We pick the music fest's can't-miss shows

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The SXSW music festival is a full-out assault. The streets can be a bear to navigate, the music on Sixth Street breaks down into loud and louder and the schedule is so overstuffed that every minute spent listening to a musician tune up makes you wonder if you missed the boat to see a better act in any of the 19 other venues you have circled on the calendar.

The fest requires a Zen-like approach — plan, but don’t plan. Or at least don’t be afraid to tear it up when it dawns on you that some obscure Cleveland garage band that has been knocking around for 20 years might well be the more important act to catch than the flavor du jour from England.

After just a handful of fests, my criteria: Catch bands that have some backing, either financial or critical; see the acts that may well never convey their innocence so clearly again; see who you can during the day parties to determine whether you need a second viewing to further assess; and be kind to the performers who have been doing this for decades. (Van Morrison, Darryl Hall, Joe Ely, Mick Jones and Billy Bragg head that list this year). Odds are they put on a better show and this may well be the one time you get to see them while they’re playing mostly new material.

That said, here are 15 acts that top my list, with the top alternatives for the time slots, organized by day.

Freddie Stevenson (Wednesday, March 12, 9 p.m., Wave) The biggest unknown on this list, but potential just oozes out of this Scottish folk punk. He’s an acoustic guitarist with a sharp melodic sense (think Mike Scott of the Waterboys, who is one of Stevenson’s fans); his debut album, “Body on the Line,” was a BBC fave in 2006; and he recorded his new album, “All My Strange Companions,” in Nashville with members of Emmylou Harris’ band and Prince’s engineer/producer David Z. behind the board. His fan base includes Dave Matthews and Dita Von Teese and his mother co-created “Fraggle Rock” with Jim Henson, not that that has anything to do with his music. (Top alternatives: Deer Tick, Club de Ville)

Daniel Lanois (Wednesday, March 12, 11 p.m./ Friday, March 14, 8 p.m., The Bat Bar). Lanois has led a blessed career. He has worked with the best as a producer (Bob Dylan, U2, Neville Brothers), made iconoclastic albums and been a sideman for Brian Eno and Harold Budd. He arrives in Austin bearing two projects and a concept being executed online. His film “Here Is What Is” will screen during the SXSW film fest and the album of the same name will be released March 18 on — here’s where the concept comes in — his new label RedFloor. The album is a rich and distinctive affair, some of it clearly stamped with the Lanois DNA and some of it, particularly in the early going, deliberately distant from his past. RedFloor has become the home for his six recordings and distinguishes itself by offering downloads at a sound quality that far exceeds Apple’s iTunes offerings. It’s a maverick approach, but a valuable one. The film documents him making the album, traveling and working with Eno and U2; drummer Brian Blade will accompany Lanois in Austin. (Top alternatives: Kaki King at Club de Ville on March 12; Ponderosa Stomp at Continental Club on March 14.)

R.E.M. (Wednesday, March 12, Stubb’s, midnight). The elephant in the room — the biggest act at the fest and the one that will be coming to your town soon. But they get to Austin before their new album arrives legally in stores. (It will be interesting to see how many people sing along with the new tunes; “Accelerate” finds Michael Stipe singing pretty clearly throughout.) The band that built the highways upon which so many indie rock acts have traveled, R.E.M. has returned to a brash, guitar-driven sound on “Accelerate,” their album due April 1 on Warner Bros. They spent the last several years playing shows of greatest hits –which meant a return to a guitar army — and staying away from the studios where they meticulously crafted their last several discs. “Accelerate” has a raw live element, even a pronounced rasp in Stipe’s voice, and it draws on the airiness and electricity of earlier albums such as “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” and “Monster.” (Top alternative: Blue Mountain, Panagea)

Bon Iver (Wednesday, March 12, 1 a.m., Maggie Mae’s Rooftop/Thursday, March 13, 11 p.m., Mohawk Patio) Bon Iver is misspelled French for “good winter”; Justin Vernon is the man using the name. Bon Iver’s self-released debut “For Emma, Forever Ago” was written and recorded in a cabin in northwestern Wisconsin — a Midwest version of Maine’s Ray LaMontagne? — and became an Internet phenom thanks to write-ups and file-sharing. When an artist becomes a much-discussed individual on the blogs, typists attempt to figure out who they sound like and end up with lists often so varied that it would be amazing if the performer actually did listen to that much music. One blog suggested that Bon Iver “channels Chad VanGaalen, Wolf Parade, TV on the Radio and Neil Young.” That’s a doozy. Q had a lovely sentence about his music: “Vernon’s music comes freighted with a sense of nature-as-solace.” (Top alternatives: Felice Brothers at Pangea on March 12; Chatham County Line at the Continental on March 13.)

Jens Lekman (Thursday, March 13, 8 p.m., Emo’s Main Room/midnight, Mohawk Patio). I’ll admit it: I ignored Jens Lekman because he was one of those names that popped up in conversation too often with people who seem only interested in the latest below-the-underground import. Didn’t matter that he had a hit in his native Sweden. Then came “Night Falls Over Kortedala” and a different cross-section began to talk about him. Bought the album and couldn’t wait to hear more of this guy who takes a kitchen-sink approach to genteel pop and heartache, drawing comparisons to Harry Nilsson, the Magnetic Fields and Rufus Wainwright. The difference: He has a way with a steady beat that others don’t bother with. He’s playing two shows in one night at two different venues before going on an eight-city U.S. tour that includes Coachella. (Top alternatives: Islands at Cedar Street Courtyard at 8; Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet with Bela Fleck at St. David’s Church at midnight.)

Lobi Traore & Joep Pelt (Thursday, March 13, 8 p.m., Momo’s/Saturday, March 15, 8 p.m., Copa) Lobi Traore is a guitarist from Mali where his language has no word for the “blues,” yet his music projects a clear understanding of the genre. He is 47 years old; he has been produced by Ali Farka Toure and Damon Albarn. His music is wildly hypnotic, teetering on the edge of chaos. Joep Pelt is from the Netherlands. He is 38 and, after playing pop and metal, turned his attention to Delta blues. His U.S. travels have taken him to Mississippi, where he has performed with R.L. Burnside, Frank Frost and others; he has also helped bring blues performers to his native country. On a trip to Mali in 2005, he and Traore met and their odd partnership continues. (Top alternatives: Spoon at Auditorium Shores Stage on March 13; Jacob Golden at St. David’s Church on March15)

MGMT (Thursday, March 13, 10:45 p.m., The Rio/Friday, March 14, 10 p.m. Stubb’s) Formed by two Connecticut music students, Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser have turned joking around into serious music-making. Their debut album, “Oracular Spectacularm” did not impress me on first listen, but I’m guessing I wasn’t grasping the inherent sarcasm. Word has it the live show is not a straight recreation of the album, and deep down, no matter what type of music is being played, SXSW thrives on the acts that display an element that’s not found in their recorded work. (Top alternatives: Jim Bianco at the Parish on March 13; Liam Finn at the Ale House on March14)

DeVotchKa (Thursday, March 13, midnight, Cedar Street Courtyard/Friday, March 14, midnight, Antone’s) A great band. Yes, scoring “Little Miss Sunshine” got the Denver band’s name out in the public a bit more, but the assuredness with which they perform their indie-gypsy-folk rock is simultaneously mesmerizing and soothing. They can make you dance, then spin on a dime and provide the feeling of an hour-long massage just a few minutes before it concludes. “A Mad and Faithful Telling,” which Anti- will release March 18, is yet another leap forward in terms of the confidence with which they play and the sonic variety found in the arrangements. DeVotchKa performed a lunchtime show recently in L.A. that had the feeling of a band playing for its life. Nick Urata is a David Byrne for the 21st century — high-strung and high-minded, capable of distilling a staggering number of elements into a unique concoction. (Top alternatives: James McMurtry at Antone’s on March 13; Sia at Stubb’s on March 14)

Ryan Bingham (Friday, March 14, 8 p.m., Momo’s) Texas singer-songwriter cut from the Butch Hancock-Joe Ely cloth lyrically, Bingham’s music is rustic and rural, filled with instruments for porches and campfires like mandolins and guitars played with slides. There’s a bit of a beer bash in Bingham, too; a hard day on the ranch sometimes needs to be celebrated with raw rock ‘n’ roll inspired by “Sticky Fingers” and Ron Wood. (Top alternative: the Ting Tings at Stubb’s)

Laura Marling (Friday, March 14, 9:30 p.m., Ninety Proof Lounge) Another Brit import, 17-year-old folkie Marling last year opened for like-minded Jamie T, Rufus Wainwright and Devendra Banhart and did three headlining tours. Her story begins in early 2006, with Marling uploading her songs to MySpace and garnering her a record deal. Two EPs have been released and her debut album, “Alas I Cannot Swim,” was issued in mid-February in the U.K. by Virgin; her second EP is her first release in the States. She has played Glastonbury; lists Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Kate Bush as her heroes; and, in a sea of songwriters who deserve praise, Marling has distinguished herself through her phrasing. She has quickly become one of the most-watched young Brit talents. (Top alternative: Watson Twins at Buffalo Billiards)

Vampire Weekend (Friday, March 14, 11 p.m., Antone’s) Not just the most-hyped act at SXSW, when it comes to reputation preceding an arrival, Vampire Weekend is at the top of the 2008 class. Unlike Amy Winehouse, who led last year’s class alongside Lily Allen, the VW album has been released stateside, garnered positive reviews and has yet to spark much of a backlash. Ivy Leaguers meshing early ’80s African guitar pop with that era’s hyperactive Hoboken indie rock sounds like cultural imperialism, but this is too infectious to disturb the listener. (Top alternative: Bo-Keys at Opal Devine’s Freehouse)

She & Him (Friday, March 14, Midnight, the Parish) Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward met in 2006 to record Richard and Linda Thompson’s “When I Get To The Border” for a movie soundtrack. Ward got Deschanel to start sharing her songs with him and they began recording at his Portland, Ore., studio. The songs, most of which are hers, have been played in public only a few times; Merge will release the album, simply titled “Vol. 1,” on March 18. A blurb on their MySpace page describes it as an attempt to “achieve the warmth and charm of pop and country records from the early- and mid-part of the 20th century,” specifically the records of Les Paul and Mary Ford, the Ronettes, Nina Simone, Chet Atkins, Linda Ronstadt, the Carter Family and about a hundred others. Saw them at Walt Disney Concert Hall — impressed, as always, by Ward’s guitar playing, yet concerned about Deschanel oversinging — where they did covers of Ricky Nelson and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here,” the one track on their MySpace page, heads into a spry-and-rustic country-pop intersection rarely traveled. (Top alternative: My Brightest Diamond at Central Presbyterian Church)

Bat Makumba (Friday, March 14, 1 a.m., Copa) Named after a tune by Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, the San Francisco band of two Brazilian natives and an American bassist delivers tropicalia and forro filtered through ska and punk rock and clothed in a party atmosphere. Every year, one must-see has to be a highly visual act and Bat Makumba gets this year’s nod. (Top alternative: Castanets at Central Presbyterian Church)

Duffy (Saturday, March 15, 8 p.m., Stubb’s) Second entry on the hype list is this blonde Welsh soul singer, whose debut album, “Rockferry,” arrives May 13. Those who have heard her throw around comparisons to Dusty Springfield, wonder in print if she might be the female Otis Redding and hope she overcomes the backlash of being one twentysomething femme Brit import too many. Bernard Butler, formerly of Suede, produced her debut. “Mercy” is the first single, No. 1 in the U.K. for the last four weeks and released the last week of February in the U.S. The Mercury Records party on Thursday will be her first U.S. performance. Last year, Winehouse teased during the daytime and absolutely dazzled at night, helped largely by the great Dap-Kings backing her. No matter what Duffy does, that’s the benchmark against which she will be compared. (Top alternative: Ian McLagan, Antone’s)

Jim James (Saturday, March 15, 10 p.m., St. David’s Church) My Morning Jacket has a performance of its own Thursday and it will likely be as good as anything this super band ever does. But to see the MMJ leader by his lonesome, well, that’s a rare treat. In the past, his solos shows have been filled with his band’s material augmented with covers of Dylan, Springsteen, the Eels and John Prine. What would be most interesting would be to see the Louisville, Ky., band debut material from “Evil Urges” (due June 10 from ATO Records) and then catch James performing the songs in a more-intimate setting. (Top alternative: Spacecity Gamelan, Central Presbyterian Church)

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