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SXSW: Shaking, quaking, and soothing

Posted by James Reed  March 14, 2012 06:25 PM

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It's no small feat getting a rock crowd to dance, let alone at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon. But Brown Bird, the Providence-based duo of Dave Lamb and MorganEve Swain (above), pulled it off earlier today at SXSW with a spirited set that weaved in and out of different genres. For simplicity's sake, let's call them a rustic Americana band; then again, that downplays their penchant for the blues, country, and Eastern European rhythms. "It's not easy to play this early in the day," Swain said, but you didn't believe her.

Is it appropriate to dim the lights in a conference ballroom? Because Michael Kiwanuka is obviously for lovers. As part of the tastemaking Los Angeles radio station KCRW's day showcase, the British singer-songwriter eased into his after-hours soul with just his acoustic guitar and a back-up musician on electric. Even Kiwanuka seemed mindful of all the comparisons he gets to Bill Withers; he ended his performance with a cover of Withers's "I Don't Know."

Next up was the Alabama Shakes, the first act I've seen down here that clearly is primed for a major breakthrough. Led by a fierce frontwoman, Brittany Howard, the four-piece found the sweet spot between roiling '70s rock and its funky James Brown flip side. You couldn't tell if Howard wanted to love you or tear you apart. I suspect it was a little of both. (The band comes to Boston's Paradise Rock Club on April 15, not long after its debut, "Boys & Girls," will be released on April 10. Go see these guys.)

Now you'll excuse me while I race over to Stubb's to catch Fiona Apple's opening set at NPR Music's showcase. She's on at 7:45 p.m., and I'm guessing the line is already snaking three blocks down. In other words, a perfect time to grab some tacos to go.

Also on my radar tonight: Sharon Van Etten, Jimmy Cliff, Bleached, Hindi Zahra, Bahamas, Rodríguez, and Andrew Bird. As Lana Del Rey would say, feet don't fail me now. As usual, I'm a mad man on Twitter this week. Join me: @GlobeJamesReed.

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Sarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

James Reed is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

Jonathan Perry is the Globe's Scene & Heard columnist, covering local music.

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