Highlights from SXSW, a Texas-Sized Music Fest

Austin just wrapped up a week-long stint as host to the annual gathering of music, conferences and barbecue known as South By Southwest. NPR Arts reporter Neda Ulaby gives the lowdown.

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So, Austin, Texas, just wrapped up a week-long stint as host of South By Southwest. My, how it's grown from the crunchy musical festival that started 21 years ago into something with hundreds of bands. Now there's film and don't forget that interactive media. Full-team NPR coverage has included critics' reviews, perspective from a musician-turned-NPR-blogger, all the lowdown on the Twitter crowd from South by Southwest Interactive, and, of course, plenty of live music. NPR arts reporter Neda Ulaby was there to take it all in.

(Soundbite of crowd)

NEDA ULABY: There are 1500 bands here in Austin, probably more, and they're playing in dozens of clubs all over downtown. And you know something? They all run together after awhile.

Do you know who we're seeing?

Unidentified Man: I have no idea who we're seeing right now. I wish I could tell you. But they look like they're pretty good. Maybe.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: OK. Some bands are total stand-outs. I'm at a bar downtown right now called Stubb's, and I'm meeting rock critic Ann Powers, a personal hero of mine. She writes for the LA Times, she used to work for the New York Times, and she's turning me on to an act called Santogold.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: I love them. (Unintelligible)

Ms. ANN POWERS (Rock Critic, LA Times): Are we on tape?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Yeah, do you mind that I tape you?

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. POWERS: Well, I think that Santogold is going to be the talk of the festival. I wish there were a few more people here, but her new record that's going to come out this year - or soon, pretty soon, people are calling it a combination of M.I.A. and Karen O, but that doesn't really do justice to her own thing. Plus, if you could see the background dancers with their white sunglasses and their kind of, you know, Robert Palmer girl meets Jump Rope Ring thing, it's pretty cool.

ULABY: At this point, I just have to say that Ann Powers is wearing a red dress, and she's jumping up and down while taking notes. One of her favorite moments this year was seeing a collective of independent musicians, most of them really well-known, who performed together under the name Body of War.

Ms. POWERS: Phil Donahue was moshing in the pit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Stop that.

Ms. POWERS: I'm not even kidding. I'm not even kidding.

ULABY: As for me, I enjoyed She & Him. That's more famous people singing together. One, this actress, Zooey Deschanel, and she is performing with musician M. Ward. I am suspicious of singing actresses, but she is totally charming.

(Soundbite of song "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?")

Ms. ZOOEY DESCHANEL and Mr. M. WARD: (Singing) Why do you let me stay here? All by myself. Why don't you come and play here? I'm just sitting on the shelf.

ULABY: OK, finally, Liam Finn is New Zealand folk rock royalty, if you can imagine such a thing. His dad helps start the band Crowded House, and he's known for doing things like shucking off his guitars and leaping from instrument to instrument with wild abandon. So he's on stage with one other musician. After performing two absolutely lovely songs, they decide to do something completely weird.

Mr. LIAM FINN (Musician): So for about three minutes - we do a quick song, which we just have a three minute psychedelic, tribal jam. Yeah, right, tribal chant. Tribal chant.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: That was a postcard report from NPR's Neda Ulaby on the streets of Austin, Texas. One final nugget of South By Southwest. If you're feeling the need to reminisce, you can check out the BPP's coverage at npr.org/bryantpark. You get to hear a ton of live bands, from R.E.M. to My Morning Jacket. It's all at npr.org/music or our site and we'll link you on through.

(Soundbite of music)

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