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5 SXSW Bands to Watch in 2015

(Clockwise from top left: Carley Wolf of the Ghost Wolves, Mother Falcon, Hikes, Bomba Estéreo, and La Luz

Austin was chock-full of great music this year, but these badass groups distinguished themselves with unique style and infectious energy.

Prior to the first South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival (SXSW) in 1987, Austin was more or less just a bigger Texas town whose honky-tonks were like those in the rest of the Lone Star State—full of bands playing 12-bar blues, ZZ Top-style rock, and various country tunes of the day. Twenty-eight years on, it’s doubled in size and is touted as “The Live Music Capital of the World.” SXSW has no doubt been a big part of that growth. Each year it welcomes more than 50,000 attendees, 2,000+ musical acts from scores of countries, and over $300 million in revenue, making it Austin’s highest revenue-producing event. When the music portion of the festival is in full swing, as it was March 17–22, at any time of day you can walk through and find bands performing in hotels, warehouses, parks, museums, or posh theaters.

Although the unity and collaborative spirit amongst musicians and like-minded sponsors and audiences make SXSW an utterly unforgettable experience, if I had to describe the six music-filled days in three words, they’d be: expensive, exhausting, and invigorating. And that holds true whether you’re an attendee or one of the musicians playing the festival. To get on the bill, you and your band need to have either already created quite a buzz in the industry—in which case you’ll play a few sold-out gigs—or be like most of the official SXSW bands and perform two or three times a day for either $250 ($100 for solo acts) or a free pass to the rest of the event. Those in the latter camp go through a rigorous audition process and, if accepted, must pay their own way there—including travel, accommodations, and gear storage and handling. Total SXSW band expenditures tend to range from a few thousand dollars up to 10 grand. But for those who make the trek on their own dime, it’s all worth it for the small hope of being the next big SXSW discovery.

This year, most media outlets were in a frenzy over the performances of established bands such as Spoon, the Damned, Courtney Barnett, and Angel Olsen—for very good reason, of course—but we had our eye on up-and-coming acts. It was tough to narrow down our picks, but we’re confident the five bands here are ones to watch in the coming weeks, months, and years. They weren’t just mind-blowingly amazing in their energetic performances—they were distinct in musicianship, tone, and execution.

The Ghost Wolves

Before I could see who was onstage at Cheer Up Charlie's on March 18, I was sure I’d find a drummer flanked by at least two or three guitarists plugged into an assortment of distortion pedals and raging amps. But after pushing my way through the crowded room I found only guitarist/singer Carley “Carazy” Wolf and her husband, drummer/vocalist Jonathan “Little Hammer” Wolf. Wearing a white leather vest, white patent-leather pants, and white cowgirl boots that contrasted with Jonathan’s all-black Western attire, Carley kicked her legs in the air, threw herself on the ground, and used her vintage Harmony Silhouette H19 and blaring amp stacks (two Music Man HD-130s driving 2x15 and 4x12 cabs) to produce some of the most corpulent, room-filling distortion I’ve ever heard. In fact, the Ghost Wolves revived my confidence in two-piece bands. Even when she switched to a ’60s Teisco with just one string, Carley maintained a heavy low end that perfectly complemented Jonathan’s vehement pounding. Although the Austin-based duo is still fairly new and has a couple of structural things to tighten up, in my book the Ghost Wolves win the award for most badass, face-melting tone.

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Mother Falcon

Comprised of as many as 20 musicians onstage at one time, Mother Falcon has been taking over the Austin scene for the last few years. I’d seen them perform before but––to be frank––they never quite blew me away until I heard them in a quiet room at St. David’s Episcopal Church. Maybe it was the feeling of entering a sanctuary away from the franticness of 6th Street. Maybe it was the pleasant acoustics of the wood-paneled walls. Whatever it was, Mother Falcon swooned me with its haunting mixture of pop vocal melodies mingled with brass and woodwind instruments, a string section (cello, viola, violin, and double bass), acoustic and electric guitars and bass guitars, drums, keyboard, accordions, and lap-steel. What’s remarkable about all this is how it adds up to an elegant conversation rather than a conglomeration of melodies.

Led by vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Nick Gregg (who often plays an Alvarez flattop), guitarist Claire Puckett (who primarily plays a single-cut nylon-string and a 12-string dreadnought), and accordionist/pianist Tamir Kalifa, Mother Falcon is banded by hints of eeriness, extreme dynamic changes, and an undertone of bubbly guitar riffs. One of my favorite things about the performance was simply witnessing how so many musicians worked together to deliver a cohesive and cinematically powerful sound.

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Bomba Estéreo

Founded in Bogotá in 2005, Bomba Estéreo likely has the biggest international following of any band on this list, and their 2015 SXSW performance definitely deserves mention. The compositions created by vocalist Liliana Saumet, guitarist Julián Salazar, bassist Simón Mejía, and their new drummer and percussionist (names were unavailable at press time) reverberate throughout your entire body. Song topics range from political to personal, and all are complemented by energetic beats, soulful bass melodies, and mesmerizing visuals.

Even at 1 o’clock in the morning, fans bounced into each other, screaming and singing along with Saumet while the rest of the band grooved on its mélange of cumbia, electronic, and pop sounds. The band fed off the crowd’s energy, giving all they had right back to us. Quiet waves of intimacy would then fill the venue before things built back up to another adrenaline-fueled crescendo. Salazar, who primarily plays a Tele or Mustang through clean-toned Fender Twin or Super-Sonic combos, provides much of the band’s cumbia influence, but his deft use of delay-soaked arpeggios adds a modern feel to the soundscape. Meanwhile, Mejía provides effortlessly solid, melodic bass lines while triggering a multitude of audio samples. If I could, I would see Bomba Estéreo a million times over.

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La Luz

Over the past few years there’s been a resurgence of West Coast bands influenced by 1960s garage and surf rock a la Dick Dale and the Beach Boys. Bands like Shannon and the Clams, and Guantanamo Baywatch, but at the top of that list is La Luz––a Seattle-based quartet featuring guitarist/vocalist Shana Cleveland, bassist Lena Simon, keyboardist Alice Sandahl, and drummer Marian Li Pino. I caught La Luz’s SXSW performance on a depressingly rainy Saturday afternoon on the outside stage of the Panache showcase at Spider House Café & Ballroom, but the gloomy weather didn’t affect the band or the audience. Excited listeners crowded around the stage, smiling and dancing the entire show.

La Luz grabbed the attention of passersby, too, with a captivating blend of graceful, period-correct harmonies, haunting keys, and, of course, incisive solos awash in twangy spring reverb. But the band’s influences seem to span a range of genres beyond the surf and garage labels––from doo-wop to straight-up pop. Cleveland’s Strat-and-Princeton riffs were alternatingly raucous and tender, Simon’s Hofner-through-Ampeg bass lines were simultaneously solid and sinewy, and both had fun with their bandmates by doing little choreographed dances, laughing at each other, and making jokes we all wished we were a part of—and yet there wasn’t one thing sloppy about this amazing show.

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Twenty-three-year-old Nathan James Wilkins has been leading and producing heavy hitters under the moniker Hikes for as long as he’s been playing guitar—a whopping four years. Initially a drummer in the Fayetteville hardcore scene, Wilkins has turned into an incredibly innovative math-rock guitarist. His techniques range from standard barre chords to tapping, complex fingerpicking, and creative harmonic use in open tunings. Wilkins, who favors Tele-style guitars, is the kind of player whose jaw-dropping intricacies make you wonder whether he’s a prodigy or just extremely dedicated. Of course it’s not just Wilkins who powers Hikes. Co-guitarist Will Kauber (who often plays a Fender Bullet Deluxe, as well as a Jazzmaster), bassist Colin Jenkins (who prefers Fender Jaguar and Danelectro basses), and drummer Chris Long bring the same intense energy that resonates so well with audiences.

As I entered Javelina––a small Austin bar that’s become quite a hot spot––on the last night of SXSW, I encountered a crowd of sweaty headbangers singing along to Hikes. Many seemed like they were ready to jump onstage at any moment. For much of the show I was completely transfixed by the effortlessness of Wilkins’ playing up and down the neck, so to be honest, it wasn’t until the final moments of the set that I began to realize how intricate the rest of the band members’ playing was, too. Like a game of Tetris or a 1,000-piece puzzle, Hikes is engaging and challenging, yet often quite subtle in its nuance.

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