Memorable moments include discovering Seattle's feminist hip-hop duo Thee Satisfaction, and a gracious celebration of Alex Chilton.
A stranger wandering into the scene that overtakes downtown Austin, Texas, every year during the music portion of the South by Southwest festival could be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of apocalypse. The din, the trash, the packs of stumblers forming strange clumps of humanity in the middle of each block and then dispersing across the intersections -- the total environment emanates disaster.
It's really a party, of course, a packed gathering of fans jumping from club to club in search of the perfect set from the thousand-plus artists playing dozens of showcases in dozens of venues around Austin's core. Young artists hope to be noticed, older ones renew their connections with fans and one another, and tipsy college kids shove up against music biz moguls in hopes of hearing something unforgettable.
The truth is that, though it can feel uncomfortable to the point of hazard, SXSW is one of the few settings in which devoted rock and pop lovers can feel as if the music industry is not in a catastrophic state. The daytime panels, though often notably underattended given the stakes, address the problems facing an art form in transition, but once the music starts -- and it really never stops here -- all such concerns are forgotten. Nearly every club door offers the chance of a breakthrough, and each new conversation offers hints that the health of grass-roots music might be just fine.
Some artists, like Los Angeles band Local Natives, rode in on a pretty big wave of excitement and fulfilled that promise with tight, memorable sets. Others -- like one of my favorite finds, Seattle's rambunctiously adorable feminist hip-hop duo Thee Satisfaction -- gained word-of-mouth traction over the course of several performances.
South by Southwest is so big at this point, and so varied, that drawing any conclusions from it is a fool's game. This year had to deal with one terrible tragedy: the Wednesday death in New Orleans of Alex Chilton, who was scheduled to play at Antone's on Saturday with the reunited version of his crucial 1970s band Big Star, and who instead was honored by many of his peers and inheritors at a tribute concert.
But whole strata of festival participants had no idea of Chilton's importance. They were busy with their own concerns, like Perez Hilton's annual to-do, or sets by major artists such as Muse and Hole. They supported their own interests; the heavy metal offerings alone, ranging from the great Motörhead to such young stars as High on Fire and Priestess, could have satisfied a headbanger for a year.