To someone who has never attended SXSW, the annual music, film, and interactive conference that takes place in Austin, Texas, it is nearly impossible to describe. Unlike the traditional recipe for a festival, which includes centralized festival grounds and stages, clear borders, rules, and a line-up that is easily understandable, SXSW is a sprawling landscape of experience containing hundreds of overlapping events occurring all over the greater downtown area. Thousands upon thousands of eager attendees descend upon the warm and welcoming Texan city, turning the streets into the music geek’s ultimate playground. For nearly an entire week, at any given moment in time there are an overwhelming amount of showcases and parties, both official and unofficial, to choose between. Most of these events offer free food and drink, and all of them display some of the best up and coming talent that the music world has to offer in an informal and highly enjoyable setting. For those of us in the music industry, SXSW is also a prime opportunity to converse, dance, and drink with many of our peers, counterparts, and contacts from all over the United States. Artists, event organizers, media folk, PR people, tech people, and everyone in between are thrown together in one big jumble of what we love best – a huge music driven party.
While there were simply too many incredible showcases and parties to recount it all, there were undeniably certain artists who stood out from the rest, leaving a lasting impression in our minds (and cameras). On Thursday afternoon, Friendly Fires and Mount Kimbie both sent their soundwaves into the setting sun with outdoor sets at the All Saint’s IAMSOUND showcase at Shangri-La. UK band Friendly Fires performed first, getting the crowd moving under the trees with their fun and danceable sound made up of energetic indie rock set to a foundation of electronic beats. It was impossible not to move along with the highly energetic frontman and vocalist, as he and his band delivered old favorites like “Jump in the Pool” and “Skeleton Boy”. As the sun sank lower onto the horizon, so too did the sound emanating from the stage area, with Mount Kimbie stepping in with their more emotive and melodic electronic creations. Their sound dwelled just on the fringe of what might loosely be termed dubstep, overlain with beautiful ambient soundscapes and a heavy dose of heart.
Later that night, we stopped by the PureVolume House on a whim, as it was on our way to the next event we had planned to check out. We never made it to that event however, as we were immediately greeted upon entry with revolving lazers, open bar, a crowd that seemed to be having the absolute best time anyone has ever had, and Moby, arms raised above his head and a look of triumph upon his face; techno seemingly emitting from his very being. Despite a few blown-out speakers mid-set, Moby delivered a serious dose of the warehouse techno and acid house that has made him such a legend in the rave scene and beyond. Trouble & Bass member and New York City darling Drop The Lime took the stage afterward, taking his always outstanding performance to the next level by crooning live into an old fashioned microphone, and subsequently causing knees to go weak throughout the room.
The next evening was characterized by the experience of another electronic veteran, Sasha, who sent thundering progressive house into and around The Parrish, which had a line of hopeful fans winding far down overcrowded 6th Street. As with other electronic artists who played after sundown, Sasha seemed to revitalize the crowd, which was dusty, hot, and achingly tired after a full day of live music. There is something crucial about the evening-into-night time slot, as it represents a vital few hours where the attendees either expend their last shred of energy and collapse into exhaustion, or are propelled up a notch, catching a second wind and heading with renewed energy into the night. Sasha managed to evoke exactly the latter, with the audience at The Parrish seeming to grow only more awake as his set went on.
It was therefore with renewed strength that we embarked on the journey to Lustre Pearl Bar, arriving just in time for California based indie band Cold War Kids. They played a wide range of material to an enthusiastic crowd, including of course the ever popular “Hang Me Up To Dry” to the tune of hundreds of voices chiming in. It was thoroughly refreshing to experience a solid and straightforward indie band on a proper stage in front of a head-bobbing audience as they delivered the goods with just enough attitude and a marked lack of bullshit.
At this point, it’s no secret that we, and anyone else with a pair of ears and a heart, is a little (OK, maybe a lot) obsessed with British protege James Blake and his soulful, poignant communication through sound. His appearances (three to be exact) at SXSW were part of his first ever North American tour, this tour being the first time he ever even set foot on American soil. His performance at the French Legation Museum was truly something special, with the first inklings of sunset behind the stage providing something of a golden cocoon into which James poured his melancholy heart. A humble and nervous James dripped sweat as his fingers precisely manipulated his keyboard, and his heartbreaking voice echoed through the microphone and over the rapt audience. James and his band performed a large amount of material off his debut album, including his well known Feist cover “Limit to Your Love” and the tear inducing “Wilhems Scream”, which quieted the crowd, expelling all recollection of discomfort from the heat or aching feet.
Few shows at SXSW were as hyped up as that of Odd Future (OFWGKTA), who performed at the infamous Fader Fort by FIAT. In the past few months, Tyler the Creater and the rest of the Odd Future gang have been building quite a reputation for themselves in the music community, bridging gaps between hip-hop and punk, and performance art and sincerity. Odd Future has been gaining something of a cult following, which can be largely attributed to their highly anti-establishment persona and violently rebellious attitudes and messages. True to their art, Odd Future’s performance was filled with the highest level of intensity, as every wave of maniacal energy they hurled at the audience was returned in full fury, resulting in what can only be described as a small nuclear explosion of sound and force.
As SXSW began to draw to a close and thoughts of real life back in chilly New York City started to set in, we were lucky enough to be able to end this incredible week on arguably the highest point of the conference; Danish DJ, producer, and musician Trentemøller’s performance with a full live band at La Zona Rosa. We have long been patrons of Trentemøller’s musical brilliance, but it was truly a phenomenal experience to witness his live performance in Austin, which included a mixture of live instruments and vocalists combined with his electronic productions. It is a unique and fascinating turn in the history of music; this recent tendency of electronic producers to recreate their sound using live instruments. In this way, the computer becomes another instrument in a band, and rather than attempting to create the sound of an instrument using a computer, an instrument is used to create a sound that was originally programmed. Trentemøller and his band played incredible live versions of both old material such as “Moan” and new material including “Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider Go!!!”. Check out our interview with Trentemøller after his sound check at La Zona Rosa HERE.
While SXSW might be over, the experiences shared, music discovered, treasures found, and friendships built will carry us into the summer and beyond. We are already looking forward to what next year’s southwestern adventure will bring. Until then, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with eating a big bowl of queso, drinking a cold Lone Star, and clicking through the photographs again and again and again…