Last week may have marked the silver anniversary of the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference in Austin, Texas, but it was my first time attending. Looking back on the experience, I'm mystified by the apparent absence of a unifying narrative or clear, inarguable breakout star. I'd been led to believe that SXSW is a nexus where the music industry's major players and bottom-feeders alike conspire to collectively discover "the next big thing." Maybe I wasn't listening in on the proper grapevines, but it seems to me that the two artists to depart with a flurry of hype at their heels - minimalist dubstep composer James Blake and LA aggro-rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All - were the same ones that entered the conference with the most hype.
To try and make sense of my SXSW experience would be a fairly quixotic exercise - it was five non-stop days of music (I saw somewhere around 60 or 70 bands), oversized crowds, blazing sun and brutish wind. It was also an absolute blast.
Regardless, here are my highlights, lowlights and other observations.
I missed every single performance by Olympia band Christmas, despite my fervent curiosity at how their worldly, energetic rock would be received. Ditto for Ringo Deathstarr, the Austin-based shoegaze band that first stole my heart three years ago, when I saw them perform at Emo's and promptly invited them to guest on my radio show in Seattle. Both bands have new records out, and come highly recommended. Naturally, it also would have been great to somehow experience that last-minute 3 a.m. Kanye West concert at the Seaholm Power Plant (a couple of the dudes from Christmas made it in, and they made it sound epic).
On a whim, I followed some colleagues to a bar called Copa for a set by Columbian jammers Herencia de Timbiqui. The 11-member world music group completely blew me away, and made a huge impression on the crowd, despite it having only been their second-ever performance on American soil. Expect to hear a lot more about this band in the future via more nominally conservative (read: older and less drug-addled) channels of music reportage.
I also greatly enjoyed the hour-long respite from SXSW proper that I took last Thursday, absconding to a DIY house show one-and-half miles northeast of downtown Austin's sensory overload. I caught a set by local punks Creamers (but missed out on Oly band Weird TV and Monterrey rockers Ratas Del Vaticano), and scored a phenomenal compilation of Chinese underground recordings.
On my last night in town, I witnessed an unbelievable performance by New Orleans rapper/dancer/sex symbol Vockah Redu at Emo's. Redu, backed by his "Cru" of sassy, jeggings-clad male dancers, brought Louisiana bounce to SXSW's home stretch, whipping the crowd up into a booty-shaking frenzy with his don't-try-this-at-home dance maneuvers and aggressive (if uplifting) dancehall scatting. It was maybe the best concert I saw all week, and also the last.
Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All were one of the most hyped artists at SXSW this year, and I'm told their sets at the Fader Fort and elsewhere were filled with the kind of in-your-face awesomeness the group has been building a rep on. I made the "mistake" of seeing them at the Billboard magazine showcase, where OFWGKTA shocked the crowd of diehard fans and industry bigwigs by quitting after only three songs. To their credit, the sound was awful at the venue, and no one seemed in danger of breaking an arm or nose, much to the disgust of charismatically controversial frontman Tyler the Creator.
Violence unfolded elsewhere at the festival (notably at Death From Above 1979's surprise concert Saturday night), but the only brutality I experienced was the near-constant beating that my eardrums received. Maybe I'm a sadist, but I loved every minute of it.
The sunburn, however, I could have done without.