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SXSW Diary: Friday — Tanlines, Amy Winehouse and Brother Ali

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They say there are more than 1,200 bands in Austin this week for the South By Southwest Festival, but that’s only bands playing “official” festival showcases. Throw in bands that come into town to play gigs off the festival’s grid, such as the phalanx of Memphis indie-rock bands playing an afternoon showcase on Sunday, and I suspect the real number may approach 2,000.

Faced with such overwhelming options (and equally overwhelming crowds), how do you fill out your musical dance card? There are three types of bands/artists I seek out, and all three were represented Friday.

First, are Memphis acts making the trip. After leaving Austin last March as the most impressive Memphis act in town, the River City Tanlines made a repeat bid at their showcase at Beerland late last night. Frontwoman par excellence Alicja Trout was in particularly ferocious form, hair flailing as she staggered through her fierce guitar solos as if they were windstorms threatening to knock her over.

But as splendid a presence as Trout was, comparing the Tanlines last night to other loud-fast bands at the festival — including ex-Memphian Greg Cartwright’s the Reigning Sound — reveals that the band’s true weapon is their rhythm section of bassist Terrence “T-Money” Bishop and drummer John “Bubba” Bonds.

Bishop and Bonds kept the Tanlines from descending into pure blaring noise whenever the band dove into hyperspeed. But the duo’s real value came through when the band slowed down a little, especially in the moments when Bishop’s loping, locomotive bass lines acted as the lead instrument. That the Reigning Sound is still the better band is only because Cartwright is a songcraft savant. I haven’t seen a rock band in Austin that motorvates quite like the Tanlines.

The second group of artists I try to check out are the emerging new acts that seem like they might be worthy of the attention. Like Lily Allen, who charmed on stage Wednesday night, and Amy Winehouse, a British singer getting tons of good press of late for an album that deserves it. Winehouse’s Back to Black, released in the U.S. this month, is a classic soul/jazz club approximation that hits the mark in every way — vocally, conceptually, and, most impressive, musically.

But, as with Allen, I wasn’t sure if this studio pop could really translate live. Which is why I was happy to catch Allen at a day party yesterday without her full backing band.

Armed with only an acoustic-guitar-wielding sidekick, Winehouse — a frankly scary looking little thing whose current single opens with the kicker, “They tried to make me go to rehab/I said, NO, NO, NO” — stepped to the microphone without Back to the Black’s genius classic-soul production to protect her, and put those songs across naked, nothing but words, voice, and a bare melody. I left a believer.

If some artists come to South By Southwest seemingly on the cusp of stardom, there are others floating under the radar who plainly deserve it. Among others, I nominate Brother Ali, an overweight, lazy-eyed, albino Muslim rapper from Minneapolis who has the most commanding voice in hip-hop right now.

Rap fans like to talk about “flow,” but with Ali the gift is even purer. It’s his voice: boisterous but soulful and rich. It’s a pulpit-worthy instrument that turns his raps into sermons. Ali mostly played songs from his upcoming album, "The Undisputed Truth," which is set to be released in April. If the record lives up to what I saw in Austin, Ali may be on the verge of becoming hip-hop’s finest current MC.

The highlight of Ali’s set, and perhaps of the festival itself, was his performance of his early single “Forest Whitaker,” where Ali breaks down his perceived physical flaws (many of which he shares with his chocolate-skinned doppelganger) before declaring himself “God’s fingerprints.”

The record has more juice since Whitaker took home an Oscar this year. Introducing the song, Ali, grinning broadly, said, “ This song is about my good friend Forest Whitaker, who won some award on TV recently. This year I’m writing a song about Charles Dutton. I’m gonna get him an award too, you watch.”

— Chris Herrington

Check out Chris' first two days at SXSW: Wednesday and Thursday.

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