RENEE MONTAGE, host:

Austin, Texas, plays host this time every year to the South by Southwest Music Festival. For us, it's a chance to sample some new music. Listening in advance to all 1,300 bands performing there is a bit daunting. Luckily, our own Stephen Thompson has done it for us. He's an editor and writer for npr.org and joined us to talk about the highlights. Good morning.

STEPHEN THOMPSON: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: People probably have heard of the festival, but it's always worth asking, you know, why has it become such a mecca? Why is it such a big deal?

THOMPSON: The thing with South by Southwest is there's so much one-stop shopping there. You get to see bands on their way up. You get to see bands somewhat on their way down. You get to see a lot of different things in one place. Bands come to South by Southwest from all over the world, and sort of everything is in one giant buffet in front of you. And you really want to do justice to the experience. And so the weeks leading up to it are the time that I spent trying to hear every band that's playing there before I go.

MONTAGNE: And not all of them brilliant.

THOMPSON: And not all of them brilliant.

MONTAGNE: Why don't we start out by hearing something you've discovered that was really great.

THOMPSON: Well, I'll say the thing I'm probably most excited about seeing because it was just about the best thing I saw at South by Southwest last year - this year I know it will be one of the best things I'll see - it's a band called Shearwater.

Last year, I happened to see Shearwater when they were performing under a gentle rainfall, which should sort of be mandatory for this band. This band should tour with its own tiny little rain cloud. This year they're actually performing in a church, The Central Presbyterian Church in Austin. You know, I'm not a religious man. I'm sort of a lapsed agnostic, but I fully intend to have a religious experience at this show.

(Soundbite of song, "Hail Mary")

Mr. JONATHAN MEIBURG (Vocalist, Shearwater): (Singing) We lay like a wounded lamb facing a Billy goat. Bowed down in our heavy coats. Under the force and the threat of his eyes, we march in our rows and rows under a burning hand, past the scars of the wounded land.

THOMPSON: This is a song called "Hail Mary" from what I think is the best album of last year. It's actually getting reissued next month, so it'll be one of the best albums of this year, too.

MONTAGNE: Well that's a start on the religious experience, you know, a "Hail Mary" is an excellent start. What else do you have? Do you want to change pace here and...

THOMPSON: Yeah, let's go all the way to the other end of the spectrum. I just couldn't be more excited about the fact that Andrew W.K. is going be at South By Southwest this year. And Andrew W.K. is sort of, he's sort of a rock n' roll messiah figure sort of speaking for religious experiences, not that it's in any way religious music. But everything he writes is sort of a heart-swelling, over-the-top rock anthem.

(Soundbite of song, "Party Hard")

Mr. ANDREW W.K. (Musician): (Singing) Want to party, party people. Party hard.

MONTAGNE: Well everyone in our studio is hopping straight up and down, arms in the air.

THOMPSON: I would not want to know someone who wouldn't react that way to Andrew W.K.

(Soundbite of song, "Party Hard")

Mr. ANDREW W.K.: (Singing) You, you work all night. And when you're working this beat all night.

MONTAGNE: Getting out of the house, spilling coffee on yourself?

THOMPSON: Just try driving the speed limit while you're listening to that in your car.

MONTAGNE: Okay. Who else?

THOMPSON: One sort of newsworthy event that's taking down there is the reforming the Stax record label. In honor of its 50th anniversary, you know, Stax, a legendary soul label, put out records by Otis Redding and the Staple Singers and Booker T & the MG's and Isaac Hayes, and they're doing a show in honor of its 50th anniversary. Isaac Hayes is actually performing along with members of Booker T & the MG's. They're not only sort of doing a sort of nostalgia tour, but they're actually reforming the label. Isaac Hayes is going to be putting out new music, among others.

MONTAGNE: Boy, Isaac Hayes.

THOMPSON: Yeah, that's - I mean that's a really exciting show. And it's the kind of thing, I mean, I'm sure he'll tour after this, but a South by Southwest thing, you're going to get a one of a kind show there because it's an industry thing and because it's kicking off. That's one of those shows where you're going to want to be able to say I was there.

MONTAGNE: So this would be - seem to be one of the hot tickets for the festival.

THOMPSON: Yeah. There will definitely be long lines for that one. I mean, every year there are sort of two kinds of really hot shows in South by Southwest. There's like an incredibly newsworthy appearance by somebody, you know, this year, obviously you've got the Stax thing, The Stooges are reuniting.

But there are also sort of the up and comers, and one of those this year I think is going to be Amy Winehouse, who's very quickly becoming a big deal and with good reason. She's sort of a star in the making. Her persona is very unhinged. She sort of has the makings of kind of a notorious performer. Her signature song, "Rehab," is an unapologetic celebration of substance abuse.

(Soundbite of song, "Rehab")

Ms. AMY WINEHOUSE (Singer): (Singing) They're trying to make me go to rehab. I said no, no, no. Yes, I been black when I come back you'll know, know, know. I ain't got the time and if my Daddy thinks I'm fine. He's tried to make me go to rehab, I won't go, go, go.

THOMPSON: It's sort of a nice combination of old school soul sounds and new school debauchery.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's put it this way, talking about getting help.

THOMPSON: It's an amazing song. And I hope I get a chance to see her.

MONTAGNE: You got any ballads?

THOMPSON: Yeah. This is a song I just ran across digging through, you know, hundreds of random MP3s of performance playing South by Southwest, and this is one of my favorites. This is a singer from Portland, Oregon, named Laura Gibson. This song is "Hands in Pockets." It sort of qualifies as perky for her.

(Soundbite of song, "Hands in Pockets")

Ms. LAURA GIBSON (Singer): (Singing) Up with the sunrise, you'll be staring out through the window of the day. I'll be another waking shadow cast on the covers of your bed.

MONTAGNE: I like that there's a little like a layering - there's like a little echoey effect, like embroidery effect.

THOMPSON: Yeah, it's a very warm, very rich song, sort of could come from any number of eras, sort of harkening back to very early sound but it still feels new to me.

MONTAGNE: Well, Steven, enjoy yourself at the South by Southwest festival.

THOMPSON: I surely will. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song, "Hands in Pocket")

Ms. GIBSON: (Singer) Tell me you always go before me...

MONTAGNE: Steven Thompson is a music writer and editor for npr.org. You can experience dozens of live performances from the festival, and follow the NPR South by Southwest blog at npr.org/music.

(Soundbite of song, "Hands in Pocket")

Ms. GIBSON: (Singing) I can wait. I can wait.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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