South by Southwest heads in the right direction

From a growling singer sporting a pink turban to Sweden's answer to Bob Dylan, the line-up of promising young acts at this year's gathering in Austin, Texas showed that the festival is continuing to set the pace for cutting-edge bands, says Alex Hannaford

It was billed as the "Guitar Hero Metallica Madness Competition" – a 10pm slot on the big stage. But in what turned out to be the worst-kept secret of Austin's annual South by Southwest festival, the gig masquerading as a platform to launch a new computer game turned out to be Metallica themselves.

"Surprise, surprise," singer James Hetfield growls. "Thanks for letting us come to your party." Then, the band launched into a greatest-hits package.

The truth is, this annual music-industry shindig is not just about young, unsigned bands looking for a record deal any more. Not when bands such as Razorlight, Blur or New York Dolls play – as they all have over the past few years. Or Kanye West, who played an unofficial "surprise" show on the final night of this year's festival. But each year, at the end of March, SXSW is still recognised as the best place to find new talent, and some bands go to amazing lengths to get that recognition – one, Avitia, set up a website called

Others simply play as many shows as they can. New York shoegazers The Pains of Being Pure at Heart played 10 shows this week and all that tireless hawking around of their catchy tunes looks like it may pay off.

Martin Mills, head honcho at Beggars Banquet records, is here to see The Golden Filter, a New York electro-pop three-piece. It's a weird time of day to catch a 1980s-influenced band more suited to a sweaty New York City nightclub. The keyboard player is captivating as he hunches over his Moog, bashing the keys and then turning to thump two drums next to him in time with band's drummer proper.

At Emo's, King Khan and the Shrines are tuning up on the outdoor stage. This is a stripped-down daytime show but even without his regular horn section, Khan doesn't disappoint. Drummer Johnny Boy Adonis is like a one-man band, playing a kick and snare with his feet, leaving his hands free to wield his guitar while Khan prances about the stage, bare-chested. It may all sound a bit silly (it is), but the music is brilliant: dirty, garagey 1950s pop. In his press blurb, Khan describes his shtick thus: "I began seriously practising voodoo to fulfil my infinite sexual fantasies and when the mojo started working I figured, 'Hey, why not put this to music?'"

In keeping with the theme of interesting drummers, Box Elders' sticksman plays the skins with his right hand while holding chords down on a vintage synthesiser with the other. The Nebraska three-piece are playing a New York Noise party east of I35, the freeway that slices Austin in two. There are a lot of people packed into the beer garden of the tiny venue, and they're spilling into the car park next door. It's not surprising – Box Elders make a beautiful noise.

Quite why Here We Go Magic are playing the same party, though, is a mystery. Two female backing singers complement Luke Temple's haunting Jeff Buckley-esque vocals perfectly. It's experimental, almost psychedelic in places, and while this is passionate, gentle music, Here We Go Magic deserve to be huge.

While waiting for British folkstress Laura Marling to come on, we're treated to a set from Sheffield's Stoney. Singer Mark Stoney is all a-fluster due to "technical problems". But it doesn't matter. Roping in local keyboard and accordion players, and with very little rehearsal, it's all wonderful folky harmonies and shanties.

Just down the road, the Carrera Café is the de facto feeding and watering tent for musicians this year. It's rammed throughout the festival with bands sipping Bloody Marys and playing Connect 4. On Thursday morning, The Proclaimers are sitting in the corner, sunburnt from the Texas sun and laughing and joking with their small entourage.

The music pumping from outdoor speakers at the café next to the Hilton is terrible. Considering this is the first choice for delegates at SXSW due to its close proximity to the Convention Center, Don Henley and Phil Collins are a bad choice. It's lucky that just over the road, 3OH!3 are playing at Stubbs' BBQ. Like New Kids on the Block meets the Beastie Boys (just imagine), they're two boys from Boulder, Colorado, but today they're joined by a drummer and guitarist. It's a great venue for their exuberant, tongue-in-cheek shenanigans. One half of 3OH!3 has long hair and is sporting a John McEnroe-style headband, egging on the crowd. The sun is disappearing and 3OH!3's antics are a perfect segue into the busy night ahead. It's fair to say there's madness in the air: outside the venue there's a group of people chanting and clapping while a couple perform capoeira to the crowd. Two police officers, standing next to their mountain bikes, look bemused at the sheer number of people now flooding the streets around 6th. Austin is usually busy on a Thursday night with students from the University of Texas, but nowhere near the sheer volume that South by Southwest brings. Despite the downturn in the economy, this place is packed.

Round the corner, Stars Like Fleas are just getting started on the small stage at the Habana Bar. Shannon Fields, who also plays in ethereal Brooklyn alt-pop outfit The Silent League, is frustrated with the sound guy, who can't seem to get his act together, but after about 10 minutes, the 11-piece band are ready to go. There's a violin, harp, banjo, horn section, a big-bearded drummer and Fields – who holds the whole thing together, singing and playing guitar and keys. It begins with what sounds like a shambolic, drunken chorus, followed by a cacophony of sound. But Stars Like Fleas make a wonderful noise. It's not a concert – it's an event.

Music blogs had been tipping Obits as a buzz band of the festival. Although they formed only last year, front man Rick Froberg has been on the scene since the mid 1980s, in the bands Pitchfork, Drive Like Jehu, Hot Snakes and Last of the Juanitas. The place is packed, and although half the band look like accountants, they create a great blend of psychedelic rock.

An early slot in the Convention Center café on Friday didn't deter badgeholders who turned up to see Sweden's The Tallest Man on Earth – alter ego of singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson. Wielding an acoustic guitar, his songs are sensitive and eccentric. The online magazine Pitchfork said that Matsson managed to "embody Bob Dylan's effortlessness so well, infusing his songs with a detachment that is neither cold nor alienating."

I bump into Crispin Parry and Danny Ford of British Underground, the organisation that has promoted and hosted British acts at SXSW since 2002. They're raving about a few bands they've seen over the past couple of days: Denmark's Efterklang, whom they describe as "uplifting, experimental, electronic, melodic music not dissimilar to Arcade Fire"; New Hampshire's Wild Light, who, they say, have a sound that's "a bit Eighties"; Austin's Monahans, who play "blue-collar bar music really well"; Paper Route from Nashville ("Green Day meets Postal Service"); and LA heavy-metal band Steel Panther, who are "disgusting and awesome at the same time".

On Friday night, Brooklyn three-piece School of Seven Bells play. Flanked by keyboardist and guitarist twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, guitarist Ben Curtis flails around, often hunched over, stabbing at his guitar through a fantastic set. Faultless harmonies and ethereal, dreamy soundscapes take everyone to another place – if only for half an hour.

White Denim, on a little later on the same stage, are an Austin band and also have a considerable buzz about them. It is justified. They're a powerful force live, and singer/guitarist James Petralli looks a little like Jack White as his body moves spasmodically around the stage.

Other noticeable mentions include Bear Hands, a Brooklyn quartet who play their danceable indie tunes (in the vein of Modest Mouse) to a packed Mohawk Patio. And Australian rockers The Grates, who, although they don't have too many memorable songs, have a wonderful front-woman in currently blonde, perennially grinning Patience Hodgson.

My pick of the festival is slightly unconventional: Silverghost, a boyfriend/girlfriend Detroit act featuring Marcie Bolen (ex-Von Bondies) and Deleano Acevedo, aren't actually playing an official SXSW event at all. They were too late applying this year, but they came down to Austin regardless. With her flame-red hair and killer platforms, Bolen rocks out on her guitar while Acevedo produces a meaty sound on his Moog.

These tunes are brilliant and deserve to be heard by a lot more people. What's more, like a lot of people here this week, they look like they're having the time of their lives.

Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls


The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence