The challenge: coming up with a list of 10–not 25, not 100 (really NPR, 100?), but 10–must-see music events at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas this year. For the music lover, the annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (taking place March 13th to 18th) presents an Olympic task that involves winnowing over 1000 performing artists down to a manageable shortlist, and then shoehorning one’s must-see happenings into a roughly four-day period. Do the math: for even the most disciplined music fan, we’re talking a maximum of six evening slots, and maybe a potential half-dozen day party slots (assuming one attends to essentials such as eating, schmoozing, and checking mail). Throw in a few random touches like running into Lou Barlow playing the convention center food court, and we’re looking at perhaps 50, tops.
Thankfully, SXSW has gone one better, expanding to a fifth night (corresponding with a Pitchfork showcase held on the eve of the festival last year). Having scanned the most recently-available list of announced showcase slots, we present for your consideration, a list of “oh see this” artists. I had a friend last year who kept things simple–he simply went traveled to wherever his favorite UK band was playing, and ended up going to a lot of parties and gaining broader exposure through a wide range of support acts. Our list strives to provide some degree of balance in the musical diet. So who’s on yours? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section.
1. Sharon Van Etten
Each year, there are artists who sit atop critic choice lists, the likes of Bon Iver, Animal Collective, and TV on the Radio who are recognized as good and good for you. Joining this select company is Sharon Van Etten, enjoying universal acclaim for Tramp, released last month on the heels of her previously lauded release, Epic (2010). Coming a long way since she confidently took the stage as a soloist to open the Pitchfork Festival in 2010, Van Etten mixes self-effacing banter with intimate songs that showcase the heartbreak and vulnerability of failing relationships. Her last few tours have seen her augment her acoustic sound with a full ensemble, who she refers to sheepishly as the “Creepy Creeps”. If Tramp bears a similarity to some other contemplative Brooklyn artists, consider the who’s who of guests: members of the National, Walkmen, Zach Condon of Beirut, and Juliana Barwick. Van Etten will be part of a banner NPR lineup with Andrew Bird, Dan Deacon, and Alabama Shakes. When she’s not performing, you’re just as likely to run into her at a show, or spinning some OMD at a house party.
(Wed. Mar 14, Stubbs, 9 PM; Thu. Mar 15, Mohawk Patio, 12:35 AM.)
2. Main Attrakionz
In a DIY underground world known for prodigious activity, Main Attrakionz seem to be in constant motion. The Oakland rap duo of Squadda Bambino and rapper Mondre M.A.N released one of 2011’s more compelling releases, 808 and Dark Grapes II, one of as many as eight mixtapes in circulation last year. Collaborating with producer Clams Casino, they reach ethereal heights on mesmerizing tracks such as “Bossalinis and Fooliyones” (which samples Glasser’s otherworldly vocals) and ‘70s soft-rock hook-laden cuts like “Perfect Sounds” and “Mondre Mo Murda”. All the while, they ground their dreamscapes with gritty lyrics (check out their collaboration with Harlem rapper ASAP Rocky “Take 1”, with its hipster smackdown). Main Attrakionz were a fresh, alternative sound last fall at the CMJ Marathon, and it will be fascinating to see where (and with whom) they pop up at SXSW, given their affinity with another Clams Casino collaborator, Lil’ B (who was part of a star studded finale at last year’s Fader Fort party, book-ended by surprise guest appearances by Bon Iver and P. Diddy).
(Wed. Mar 14, Treasure Island, 12:50 AM, Showcases TBA.)
Claire Boucher (the Montreal-based artist known as Grimes) mixes in a soaring falsetto voice with an encyclopedic parade of musical influences, weaving together elements as disparate as Celtic rhythms, old time-player piano-imbued trip-hop, industrial beats and noise samples, tribal drums, soothing strings, and operatic vocals. Her breakout single “Vanessa” revealed an otherworldly quality: a haunting dance track, its K-pop inspired video looks like an avant garde remix of a Gap ad. Her bright future is a function not only of her self-awareness of the myriad of musical influences she has weaved into her work, but the fact that under her sunny disposition, she’s a tireless perfectionist, prepping like an anxious producer and then cutting into her material with a laser-like focus, often losing herself in the trance-like effect of her own music. Her SXSW appearances — including an intriguing set with fellow Montreal buzz artists Purity Ring in one of Austin’s best acoustic environments, the Central Presbyterian Church — promise to be a treat, as well as a showcase for her latest release, Visions.
(Thur. Mar 15, Central Presbyterian Church, 11:30 PM; Fri. Mar 16, Clive Bar, 11:30 PM.)
4. Bear in Heaven
This year marks a return of number of breakout indie artists on recent hiatus. Due out on April 2nd, I Love You, It’s Cool is the highly anticipated release by Bear in Heaven, whose relentless touring in support of the 2010 breakout Beast Rest Forth Mouth catapulted them to new levels of acclaim. As a live act, Bear in Heaven snuck up on many, a more modest blending of southern psychedelic rock and New Wave electronica on disc which suddenly took on a whole new life on stage. Singer Jon Philpot’s soaring vocals and stage personality contrasts with the tight rhythm of Adam Wills on guitar and Joe Stickney’s intense drumming. The group’s consistent ability to work the audiences into a frenzy, whether it is playing home town shows in Williamsburg or large festival audiences at the likes of Austin City Limits, bears similarity to other bands whose sound expands to fit the space they’re playing such as Muse or Mutemath. Bear in Heaven’s latest single “Reflection of You”, channels the sound of British supergroup Electronic. Fans can count on countless opportunities, given the ensemble’s workaholic penchant.
(Tue. Mar 13, Mohawk Patio, 11 PM; Thu. Mar 15, Mohawk Patio, 10:30 PM.)
5. Thee Oh Sees
Started by John Dwyer over a decade ago, Thee Oh Sees have achieved steady word-of-mouth acclaim due to the boisterous nature of their live shows, which combine punk energy with roots rock, garage, and psychobilly flourishes. The group’s latest release, Carrion Crawler/The Dream (2011), finally does justice to their live show by capturing their ability and raucous energy on album. As live artists, Thee Oh Sees’ chemistry and skill is on display in sets where the wheels seem poised to fly off, and yet the band members exhibit the discipline to rein each other in. For the uninitiated, imagine the musicianship of the Drive by Truckers, amped up by the energy of the Legendary Shack Shakers or the Pogues. With critical acclaim for their studio work catching up to their raves as a live act, and with the ensemble seemingly able to draw from their extensive repertoire (including eight albums in five years), Thee Oh Sees’ shows are positioned to be among SXSW’s highlights.
(Wed. Mar 15, Red 7 Patio, 9 PM; Wed. Mar 15, Beauty Bar, 1:15 AM.)
6 – 10
6. We Were Promised Jetpacks
This year marks the triumphant return of Scottish band We Were Promised Jetpacks, who made an auspicious debut at SXSW in 2010 in support of their strong debut LP, These Four Walls. Last year’s follow-up, In the Pit of the Stomach, was a much darker album demonstrating extensive range and creating emotional resonance through sudden and unexpected variations in tone and tempo that lead to a sense of nervous tension. In contrast to the likes of UK bands such as the Kaiser Chiefs or Bloc Party who achieved instantaneous success, the growth of Jetpacks has been more gradual. The showcases the group will appear at will provide fans with an opportunity to gauge their musical development.
(Wed. Mar 14, Easy Tiger Patio, 1 AM; Sat. Mar 17, Red 7 Patio, 12 AM.)
7. Mother Falcon
An essential part of the SXSW experience is taking the time to visit one of Austin’s institutions, the legendary blues club Antone’s, or Alejandro Escovedo’s annual post-SXSW Sunday night showcase of friends and family at the Continental Club. This year, one can add one of the most intriguing acts, an 18-piece orchestra who in the midst of a string passage,will suddenly break into harmonies. At the center is Nick Gregg, who conceived of the concept and built up the ensemble of multi-instrumentalists composed of four core members, and a broader group developed through contacts with local youth orchestras. The shock of seeing orchestra members singing along is a shock, and why Mother Falcon, with its fusion of pop, jazz, and classical music, is a must see. Mother Falcon has garnered a number of local nominations, while their cross-pollination of Andrew Bird, Sufjan Stevens, Mucca Pazza, and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra may represent this year’s version of the Scala Choir and Kolacny Brothers, the multi-piece choir that grabbed acclaim for its cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” on the soundtrack to The Social Network and who played a prominent SXSW set last year. Mother Falcon’s debut album Alhambra was released last month, and they are in the process of developing the soundtrack to an indie documentary.
(Fri., Mar 16, St. David’s Bethell Hall, 1 AM.)
One of the most rewarding parts of the SXSW experience is taking stock of the latest in the most recent wave of indie buzz bands as they run the gauntlet of the conference’s showcases. Brooklyn-based three-piece Hospitality (which only recently signed on to Merge Records, and just released its debut album in January) will follow the grueling path of countless promising bands before it: 20- to 30-minute sets, crowds ranging anywhere from a handful to a packed room, and audiences that vary from casual event-goers more intent on schmoozing to diehard fans who have been following the band for a seeming eternity (months!) and have already committed the band’s lyrics to memory. Hospitality has garnered acclaim for their blend of pop and jazz, drawing favorable comparisons to Camera Obscura. One of the band’s distinct characteristics is vocalist Amber Papini’s faux accent, a brogue of sorts, practiced by the Kansas City native. The band’s material traffics in matter-of-fact hardheaded reality, the angular sounds of guitarist Nathan Michel and bassist Brian Betancourt meshing with sweet harmonies and some oddball lyrics that are akin to the inspired work of Eleanor Friedberger.
(Fri. Mar 16, Frank, 8:30 PM; Thu. Mar 15, Beale Street Tavern, 10 PM.)
Every year, there’s room on the schedule for a major wave of retro artists. SXSW has seemingly been through the ‘80s ringer in recent years: OMD, Duran Duran, and the Bangles came through in 2011, for instance, and ‘80s veterans the DBs, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and Thomas Dolby are set to return. While there’s seemingly a dearth of retro artists, this year sees the return of ‘80s-tinged Chairlift following an extended hiatus where founding member Aaron Pfenning left the band. Something, Chairlift’s first album in over three years, finds the group—now down to singer Caroline Polachek and drummer Patrick Wimberly — embarking on a fresh direction, showing a determination and sense of purpose on a work that due to the refined production of Alan Moulder features the polished sound of a lost ‘80s pop record.
(Thu. Mar 15, The Parish, 1 AM; Fri. Mar 16, Empire Automotive, 12 AM.)
10. The star-spangled lineups
It’s one thing for stars to walk the red carpet. It’s another thing altogether when star musicians play the red carpet. The convergence of film and music, on display several years ago with a conference keynote presentation involving a conversation between director Jonathan Demme and his subject, Neil Young, will be even tighter in 2012. Two years ago, the shocking death of Alex Chilton on the eve of SXSW and a scheduled Big Star performance resulted in a last-minute, spur-of-the-moment tribute. This year, the band’s legacy will be the subject of a documentary. Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, after which an all-star band consisting of Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, Mike Mills and Peter Buck of R.E.M., the Replacements’ Tommy Stinson, Mitch Easter of Let’s Active, Chris Stamey of the DBs, and members of the Posies will perform the Third album. If that’s not enough star power, members of Mumford and Sons, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros will play an acoustic set following the screening of the film Big Easy Express.
(Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, Thu. Mar 15, Paramount Theatre, 7 PM; Big Easy Express, Sat. Mar 17, Paramount Theatre, 4 PM.)