue. Opening with "Fast as You Can," Apple was rickety in places for her first show outside Los Angeles in quite a while, but she has never been a smooth and silky act. Her voice was a gravelly wonder, now evoking Tom Waits, and the years have been kind to her material. New cuts from an upcoming album, like "On the Bound," were raw, much rawer than her debut. But Apple was never a pop singer either; she's a poet who happens to sing in line with Leonard Cohen or Laura Nyro. Fifteen years since 1996's Tidal and its wave of adulation and half a decade since Extraordinary Machine, she's still compelling onstage, minus the technical difficulties. Closing with her now eternal "Criminal," Apple proved she's "back." How long that will be remains to be seen. There was a moment during "Carrion" when she slinked back to watch her band, and it seemed to stop time at Stubb's. If you were there, you know what I mean. -- Craig Hlavaty
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Trash Talk - Lustre Pearl
At first, you can't even tell who is supposed to be singing and who is just grabbing the mic out of the storm of flailing limbs to scream an unintelligible line or two. Under the backyard tent at Lustre Pearl, the scene is a revolving human riot of sweat and dust, with a group of angry-looking dudes onstage appearing to exercise control over the mess only occasionally. After about half a song, though -- song here meaning a brief period in which the band members use every noise-making tool in their possession like a jackhammer -- it becomes clear that the throat-scrapings belonging to one particular fellow rouse the moshers with a singular ferocity. That man is Lee Spielman, the band for which he's screaming is called Trash Talk, and it seems very likely that this is the scariest official SXSW showcase happening tonight.
It is scary because of the pit, which is spitting beer cans, humans, and other objects into the air; it is scary because of Spielman's blood-curdling screech; and it is scary because of the head-spinning pace at which everything is happening. Like classic hardcore only more violent, this Sacramento outfit's music is quick but heavy, lurching from one punch-out to the next, practically coercing listeners to move to it. Beyond the intimidating display, though, is a sense of joy. In between beatings, people are smiling and friendly. When Spielman asks, "Hey, who's drunk?" most of the hands in the pit go up, and grunts of approval fill the tent. The people in front seem to know the words and seize any moment Spielman dangles the microphone in front of them to sing (scream) a few lines.
About midway through the set, the singer does them one better: He steps down off the stage -- an ominous pause as the bull enters the ring -- and then, as the band rushes into another song, becomes completely swarmed by the fans. His long, greasy hair is lost in a pile of humanity; meanwhile, fearsome-looking bass player Spencer Pollard (ripped chest, covered in tattoos, Abe Lincoln beard) issues his own guttural exclamations from his perch above the melee. Eventually, Spielman and his Suicidal Tendencies T-shirt reappear back onstage. He has lost his microphone, but a fan hands it back to him. The screaming and the mayhem continue, more frenetic than before. After this song, Spielman will complain about getting punched in the ribs. Then he'll brag that the band has five more SXSW shows to play -- Ian S. Port
The-Dream - ACL Live at the Moody Theater
He'll always be known as "that guy who made like $15 million off writing Rihanna's 'Umbrella'" to some, but Terius "The-Dream" Nash belongs onstage just as much as he belongs in the studio. With the Air McFlys lit up on his feet and a knotty gold chain thicker than a garden hose around his neck, Christina Milian's ex-husband pummeled the crowd at ACL Live's Billboard showcase into submission. Though the Atlanta singer/producer didn't pirouette or shed visible tears, this felt like a gift wrapped in purple paper for someone a tad too young to ever catch Jodeci perform during their early '90s heyday. Bangin' were two of the best s-word songs ever written, "Shawty Is Da Shit" and "Rockin' That Shit," but Nash could also get away with inner tumult exposure too -- via the slow, sinewy "Used to Be." Even Lionel Richie, the night's headliner and no dummy in the soul-that-pops department, name-checked him later on. -- Reed Fischer