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.
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