At the end of January, when I first glanced at the tentative list of acts chosen to perform at this year's South by Southwest festival, I did a double take. The lineup looked like a holdover from the first Bush administration, the days when gas was still under two bucks a gallon and Americans thought a terrorist attack on its soil was improbable: DeVotchKa, Slim Cessna's Auto Club, the Apples in Stereo, Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Granted, those last two outfits didn't actually end up on the final confirmed list, and there's a slew of other bands crashing the party — including Git Some, Hearts of Palm (né Nathan & Stephen), the Swayback, Autokinton, Kingdom of Magic, Mustangs & Madras, the Photo Atlas, Oakhurst, Breathe Carolina and the Chain Gang of 1974 — but still, you get the picture. Two of the outfits that garnered official invitations from SXSW to represent the Mile High City this year aren't exactly new acts.
But while this isn't DeVotchKa or Slim's first rodeo, both acts have recently gained momentum — particularly DeVotchKa, which, in addition to playing several showcases in Austin next week, is on also on the bill at this year's Coachella festival. The group is in the midst of a substantial, steadily swelling buzz surrounding the release of its new disc, A Mad & Faithful Telling, which is due out March 18 on Anti records. The album just received a four-star review in Spin and has the outfit on the lips of tastemakers across the country, including the folks at Seattle's KEXP, who were boosters early on, and Los Angeles's KCRW.
Unlike Vampire Weekend and bands of that ilk, DeVotchKa's notoriety isn't the product of the fickle blogosphere. Nick Urata and company earned their acclaim the old-fashioned way, by crisscrossing the country innumerable times, winning over one fan at a time with their exotic yet surprisingly accessible blend of brassy Slavic and Mexican folk music. Or, as the blurb on the back of advance copies of Telling accurately proclaims: "The times have finally caught up with acclaimed Denver quartet DeVotchKa. Not long ago, when the band unloaded their instruments — a violin, a tuba and an accordion, among others — into a rock club, they were told they must be in the wrong place. They created music that was Grammy nominated...without the benefit of a huge promotional team or with a runaway budget, instead relying on their own efforts by self-releasing their records."
Slim Cessna and his Auto Club — which also has a new, Bob Ferbrache-produced platter slated for imminent release on Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles imprint — have likewise earned a devoted and sizable following across the country with a renowned, highly combustible live show and their unique, brooding, shambolic spin on Appalachian folk that's become known as the centerpiece of the so-called Denver Sound.
Of course, there's plenty of irony attached to that designation. As anyone who's lived here for even ten minutes can tell you, although that particular sound has indeed become synonymous with our town, Denver's strength lies in its diversity and the fact that it doesn't actually have a singular, unifying sound. As a testament to this notion, consider the other groups performing in the Lone Star state next week: the party crashers listed above, as well as the Greg Harris Vibe Quintet, which will turn heads with a dazzling set of classic jazz, and Drop Dead, Gorgeous, which will put Austin noise ordinances to the test with its molten brand of screamo. And then there's Born in the Flood. The band responsible for 2007's most stellar disc, If This Thing Should Spill, is a bona fide arena-filler in waiting, with its engaging, cinematic fusion of indie rock and melancholy Brit pop. Admittedly, Flood hasn't put in even a fraction of the roadwork of DeVotchKa or Slim, yet it still seems perpetually on the verge of a massive breakthrough. Will this SXSW be its coming-out party?
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Remains to be seen. Regardless of how things end up, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the country reacts to some of the Mile High's most prized exports.