I have never been to South By Southwest, the annual music, film and interactive conference and festival that is held at Austin, Texas and has become, at least for contemporary music, the biggest platform that artists have for showcasing their talent. Even if I had been able to make it to this year’s version of the four-day music extravaganza (between March 16 and 20), I’m not sure how many bands or musicians I would have been able to listen to—there were at least 2000 bands playing round-the-clock at over 80 venues and that doesn’t include the impromptu venues at street corners, balconies and every nook and corner of the university town that hosts the non-stop extravaganza each year in spring. Bands come from all over the world and straddle every conceivable genre.
With so many bands playing so many venues, it is quite conceivable that every visitor to SXSW could come back with a unique four-day listening experience that is completely different from anyone else’s. I read (and heard on podcasts) accounts from many people, mainly music critics, who went to the festival this year and got the names of so many bands from their recommended lists that I don’t think I will ever have the time to explore them all. Yet, I tried to sample, by way of recorded live shows of the new bands from this year’s SXSW, as many as I could. Here are four—a mere droplet from the thousands that descended at SXSW–that I liked most.
Khaira Arby. I’m not big on what is usually classified as World Music but when I heard a recording of a gig by Arby, a Malian singer from Timbuktu, I instantly became a fan. I cannot make out a word of what she sings (she sings in Sonrhai, Bambara, Tamaschek and Arabic) but her full-bodied vocals and upbeat music took no time to engage my attention. Then, as I read more about Arby’s music, I liked her even more. She sings about political and social issues that affect many African societies—such as civil war, women’s rights in an Islamic world and the practice of female genital mutilation. Her powerful voice is complemented by electric guitar driven music and it spurred me to seek out and buy her first internationally released CD, Timbuktu Tarab. I’d recommend it to everybody.
Wild Flag. They’re billed as a female supergroup but as far as I know Wild Flag, who were invited to play at SXSW this year, are yet to release a record. Their ‘supergroup’ label is perhaps a reflection of the fact that members Carrie Brownstein, Mary Timony, Rebecca Cole and Janet Weiss are all former members of bands such as Sleater-Kinney, The Minders and Helium. Whatever you may make of that fact and the epithet it has earned them, their music is great. I heard a gig by Wild Flag that blew me away. If you like scorching guitars, searing vocals and hard drumming, this is a band to watch. Sadly, in the absence of an album from Wild Flag, you will have to make do with whatever you get off the net of their gigs, including their debut single, Glass Tambourine.
The Joy Formidable. It may be just a coincidence but the lead singer of this third band on my list also happens to be female. The Joy Formidable are a three-member outfit from Wales and their lead singer is Ritzy Bryan who also plays a mean guitar. They have an interesting sound—distorted, loud guitar-driven music contrasted with soft, sweet vocals, both, ironically, delivered by Bryan. Unlike Wild Flag, The Joy Formidable has a full-length that they released this year called The Big Roar, besides a couple of EPs. The Joy Formidable have a grungy feel but something about their noisy music paired with the softness of their vocals makes them appealing. I’ll track this band for a bit now.
Raphael Saadiq. There! The fourth (and final) vocalist on my list for this column isn’t female. Saadiq, who was born Charles Ray Wiggins, is in many respects a retro R&B performer. By that I mean a traditionalist. Hailed as someone who keeps the flag of old-style R&B flying, Saadiq has also produced tracks for artists like Mary J. Blige, Joss Stone and John Legend. If you like old-school soul and R&B, I’d suggest you check out Saadiq who has a new album out called Stone Rollin’.
These are just four bands that I heard for the first time and liked during my exploration of SXSW this year and as I said they are not even a small fraction of what you could get if you went through the list of thousands that played at the festival last month. There’s an A to Z list (with links to their music) of all of the artists that were showcased this year. If you want to go totally mad, go there.