As I write this (and roughly a week before you read it), the mother of all music festivals is underway at Austin, Texas. It’s the South by South-West festival, commonly referred to as SXSW, and has been on for the past 23 years. In 1994, in addition to music, SXSW included film and interactive media conferences and has now become an important fixture on the world’s film festival circuit. But it is the music that is at the core of SXSW and what really excites me about this annual festival that happens in March.
The sheer scale of SXSW is mind-boggling. At this year’s music fest, as many as 1700 bands—most of them unknown and from everywhere in the world—played at over 80 venues over five days between March 17 and 21. The old, the new, the famous, the unknown… you can hear bands of every stripe at the festival at venues where the arrangements range from state-of-the-art auditoriums to hole-in-the-wall makeshift bars. Three years back, Delhi band, menwhopause, became the first Indian band to be invited to play at SXSW.
Besides the official shows, there is a rash of informal, unofficial gigs that bands play all over the university town of Austin. Sadly, I’ve never been to SXSW but that hasn’t stopped me these past couple of years from enjoying the music that is played there, sometimes even live. Thank the internet and the American non-profit public-funded broadcaster, National Public Radio (NPR) for that. NPR streams and podcasts gigs hyperactively from Austin, where a bunch of its knowledgeable programming staff camps each year, resulting in what can truly be a sumptuous feast for your ears.
This year began with a bang. On March 18, I got to hear an hour-long show by Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings. Jones and her band are at the forefront of retro-soul and funk and they attempt to revive the music of the 1960s and the 70s when soul and funk were arguably at their height. I’d heard a couple of their albums, notably 100 Days, 100 Nights, which has a steeped in retro sound harking back to the 1960s. At the concert, Jones and her band performed many songs from their repertoire, including classic soul and gospel tunes such as a spirited Mardi Gras-influenced version of When The Saints Go Marching In. I hadn’t heard Jones and her band in a while. But after the SXSW concert, I’m readying to buy her new album, I Learned the Hard Way, which is out this year.
It’s not surprising to find Spoon playing at the SXSW festival. And one reason for that could be that the hugely successful band, led by Britt Daniel (who sings and plays the guitar) and Jim Eno (drummer) are indeed from Austin. Spoon’s seventh album, Transference, is out this year and has received raved reviews and it wasn’t unexpected that during their hour-and-half-long gig they played some songs off their new album. But they also charmed the home crowd by dipping into their back catalogue and playing songs from albums such as 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and 2005’s Gimme Fiction. The Spoon and the Sharon Jones shows can not only be streamed off NPR’s SXSW microsite but also downloaded as mp3 files, free of course.
The best part of SXSW is not that you are able to listen to bands that you’ve heard and love (although that is no less welcome), but that it showcases acts that you may not otherwise get to hear. Frankly, I hadn’t heard of the Visqueen, which, incidentally, is the name of the waterproof plastic that US’s former secretary for homeland security, Tom Ridge, wanted to use to counter to bio-terrorist attacks. Visqueen are from Seattle and, as I discovered, their lead singer and energetic core member, Rachel Flotard, is the live-wire driving force of the band. They do a remarkably likeable brand of power-pop music with very high energy levels that don’t take too long to get hooked to. I checked to find that they have three albums to their credit (all of them seem to be on small labels with names such as BlueDisguise Records and Local 638). Their latest is called Message to Garcia.
As well as live gigs to download and stream, the NPR microsite has videos of concerts, discussions and commentaries and, every night, a wrap of the day’s highlights. It’s the closest you can get to SXSW without being there. But NPR isn’t the only (if most resourceful) place to get stuff on SXSW. I went to Rawkblog, a blog by Los Angeles writer and photographer, David Greenwald, who writes on music and pop culture every day and found a zipped cache of 50 brand new bands that are strutting their stuff at SXSW this year. I must confess I hadn’t heard of a single of those acts, many of which were excellent.
Three to Tango:
- Free Energy: A hot new band from Philadelphia, with classic rock hooks and a burnished glam sound. Try them out.
- Holy Fuck: Sorry, but that’s the name of this Canadian electronica band who sometimes use non-musical instruments like toy phaser guns. They have a new album, Latin, out.
- Dirty Projectors: The band, known for its complex vocal interplay, does a cover of Bob Dylan’s Dark Eyes. Nice.