When Snoop Dogg (Lion, Ostrich, whatever) is late announced as keynote speaker to SXSW 2015, you know things have changed. A shark may have been jumped, a joke may have been played or maybe Cordozar Calvin Broadus Jr. is the right emblem of what this industry of ours has become. Maybe it's all three.
The ascendancy of hip-hop and DJs, as with all varieties of "dance music," at SXSW 2015 is as plain as any scan of the lineup could be. "Follow the money," the saying goes. And since Bob Marley isn't touring, you might as well get his self-proclaimed reincarnation. At least Snoop has a sense of humor.
In Austin this spring, the city has redefined pedicab routes and continued its clampdown on outdoor street events, though plenty of those remain. The east side of the city keeps exploding with bars, boutiques, restaurants and rehabs, and many of the main attractions -- Hype Hotel, the Spotify House (where Run the Jewels held court, when not getting assaulted, during the interactive portion of the week) and an expanded Fader Fort, for starters -- have set up shop far from the maddening traffic and ordinances.
Fear not: Hundreds of buzz bands still cometh to SXSW, and the commercial gimmicks are still endearingly absurd. Next door to the convention center you'll find a newly erected Bates Motel -- in honor of the TV series I don't plan to watch -- which might have been useful if the shower were open to weary day-partiers and raccoon-capped hipsters needing to come clean. It wouldn't be SXSW without marketing psychos, without dreams of making it circling the drain.
Courtney Barnett, to pick just one buzz act, doesn't give a shit. And that's what makes her special. The 27-year-old Aussie singer, songwriter and southpaw guitarist doesn't seem to be trying for any of this, and yet on Wednesday night the thousands at Stubb's (there mostly to see TV on the Radio) welcomed her beautifully banal and smart songs. She has no time for the dreams of the buzz-seekers, but buzz has found her all the same. Does she want this? Sure, probably, but her desire happens on her own terms. As does her rock.
At probably her biggest gig to date in the states, Barnett blazed through a set that focused exclusively on her forthcoming album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit, fronting a trio that shifted between wild Crazy Horse noise and churning Lou Reed-esque ballads and rockers. No one expected her to be this confident, this militantly brilliant, in song after song -- even a "stupid song" (her quip) about competing with the swimmer next to you at the pool. Of all the young rock & rollers at SXSW, Barnett is setting the most original pace.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Rewinding to Tuesday, the first official day of the music events at SXSW, the afternoon parties were in somewhat short supply, which made choosing a small but well-crafted event like the Manitoba, Canada, shindig at Majestic with Samantha Savage Smith and Mise en Scene an easy choice. The former proved she had something to say to indie-pop fans and the latter turned out to be louder, stronger and more nimble than on a record that few have heard. Fans of Ume or Best Coast will find a kindred spirit in Mise en Scene.
Tuesday evening found me on the east side in the free-drink lines at the Hype Hotel, much expanded, with a terraced outside patio and a main stage where Stockholm band Amason (named after a Volvo model) fought through abysmal sound with a guitar-free, synthesized form of dream pop that sounded even better sung in Swedish.
A dozen blocks away at Stay Gold, one of east Austin's newest hipster joints, a tight little bar band named Elijah Ford & the Bloom preceded Austin resident and UK expat Nic Armstrong, who took a surreal folk-jazzy turn with a self-powered kick drum and a sax and trumpet complement that gave his spindly songs a welcome alienation effect. Armstrong's voice, like foil against your wisdom teeth, isn't an easy listen, but it's an essential one.
Those who can go five days on four hours of sleep each night won't be impressed with my early arrival at designer Billy Reid and American Songwriter's outdoor party in east Austin, but I took pride in actually catching a snatch of La Luz's opening set on Wednesday morning. I'd seen the all-gal surf's-up rock band last year at SXSW, and it has since gotten better in every way: more relaxed, more tuneful, less primitively novel.
Psych-folk singer and songwriter Steve Gunn followed with stunning finger-plucked guitar parts, suggesting that anybody planning to catch the upcoming Wilco tour should arrive early to see Gunn (especially when the tour comes to the Pageant). He is a songwriting, singing and playing triple threat.
Continue to page two for more.