While you’re inside the mass of music, interaction, inspiration and stimulation that is South by Southwest, it’s hard to take a step back and reflect on all that’s been seen, heard and experienced. So now, that I am out of the bubble that grew around me over the past 10 days, I have a moment to highlight my best-of parts of the fest. And they go well beyond discovering the best sliders in all of Austin (hey – being there makes one prone to cheeky statements of the extreme!)
The above illustrates just some of the many wristbands collected over the past few days. They represent access to some of the best times I’ve ever had. Truly.
When I started out the first day and told people I was there to cover all three events – film, interactive and music, I got many stares of disbelief. And now I know why. It’s no mean feat trying to engage with all the various facets of SXSW – and just one of the portions is enough. But they all overlap and mix together so well that it was enriching to experience it all together.
SXSW can be thought of as a pick-your-own-adventure novel, because at any given moment you are presented with different panels, shows and parties, and whichever ones you pick create your version of the event. It’s just too big to possibly do it all, and the advice I kept getting over and over, as a first-timer, was to just be happy with the path you were on, and not to wish you were somewhere else (even if that somewhere else was 50 Cent performing with Eminem). With the music portion of SXSW, I honestly felt giddy at times, as if I was in my own music festival, personally curating the headline acts – some of them new, some of them artists I’d always wanted to see.
Here, then, is my attempt to share my highlights, in the order in which they happened:
Jay-Z’s American Express show
There were some heavy-hitters at SX, and I was happy to be able to catch Jay-Z’s show after missing his performance at Carnegie Hall in NYC. Witnessing Empire State of Mind live, performed in another city, was just incredible. That it was at the legendary Austin City Limits Live venue was a chart-topper.
Miike Snow and Kasabian at the Interactive Closing Party
Probably the main reason why my feet hurt so much during the festival – lots of dancing and soul-shaking here.
I felt the spirit of Bill Wethers and Otis Redding watching this British-born son of Ugandan parents. He may have been born in England but when he sings, Africa is in his voice – his Ugandan heritage shivers its way out. I’d heard about him before but seeing him perform live at the Radio Day Stage confirmed the hype surrounding him.
This band – led by the rousing Southern charm of Brittany Howard – can do no wrong. Their brand of alt-blues rock seems to win over all who hear it.
Fiona Apple provided the soundtrack to my teenage angst, and I was delighted to see she is just as biting and dramatic in her delivery of songs on stage as she is on her albums – falling over at the piano and all. After opening her set at Stubbs with 4 consecutive songs from When The Pawn she played some new tracks from her forthcoming album, which show she’s sticking with her attitude.
Hindi Zahra, College and Housse de Racket at Mohawk
It was by accident that I stumbled upon these French acts who were all playing before Rodriguez took to the stage at the oh-so-wonderful Mohawk Bar. Hindi has a sublime voice that captures the audience with its tales of love and loss. College is responsible for creating some of the music behind the movie, Drive, and it was a thrill to hear A Real Hero played live. Housse de Racket make anything but a racket and provided a joyful soundtrack to the night.
In South Africa, a gig like this would not have been possible – Rodriguez would never have been able to play in a tiny bar, no matter how packed it was. He’s just too big there. But here in the US, where his music is only starting to gain the respect it deserves, thanks to the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, this gig was an intimate, off-the-cuff 40 minutes of Rodriguez magic – like only the Sugarman can. At 70 years old, his voice still sounds as it did on his albums recorded in the 60s.
Santigold, Walk the Moon, Imagine Dragons and Steve Aoki at the MTV Woodies
Energy, energy, energy – these acts brought enough of it to keep up with the MTV kids. I particularly enjoyed Steve Aoki jumping in a boat to ride the crowd and then stage-diving into the audience with a cake in his hands. Madness!
Bruce Springsteen’s Keynote Address
I was not one of the lucky few who were selected via email to go to The Boss’ 2-and-a-half-hour concert (trying not to dwell on this) but I am so thankful I still got to experience this story-telling segment from Bruce Springsteen, complete with guitar-strung illustrations.
Of Monsters and Men
I literally floated to this band’s first gig, after the Springsteen keynote, in which he called on new bands to bring it every time they go on stage. Well, I saw this Icelandic group three times over the course of SXSW and each time they brought it – strong and melodic. The seven-piece outfit bring a Nordic twist to folk rock, and I think of them as what would happen if The xx enlisted the help of Mumford & Sons. Divine.
Formerly of The Frames but known from the hit little-film-that-could Once, Glen Hansard has been one of the artists I’ve been aching to see live. So when he sang “come away little lamb to the slaughter” as he played his ukelele, I wanted to go along with him. “It’s hard being a man and his guitar when the ambient noise is louder than you are,” he said, about the bar atmosphere. But he soon won the audience’s silence with the delivery of his songs. He performed songs from Once, The Swell Season and also an Irish traditional song sung at a wake that left me in tears. When his set was over, it felt as if the lights had come up and I was left sitting in the movie theatre unable to get up.
Nas, interviewed by Steve Stoute
This was an insightful interview by Nas’ former manager and now businessman Steve Stoute. He spoke about his relationship with Tupac, his thoughts on his controversial statement “Hip Hop is Dead” and told us he had been working with Amy Winehouse on a follow-up to Me and Mr Jones, which would have been called Me and Mr Jones Part 2. Even more heart-breaking.
This Brit is a huge star in the UK where he recently won 2 Brit Awards. But he’s still winning over fans in the US, although that didn’t prove to be a problem at all, judging from his Stubbs set. I’m so glad I was able to witness how he leads his audience in sing-a-longs, turning them into the “Stubbs Gospel Choir”. He does a spell-binding cover of Nina Simone’s Be My Husband, and then, just like that, he flips it and raps like the best of them, beating the hell out of his guitar.
“Mama, I wanna go surfing…” Thoroughly enjoyed this act, and found myself deep within the crowd lapping them up. The perfect way to end my SXSW experience.