AUSTIN, Texas—On the first Easter Sunday, when women went to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body, angels met them and with ironic wit asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
Given that excellent question, it is reasonable to ask why we would search for signs of life at the South by Southwest festival, now winding down in Austin. The answer might be found by considering not just this verse in Luke, but by comparing it to the full counsel of Scripture, which tells us: be “in the world but not of it;” that the sons of Issachar “understood the times;” and that even after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, he went unrecognized by the men on the road to Emmaus. Only later, when Jesus broke bread with them and then mysteriously disappeared, did the men admit that while the unknown Jesus was with them did their “hearts burn within.”
So with all this scripture in mind, I compile my own highly idiosyncratic list of bands at SXSW that make my heart burn within me. Let me be plain that not all of these bands are “Christian bands,” whatever that means now.
I also want to disclose that I did not see all of them at South by. With more than 2,000 bands playing at more than 100 venues, it was simply impossible to see more than a fraction of the bands there, and some of the ones on this list played only once and at times that other bands on this list were playing. I worked pretty hard at SXSW to see as much as I could, but I could not find a way to be in two places at once. So I compiled this list from my own experiences, by scouring the Artist Directory for bands I recognized and with whose music I already had some familiarity, and asking people I trusted, including Josh Jackson at Paste Magazine, Nate Risdon of Fuller Seminary (who organized a Fuller class on art and culture at SXSW this week), and others. Here’s that list, in alphabetical order.
Andrew Belle. Andrew Belle’s new album Black Bear is reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens, though not as weird. Chicago, Illinois.
COIN. The founders of COIN met as students at the Christian college Belmont University. This is their second trip to SXSW with their infectious synth-pop sound. Nashville, Tennessee.
Gungor. This Dove-award-winning band led by Michael Gungor and his wife Lisa already has a significant following among twenty- and thirty-something Christians. But their music transcends genre, as this year’s appearance at SXSW demonstrates. Denver, Colorado.
Matisyahu is the stage name for Matthew Paul Miller. The name means “Gift of God” in Hebrew. Matisyahu blends Orthodox Jewish themes with reggae and rock, with his most recent music trending toward dub. The band’s 2005 single “King Without A Crown” was a Top 40 hit in the United States. Los Angeles, California.
Michael Martin Murphey. A long-time Austin favorite, Murphey has been singing about faith, family, and freedom to secular audiences for a half-century. Beulah, Colorado.
Penny and Sparrow. Rich songwriting and soaring harmonies. P&S was by far my biggest discovery at South by Southwest this week. Drop what you are doing now and check them out. N.O.W. Austin, Texas.
Run River North. The core members of the band met through the Korean church community in Los Angeles. Though all the members are Korean-American, their country-rock feel is often branded Americana. They claim John Mayer, Jason Mraz, and Jack Johnson as influences, but I also hear Dawes, Jackson Brown, and The Eagles. Los Angeles, California.