South by every which way

Public Enemy performs on the giant Doritos stage in downtown Austin, Texas.
Public Enemy performs on the giant Doritos stage in downtown Austin, Texas. (Darren Abate/Invision)
Posted: March 17, 2013

AUSTIN, Texas - The everything-is-happening-at-once-all-over-the-place nature of SXSW is a perfect fit for attention-deficit-culture consumers. In its 27th year, the festival's endless options and enticing distractions work kind of the way the Internet does, pulling you in one direction even after you made the tough decision to go in another.

On Thursday morning, I started at Dave Grohl's keynote speech at the Convention Center, which was at the same time as a party across town hosted by Philadelphia recording studio/music venue MilkBoy, and featured a number of 215 acts, including Lushlife and Lantern.

The SXSW day party scene is an exercise in chaotic wonder. Bands plays multiple gigs all over town, and if you ask them where they're going next - as I did Nashville guitarist Buddy Miller when I ran into him in my hotel lobby - there's an excellent chance they don't even know. Somebody will tell them, hopefully.

That makes the unofficial part of SXSW hard to keep track of, but it also can lead to happy accidents. I was hoping to catch Nashville songwriter Caitlin Rose (who plays MilkBoy in Philly on April 3), but I didn't have a grip on her schedule. Turns out she was playing right next door at the Austin Ale House, and going on with her sharp five-piece honky-tonk rock band about 30 seconds after I walked in.

Most of the day, parties are free. Many, like the massive Fader Fort fete in the rapidly hipsterfying, formerly Mexican American neighborhood of East Austin, involve RSVPing on the Web, standing in an endless line to get a wristband, and standing in line again to get in. But, other times, you can just walk in, as we did for Rose, whose songs from the new The Stand-In sounded strong, though her vocals were lost in the mix.

SXSW is about many kinds of music, and hip-hop does not get short shrift. On Thursday, there was an oversized show with Public Enemy and LL Cool J on the giant Doritos stage downtown, and upstart rapper Joey BadA$$ was playing all over town.

Dave Grohl's keynote: 'The Voice' & your voice

Foo Fighters leader and former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, in Austin to push his new Sound City: Real to Reel music documentary, gave the keynote in a standing-room-only Convention Center hall.

Son of a speechwriter and a schoolteacher, Grohl whipped out a pair of drugstore reading glasses, quipping, "I hope I still look like a rock star."

Grohl's main theme was the importance of the musician being true to her or himself. "There is no right or wrong: There is only your voice - your voice screaming through an old recording console, singing from a laptop, echoing from a street corner, a cello, a turntable, a guitar.

"It doesn't matter. What matters most is that it's your voice. Cherish it. Respect it. Nurture it. Challenge it. Stretch it. Scream it until it's gone. Because everyone is blessed with at least that. And who knows how long it will last."

Nick Cave at Stubbs

Nick Cave is a hellacious frontman, and the Australian songwriter never cracked a smile as he whipped his rail-thin frame around the stage of Stubb's BBQ on Wednesday for the NPR Music showcase.

The sun hadn't entirely set when Cave, violinist Warren Ellis, and the rest of the Bad Seeds took the stage. "We're going to start off with a really long song, and hopefully by the time we're done, it'll be dark," said Cave, who plays the Keswick Theater in Glenside on Tuesday.

The band blasted into the bruising "Higgs Boson Blues," and it got plenty dark from there, with lots of bloody Biblical imagery mixed with Cave's theatrical yet dead-serious belief in the mythological power of early rock and roll.

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