Devo, Janelle Monáe, and Solid Gold wow music nerds at SXSW

Stacy Schwartz

Venturing down to Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest music festival is an exhilarating and overwhelming experience. Picture this: four nonstop days of concerts that start before noon and end well after bars close; an entire downtown metro area engulfed by sunglasses-clad hipsters elbowing their way toward their next show and/or beer; and more than 2,000 bands vying to be seen, heard, photographed, or otherwise noticed by the overstimulated and overbooked crowd. At any given moment, dozens upon dozens of bands are playing on stages spread across the city, and it's anyone's guess which one deserves to be heard more than the others.

Because of the sheer magnitude of the festival, no two attendees will come away with the same experience. One person's new favorite band could still be unknown to thousands of others. But despite the madness, some bands still manage to play shows with enough frequency and intensity that they make an impression on the masses. Here are some of the standout acts from last week's insanity:

They may not have looked the part, but Devo played one of the coolest sets of SXSW. The band started their set dressed in awkward little orange vests, and as soon as they began to play, the capacity audience at the Austin Music Hall started gyrating uncontrollably. I somehow found myself enveloped in a pocket of Minneapolis musicians and writers, including Martin Dosh, Jeremy Ylvisaker, Mark Mallman, and Mike Lewis; both Dosh and Ylvisaker donned red plastic Devo hats for the occasion and were beside themselves with anticipation. "I haven't been this excited about a show since the first time I saw the Grateful Dead," Dosh exclaimed before the show.

On a whim, I decided to head over to Stubb's on Thursday night to catch opening act Janelle Monáe, and it was one of the best decisions I made all week. Monáe's performance was unlike anything I had ever seen. A small, sprightly woman with a wicked 'frohawk pompadour, Monáe danced with the unabashed fury of a marionette on speed. Her music was a furious combination of souped-up soul, dance, techno, R&B, and pop, and her vocal melodies jumped all over the map. At times, she moved so fast that her hair would come undone from its tightly woven bun; at others, she would sit still and sing slowly (as with her cover of Nat King Cole's "Smile"), holding the audience captive with her expansive, masterful voice. Part soul diva, part otherworldy rock-star freak, Monáe finished off by diving out into the audience to crowd-surf, smashing a microphone stand over her head, and storming off the stage to thunderous applause from the stunned crowd.

Heartless Bastards lead singer Erika Wennerstrom sings with the cool intensity of '80s rock pioneers like Chrissie Hynde and Linda Perry, and her vocals coalesce perfectly with the slow-burning post-punk pumped out by her three bandmates. The Bastards played several shows during SXSW, and they were an obvious favorite of many in attendance, including me. After seeing them twice on the first day of the festival, I was itching to buy their new album, The Mountain, and tickets to their upcoming show at the Varsity Theater with the Gaslight Anthem.

Black Diamond Heavies weren't one of the bigger-name acts, and they certainly didn't garner any large-scale buzz, but they played one of the best sets I saw all week. Packed into the corner of a tiny, open-air dive bar called Headhunters, they played a swirling, intoxicating style of blues-based rock that sounded like a muddier, grittier version of the Black Keys.

As with past years at SXSW, the Minnesota love was everywhere. Between shows, it was hard to walk down Sixth Street without bumping into a musician or writer from the home team, and our scene was well represented at several different shows across town. Solid Gold were plucked to play the trendy Levi's Fader Fort, while P.O.S., Brother Ali, and Eyedea & Abilities performed in front of a capacity crowd at the Rhymesayers showcase. An unofficial party called Ca$h Moneyapolis gathered Minnesota musicians together for an all-day affair, and the lineup included acts like Haley Bonar, Lookbook, Jeremy Messersmith, Gospel Gossip, and many, many more. Though the Ca$h Moneyapolis party was a little ways off the beaten path, it attracted a large, mostly Minnesotan crowd, giving everyone a chance to rally together before disbanding out into the dark and crowded Austin night. 

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