South By Southwest (SXSW), or “South By” to many, is a 2 week-long festival encompassing technology, film and music that takes place in Austin, TX. It began in 1987, with a mere 700 registrants. This year, estimates are that 25,000 registered for the conference, but thousands extras showed up to take in the festival’s many charms.
Around 2,000 bands descend upon Austin and spread out to play in just about any space that can be considered suitable for a music venue: bars, garages, gas stations, hotel lobbies, pop-up tents, open fields, parking decks-- even churches. It’s mayhem for about a week, and depending on the weather it can be a hot and humid affair. Thankfully, many showcases offer free drinks to those who attend, so depending on your preferences, it can also be a fairly inebriated week. And you have to be careful, because just like the old adage about alcohol making everything seem sexier, it often obscures the downsides of many bands-- a sort of beer-driven rose-colored glasses. But, that’s again the charm of the festival-- it’s about enjoying mingling with music fans and industry folks alike and taking in some of the greatest new sounds coming from up-and-coming bands in America.
Many lament the recent explosion in size, though, and the fact that many huge name acts, like Eminem, Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z, are now playing shows that draw insane crowds in an attempt to regain that youthful trendiness that maybe they’ve partially lost in their lengthy careers. So, Jay-Z playing a show at the Moody Theatre/ACL Taping spot brings enormous audiences who then miss the point of seeing a band like Youth Lagoon, who are incredibly talented in their own right and deserve plenty of new eyes and ears. And for music industry professionals, it can be a bit of a headache dealing with the crowds, which then make it tough to check out a lot of new acts. But, it appears that this trend is not going to change anytime soon, and that audiences will only continue to grow. There have even been rumors that SXSW is going to potentially spread to San Antonio, TX as well.
But still, it’s an amazing week of music and mingling, and Austin is an excellent backdrop for just about any type of conviviality. If Bonnaroo, Coachella or Sasquatch isn’t your sort of thing, SXSW is definitely worth checking out.
This year, we sent Associate Editor Peter Zimmerman (@peterzimmerman) and Staff Photographer Joan Bowlen (@JoniBow) to cover the festival for Glide Magazine. Here are some of their highlights and memories from the week. And if you missed any of our photo galleries chronicling the festival, check them out here: Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
GLIDE’S TOP 5 SHOWS FROM SXSW 2012
CHAIRLIFT @ EventBrite Showcase, 03/14/2012 An unexpected win, as Chairlift’s set came in mid-afternoon and wasn’t housed in a major venue, like Stubb’s or Mohawk. Even so, the band brought every ounce of energy they had to the performance, and the crowd responded back in kind. Chairlift’s new album Something is already a contender for 2012’s best, but the songs sound even better live, as the synths and keyboards have space to wail and slide, the bass fattens and the drums are even more percussive, and then frontwoman Caroline Polacheck can be as seductive and engaging as ever. Songs like “I Belong In Your Arms,” “Sidewalk Safari” and “Amanaemonesia” were especially brilliant.
SANTIGOLD @ SPIN Live, 03/16/2012 Back-up dancers, pom poms, costume changes, people dressed up as a horse! All of this and more came alive on stage when Santi White (stage name Santigold) closed the SPIN Live showcase on Friday. Best Coast, who played before Santigold, had alienated a lot of the crowd and caused a bit of a stir from a spat had with an audience member who requested Bethany & Co. only play their hits... aka “Boyfriend.” But, the moment Santi appeared on stage, all of that indignation melted and the audience erupted in excited cheering. Even though Santi and her band only played for fifty minutes, there wasn’t a lull during any moment, and thankfully the new material blended in nicely with her huge hit singles “L.E.S. Artistes,” “Creator” and “Lights Out.”
TANLINES @ ND Austin, 03/16/2012 This experimental electro/indie band from Brooklyn just released their new album Mixed Emotions, so their slew of shows at SXSW all served to produce hype for that release and get fans excited to pick up the record. The duo, comprised of guitar/vocalist Eric Emm and multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Jesse Cohen, has a winsome live act, with a nice balance between witty banter and heartfelt performances. They may be young as a band, but the songs are fully developed, weighty and masterfully executed. They wear a lot of hats with each of their tracks, but it never feels frenetic or amateur. The lead single for Mixed Emotions, “All of Me,” got especially vociferous applause, but really the entirety of their set was wonderfully gripping.
ALABAMA SHAKES @ Hype Hotel, 03/15/2012 An inordinate amount of attention was (and continues to be) paid to whether up-and-coming band Alabama Shakes is worth of the hype; however, the majority of SXSW attendees lost interest in this sort of philosophical pondering the moment the band hit the many stages they played throughout the week. There’s an electricity and thrilling dynamic to the Alabama Shakes’ live show, which comes a lot from the brooding, soulful front-woman Brittany Howard. The band may be young, but they’ve got the musical chops and the neo-soul/blues sound that pulls on the best of their influences while injecting their own style as well. It’ll be interesting to see how the band builds their career beyond their debut, but as it stands they’re a wildly enjoyable live act, and one that really must be seen to believe.
GOSSIP @ Maggie Mae’s Rooftop, 03/15/2012 Beth Ditto is one of those singers that really is a “must-see-to-believe” type, but in a wholly positive way. She brings a delightfully wicked, Southern drawl-laden mischief to Gossip’s live performances, and truly rises to the challenge of being a performer and musician at the same time. Thankfully, she’s backed by a talented band who, while quite taciturn, give 110%. New songs “Perfect World,” “Melody Emergency” and “Get A Job” were particularly enjoyable, with the latter being cut short due to curfew, where the venue turned off Ditto’s mic, but she kept singing a cappella until being forced to end the show by an oddly aggressive security team. Even so, the 1AM show hit all the Gossip bases: amazing dance music, deep grooves, humor, audience participation, short covers of classic songs mixed into their own work and Beth Ditto stripping. Definitely the best way for the band to kick off their new album promotion cycle.
5 (NEW) ACTS TO WATCH
GEOGRAPHER This San Francisco-based electro/pop trio not only recorded one of the most infectious and intriguing albums of 2012, but they’re also an excellent live band. Whether they’re playing fully plugged in or acoustic (like we saw them at the Quantum Collective/Mashpot/Thrillcall house party), they deliver a magnificent show.
MICHAEL KIWANUKA British soul musician Michael Kiwanuka has already met considerable acclaim across the pond, having won the BBC’s Sound of 2012 award, thereby joining previous winners Adele, Jessie J, Ellie Goulding, etc. His style evokes Bill Withers and Otis Redding, but he puts his own distinctive spin on hushed, intimate, guitar-driven folk music.
ESCORT This contemporary disco band that hails from Brooklyn, NY is utter out of control when on stage. They’re a 17-piece disco “orchestra” that plays music that still sounds fresh and cutting-edge, with the flourishes of 1970’s R&B. Though, if you have no interest in dancing or singing along, they might not be the best match.
JOHN FULLBRIGHT Fullbright’s roots are in Okemah, OK, which is better known as the birthplace of Woody Guthrie. While only 23 years old, Fullbright is about to release a debut studio record, From The Ground Up, which features songwriting of a depth and spirit that few of his contemporaries share.
BLEACHED This scorching, powerful sister duo punk/pop band from Los Angeles, CA played thirteen shows during their week at SXSW, each one captivating new audiences with their boundless energy and delightfully angular harmonies. While they have three 7” singles under their belt, look for their debut full-length soon, which is sure to be full of irresistible and hard-rocking songs that pack a punch and then move on, probably in the span of just two minutes and thirty seconds.