To say that the South By Southwest Music Festival (SXSW, or, “South By as attendees say with familiarity) is overwhelming is equivalent to saying POTUS wants Obamacare to remain intact. Its deluge of parties, showcases and panels (oh my!) can create a somewhat helpless feeling upon arrival. But if one makes use of the available technology (online schedule and the obligatory app) the challenge becomes a bit less daunting. Attendees must plan ahead and make choices — venues can be over a mile apart — but the good news is that the wristbanded masses are staring down five days of great music featuring over 1,300 bands playing dozens of venues from noon to 2 am. So ultimately, it’s hard to make a bad choice.
This year’s showcases and official parties will feature some of the music’s top acts (Green Day, Flaming Lips, Dave Grohl, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, Passion Pit) as well as hundreds of emerging artists. Acknowledging your limitations is important: there is simply no way the schedule and layout will physically allow one to see every performance they want to see . Many bands on the verge of breaking (or having recently broken through to a wider audience) will play multiple sets over the next few days in order capture and cement a following. Alt-J, Waxahatchee, Japandroids, Royal Teeth, Civil Twilight, Kendrick Lamar, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and many others are on the radar, and word of mouth will bring others to the forefront during the Festival. Now, if I can just find out about all these unofficial gatherings…
Then there are the panel sessions. Wednesday brought Deadmau5 talking technology and Rob Zombie talking horror movies. Thursday brings a keynote address by musician, documentarian, and the proud owner of Sound City’s Neve mixing console, the indefatigable Dave Grohl (There must be three of him, as he seems to be everywhere at the same time).
Daunting? Yes…no question about it. But without a challenge there’s no reward, and that’s also the genius of America’s greatest modern music gathering. Is the excitement palpable? ….abso-effin-lutely!
The festival hit the ground running with a stunning array of both emerging and established artists. Much planning and research necessarily goes into picking your way through each day’s lineup. In doing so, I find that while I am primarily seeking the best new acts, the fan in me wants to spend part of my time with artists I already know and love. The good news about SXSW is that there are plenty of both. One has to work at not being overloaded…there is no possible way to see even a quarter of the great acts, even those playing multiple gigs. So, you do the best you can do and just dive in. SO LET’S GO!
The Brits’ latest musical invasion continues, and while much of what is coming from across the pond sounds American, the accented banter between songs reminds you that this great American-sounding music is actually imported. Jake Bugg seems likely to be one of the great discoveries of the festival. Playing the same Radio Day stage (6 artists each day, hand-picked by SXSW) as one of last year’s breakouts, Alabama Shakes, Bugg sounds like a beautifully mixed cocktail of Dwight Yoakum, The Man In Black, My Morning Jacket and Bob Dylan— yeah it’s all in there. It’s just so…well…American sounding, complete with enough vocal and guitar twang to make Hank Williams, Sr. return from the “Lost Highway.” Alt-Country is the closest applicable genre, and everyone here is giving this stupid-talented prodigy a lot of juice…and did I mention he was only 17?
Lucy Rose is a part of what is being dubbed the “Brit NuFolk Invasion”. With a beautiful voice and beautiful, heartfelt tunes this this young songstress seems to be continuing the ways of Laura Marling. Playing the SXSW International Day Stage in the Austin Convention Center, she showed off songs of great maturity with country, folk and acoustic pop influences. Whatever the genre, be sure you file her under “One To Watch”.
Bringing a little Brit electro-pop is songstress Charli XCX. The sound is rich and muti-layered with obvious influences from American and British alt-pop. She mixes cool beats and grooves with compelling vocals and an intriguing stage persona. When it’s all added up, it makes for a subtly cool yet energetic act.
Kendrick Lamar is fulfilling all expectations foisted upon him when he was unveiled almost a year ago as the latest protege of Dr. Dre. His groundbreaking album Good Kid m.A.A.d City (#16 on the Weeping Elvis Top 25 Albums of 2012) immediately tagged him as a force to be reckoned with in the world of rap and hip-hop. Last night’s set at a massive converted industrial warehouse was the scene of Mr. Lamar’s “m.A.A.d” ride and the capacity crowd was oh-so-glad to be along for it. With an infectious connection to his audience, Lamar often opted to shut down his tracks and let the crowd sing/rap large parts of his songs a capella. Nothing groundbreaking, necessarily, but this mode of performance is usually undertaken with short catchphrases— and this was complete verses or choruses. While the obligatory urban references abound (“pussy and Patron…”, “bitch don’t kill my vibe”, etc. ) there is something that feels…well classy about Kendrick Lamar. He certainly traffics in the sort of phraseology that causes backlash against the genre, but when Kendrick brings it doesn’t feel sexist or shocking. Perhaps this is due to an honest connection to the world he grew up in rather than one that glorifies its nature. Most hip-hop/rap artists cover similar material, but this “good kid” brings something that feels incredibly earnest and in no way “thuggy.” Not to mention his beats are killer!
Sirius XMU has been converted to the SXSW Channel for the remainder of the festival. Driving home, I was captivated by a tune from Phosphorescent. I was aware of their existence, but had not had the chance to experience them. Fortunately they were on the next night’s bill on the ground floor of a cavernous gutted, painted and spiffed office building temporarily dubbed The Hype Hotel. They’re a jam band but in the way that is more My Morning Jacket than Phish. They employ cool yet simple chord structures and grooves that build almost unconsciously to climactic proportions. They take the listener to a passionate musical place, and said listener doesn’t really know (or care) how they got there. Extended down tempo grooves pulled the audience in, (only 4 songs in a 40 minute set), seemingly suspending time as nothing but the music mattered while this utterly intriguing act was on stage.
If there was an “it” act coming into SXSW it would have to be Foxygen. (Ok, maybe Alt-J). Expectations have quickly risen for this NYC-based act, and I am not sure if they reached expectations here at SXSW. Sound trouble, I believe, kept us from fully experiencing what they have to offer. Also, this crowd had obviously come to see Phosphorescent and My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James. Sandwiching their largely undefinable and indescribable presence between two acts with similar appeal left the crowd unsure what to think in the interim. Foxygen is a bit like the Dawes song “A Little Bit Of Everything,” and the influences and pieces of their cosmic puzzle are highly identifiable. Bits of 60s pop, Mick Jagger, psychedelia, Jack White, art rock, Phil Spector and post punk are all a part of the mix (and that is certainly not a bad thing). Ultimately, I dug their sincerity and historical understanding and references. Around this town, “weird” is worn as a badge of honor, so one would think the crowd would be on this act like a moth on a flame. But ultimately they didn’t seem to know what to do with Foxygen, and once again, that’s not all bad. I still expect to hear a great deal about this act down the road — they are just the kind of “thing” that catches fire.