South by Southwest: 10 Music Highlights So Far

Ashley Monroe, Striking Matches, Daniel Romano and More Play Austin Festival

AUSTIN — The massive South by Southwest music festival has officially descended upon Austin. Every downtown street is crowded with musicians, managers, label reps, publicists, journalists and curious music fans. And pretty much everybody is looking for something cool.

CMT showcased Ashley Monroe and young duo Striking Matches on Tuesday night (March 12) at the Empire Control Room, sharing the night with MTV and VH1. With a critically acclaimed new album released last week, Monroe is one of the festival’s few country artists to make an appearance this year. Thanks to her sterling voice, clever songs and a wry sense of humor, she’ll probably spend as much time doing interviews this week as any hot indie band.

Striking Matches opened the night with a handful of songs, including “When the Right One Comes Along.” Fans of ABC’s Nashville will recognize that one. Although their career is just getting off the ground, this Nashville-based duo charmed the audience by infusing their appealing stage presence with wide-eyed wonder at the crazy scene that is SXSW.

Through Sunday, hundreds of bands will be competing for Austin’s attention. Although most artists have one official showcase, some have two — and others are just crashing the party. And speaking of a party, there’s one behind every door, celebrating radio stations, magazines, vodka, states other than Texas, etc.

Here are some of my personal highlights of SXSW so far.

Hurray for the Riff Raff : While wandering through the trade show on Wednesday, this laid-back trio attracted me with interesting melodies and the sweet voice of Alynda Lee Segarra. Simple tunes like “Junebug Waltz” and “Fiddlesticks” proved you don’t need an elaborate setup to make a big impression.

Jared & the Mill : Naturally you’ll encounter busking at SXSW. Most of it is forgettable, but the exception is Jared & the Mill, a band that drove in from Phoenix and performed Tuesday. Whenever somebody’s playing a washboard on a street corner, it’s hard not to notice. Their infectious playing and underdog story helped pull in dozens of passersby, including me. Made up of five young guys, this hungry band is playing an afternoon showcase on Friday at the Hickory Mill in downtown Austin.

The Lone Bellow : I caught this Brooklyn-based roots band by coincidence on Wednesday afternoon, walking past a place called Hangar. (Indeed it looks just like a miniature airplane hangar, right in the middle of downtown Austin. The stage is on top, offering a marvelous skyline view.) You can easily hear their traditional country influence on songs like “You Don’t Love Me Like You Used To.” Incredibly, they are playing 17 shows this week!

MilkDrive : This Austin-based bluegrass band held down the fort Wednesday at the historic Driskill Hotel. Bluegrass is scarce at SXSW, too, so it was a treat to see these four gentlemen swapping fiddles and mandolins like it was no big deal. In particular, I enjoyed hearing the swelling title track to their new album, Waves.

Daniel Romano : I’m a big fan of this Canadian songwriter’s new album, Come Cry With Me, so I didn’t want to miss his Wednesday set at the Velveeta Room. Typically, this venue is a comedy club, and I did find myself laughing at the deadpan delivery on songs like “Chicken Bill.” Like many classic country stars, Romano plants himself at center stage and stays there. It’s almost like witnessing a modern-day George Jones delivering weepers like “Time Forgot (To Change My Heart).”

SHEL : On the east side of Austin, a bunch of hole-in-the-wall places set up stages for casual day parties. My colleagues and I were able to hear the sister group SHEL at Shangri La. My favorite song during their Wednesday set was “Moonshine Hill,” which they started to write after buying moonshine at a convenience store. “We wrote the rest of the song the next day,” one sister quipped.

Turnpike Troubadours and Dirty River Boys : These two bands are already drawing thousands of fans to their shows in Texas and Oklahoma, thanks to well-crafted songs, wailing fiddles and charismatic lead singers. Playing back-to-back at the White Horse, their Tuesday night show felt more like a Saturday night. The White Horse is a low-key country bar where you can get whiskey on tap or a local microbrew. It’s off the beaten path but well worth seeking out.