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SXSW 2013 Day 1: Guards rules

Greg Kot

2:48 AM EDT, March 13, 2013

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Guards, a co-ed quintet, capped Tuesday's opening night of the South by Southwest Music Conference, and wiped away the mediocre aftertaste left by their predecessors.

The blues-rock of ZZ Ward and the "Up With People" exuberance of Youngblood Hawke had all the trappings of well-constructed imitation, but didn't resonate with much sincerity or soul. With 2,500 bands plying their wares at South by Southwest, it's instructive to see what lengths some of them will go to conform in order to get a deal with someone further up the music-industry food chain.

Guards has a New York pedigree in the indie bands Cults and Willowz, and brother-sister combo Richie and Madeline Follin project a yin-yang compatibility, right down to their long, precisely parted hair. He sings with adrogynous yearning and cradles his guitar like an infant, she plays keyboards and sings backing harmonies with cool reserve. The band as a whole comes off a little chilly and pat on stage; Richie's patter feels completly canned. But the songs burst with hooks and dynamics, and incorporate hints of soul and psychedelic zoom. If well-crafted power-pop songs that hint at Big Star and the Raspberries are your thing, this band is one to embrace.

Earlier in the evening, bearded singer-songwriter Sean Rowe played at the Central Presbyterian church on 8th Street, a perfect venue for his emotionally transparent songs, marinated in blues and contemplation. Rowe is equally at home singing about fatherhood as he is covering the Mississippi hill-country great R.L. Burnside. With only an acoustic guitar, he turned church into his living room.

greg@gregkot.com