Every year, more big names come to Austin to take advantage of the global media gathering and play for thousands of fans. Jack White, Lil Wayne, Fiona Apple, Eminem, Norah Jones and dubstep star Skrillex were all on hand.
With a surprise appearance with local hero Alejandro Escovedo, a showcase, and a speech, Bruce Springsteen took over the festival for 24 hours. In his keynote, he encouraged striving acts to lift every voice and sing: "Purity of human experience and expression is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips," the Boss stressed. "There is no right way, no pure way of doing."
Amid the buzz-worthy indie and alt-rock and global-groove acts like New Zealand genre-splicing singer Kimbra (who plays Philadelphia Friday) and Colombian electronic act Palenke Soultribe and arresting British folksinger Daughter and hard-to-spell Montreal-based experimental duo Tonstartssbandht (pronounced TAHN-starts-bandit)and British shoegaze sister act 2:54, there was more hip-hop in the house than ever.
That included rising rappers like Danny Brown and A$AP Rocky (whose Saturday-night set erupted in violence) and long-standing stars such as 50 Cent and Nas. The Roots were in town and did one high-profile gig, and Philadelphia duo Chiddy Bang took the more common SXSW approach of playing multiple showcases, giving festivalgoers multiple chances to hear them.
The play-as-many-shows-as-you-can approach was also taken by established-yet-growing acts such as Oregon band Blitzen Trapper and San Francisco roots-rocker Chuck Prophet (both of whom were joined on stage, separately, by R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck), as well as Philadelphia's trance-rock band the War on Drugs.
Wednesday night at La Zona Rosa, the entertaining Detroit duo Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. and New Orleans piano maestro Dr. John were followed by Gary Clark Jr., the blazing Austin blues guitarist who sings almost as well as he plays. Clark capped a jaw-dropping, house-wrecking hour on stage with his song "Bright Lights." It put into words an oath that encapsulated what thousands of musicians who descended on SXSW hoped to accomplish.
"You gonna know my name by the end of the night," he vowed. "You gonna know my name."
The Roots play MOG
Bruce Springsteen wasn't the only one to put on an enlighteningly educational musical clinic in Texas this week about the history of American popular music. There was also the Roots, who headlined the MOG party at Mohawk on Saturday afternoon, lines stretching down the block to get in.
(What's a MOG, you might wonder? It's a streaming music service, competing against Pandora, Spotify and Rhapsody, among others, and booking acts such as the Roots, Blitzen Trapper, Bob Mould, and Gary Clark Jr. to pump up the brand.)
Along with speaking to the issue of what defines Philadelphia-ness - "It doesn't matter where you came from," Black Thought said, "once you've been associated with the legendary Roots crew, you from Philly" - the Roots demonstrated their impossibly broad musical reach with their showcase "You Got Me" medley. Guitarist and singer Capt. Kirk Douglas strutted his stuff as the band quoted OutKast, Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder, Bo Diddley, and Led Zeppelin.
It was instructional and highly entertaining, kind of like "W.E.B. Du Bois meets Heavy D and the Boyz," as Black Thought put it on "Get Busy." Highlights included special guest DJ Jazzy Jeff joining drummer Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and percussionist Frank Knuckles for a drum-off of sorts. ?uestlove, the hardest-drumming man in show business, naturally followed that show with a DJ gig late Saturday night.
All my in-the-know folk music friends have been recommending Anaïs Mitchell, the Vermont songwriter with an ambitious new album Young Man in America, whom I missed when she came through Philadelphia last month. Mitchell was formerly signed to Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe label, and her 2010 album Hadestown featured contributions from DiFranco, Greg Brown and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Just last week Bon Iver covered Mitchell's lovely "Coming Down" in a performance on an Australian radio station, and faster than you can say Pitchfork, Mitchell's hipster name-brand awareness shot through the roof.
Not too many indie kids made it across the river to Threadgill's for the Folk Alliance party. Mitchell's got a high girlish voice that might remind you of Rickie Lee Jones without the flighty tendencies, and a sharp, versatile band that employs banjo and vibes as well as keyboards and guitars. She played a quietly luminous set Saturday as the Texas sun broke through the clouds for one of the first times last week. The highlights were the almost seven-minute-long title cut and "Coming Down," which she was singing for the first time since hearing Vernon's version, which she called "so beautiful I thought I might not ever be able to play the song again." Mitchell was so good I'll forgive her for closing with a cover of Counting Crows' "Round Here."
215 in the 512
There have been Philadelphia acts all over Austin this week, from indie acts Oh! Pears and Attia Taylor, who played Thursday's showcase by Collingswood web show Bands in the Backyard, to hip-poppers Chiddy Bang, who had the midnight slot at the Doritos stage downtown on Friday.
After failing to get in to see psych rockers Purling Hiss, who were opening for Jack White, I scooted across I-35 to east Austin for Free Energy, the Fishtown band fronted by the now short-haired, skinny-legged singer Paul Sprangers. Love Sign, their follow-up to 2010's winning Stuck on Nothing, is due out this year. Lots of rock-candy crunch, no shortage of leg kicks.
Later on, I closed the night out at Buffalo Billiards with Vacationer, the Philly band that's an entry into the post-Vampire Weekend world beat-indie pop sweepstakes. It's accomplished stuff, and the foursome had a room almost full of dancers bopping along at 1:45 a.m. Saturday. Vacationer, which also played Spotify House on Friday, can do mellow, as on the gently percolating "Gone," or be more brightly energetic as on "Dreamlike," which the singer prefaced by saying, "We're kind of chill, we smoke a lot of weed, but we can pump up the volume, too."
For video of the Roots performing at South by Southwest, go to the "In the Mix" blog: www.philly.com/inthemix.
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @delucadan on Twitter. Read Dan's blog, "In the Mix," for longer versions of these and other reports from SXSW, at www.philly.com/inthemix.