Unlike any other festival, South by Southwest is unique to everyone who attends. And I love that about this festival. With over 2,200 bands spread out over 100 venues and five days of music, everyone sees something different and walks away with different joys and discoveries. You could go to a Brooklyn Vegan showcase and spend the whole day in one place. You could search out only Latino bands, or metal bands, hip hop or blues. In fact, when the All Songs crew gathers to record our late night dispatches on the streets of Austin, Texas, we all share completely different joys.
Personally, I tend to graze, to show hop all day. I saw 80 bands during this week, a bit more than the 66 I saw last year. Frankly, most were pretty good (some of that is due to my methodical, maybe over-the-top planning, which includes listening to 1,500 plus songs and rating each one), though not every good show was transporting and not every transporting moment at SXSW happens when someone's playing music, as you'll see below. Here are my top moments of SXSW 2013 in chronological order, because ranking old favorites with new discoveries and listening to lectures and interviews seemed nuts. (You can see some of what's listed below — and lots more — at our SXSW hub, and listen to a playlist of songs by Bob's favorite SXSW bands at Spotify.)
Guards @ Empire Control Room
As much as I had planned out my week at SXSW, random stuff happens. I'm thrilled by that. A little after I arrived on Tuesday night, I had some time to kill after a show at Red 7, so I walked across the street to the Empire Control Room, toward the sound of good, strong, guitar-laden pop. I didn't know what it was but I loved what I was hearing. Then I realized I knew the tune and the band, Guards. I've liked them before, but on this night they had a power and confidence I'd not heard in them before. Oh, and I remarked to someone that they remind me of Cults. Not just the group's visual appearance — a band of long black hair – but the sound as well: the guitar sound, the pacing, the hints of darkness. It turns out that singer Richie Follin is the brother of Cults singer Madeline Follin.
Lucius @ The Side Car
Lucius plays at the Side Car during SXSW 2013.
I'd already loved Lucius before coming to Austin, but sometimes it's fun to text a few friends and share the love. Well, I found a number of friends and All Songs Considered fans at The Side Bar and I loved the moment when the faces of my friends lit up one by one as this band played. Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig are such a totally winning vocal duo. They sing like sisters, making two voices sound as one. Such a fabulous band playing such infectious pop songs. If they hadn't signed with a label before they came to SXSW, I trust it's a matter of weeks before they do.
Savages @ The Main
This is music stripped down to its essence: no drum fills, guitar solos or long held notes. This is music inspired by 1977 and post punk bands such as Gang of Four and Siouxsie and the Banshees that feels fresh and vital. The four woman in Savages pour their hearts and muscle into each note and every smack of the drum. They're also about the most stunning, charismatic people to watch. I'd spend time just watching drummer Fay Milton, then guitarist Gemma Thompson; when I focused on singer Jehnny Beth, I was sure she was singing for me, but that's just the power of her charisma. The band has been around barely a year and a half. Right now there's a live EP and a single, but there will be a full album in May.
Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds @ Stubb's
Attendance at a Nick Cave show should be required for anyone about to form a band. His dynamism is commanding, the lyrics are effortless poetry and the stories easy to understand and provocative. In one moment in his set at Stubb's, part of NPR Music's official showcase, he was towering over the audience, his shadow accidentally cast on a wall. I got those wonderful goose bumps. Love those goose bump moments. The band was equally fabulous and may have put on the most entertaining performance that I saw at the festival.
Alt-J @ Stubb's
They made my favorite album of 2012, so it's no surprise that I thought this was the best set of songs I saw all week. Despite some tuning issues with the vocals, I thought it was a brilliant set. Alt-J is not a band to watch: Nothing really happens in the stage show. It's a band to hear. There was one moment in the only song I didn't know, a song called "Buffalo," when Joe Newman broke into the lyrics from another song, one he didn't write called "These Days," by Jackson Browne: "I went out walking, I don't do that much talking these days." The song was first famously recorded by German singer and Velvet Underground cohort Nico in 1967 with Browne playing fingerpicking guitar. The connection between the folk style of Browne and the mystery of the Velvet Underground is there in Alt-J; I just never thought about it 'til that moment. I closed my eyes a lot and had a huge grin on for the entire set. (You can watch the full set, which was also part of NPR Music's showcase at Stubb's, here.)
Icky Blossoms @ The Clive Bar
I came to the Clive Bar early to help shoot a video with Sinkane, and while waiting for that set to start I saw a band on fire. Icky Blossoms, fresh from a blizzard in their hometown of Omaha, were stage hot and in a spinning frenzy. The crowd knew something I hadn't caught listening to their album. My eyes flicked from uber-fans dancing and singing every word to the crazy guitar performance of guitarist/filmmaker Nik Fackler. There's that moment at an unknown show when it all happens, that moment you go from spectator to fan. Love that moment. I am going to pull out that record again and give it a fresh listen.
Interviewing The Zombies @ Austin Convention Center
I interviewed The Zombies, Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone, at the Austin Convention Center. I grew up on this band, saw them making hit singles in America while failing to sell in England, where they came from. I witnessed the release of a genius record in 1968 — Odessey & Oracle (their bad spelling not ours) — which failed to chart. In the conversation we talked about how the band broke up just when their big number one song, "Time of the Season" hit the radio in America. I loved the moment when Colin Blunstone told the tale of recording Odessey & Oracle at Abbey Road studios. They went into Abbey Road just after The Beatles were exiting, having just finished Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. There, they found the mellotron that was left behind from those sessions (the one you can hear on "Strawberry Fields," recorded during the same sessions). The extraordinarily odd sounds that instrument can make — strings but not actually strings, choirs but not actually choirs — became the defining sound of the album. We talked about their financial failures and successful music making — to this day, their records are a major influence on producers and songwriters. (We'll have a transcription of that interview here on the All Songs Considered blog, stay tuned.)
Terakaft @ Hotel Vegas
It amazes me that music from the deserts of Mali can connect so easily to urban 20-year-old Americans. But the music of Terakaft is not so different from many western bands making droney, psychedelic sounds. The group's guitar-based music is made from the same stuff, that hypnotic tension you can hear in American bands such as Television from the late 1970s, or Jimi Hendrix from the late 1960s or a band I saw at SXSW this year, Elephant Stone. Guitarist Diara was a founding member of Tinariwen, a band that has successfully rocked thousands of people in America, at festivals like Bonnaroo and the venues like D.C.'s 9:30 Club. The formula here is the same: powerfully lyrical, modal guitars and a well honed sound. Though it's a sound familiar to me, I'd venture to say that few of those attending Austin Psych Fest, a dayparty/festival within a festival, had ever heard this music before, but all were pretty well tranced out by the end.
K-X-P @ Karma Lounge
I got lost getting here and came late to the party. Apparently the Karma Lounge moved and I went to the old address. When I finally arrived to see the Helsinki band K-X-P, they were a few minutes into their last song, but that song, "Melody" (the one I featured on our SXSW preview show), would last about 20 minutes. It was bliss! A writer I met from Cocostereo.com described the evening's music as a "goth LCD Soundsystem." I think she nailed it, black fringed capes, pulsing synths, live drumming and all. Of the bands I'd never seen, this was the one I enjoyed the most. (Video coming soon from a daytime set at a burger joint!)
Dave Grohl Keynote
Life got you down? Don't know what to do? Listen to father Dave — or as Stephen Thompson here at NPR Music calls him, the "unofficial mayor of rock and roll." This inspired keynote address given by former Nirvana drummer, Foo Fighters founder and all around inspiring guy, is specifically about his story, a young boy living in a town from which rock stars never rise — Springfield, Virginia — trying to find his place in life. But really it's about anyone trying to find their voice. This keynote, which was broadcast by NPR Music and public radio, encourages the attitude of just doing it. To quote Dave Grohl: "At 13 years old, I realized that I could start my own band, I could write my own song, I could record my own record, I could start my own label, I could release my own record, I could book my own shows, I could write and publish my own fanzine, I could silkscreen my own T-shirts ... I could do all of this myself. There was no right or wrong . . . because it was all mine." (You can watch the entire keynote here. Parents, I suggest you watch it with your teenage kids, though be warned: There are a lot of F bombs.)
Rhye @ Buffalo Billiards
Rhye is sexy music made by a guy, something I don't hear so much. It's the kind of sexy that's intimate and inward, not outward brash or flashy. In fact the attraction for me is the spare sound. Rhye is the music of Mike Milosh, from Canada and Robin Hannibal from Denmark. These days they're based in Los Angeles. And on stage this night there was a violinist and upright electric bass and trombone along with that beautiful bell tones of the Fender Rhodes piano and more. But for all the bigness in the band, the arrangements left space often implying more than playing. And with those breathy feminine vocals, ever step of the way seemed like a surprise in store. I never left that set.
No, not the member of Arcade Fire, but our very own former intern. Will Butler is a bundle of inspiration. He only decided to come to Austin after reading a blog post (on this website) about SXSW and feeling his own cynicism about the festival reflected in it. So he decided to go. He made a proposal to the blog Noisey that he come and cover the festival. In his own words, it went something like this: "Hi, I'm Will Butler. I've never met you before, but I thought you might be interested in this. I've never been to SXSW. I have no badge. I have no money, no place to stay, no plans and I'm blind." They hired him, and on Friday night, just before we recorded our late-night dispatch, I ran into him. He tells that story on the podcast, a story so inspiring it was one of my favorite festival moments. It's not far from the kind of inspiration that Dave Grohl talked about in his keynote and not too far from the leap of faith that so many of these musicians in Austin take when they quit their jobs to hit the road. Someone could walk into a bar in Austin during SXSW and think it's full of a bunch of odd, irresponsible kids just out for fun. But there are untold stories here, many filled with a degree of bravery and faith that isn't easy to see amidst the mangy-looking crowds and exhausted performers. (Read Will's blog posts about SXSW here.)
Olafur Arnalds @ Peckerheads
Trying to hush the crowd at Peckerheads wasn't really possible. But Olafur Arnalds and his trio of violin, cello and keyboards did try hard. First, they asked for quiet, which got them somewhere. But then they started playing, lovely and hushed sounds that could have been swallowed up by crowd conversation. Instead, it captured a lot of the crowd's attention. This was the first moment of quiet that I felt in my days at SXSW, such a welcome feeling amidst the overly loud sounds that come from most bands. Sure, there were some early afternoon drunk background conversations above Olafur's soundtrack, but still it was calm and peaceful, and after the set I felt energized.
Paloma Faith @ Peckerheads
I walked into a packed room simply to kill time before my next scheduled event. This was another random act of show hopping, but the moment I stepped in I knew I was seeing a star in Paloma Faith. I didn't know her music, but she was obviously British. Dressed in a vibrant red dress, she appealed to a crowd that clearly loved that style and flamboyance. Sex is a big part of that style. It's in the way she carried herself — at one point she poured water down the top of her dress — but also in her strong voice and her songs and. Therein lies the star, confident and talented. I've since learned (sorry, Paloma) that she's a platinum artist back home. It's taken her some time to catch on here, but I think it's just a matter of time.
Mother Falcon @ The Lodge
I saw this band, which is based in Austin, twice in one day! Two completely different sets from this enormous ensemble of strings, horns, guitars, drums and voice. Their first performance had them on a stage near the front door of The Lodge that, frankly, a folk duo could have filled. It turned out that only half of the band was on that small stage, while the other half, the members who didn't fit, were playing outdoors. Their blend of early Arcade Fire-style rock with cool pop string arrangements was wonderful. Later that night I saw they were playing a bigger venue (just about any other venue in Austin would qualify). This time, I counted 19 members, and the nuance and sound was so much better. My festival ended with Mother Falcon and a loving crowd of fans and friends singing a Radiohead cover together. Great way to wrap it all up.