Mile Highlights From South by Southwest

Nathaniel Rateliff puts his voice in peril while other locals prove themselves worthy of national acclaim.

Things for a lead vocalist to avoid when performing at a high-profile, multi-day music festival: 1) Cigarettes, 2) Booze, 3) Landing on your throat after attempting to do a flip from a low-hanging tree branch into a shallow river.

You don't have to be an otolaryngologist to deduce that it's wise to resist the first two — and common sense should be enough to make you steer clear of the third entirely. So who knows what Born in the Flood's Nathaniel Rateliff was thinking when he hurtled himself from a limb during some downtime at South by Southwest last week.

Fortunately, everything seems to have turned out okay. I caught Rateliff and his Flood companions this past Saturday in Austin, and he didn't sound much worse for the wear — a relief, considering that Rateliff is not only Flood's lifeblood, but could be the most compelling vocalist Denver has produced this side of John Grant from the Czars.

Even so, the pair of Flood sets I caught at SXSW won't go down among the group's finest or most memorable. Although the act played exceptionally well on Thursday night at Club 115 — Rateliff's honeyed tenor was in fine form, augmented by the surprisingly sweet, mellifluous harmonies of Joseph Pope — it received a lukewarm response from the crowd, most likely due to the fact that a good deal of the set was devoted to new material, which, while tuneful enough, isn't nearly as strong as If This Thing Should Spill. (To be fair, I wasn't sold on those songs, either, the first time I heard them live.) And "Anthem," the act's de facto centerpiece, was conspicuously missing from both the Thursday and Saturday sets.

Visibly annoyed that his guitar refused to stay in tune, Rateliff looked relieved when the sound guy advised him that there was only time for one more song on Saturday. "One more song? All right," he muttered. "Thank God." Even exasperated, though, he managed to add some levity. "This is our last song," he told the crowd. "Sorry for my band — they're all wasted. Usually, we're better," he added with a smile, which elicited a few laughs and reciprocal smiles. "Oh, yeah, laugh it up. You're all assholes!"

Flood manager Bart Dahl later explained that the emphasis on new material was at the request of label types already enthused by Spill who wanted to hear more tracks. He also said that the outfit has generated a pretty sizable interest across the pond.

Meanwhile, the other homegrown acts I caught — DeVotchKa, Git Some, Ghost Buffalo, Jon Snodgrass, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, the Swayback, Hearts of Palm, the Photo Atlas and Angie Stevens — all proved themselves worthy of greater national acclaim, particularly DeVotchKa, whose visibility (it followed Vampire Weekend's high-profile set at Antone's) was strong.

Because of some sound issues that contributed to an inexplicably long setup time, I only caught a few of DeVotchKa's songs at Cedar Street Courtyard on Thursday night. But from what I saw, the moment Nick Urata opened his mouth, he had the capacity crowd in the palm of his hand. Augmented by a string quartet and mariachi horn section and bolstered by the rest of the group, which was as devastatingly gorgeous as ever, he sounded like a one-man angel choir.

It may seem ludicrous to go all the way to Austin just to fill my itinerary with bands that I can see any time at home, but I was eager to see what kind of response our sacred cows received outside the city limits.

All in all, they hung tough.

 
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