Every March, a city in the heart of Texas becomes the place to go if you want to see the music business in action.
Austin is already the self-appointed live music capital of the world, thanks to its ample supply of live venues, but the annual South By Southwest (SXSW) festival and conference takes this to another level. In fact, it takes the existing _infrastructure and adds a couple of hundred other stages by pressing car parks, empty retail spaces and backyards into use as pop-up venues.
More than 2,000 bands head to Austin every year in search of all kinds of everything. At the top of the food pyramid, you have blockbuster and established acts such as Prince, Justin Timberlake, Nick Cave, Vampire Weekend, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and many more playing shows which usually grab all the headlines.
They’re here, in many cases, to pick up fat cheques from brands and sponsors for their troubles, as well as to draw attention to an upcoming release or tour.
Then, there are the buzz bands. These are new acts with agents, managers, lawyers and publicrelations gurus helping them to do the heavy lifting and ensure there is an audience for their shows. Many of these acts are the ones you can predict in advance will make a splash in Austin and feature in the post-event dispatches.
And that leaves the rest. The wild, the innocent, the dreamers and the deluded, the acts who are here as much in hope as in expectation, make up the bulk of the acts who come to the Lone Star state for the week.
They hope to strike it lucky, to make a connection with an audience, an agent, a manager or anyone else who will help them get up a rung or two – or even just get onto – the ladder. They come to Texas with a dream, eat a lot of tacos and go home as SXSW veterans. Many will come back next year and the year after, while many others will never set foot on Sixth Street again.
It’s actually interesting to note how many repeat visitors from 2011 and 2012 were in Austin last week, proof that you can’t become an overnight sensation in the music business without first putting in years of hard work . Increasingly, it takes time to make an impact and, for bands who do want to make a splash, that means coming back to events such as SXSW again and again – and again.
Beyoncé is not the only Knowles family member with a busy year ahead of her. Solange played a few shows at SXSW and wowed every time with her giddy and infectious tunes, superb footwork and sunny disposition. Losing You may be the shiniest jewel in the crown right now, but there are plenty of other promising gems in there too.
IVAN & ALYOSHA
From Seattle, Ivan & Alyosha had been at SXSW before, but came back with a fine album (All the Times We Had) and a much stronger live show. What are in their favour now are their superbly catchy, soaring, infectious folk-rock songs, which chime neatly with the mood of the times.
Not the out-of-sorts Chelsea striker, but a band from Nashville, led by MacKenzie Scott, pushing their spellbinding blues . Scott's songs will remind you of a host of people who have stepped this way before – from Cat Power to PJ Harvey to Karen Dalton – but the delivery is strikingly individual and the songs deeply emotional.
The Michigan-born, Austin-based performer comes with many strong calling cards. She already has a fine set of songs to her name (see new album Leelanau), but that beguiling voice, masterful orchestral-folk arrangements and delicate, detailed live sound are also worth mentioning. An act capable of building a significant fanbase in time.
The freshest hip-hop crew we came across at SXSW were from Edinburgh. The Fathers made a splash last year with the Tape One mix-tape (which brought Anticon into the fold), but their energetic live show and majestically idiosyncratic mix of sounds and influences should bring them to a much wider audience.
It was a good year for Los Angeles acts with strong showings for The Neighbourhood, Wildcat Wildcat and NO (one of our 2012 picks). Sir Sly also made an impact with their moody pop swing, swaying harmonies and a poise which will probably see them playing very big rooms before very long. Ghost is their killer tune for now.
More Los Angeles pop. Papa have the live show shizzle down to a T. Led by one-time Girls' drummer Darren Weiss, Papa are all about throwing an exuberant, soulful dance party full of anthemic twirls and big, gleeful pop turns. Tracks from their A Good Woman Is Hard To Find EP got the best reaction.
Io Echo 's Leopold Ross and Ioanna Gika have some heavyweight champions, going on supports for The Drums, Florence & The Machine, Nine Inch Nails, Bloc Party and others, as well as some fabulous fashionista love. Live, their dark, intense and magnetic sound touches all the right bases, from dream-pop to grunge and from shoegaze to goth.
While frontman Keegan DeWitt may be
best known for his film score work, Wild Cub have a much more dancefloor-orientated sound. There's an infectious exuberance to this Nashville band's live show and their electropop has shades of Delphic, Hot Chip and classic Talking Heads. However, it's the details and textures underpinning the songs that really make you pay attention.
While a lot of folks were going nuts for Iggy Pop and The Stooges playing across town, Chicago kids The Orwells were throwing cocky new shapes on that vintage sound with some aplomb. Their buzzy, sleazy, wild tunes have the Stooges in their DNA, but the band have a large dollop of pop and blues too. An arresting live show full of ferocious earworms and hooks.
AUTRE NE VEUT
Every indie chancer with a Sade album may be twisting r'n'b into new, unexpected shapes at the moment, but Arthur Ashin was at this game before it was popular or profitable. He and his band's live show is a blast, a feast of reach-for-the-sky, avant-garde power ballads and gleeful pop remnants. Check
the album Anxiety for more.
What's so fascinating about the Tampa Bay, Florida act is their potential. Where will they go next? Their punk rock roots are still showing but, as evidenced by the new songs that dominate their SXSW sets (especially Total Night), they're also adding more diverse shades, from jazz to post-punk to psych, to the mix. A band to trust with your emotions.
There's an intensity to Metz when they are playing a few feet in front of you that is not quite matched by their Sub Pop! debut from last year. The Toronto trio's live rep is well earned, the band producing a raging, aggressive, taut set that reminds you how vital this sound can be when played with such passion.
There are some sounds that will always get a crowd on the good foot and this New York combo, led by Sunny Jain, have sussed that dhol'n'brass will also work. A party band built along similar lines to the Hot 8 Brass Band or Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Red Baraat's funky, brassy bhangra-pop is high in energy and rousing moments. redbaraat.com
Aussie kids San Cisco are such seasoned live veterans that they keep their best moment, Awkward, to the end. That said, Awkward has some competition as the rest of their set also contains some classic grooves, emotional hooks and melodic smashers such as Nepal and Toast.There may be nothing groundbreaking about San Cisco, but there's a charm and class here that auger well for the future.
Those who've seen Khalif Diouf 's video for Wut know the rapper can preen, pose, vogue and look good in a pair of hot pants, but what about the live show? Le1f delivered by keeping it sweet and streamlined, throwing out the bangers such as Coin and Wut and, well, posing, voguing and looking good in hot pants. Along with fellow New York new-school queer-rap kingpin Mykki Blanco, Le1f was evidence of another type of hip-hop at large in Texas.
The brothers are going to work it out. Guy and Howard Lawrence are responsible for the tune of the year so far in White Noise and, while it lacked AlunaGeorge's Aluna Francis 's vocals in Texas, it's still an instant mood-setter. The rest of the set is equally spry, with a winning run of sure-footed, atmospheric, euphoric, sleek-house grooves.
While Mo is the Danish act who will
feature heavily in the post-SXSW reports
(as she did after Eurosonic in January),
The Ticket was more taken with her fellow countrywoman Fallulah on this occasion. Former ballerina Maria Apetri is well known at home, but is sure to make waves elsewhere with strong, vibrant and distinctive pop shapes such as Out Of It. Naturally, she's one hell of a mover.
Hands up who wants a new Illmatic. New York teen Joey Bada$$ harkens back to the halcyon days of the Big Apple 's hip-hop hustle. He's a writer with an observant eye for detail and nuance and, as we've seen with his 1999 mixtape, an ear for those old-school, street-smart sounds and vibes. Naturally, as befits any new rapper on the make, he already has a very large entourage.
Prediction: Angel Haze's forthcoming
album will be one of the year's best.
Going on this sussed, confident performance at the Austin Music Hall, the New York-based rapper is ready for her close-up. A track called Inside Out was one of the highlights, a strong, emotional, buoyant anthem-in-the-making.