Nineteen hours after I left sunny Los Angeles, I touched down in Austin TX. After rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I looked up to see the narrow streets scattered with hundreds of music hungry people. Expecting more of a cowboy boot, flannel shirt totting scene from Texas; I was surprised to find a melting pot of every age, race and demographic.
Ducking in and out of dimly lit bars was a natural occurrence on the streets of the South By Southwest music festival. Each new artist approached the stage with hopes of their music reaching the ears of executives bearing promises of stardom. Anything was possible, Jimi Hendrix tributes were unknowingly played in front of Jimi's nephew Austin Hendrix himself. Foo Fighter's Nate Mendel ducked out of view to see a tribute to his band. Celebrities like Janelle Monae, Wiz Khalifa, B.O.B and even Super Bad’s Michael Cera made guest appearances. Whispers of a Kanye West secret show swarmed like hoards of bumble bees. Others, found paying off bouncers made it possible for one to slide into private viewing showcases, where the first glimpses of tomorrows mega stars could be viewed at arms length. However a label showcase did not always equate to talent. In fact, some bands were down right awful. The rarest talents were not found on stages, or even in the venues. They were found at the ends of blocked off streets and under tree-shadowed corners.
On Saturday evening I was drawn to a crowd, and the distant sound of a distorted electric guitar - the bluesy, deep bellow of Boston’s own Marc Pellegrino. The crowd increased by the second as the lead singer of the Red Bellows danced around his piano, wildly playing and singing at the same time. The drummer, both barefoot and shirtless, beat his set unmercifully. The lead guitarist stroked his strings in reverie, while the bass guitarist played solidly in his own little word of musical bliss. It was as if they’d stepped out of a time machine. By the end of their third song, the Bellows sold out of albums.
Once one band cleared out of the street, another quickly set up shop. Next up was Twenty Dollar Bill Wishing Well. If I didn’t know the time or year, I would have assumed that I was at a dock watching a gang of pirates singing about the treasure they'd just stolen. Their hair tousled, their clothes in un-premeditated distress; the boys of Twenty Dollar Bill sang in unison to catchy ship worthy songs like, “Jail House Now”, and “Chicken Pie”. Unusual instruments comprised of thimbles, tin cans, pots, and other household utensils were played with honest enjoyment.
After a St. Patty's day beer, or two, I came across an odd grouping of musical genius. A drummer beat swiftly as Renato Olivera puffed strongly into a didgeridoo. The combination of sound was nothing less than magical. Oliveira played as if inviting you into the rabbit hole, that undoubtedly began at the end of his didgeridoo.
While taking a break from the Texas heat, I watched Forrest Day begin their set at a Sixth Street pub. The five-piece band began their lyrical journey as lead singer, Forrest, played his saxophone with powerful grace, which lead into a feel good sound of intricate chord changes, melodies and brilliantly thought out lyrics. Songs like “Hyperactive”, “Its Just Me”, and “Everybody’s Fu@*#$! With My Mind”, carefully guided me through the hilarious emotional roller coaster created in Forrest’s mind. The tone that came out of the Bay Area native was, to say the least, surprising. Smooth and strong, even his screams were more like whimsical hollers. The crowd was captivated with the bands energy as they bounced about on invisible pogo sticks and, at times, jumping in an out of the pub’s window onto the street.
Once night fell, I found myself under a pitched tent, checking out the hip-hop acts. I thought for a second the wind blew the Sounds of Mischief through the space, but I turned to see The Nice Guys commanding the stage. Yves ‘Easy Yves Saint’ Ozoude, Lucien ‘DJ Candlestick’ Barton and producers Todd ‘Christolph’ Louis and Winfrey ‘Free’ Oribhabor make up the Houston hip-hop group. Seeing these boys perform was like a breath of fresh, clean air after a long plane ride: original lyrics, undeniable swagger, incredible fashion sense - each member was donning a vintage ivy league letterman jacket hand made by Kareem Day - and anthemic tracks to sky rocket any party. My eyes remained glued to the stage, only diverting to view the table skills of DJ Candlestick. Spinning, slicing, scratching and dicing, DJ Candlestick was a spectacle in his own right. The boys ended with a tribute to deceased rapper Nate Dog
As the stage was being setup for the next act, Evan Phillips stepped to the center, confidence glowing off his skin, and began lacing poetic hip-hop around the mic. No catchy hook, not even a background beat accompanied him - there was no need for one. “It’s a classic trend when you need a glock to win, no they can’t frame me or box me in. I spit things Lil’ Wayne can’t comprehend”, was how he ended. Each year SXSW presents the music industry with new talent while, simultaneously, old talent reminds us why we liked them in the first place. Next year, acts like Kings of Leon, Nicki Minaj, Foo Fighters and Lauryn Hill plan to make appearances - which for any sane person, is reason enough to start planning your trip now.
Bands To Know and the tracks you should listen to: Selah Sue - "Raggamuffin"; The Ostrich - "No Name Savage"; The Floorwalkers - " 3 Wishes"; Ash Reiter - "Paper Diamonds"; Moe Green - "Lights Out"; Eclectic Approach - "Motion Sickness"; Hunx and His Punx - "Too Young To Be in Love"; The Black Lips - "Bad Kids"; Colin Stetson - "Judges"; Holger - "Como Va"