Why music still matters at SXSW 

Success comes with consequences, and one of them is contempt. As the South by Southwest music festival's attendance has risen — from just 700 in 1987 to nearly 30,000 in 2015 — so too has the volume of the critics and contrarians who've gone on to vilify what's become the world's largest music event.

The Austin-based confab, they insisted early on, had sold out its Texas music origins. It had become a breeding ground for aspiring bands, and a feeding ground for music-industry weasels prowling for next big things.

Sixth Street, meanwhile, had become the equivalent of the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, with people trampling shards of CDs instead of broken beads. This year's event, which ran from March 17 to 22, also made it clear that yesterday's music-loving slackers have been replaced by today's topknot-wearing, pedicab-hailing hipsters.

And that's just fine.

Because along with all that come some 2,000 bands playing more than 100 venues. Just get yourself close enough to the stage, and the rest becomes irrelevant.

"Is everybody having a good South By thus far?" Family Crest keyboardist-flautist Laura Bergmann asked the enthusiastic crowd packed into downtown Austin's sweltering Clive Bar patio. While combining "South By" and "thus" in the same sentence may come across as sweetly eccentric, it also fits the San Francisco band's orchestral-pop perfectly.

Chosen as NPR Music's "Favorite New Band of 2014," the seven-piece group also provided the kind of transcendent moments music fans hope for when making the trek to SXSW, particularly during the nearly operatic title track to last year's Beneath the Brine album. Other songs brought to mind the anthemic qualities of Arcade Fire with the fervor and virtuosity of pre-"Eileen" Dexys Midnight Runners. It also doesn't hurt that Liam McCormick is a phenomenal vocalist on a par with Jeff Buckley.

The patio show performance was just one of four SXSW appearances The Family Crest would make during this year's festival. With unofficial daytime and after-hour parties becoming more common and less under-the-radar — social media permits few secrets — it's not uncommon for performers to play multiple shows.

Among this year's repeat performers were The Ting Tings, who gravitated toward more Deee-Lite-style electro-funk than their tinselly pop recordings might suggest, and Little Simz, a 21-year-old female rapper from the U.K., whose Jay Z-championed hip-hop trades flash for substance.

There were, of course, disappointments, including not being able to bluff my way in to see Ho99o9 perform their scary Suicide-meets-Geto-Boys horrorcore. Instead, I had to settle for Wyclef's outdoor show, in which he performed the obligatory "Killing Me Softly" and "No Woman, No Cry," while rapping about drug-sniffing dogs and his love for marijuana.

L.A.'s Death Valley Girls were retro in a different way, with off-key vocals and punk-rock songs that fell far short of the era they sought to evoke. And Canada's Brothers Landreth, who'd just received a Juno Award, may have celebrated a little too much, as they messed up the opening bars of Paul McCartney's "Let 'Em In," before recovering with their bluesy Canadian hit "I Am the Fool."

On the plus side, recent Warner Brothers signee Dylan Gardner also invoked the spirit of McCartney both musically and visually. Looking for all the world like a 15-year-old moptop, the Illinois native and his band played short, sharp songs that found them wearing their British Invasion and New Wave influences on their neatly tailored sleeves.

Better still, Fort Worth neo-soul newcomer Leon Bridges, who filled a cavernous space called the Hype Hotel, showed why he's becoming the darling of Daptone-revering R&B fans.

Bridges, who made his late-night television debut a week later, fronted an eight-piece band who occasionally reached the point where a little too much polish results in a lackluster performance. But there's no doubt that the understated soul man at front and center is the real deal.

Calle 13 frontman Eduardo Cabra knows how to stretch a metaphor. "It's like the Latin music industry found Anakin Skywalker," he said of his initial fascination and subsequent concerns about digital downloading. "And then Anakin went to the dark side. And now, Luke has to come and save us."

The Puerto Rican musician, who racked up 10 Latin American Grammy nominations last year (including Producer of the Year), wasn't quite sure when, or in what form, his industry's savior would arrive, and neither were his "AES Platinum Producers & Engineers" panel-mates.

Similar issues were addressed by panelists on the "What Is Record Production and Why Do You Need It" panel, where 26-year-old British producer Tarek Musa admitted that he still lives in his parents' house in order to survive economic times that are as tough for producers as they are for musicians.

He also likened the producer's role to that of a psychologist, and spoke of the need for artists to communicate in clearer, more specific ways: "If you like something because it's shiny, what does shiny mean?"

Stewart Lerman, a Grammy winner who's worked with artists like Elvis Costello and Regina Spektor, echoed the concern: "I've never heard an artist say, 'I'd like to make a record with a small sound that's brittle and really annoying.'"

Among the most well-attended sessions was "Power Networking in the Music Business," where manager Emily White, who also co-founded a crowdfunding platform called Dreamfuel, advised aspiring moguls and musicians to collect at least five business cards when attending any business function or social gathering. She also took issue with people characterizing managers as "assholes, yellers and screamers."

Personally, I preferred the Continuing Lawyers Education series' "Unhappy Together: The Turtles with Sirius XM," during which a roomful of entertainment lawyers addressed the group's successful suit for unpaid royalties from the streaming music service. A drier subject, perhaps, than "Beethoven to Beyoncé: The Science Behind a Hot Beat," but important nonetheless.

"Now it's like a real festival," declared Courtney Barnett, as a yellow inflatable kangaroo bounced above the crowd midway through a set that demonstrates why she's currently celebrated in Australia. In her best moments, the rock singer-songwriter comes across like an electric-guitar-wielding Patti Smith, but with poppier choruses and some nice left-handed feedback solos.

"Avant Gardener," which Barnett introduced as "the reason some of you may have heard of us," is the catchiest song about a life-threatening medical condition ever, complete with sing-along "I'm having trouble breathing" chorus.

Broncho frontman Ryan Lindsey also sounded like he had trouble breathing, but mostly because of a helium-affected vocal style that makes The Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley and Material Issue's Jim Ellison sound like baritones. Things improved, though, as the bathrobe-clad frontman for the shoegazer-influenced Oklahoma band began acting less like a tormented Kurt Cobain and more like a rock musician having fun. And by the time they launched into the stuttering falsetto chorus of the rousing "Class Historian," Broncho proved themselves to be a band worth standing in the rain for.

That was all the more true of Twin Peaks, the Chicago band whose late-night performance proved more powerful and varied than what you get from the vast majority of contemporary acts with garage-band ambitions. With three of the five band members alternating as lead vocalists, a number of their songs shifted gears unexpectedly and dramatically, with skillful writing and arrangements that sometimes recalled The Replacements in the more sober moments of their Let It Be Tour.

Then there was Altas, whose 1 a.m. Colorado Music Party performance I stumbled upon by chance. If the Denver psych-rock band was from somewhere more exotic than Colorado, Altas would be worshiped by fans of instrument trance bands like Can and God Speed You! Black Emperor.

Although a microphone loomed ominously at the front of the stage, the band thankfully never used it. Instead, they preferred to stare at their instruments — or into a space halfway between them and something no one else could see — while delivering a full set of wordless brilliance.

"Playing Saturday night at Doug Sahm's tribute concert was like being with him at Soap Creek Saloon in 1974," says Bill Bentley, who moved west to become an L.A. Weekly editor and then a Warner Brothers VP, without ever losing his Texas accent along the way. "Doug's spirit was everywhere, guiding us through the cosmos."

Bentley manned the drums for the final song of the festival's closing-night tribute to the psychedelic Tex-Mex genius. By that point, more than 50 amazing musicians, including Steve Earle and Charlie Sexton, were singing and playing together on the Paramount Theater stage.

For someone whose familiarity with the Texas legend doesn't go much beyond songs like "Mendocino" and "She's About a Mover," the nearly three-hour revue was a complete revelation, ranging from San Antonio's Krayolas joining the West Side Horns for a stunning version of "Who'll Be the Next in Line" to Roy Head performing his Sahm-penned No. 1 hit, "Treat Her Right," with the kind of fervor Johnny Cash must have had when he smashed all the Grand Ole Opry stagelights with his mic stand.

The concert, which was being filmed for future release, was the perfect ending to another SXSW, one that I wouldn't have traded for front row seats at The Last Waltz.


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