On the final night of the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, last year, a young folk-rock trio from Denver took the makeshift stage at a church a few blocks away from the main action down on 6th Street. The church was about half full, providing enough room for the band members to run the aisles, stand on benches and play music from a debut album they had yet to release.
Attending that show meant missing out on more well-known entities such as Sleigh Bells, Norah Jones and Nas, but that baby band -- the Lumineers -- would go on to become one of the biggest acts in the U.S.
As sprawling as SXSW has become – last year boasted more than 2,200 acts across 104 stages – the festival continues to reward those who favor the unknown rather than those who chase the big names.
Doing so, however, continues to become more and more difficult, as SXSW is overrun these days with major brands and artists bent on promotion.
The headliners this year could appear at nearly any festival in the world. Among them: Green Day; Dave Grohl; the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; John Fogerty; the Flaming Lips; Paramore; Macklemore & Ryan Lewis; Tegan & Sara; the Eagles of Death Metal; and Vampire Weekend. And then there’s a not-so-secret show from Justin Timberlake, as well as a rumored gig from Prince and Bruno Mars.
Though more than 2,000 artists plan to perform at SXSW this year, one could spend the entire week seeing only acts with a national following. Whereas the just-completed film festival Sundance managed to avoid being overrun by the likes "Oz the Great and Powerful" and “Identity Thief,” SXSW is making no effort to get out of the way of the promotional freight trains of Timberlake, Grohl and Green Day.
So how to navigate a five-day music conference with approximately 10,000 registrants and thousands of acts? Pop & Hiss has picked out some of the notable storylines to follow below.
An early wake-up call from Nick Cave: Tuesday morning's conversation with Cave is more of a must-see than his set with longtime band the Bad Seeds the following night. Why? Few artists are as intimidating as Cave.
His boozy, bluesy musical narratives are the stuff of nightmares, frightening not for their fantastical nature but for their ability to capture the depravity, the mayhem and the wickedly-cold humor that is scarily lurking in all of us. “I ought to practice what I preach,” he sings on new album, “Push the Sky Away,” his voice projecting a blank-eyed stare, his tale an entangled mess of love, lust and wasted cash.
Equally as entertaining/enthralling: He has little patience for nonsense during an interview. Bored with a 2010 Entertainment Weekly journalist, Cave simply dismissed the writer. "The last three questions you could have … Googled, mate," Cave said. True, convention interviews with artists have a tendency to devolve into a living and breathing puff piece, but here's hoping Cave won’t let his time – and ours – be wasted with such predictability.
Are they ready for their close-up? Venturing into clubs at SXSW once meant walking into the complete unknown. The Internet has spoiled some of the surprise, but SXSW still provides a window into what's new out there and makes it more difficult for the Next Big Thing to hide behind a veil of buzz.
Among those to watch: Kitty Pryde, whose YouTube and Soundcloud clips of confessional and invitingly humorous bedroom raps won the young Floridian a nearly 1,000-word essay in the New York Times; the approachable, Midwestern hip-hop of Chance the Rapper; the throat-grabbing punk rock of London's Savages; the ambitiously trippy pop of San Diego's Youth Lagoon; the kinetic rap of Skrillex-approved local artist Sirah; and the warm synthetic soul of Denmark's Indians, among many, many others.
Can we care about Green Day again? When Green Day lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong was admitted to rehab it put a halt on the band’s ability to promote its trio of 2012 albums -- “Uno!,” “Dos!” and “Tre!” Personal drama aside, those albums are full of hard-to-forgive sins, among them the brain-dead Clash rip-off “Kill the DJ,” the immature song with an unprintable title about the best time to get it on and, perhaps most offensively, a heavily compressed, outdated production style that makes every instrument sound unnecessarily loud. Oh, there’s also the fact that Green Day had seemingly matured into one of the only socially-conscious major-label rock bands with the release of “American Idiot” and “21st Century Breakdown,” and is now suddenly living in its snotty past, only without the hooks of “Dookie.” This writer’s advice? Skip this Friday show.
SXSW does the 'Harlem Shake': SXSW has a reputation as a rock 'n' roll playground, but over the years, the festival has played host to non-guitar based acts like LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A., Kid Cudi, Kid Sister, Theophilus London, Odd Future, Kendrick Lamar the xx and plenty, plenty more. This year, the biggest artist heading to Austin is not, arguably, Green Day or Dave Grohl. It’s Baauer. Not yet a household name, you say? That’s because Brooklyn-based Baauer, despite having the No. 1 single in America, an ubiquitous Internet meme and an upcoming gig at the Coachella Valley Music &; Arts Festival, has kept a relatively low media profile.
Baauer has three official showcases and a bevy of appearances at parties. His "Harlem Shake," a wacky mash-up of hip-hop and dance samples, as well as some animal roars thrown in for good measure, is 2013’s first undisputed hit, having now enjoyed three weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. He’ll close a Wednesday night set at Austin club La Zona Rosa, headlining a bill of dance and hip-hop.Bruce Springsteen entertained by putting himself in the role of the fan, telling stories about his own obsessions and tracing the genesis of some of his songs back to their root. It wasn’t, however, one that touched on any hot-button issues – revenue streaming, high ticket prices, etc.
Grohl, here with a documentary in “Sound City” to promote, likely won’t stray too far from the Springsteen model in his Thursday keynote. Grohl is one of rock’s most affable personalities, and always has been capable of keeping listeners entertained with his stories, even when their point isn’t always clear (see his 2012 Grammy comments in which Grohl chided those who rely heavily on digital recording equipment).
If “Sound City” has a thesis, it's that the most important aspect to making a record is the so-called “human” element. It's steeped in a nostalgic appreciation of old-fashioned recording studios and their vintage equipment. “Sound City” is the Van Nuys recording house where Grohl’s previous band Nirvana recorded “Nevermind,” and the likes of Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty and Neil Young also did some studio time.