Bringing Roots Music to SXSW

When I was invited to attend New Frontier Touring’s SXSW Showcase on Friday, March 18, it was to review a “Roots” band called YARN, who was about to release a new LP two days later Almost Home. My editor dropped off a pre-release copy for me so I could listen to it on the way down to Austin, but I warned him that I was not very familiar with the genre. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, it said it could refer to “several styles or trends in music”, but the one I think nails it on the head read: “…Roots Revival, a trend which includes young performers popularizing the traditional musical styles of their ancestors”. What it didn’t say was that some of these young performers are mixing these styles together, often within the same song, to create something I’m not sure we’ve seen or heard before. This night, at Skinny’s Ballroom, I found out what they’re up to and I must admit… it’s pretty exciting.

It started when I walked in the door and saw a four piece band playing on stage in the back. I was soon to find out they’re called Larkin Poe, consisting of two sisters; one who plays mandolin like a lead guitarist and the other who plays steel guitar like a dueling banjo. Their two male counterparts were a drummer that could rival many a good jazz percussionist, and a guitarist who blended sweet folk chords with bluesy lead licks.

The other bands in the showcase all brought something a little different that night and they all warrant more than a mention here. Uncle Lucius, a local favorite brought some R&B and southern rock into the mix. Then the seductive Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds bring in a horn section and for just a second I thought I was witnessing the reincarnation of Amy Winehouse. And finally, The Wheeler Brothers, who were recently voted Austin’s best new band. While they setup, a former member, who I could tell was very proud of them, yet a bit sad he wasn’t still part of them, schooled me on their history.

When YARN took stage, the first thing I noticed was their bass player plays a stand-up bass and their mandolin player has an odd resemblance to a young Robert Plant. The way he played his instrument was more like Jimmy Page though (both of Led Zeppelin fame). The band started their set with “Annie”, one of my favorite tracks off the new record. The lyrics, sung in an almost Jimmy Buffet ease, tell a story that warns her: “Annie – Don’t you dare come home.” But just when you think you have this song figured out, the lead guitarist starts fingering some blue grass scales and a whole new dimension is added. He reminded me of a seasoned musician you’d expect to see playing with a cigarette hanging from his mouth. The fact he was the sole back-up vocalist, and did so flawlessly, was not overlooked either.

Some songs on “Almost Home” demonstrate catchy hooks that lean toward a country sound “Dirt Road”, while others are more folk “When the Summer Ends” or southern rock “Soft Rock Radio”. The last track shows the band’s sense of humor and gives props to a great singer/songwriter: “Fussin’ and Fighting (Singin’ Jim Croce)”.

I learned a lot about “Roots” music and had a great time that night at SXSW. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, but in the end, that’s what made it so great.

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