Why SXSW is a voyage of discovery

Bruce Springsteen, Fiona Apple, barbecue – who needs them? Not Gillian Orr, who went off-piste in search of new acts to get excited about at the biggest and best music festival in America

"Rumble, young musicians, rumble. Open your ears, open your hearts. Don't take yourself too seriously and take yourself as seriously as death itself." That was Bruce Springsteen's advice to budding artists, made during his keynote speech at the South by Southwest (or SXSW) music festival and conference in Austin, Texas, last week. In an amusing and expletive-laden hour-long address, the Boss paid tribute to his heroes, insisted on the need to continually redefine popular music, and even led the crowd in a singalong of Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land". He followed it up with an epic two-and-a-half-hour show at the Moody Theatre that evening.

Not that I actually made it to either of these momentous events, despite being in Austin for the festival. That's the thing about SXSW – you only get to see a tiny fraction of everything on offer. Due to small venues, a first-come-first-served queuing system and a packed schedule that sees more than 2,000 acts play around 100 sites all over the city for five days, it's crucial to be careful with your time. And, for me at least, queuing for hours to see a speech that was being streamed online wasn't worth the bother. I saw Springsteen headline Glastonbury three years ago so I figured it was better to get out and see some of the exciting young hopefuls that he had rally cried in his speech instead.

While SXSW boasts some big names such as Springsteen (Jack White, Nas, The Shins and Lil Wayne also played), it is better known as a showcase for new talent, all hoping for a deal or, if already signed, to get the right sort of exposure. The festival can make or break an act. Artists usually play several shows over the course of the festival and if they impress enough, they'll come away hotter than the relentless Texas sun. Few had heard of the LA hip-hop collective Odd Future until they hit last year's SXSW and demanded everyone's attention with their raucous on-stage behaviour. They didn't leave merely as the talk of Austin, but the entire music industry. White Stripes did the same thing 10 years earlier. Brooklyn's White Rabbits, who I caught playing a superb set at Club DeVille, told me that they were picked up by their present label after they set alight SXSW in 2008.

It can be overwhelming at first; musical curiosities and food trucks line the chaotic streets; A&Rs, managers and journalists rush between shows, while those just looking for a good time sip on margaritas in crowded bars. It might be predominantly an industry event, but there is little to separate it from regular music festivals, other than it taking place across a city rather than a field. The order of the day still seems to be fun first, business second.

Canadian electro artist Grimes and Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky are both already magazine cover stars but fresh enough to ensure they were the two acts everybody wanted to see. I caught Grimes play a pretty shambolic (yet somehow still mesmerising) roof-top gig but missed out on A$AP's shows (the last of which apparently erupted into a huge brawl). Wild Belle, a brother-sister duo from Chicago, performed a seductive set in a grungy nightclub called Antone's. An unsigned band who self-released their only single to date, "Keep You", they were beset by label heads when they came offstage. One told me that he was desperate to sign them. "You have to woo them," he said wearily. "A lot like a lover."

Another female-fronted buzz band of the week was Alabama Shakes, whose singer Brittany Howard stomped and hollered around the stage. They release their debut album Boys and Girls in April, and their all-conquering performances at SXSW should ensure it doesn't go unnoticed.

Pond, a band from Perth that includes some members of Tame Impala, were also getting a lot of the right attention. Despite NME proclaiming their latest album, Beards, Wives, Denim, to be "quite possibly the best album released so far this year", few others took notice when it came out a couple of weeks ago. But their increasingly packed, explosive and fun shows at SXSW should get people talking about the psychedelic rock band.

I also caught great sets from more well-known acts pushing their second albums, such as Best Coast, Spank Rock, The Drums, Girls and Chairlift. But the best moments are the ones you stumble on unexpectedly. I found Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello playing in the street to a tiny crowd while I was trying to find a cab at 3am. A friend was tipped off about Diamond Rugs, a band we'd never heard of, but we made the trip to Auditorium Shores for it. Comprising members of Deer Tick and Black Lips (among others), their humorous, sleazy blues-rock, with song titles such as "Hungover and Horny", was possibly my favourite show of the festival.

Long time SXSW-goers complained about the saturation of brand sponsorship. It did seem like just about every fizzy drink, clothing company and fast-food outlet had some sort of presence there, the most intrusive of which was a 56ft pop-up venue made to look like a Doritos vending machine in the centre of town. At one point, two competing planes carrying advertising banners almost collided in the air.

Still, even the relentless marketing couldn't take away from the astonishing atmosphere there. Unfortunately, I'll probably always regret not having the patience to queue for the long-awaited return of Fiona Apple, which had people dizzy with excitement. That and coming away from Austin without having sampled any of the famous local BBQ. I played it all wrong.

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering