More and more, Aftermath uses ACL more than SXSW to see which recent buzz bands are worth their salt, and of course to check on how some old favorites are doing. This year, tops on our new-to-us list were Blitzen Trapper, who managed to condense most of the late '60s and early '70s - Dylan, the Dead, CSNY and a lot more besides - into their hour-long set Friday, and MuteMath, neighbors from New Orleans whose echoing guitar, propulsive rhythms and spacious vocals made them a sort of junior U2 shortly before the rains came Saturday. Not far behind were Phoenix, who energetically outdistanced their "French Strokes" tag with super-catchy indie-pop leavened with disco and even a little Bo Diddley; and White Lies, Londoners whose elegantly gloomy, spacious, melodic post-punk rivaled MuteMath for sheer scale - especially on closer "Death" - and made the Arctic Monkeys, who followed them, seem like yesterday's NME news.
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Various soul, gospel and R&B acts bowled Aftermath over all weekend long - especially Raphael Saadiq, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, the Gospel Silvertones and Henry Butler - but our happiest discovery of the weekend came right here in Houston: brand-new Austin trio White Dress, who opened for the Heartless Bastards Thursday at House of Blues with a sound similar to the Velvet Underground fronted by PJ Harvey or Siouxsie Sioux. While we're on the subject, the Bastards' titanic roots-rock continues to impress us every time we see them, and did so again both Thursday and what little we were able to catch of them Sunday afternoon. (Full disclosure: an old friend is now the Bastards' tour manager; she and the band were kind enough to give us a ride to Austin after Thursday's show, but we were fans well before we became friends.) And despite its leader's vocal silence due to recent throat surgery, the Levon Helm Band conducted a thrilling tour through American music's back pages Saturday, highlighted by soulful versions of the Band's "It Makes No Difference" and "The Shape I'm In," and a swinging ragtime version of "Deep Ellum Blues." The rain was even kind enough to stop for the balance of their set, and although it started again shortly before the Decemberists, the dapper Portland band's soup-to-nuts performance of their medieval prog-folk opera The Hazards of Love - like Jethro Tull meets Arcade Fire - was even more gripping than at SXSW. Honestly, though, the best part of our weekend came at the very end, when conditions at Zilker were at their absolute worst. The run started with the Dead Weather, Jack White's latest effort to ward off boredom or whatever it is that keeps him from making another White Stripes record. White stepped out front for a couple of songs, but mostly stayed behind the drums - he's at least as good a timekeeper as Meg - and allowed the focus to stay where it belonged: feral, feline singer Allison Mosshart, whose vocals were even rawer than the full-blast gutbucket-blues guitars and freakshow psychedelic keyboards. After Spearhead's spontaneous dance party, we slogged over to see Dan Auerbach, stepping away from the Black Keys for an A-plus set of menacing, lupine blues-rock before closing with the husky power-pop of "My Last Mistake." And for the hour we saw them, Pearl Jam made a superb headliner, mixing punkish growlers like opener "Why Go," "Not for You," "Worldwide Suicide" and an extended, explosive "Evenflow" with more reflective ballads like "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter In a Small Town" and a "Daughter" that raised a lump in our throat as fat as that full moon overhead. Mud - "Dillo Dirt" or otherwise - washes off, after all. Memories like that don't.