SXSW: 10 Cool Bands … So Far

Trampled by Turtles, Bahamas, Little Willies, Lumineers Among Favorites at Austin Festival

AUSTIN, Texas — At the halfway point of this week’s South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, the conversations are turning from “Who do you want to see?” to “What have you liked?”

With 2,000 bands competing for attention, every music fan could benefit from friendly suggestions. So, here are 10 cool bands I’ve enjoyed so far.

Bahamas
In my opinion, this is the one to beat. Bahamas feature Canadian singer-songwriter Afie Jurvanen, and for this show in an Episcopalian church sanctuary, he surrounded himself with a low-key percussionist and two lovely backup singers in glittering blue gowns. It was slick in the best sense of the word. The band was well-rehearsed and spot-on, the songs were incredibly catchy and smart and Jurvanen’s rich voice let the rafters ring. I’m all about “Lost in the Light.”

Family of the Year
This L.A.-based band took me straight into spring with upbeat melodies and sunny dispositions. You could tell they were having a blast at Maggie Mae’s rooftop bar. Plus, band member Jamesy was celebrating his birthday, so everyone in the audience got to sing at SXSW this year. Because this was the first showcase I attended after hitting up a wine bar, my notes are hard to decipher. However, I did scratch out “energy!” and “fun!” Check out their clever video for “St. Croix.”

Imagine Dragons
This Las Vegas rock band was nowhere near my radar until they briefly appeared for an acoustic set at the end of an afternoon seminar. They pulled me in right away with a strong rhythm section, lyrics that are alternately cryptic and direct and the way they weren’t too cool for the room. (The latter can be common at SXSW.) Their ambitious, plugged-in version of “It’s Time” is on their SXSW page. If you’re a night owl and proud of it, crank it up.

Nikki Lane
For months, I’ve been meaning to check out this aspiring singer-songwriter in Nashville. Instead, I had to fly to Texas to catch her cheerful set at Cedar Street Courtyard. For those of you spending the night at downtown hotels, but without your own name on the reservation, “Walk of Shame” can be your new SXSW anthem. This fashionable young woman is here to make waves.

The Little Willies
One of the strangest sensations of SXSW is walking into a bar with no idea what’s inside. I hit the jackpot at Antone’s on Thursday night (March 15) because Norah Jones was singing country gold with her band, the Little Willies. Hearing “Jolene” followed by “Night Life” is a rare treat. To get a feel for the spirit of the band, this live set from Brooklyn, N.Y., will show you what they’re up to.

Michael Logen
I was lucky to hear the elegant “St. Christopher (On My Way)” on SXSW.com prior to this trip and it seemed like a relaxing way to start the week. Despite the blandness of a hotel conference room, Logen’s compelling baritone and songwriting sense rose above. Kelly Clarkson fans will recognize his song “You’re Breaking Your Own Heart” on her new album, Stronger. His own confident and confiding version of it grabbed me immediately. Can’t wait to hear more.

The Lumineers
The Lumineers‘ “Ho Hey” is my favorite video on CMT.com right now. The dynamics of this tune get me grooving in my ergonomically enhanced chair, which probably makes my co-workers wonder if I’m off my rocker. (Wouldn’t be the first time.) A dimly-lit daytime set inside the convention center was my first chance to hear the rest of their material, and I’m digging it. They’re based in Denver, yet their tour schedule is taking them coast to coast. Catch ‘em early.

The Mastersons
At their 10 a.m. showcase just outside the Austin City Limits studio, Eleanor Masterson sounded like a million bucks. I was just waking up with a bloody Mary and a breakfast taco (OK, two), so props for a solid display of musicianship so early in the morning. She and her husband, guitarist Chris Masterson, are Texas natives who now live in Brooklyn, N.Y. When Eleanor plays fiddle on the duo’s brighter songs, it oddly reminds me of the Dixie Chicks. Hear “One Word More.”

Paula & Karol
Here’s a typical SXSW experience: At lunchtime, you pop into a free party sponsored by a magazine, grab a free beer and listen to a Polish singer-songwriter whose musical vision is elevated by a trumpet and trombone. And then pick up a free black T-shirt on the way out. Man, I love this place. I may never cross paths with Paula & Karol again — these six musicians made their U.S. debut this week — but I will be downloading their deceptively happy track, “Calling.”

Trampled by Turtles
Trampled by Turtles’ slow build has finally paid off with an eager and dedicated fan base. Their new album is coming in April, and they’re previewing it on their website with “Alone.” Drawing on bluegrass influences, especially the jamming side of things, this Minnesota band tore it up on the ACL studio concourse — and blew a circuit. Rather than a meltdown, though, the lead singer broke into a big grin, hopped right into the crowd and formed a circle with his bandmates. Even without power, it was definitely one of the most electric moments of my week so far.