Every March, tens of thousands of music fans converge on Austin, Texas, to attend South by Southwest — a four-day music marathon in which dozens of clubs showcase more than 1,300 acts in a wide variety of genres. Part industry trade show, part fan feast, SXSW provides one-stop shopping for those looking for music discovery.
In anticipation of SXSW, which runs through Saturday, NPR music producer Stephen Thompson offers these recommendations.
Shearwater's music is best heard amid bleak conditions: It should tour under its own little rain cloud. At SXSW, the band — appearing in support of last year's Palo Santo, which gets reissued next month — does the next best thing, making stately and sublime music in the pristine confines of Austin's Central Presbyterian Church on Thursday night.
Andrew W.K. is a rock 'n' roll messiah figure, an inspirational purveyor of heart-swelling, hedonistic, overdriven party anthems. The occasional MTV personality never quite became the star here that many anticipated — I Get Wet attracted widespread media attention in 2001 — but he's soldiered on, releasing Close Calls with Brick Walls overseas late last year. His ongoing attempt to win over American hearts and minds continues at SXSW.
In honor of the label's 50th anniversary, Stax Records — one-time home of Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers and Booker T & the M.G.'s, among others — is back in business. In addition to repurposing classic material, Stax will release new albums by Hayes, soul singer Angie Stone and more. At SXSW, the reincarnated label gets under way with a newsworthy performance by some of Stax's all-stars, including Hayes and members of Booker T & the M.G.'s.
One of the festival's most talked-about up-and-comers, Amy Winehouse has grabbed headlines for her unhinged persona and deft mixture of old-school soul and debaucherous subject matter. An unapologetic celebration of substance abuse, "Rehab" is Winehouse's breakout hit, and she looks to build on that song's momentum at SXSW.
A real find from the festival's less-hyped margins, Laura Gibson sounds a bit like Jolie Holland, another winsome folksinger with an ear for barren, timeless music. "Hands in Pockets" is downright perky compared to some of Gibson's If You Come to Greet Me, but the song, the album and the singer all radiate approachability and warmth.