South by Southwest's clamor resembles 1,000 competing conversations. Within the buzz and babble there's inspiration and innovation aplenty, but also shams and charlatans. Your attention is being vied for – by bands and brands – and by deciding where to point your ears, you have power.
No one artist holds the talking stick right now. Last year, Lady Gaga gripped it tight. The year before it was clutched on either end by Justin Timberlake and Prince. SXSW 2015 has no such singular spotlight hog. Had U2's plans not been foiled by Bono's bicycle, the iTunes-invading stadium rockers would've dominated the narrative. Of course, there's Kanye West's ego-mandated mid-March appearance in Austin, but that's become commonplace.
This year thus represents the democratization of SXSW. Given no central focus to monopolize the public discussion, all roughly 2,200 performers – from Inuit throat singers (Tanya Tagaq) to local guitar slingers (Danny B. Harvey) – enjoy a boost in relevancy. This isn't to say SXSW didn't book headliners. They're mostly hip-hop acts, leaving the ever white-washed music industry scratching its head saying "Where's Arcade Fire?" Worry not, both Will and Win Butler are in attendance.
Nevertheless, SXSW's urban music representation reaches a breathless crescendo this year, stocked with classics (Snoop Dogg, Nas, Wyclef Jean), hit-makers (Wiz Khalifa, J. Cole, Big Sean), critical favs (Run the Jewels, Action Bronson, Big K.R.I.T.), and Texas titans (Z-Ro, Trae tha Truth). That doesn't include D'Angelo's SXSW Interactive interlude for 100 people on Sunday night.
What other gathering can match SXSW's rap firepower? Not Atlanta's A3C, not Jay Z's Made in America. No one.
Sauce Twinz: Eccentric Houston street rap
Rae Sremmurd: Mississippi bros with delirious hooks
Joey Bada$$: Brooklyn MC with golden-era flow
Freddie Gibbs: Gangsta baritone
K Camp: R&B-loving ATLien
While the conference's compass-referencing moniker might confuse artists stationed below the equator, SXSW remains a hub for foreign bands, hosting hundreds of performers from six continents. (Antarctica's music scene still sucks.) Another mind-blowing element of SXSW: No other U.S. festival offers such an array of international talent.
Get adventurous with one of two Korea nights (Thursday at Elysium, Friday at Majestic), or catch a band from a country you've never heard of (shout-out to the Qarabagh Ensemble from Azerbaijan.) Sadly, you've already missed Japanese stadium-packing electro-pop trio Perfume, who played their only local show last night. There's still time to witness SXSW's first Pakistani music showcase tonight (Wed.) at the Driskill's Victorian Room.
Somewhere among the foreigners showcasing at SXSW 2015 may be the next Manu Chao, Die Antwoord, or Lorde. In 2014, last month's Grammy telecast stars Hozier and Sam Smith shared a showcase at the tiny St. David Historical Sanctuary. Today, that bill would sell out Joel Olsteen's Lakewood mega-church.
Stromae: Electro-rumba Francophile from Belgium
Mantar: German noise/sludge duo with Lemmy vox
Courtney Barnett: Aussie word oracle
James Bay: Soulful Brit songsmith
Milky Chance: German folk-pop earworm with beats
Global also encompasses the local via an estimated 282 Austin acts, ranging from nationally beloved staples like Spoon and Asleep at the Wheel to agents of the underground like hardcore oi youths Breakout and experimental beat punisher Ssleeperhold.
There are also hyper local events like our Austin Music Awards – tonight, Wed., 7:55pm, at the Convention Center's Austin Ballroom – featuring the cream of the local scene: Gary Clark Jr., Patty Griffin, Billy Joe Shaver, Shakey Graves, Gina Chavez, Charlie Sexton. And Austin's old school is throwing a Doug Sahm wing-ding (Sat., Paramount Theatre, 7:30pm), stacked with Texas talent: Steve Earle, Terry Allen, Texas Tornados, even local film director Robert Rodriguez & Chingon.
Dowrong & Eric Dingus: Aggressive MC meets Drake-approved beatmaster
Flesh Lights: Power-pop on speed
Roger Sellers: Singing, drumming, loop conductor
Institute: Dark, hardcore-spiked post-punk
Carson McHone: Tough, young country maverick
Every year, emerging artists blow into SXSW with the perfect storm of industry support and word-of-mouth. In 1996, the Fugees became superstars. In 2011, Odd Future went atomic. Last year, I was beat over the head with the name London Grammar and haven't heard of them since. Fickle "buzz" finds a handful of acts ripening for SXSW.
Børns: Michigan-to-L.A. chillwave delicacy
Catfish & the Bottlemen: Welsh rock-n-melody
The Weeknd: R&B futurist and new Artist of the Year at the Juno Awards
Leon Bridges: Hot soul traditionalist from Fort Worth
Alvvays: Multi-gender Canadian beach pop
The polar opposite to breakouts are reunions. Whether drumming up press for a nostalgia tour or testing material for a decades-in-the-making new album, SXSW remains proven ground for reconciliations. The Festival didn't land a preview of the upcoming *NSync reunion (thank God) or reformed riot grrrls Sleater-Kinney (Austinites have to wait until April), but this week finds old favorites back in action.
Gang of Four: Lone OG Andy Gill
Swervedriver: Shoegaze comeback
Zombies: Permanently baroque-pop
Dipset: Harlem hip-hop
Manikin: No Wave punk (Liberty, Thu., 9:30pm)
SXSW attendees are faced with three choices during the daylight hours: 1) Stay in bed and recover from the previous fun; 2) feed your brain with panels, speeches, and Flatstock; or 3) rage at a day party.
Fun Fun Fun Fest (Sat., Mohawk): Fall ATX fest marks a decade with Ghostface Killah & Badbadnotgood.
Levitation (Thu., Hotel Vegas): Reverb Appreciation Society previews ATX psych fest with Thee Oh Sees, Deerhoof.
Heavy Metal Parking Lot (Sat., Lost Well): Metal bonanza starring Aussies King Parrot and Weedeater
Hair of the 3-Legged Dog (Thu., Liberty): Chronicle mascot welcomes White Denim offshoot Bop English, Sweet Spirit, Flesh Lights, and femcee Anya.
Chaos in Tejas (Sat., Beerland): Booking wizard lands the Spits and Iceage.
Even in the week diluted with party crashers, Austin's music community remains tight-knit and caring. Accordingly, the SXSW ruckus pauses for moments of tribute and reflection on those lost.
Brent Grulke Plaza: SXSW Creative Director Brent Grulke died unexpectedly in 2012 after reaching the 2,000-act benchmark (Thu., 5:30pm, southwest side of the First Street Bridge).
A Moment of Silence: Honoring four lives lost in last year's deadly hit-and-run (Wed., 12mid., Cheer Up Charlies and Mohawk).
Ian McLagan Tribute: Small Faces/Faces Rock & Roll Hall of Fame keyboardist and Austinite died locally in December at age 69. (Wed., 11:15pm, Austin Music Awards, ACC Ballroom D).
Fearing sensory overload from the competing voices at SXSW? The truth is always in the music, never in the sales pitch, and the best conversationalists are those who listen. Make a connection. That's your mission.
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