Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes won over the crowd at Stubbs — as well as NPR Music's crew — during the band's set at SXSW in Austin, Texas.
Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes won over the crowd at Stubbs — as well as NPR Music's crew — during the band's set at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
For the NPR Music crew in Austin, Texas, Wednesday night was the official launch of South By Southwest 2012. But it wasn't really the start: SXSW has grown so much that Tuesday night acts as a warmup lap for the big event.
Once Wednesday hits, though, there's no turning back. Our official showcase, from Stubb's BBQ, featured performances by Andrew Bird, Alabama Shakes, Dan Deacon, Sharon Van Etten and Fiona Apple. (Check out our main SXSW page for links to all the concerts and more coverage).
Months of planning went into putting on the show at Stubb's and streaming it live (you can listen to audio from those sets as we post it through the rest of the week). But then again, everything about SXSW involves planning — even if you're not hosting a showcase, there are hundreds of musicians playing every day to choose between — but also a willingness to let those plans evaporate for the sake of fate or discovery or serendipity.
Or just because you need some sleep. Things can go awry — Robin Hilton, at his first SXSW since becoming a new dad, crashed on Tuesday night and slept through a handful of shows he'd been excited to catch. And Ann Powers, who co-hosted NPR Music's official showcase last night at Stubb's with Bob Boilen (more about that show in just a minute), came down with a nasty cold and turned in before Bob and Robin met up with Stephen Thompson at 2:00 a.m. to discuss the best music they had seen so far.
Early highlights included sets by discoveries like the Taiwanese band Silverbus, which drew many NPR staffers, but also, as Stephen put it, "spiritual obligations" like Shearwater singer Jonathan Meiburg. Even Bob broke his rule about only seeing acts at SXSW he's never seen before to make room for Caveman, who made one of his favorite albums of 2011.
Themes were established over the first day and a half in Austin. Bands came from Greenland and Germany as well as Taiwan. Many acts featured multiple drummers, including Caveman, Typhoon, Polica (which will appear at our day party this afternoon) and Dan Deacon, who turned the pit at NPR Music's showcase into a interpretive dance party on two separate occasions.
Deacon's set impressed everyone. "I liked the way that catastrophe was kind of wired into his sound. So you didn't know if these crazy kind of collage-y bundles of sound were just going to suddenly fly off into chaos and noise," Stephen said.
Bob put it more succinctly: "He's my hero."
Robin still loves Sharon Van Etten: "She just seems like a force, where just two years ago we were seeing her at the church up here and she was just a shy little singer."
If not for her cold, Ann would have likely picked Alabama Shakes, led by singer Brittany Howard, as her favorite of the night. The Shakes, anchored by a drummer Bob calls "killer," will put out its debut album next month.
Andrew Bird, the night's headliner and closing act, played songs from his brand new album, Break It Yourself. Live, Bird's skill is hard to miss. Of the show, Robin said, "As a musician I watch him and see him as an artist and I cannot help but think about how unbelievably difficult it is for him to do what he does, and he does it so effortlessly."
The biggest buzz of the night came from Fiona Apple's first show outside of Los Angeles in five years. A new album is on the way, and she played three songs from it, along with hits from earlier phases of her career.
It was a welcome return: "Her voice was so strong," Bob said. "I had goosebumps watching her," Robin said. "The report from backstage was that before going on she was pacing back and forth like a caged animal, and then when she took the stage it was like she was shot out of a cannon."
We can only hope that momentum carries through the rest of the week: This afternoon, we'll webcast Bruce Springsteen's keynote address at 1:00 p.m. ET. Immediately following that, we'll bring you live streaming audio and video from our day party at the Parish, including sets by La Vida Boheme, Sugar Tongue Slim, Polica, Lower Dens and The Magnetic Fields.