SXSW Day 1, afternoon report: Tearing down the VIPs with Nneka
About two hours before the first night of official showcases got underway at the South by Southwest music conference and festival in Austin, Texas, Germany by way of Nigeria artist Nneka had a request for the conference-going audience. "I would like you to participate, comprende?" she said before launching into "V.I.P." -- just a peppy world-beat number about a class war over oil in Nigeria.
Walking onstage and picking up an acoustic guitar, Nneka immediately struck a coffeehouse vibe. That lasted maybe 45 seconds before she began a trip around the globe. With reggae-thick bass notes and a colorful keyboard, she sounded equally as influenced by island sounds and the minimal production of Dr. Dre.
Nneka is one of nearly 2,000 artists who will perform numerous times over the next four days in the Texas capital, but it's a safe bet that only a fraction will tackle topics as weighty. Even when breaking from politics to sing a love song in "The Uncomfortable Truth," it appeared as if it were a protest number. Given a lengthy, sermon-like introduction, Nneka turned a sometimes undefinable emotion into a statement.
This is music that could easily descend into a jam session -- rattlesnake rhythms, hand claps and bass scatting all made appearances -- but Nneka kept her band focused, even as she hit multiple registers in the span of a few notes, and occasionally switched into near rapping. First and foremost, however, this is healing music, celebrating the power of the groove, no matter the continent of origin.
Other notes from the first afternoon at SXSW:
-- Spotify, the ad-supported streaming service that's all the rage in Europe, was a big topic Tuesday, with the company's CEO, Daniel Ek, giving a keynote to close the Interactive portion of SXSW. It remained top of mind with attendees Wednesday, with some starting to wonder whether U.S. licensing agreements might do away with some of the service's appeal. Look for major labels in the States to push for Spotify to add limits on its free, ad-supported option. But if that's the case, are potential customers left with little more than another Rhapsody? Eric Garland, with online research firm BigChampagne, spoke to Pop & Hiss about the network, which will be covered more in depth in a Times Business story this week. "It's not Ek's fault. It's not a strategic misfire. It's just a different set of rules," Garland said."It's the major leagues. The labels let stuff happen in other markets that they would never let happen here."
-- And this is one is for all the "babes" near the front of the stage: Plenty come to SXSW without registering, and party central remains the annual Fader Fort, which features a bevy of sponsors and all-you-can-drink watered-down-beer. Giving a lighthearted, crowd-pleasing set and looking like a cross between the Kings of Leon and hipster models for a hippie-themed photo shoot were Philadelphia's Free Energy. Singer Paul Spranger flirted with "the babes" in the audience, and strutted some basic Mick Jagger-inspired moves. There was more than a little silliness here -- "bang! bang!" was the centerpiece of one inspired chorus -- but it was all delivered with Grade-A bar-band riffs that went down easy.
-- During a Q&A with power-pop legends Cheap Trick, Chicago Sun-Times journalist Jim DeRogatis had an important question. Just why, during "Surrender," is it KISS that gets the shout-out? It was all about the imagery, said guitarist Rick Nielsen. "Can you imaging your parents rolling around on the couch listening to KISS? Disgusting."
-- Todd Martens
Photo: Free Energy at the Fader Fort. Credit: Todd Martens