SXSW 2013: Ashley Monroe and Icona Pop get the party started

Ashley Monroe, right, with singer/songwriter Jessi Alexander during the Nashville release party for "Like a Rose" earlier this month.
(Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

AUSTIN, Texas -- What kind of song does it take to silence a club full of insiders at a crowded concert on the first night of the South by Southwest music festival?

The kind that hasn’t been invented yet.

Ashley Monroe, a gifted young country singer from Tennessee, came as close as one can to that goal early Tuesday night at the Empire Control Room, where she brought an audience gathered for an MTV/VH1/CMT showcase to a respectful hush with her song “Used.” It’s a winsome holdover from a limited-release 2007 disc that Monroe revived for her new album, “Like a Rose.”

“I know I’m not some bright and shiny, polished-up car that’s sparkling new / Right off the salesroom floor,” Monroe sang as her four-piece band shuffled tenderly behind her.


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Yet six years (and one Miranda Lambert collaboration) after her record “Satisfied” got lost in the shuffle of a major-label merger, Monroe has become a big deal in country music: “Like a Rose,” issued last week, is earning rave reviews (including mine), and she’ll follow it up in early May with a second album from Pistol Annies, the rowdy roots-music girl group she shares with Lambert and Angaleena Presley.

Monroe isn’t finished at SXSW, either: She’s to perform Wednesday afternoon at a Warner Music Group event and again Friday alongside Butch Walker and Fall Out Boy, with whom she shares a management firm.

In her first at-bat -- where the temperature reached a level that made her admit it “wasn’t the right gig for a leather dress” -- Monroe complemented “Used” with a handful of other low-key tunes, including a lovely rendition of the title track from “Like a Rose.”

For most of her 30-minute set, though, she matched the amped-up energy in the room, steering a stiff honky-tonk groove in “Monroe Suede” and urging a lover to “put up the teddy bears and get out the whips and chains” in the hard-driving “Weed Instead of Roses.” Introducing “The Morning After,” she said she’d written the song “after a night of moonshine and Mad Dog 20/20”; it was a combination the audience seemed familiar with.

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Later Tuesday, at Austin’s Belmont, the Swedish duo Icona Pop tapped into a similar brand of debauchery, albeit with entirely different tools: Dressed in black and whipping their hair like electro-disco metalheads, Caroline Hjelt and Aino Jawo pumped out full-tilt party anthems from a recent EP (as well as from an album yet to be released in the U.S.) using a bank of electronics positioned between them.

In the stuttering “Nights Like This” they promised to “flip this place back upside down,” while “My Party” boldly lifted the chorus from Lesley Gore’s early-'60s hit. For the appealingly bratty “I Love It,” familiar to TV watchers from its appearance in an episode of “Girls” and as the theme song for “Snooki & JWoww,” Icona Pop was joined by Charli XCX, the English singer who co-wrote the tune.

“The harder you go, the better you feel,” the women vowed in “Ready for the Weekend,” and though it was only Tuesday, the boisterous SXSW crowd seemed to surge in agreement.


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Follow Mikael Wood on Twitter: @mikaelwood