South by Southwest, the first music festival of the year, has celebrated its 25th anniversary by showcasing 2,000 artists and drawing thousands of music fans. When it began in 1987, the Austin-based festival featured just a fraction of that.
As ever, there was no shortage of established acts. The Strokes heralded their first new album in five years, Angles, playing to more than 10,000 people at Lady Bird Lake, with more fans struggling to find a way in to a set that culminated in celebratory fireworks. The starriest night of the festival, Saturday, saw performances from John Legend, Mos Def, Bon Iver, Common and Kanye West, who played a triumphant, 90-minute festival-closing set. Jay-Z joined West and the hip-hop giants performed a thrilling version of their joint single "H.A.M."
Ellie Goulding and The Vaccines proved a success in America, the latter injecting a speedy, punked-up and melodic set which left fans craving more. Wanda Jackson played a triumphant set, P Diddy made a surprise appearance, and elsewhere Tinie Tempah, The Kills and Janelle Monáe entertained the crowds.
But the most intriguing aspect of SXSW, and what draws everyone from fans to industry types, has always been discovering who will be making musical waves in the near future. The opening night boasted riveting performances by Yuck and James Blake. With debts to the noisy fuzz of Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur Jr-sized riffs, Yuck added a melodic touch to their fondness for 1990s American alt-rock, from the hook-filled choruses of "Get Away" to the ballad-esque "Suck". Blake's dubstep-shaded soundscapes captivated, his soulful renderings sometimes recalling Jeff Buckley, filtered through myriad vocal effects.
Another hyped act to deliver was New York band Cults. Their glockenspiel-led tunes were enveloped in girl-group vocals from Madeline Follin. They might have been a little too sweet had they not contrasted their blissful pop with darker lyrics, such as during "Most Wanted", a song presumably about the allure of drugs.
Also female-fronted, The Joy Formidable were a hit. Their catchy, stadium-sized anthems, including the rhythmic "Austere", drew one of the most enthusiastic, fist-pumping crowds at SXSW, where the queue stretched around the block. The London-by-way-of-North Wales trio's chemistry was palpable, and their enthusiasm matched that of their fans, as the singer/guitarist Ritzy Bryan smiled and intensely locked eyes with audience members between heart-pounding riffs before propelling herself about the stage.
Rivalling that intensity was Wild Flag. Performing at the Merge Records showcase, the all-female group – including former Sleater-Kinney members guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss – played a fiery set. Fans of Sleater-Kinney would appreciate Wild Flag's unbridled passion, angular guitars and percolating rhythms. They've not yet released an album, but judging by this performance it will be highly anticipated.
Chillwave-meets-surf-rock purveyor DOM delivered an entertaining set, which included a hilarious lo-fi rendition of "Little Red Corvette". One of the blog-hyped hip-hop acts to hit the festival was Big K.R.I.T., who played the official Billboard showcase on Saturday night. His Southern rap and storytelling worked best during the second half of the set when he was joined by a full band and female singer.
Not all of the artists lived up to the hype preceding them. The biggest disappointment was Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, the 11-piece teen hip-hop collective from LA whose macabre lyrics and much-hyped, supposedly intense live sets made them the must-see act of the festival. But the group far from delivered. They berated the audience for not being excited enough, while reminding fans they were on the cover of Billboard magazine, and after three songs they stormed off stage, leaving the crowd chanting for more. The venue wasn't just filled with industry badge-holding attendees, but fans who had paid and waited for hours for their set.
Fortunately, the final act lifted the mood. As STRFKR played right across the street, their buoyant, laser-filled set proved as energetic as the fans who worked themselves into a sweaty, dance frenzy. It was a celebratory way to close SXSW's quarter of a century.