Big-name acts like Green Day, Snoop Lion, and the reunited A Tribe Called Quest get the headlines, and corporate brands selling cellphones, sneakers, and snacks are everywhere.
But the SXSW experience is still dominated by mid-level and starter acts lugging gear around town as they play shows morning, noon, and night to get the attention of the assembled global music industry and entertainment media.
"This is one of our 29 gigs . . . today," said Zach Williams of the Lone Bellow, the would-be sons of Mumford & Sons, while playing in a parking lot Thursday. (He was exaggerating, slightly: the band played 13 shows during the festival.)
Portand, Ore., retro-rockers Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside, Indiana roots-rockers Houndmouth, Seattle indie-pop band Deep Sea Diver, Nashville country songwriter Ashley Monroe, and the Malian blues band Terakaft were among the estimable not-yet-household names that caught my ear.
Philadelphia was strongly represented, with showcases presented by Mark Schoneveld of the music blog "Yvynyl" and the music venue/recording studio Milkboy. And 215 acts on hand included songwriter Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, who was on the prestigious NPR Music bill; folk-rock band Toy Soldiers, which played TV host Rachael Ray's party; and Xaphoon Jones of the hip-hop group Chiddy Bang, who played a late-night DJ set.
Solange, Beyoncé's sis
Solange Knowles is more a SXSW sort of girl than her big sister, Beyoncé. At the Spin party at Stubb's on Friday afternoon, the 26-year-old Brooklynite was on a bill between Scottish electro-pop buzz band Chvrches and Los Angeles rap wiz Kendrick Lamar, which made perfect aesthetic sense. She turned out in a pink shorts ensemble and backed by a minimalist R&B combo. The burgeoning indie-style star played a five-song set that took a few numbers to gather steam, but clicked in with her perfectly suited cover of the Dirty Projectors' "Stillness Is the Move," whose Zen lyric about finding calm amid cacophony rang out like a strategy for sanity at SXSW.
I heard a lot of great music in Austin last week, but the most fun I had until I saw Prince was at the globalFEST showcase at the Speakeasy, where I caught Malian trance-blues band Terakraft and Brooklyn bhangra brass band Red Baraat.
A couple of members of Terakraft, who are based in Algeria and whose name means "caravan" in the Tamasheq language, didn't make it due to visa issues. No matter: They got their bus driver, Manny Flores, to wear a beret backwards to approximate the traditional keffiyeh nomad garb, and two masterful guitarists laid down a hypnotic Saharan groove, along the Ali Farka Touré-John Lee Hooker-Chuck Berry continuum. Mesmerizing.
Terakraft were followed by Red Baraat, the Sunny Jain-led Brooklyn consortium that I've been foolish to never see until now. The eight-piece band's dhol 'n' brass sound mashes together strains of Indian music with New Orleans brass and makes productive use of hip-hop, but it's entirely its own thing - a magnificently robust, multicultural melange built entirely on brass and drums.
The double bill made me wonder why I spend so much time watching wan indie-rock bands. Red Baraat plays World Cafe Live on March 28.
Saturday afternoon, South Austin
The music in Austin gets rootsier and twangier when you turn your back on the state Capitol and head south over the Congress Avenue bridge, where the world's largest urban bat colony lives.
All SXSW long, there's free music outdoors at Mexican restaurants, coffee shops, and roadhouses like the Continental Club, where James McMurtry and Jon Dee Graham played Saturday. It's good for the soul to get out of downtown, away from all the badge-wearing weasels like myself and check out the thrift shops, boot stores, and art galleries.
On Saturday afternoon, I caught up with one old favorite and came across an excellent find. Kelly Willis and her husband, Bruce Robison, were playing the Yard Dog art gallery. Willis and Robison have a fine album out called Cheater's Game, and the onetime would-be mainstream country starlet still possesses a powerful, honky-tonk angel's voice.
A couple of blocks down the hill, I ran into the six-piece band Whiskey Sisters. The outdoor setting at the Lone Star Music Stage was pretty much idyllic, as headphone-protected tykes hula-hooped in the late afternoon light, and garage-rock organ met biting barroom guitar. I'll miss you, Austin, Texas.
Prince closes it in style
As "Purple Rain" was building to a crescendo about an hour into his dazzling performance that closed out SXSW on Saturday night, Prince paused to say a few words.
"I love being a musician," the 54-year-old Minneapolis wonder said. "It feels like being a servant. A servant to you." (Though in his mind, he probably spelled it "A servant 2 U.")
Though he was pretending to be wrapping up his set before a crowd of 1,300 - who were pinching themselves for scoring a ticket to perhaps the most in-demand show in SXSW history - it turned out Prince was just starting his evening of service.
Prince - who fronted a 22-person, frighteningly funky, and astoundingly versatile ensemble that goes by the name New Power Generation - went on to play six encores that stretched almost twice as long as the preceding set.
"You've heard of five-hour energy?" the impish musical polymath asked. "Eleven-hour energy is my middle name."
He also taunted the audience during one of several phony goodbyes: "Goodnight, Austin. Don't make me hurt you: Do you know how many hits I have?"
A lot. And while changing costumes often, beginning with a sleek blue suit and finishing in a leather vest and a stuffed-animal hat - he did a good number of them, including "1999," and "U Got the Look." But with the assistance of four female singers, he also did plenty of other people's songs.
One of NPG's female vocalists stepped forward for Aretha Franklin's "I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)" and the erotic ballad "Satisfied," on which he sang the line, "Turn off your cellphone, baby!" even though the show was sponsored by mobile device-maker Samsung, which Prince thanked for calling him. "I guess they decided Austin needed some funk."
That tune was followed by a brilliant workout of James Brown's "I Don't Want No One to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)" and Prince's own shuddering "Housequake."
In the course of the two-hour, 40-minute evening, Prince played piano, and (beautifully) sang piano ballads. What he did not do was play guitar, somewhat perversely, since he not only is one of the world's great lead players, but he began the evening by correctly commenting on Austin's notoriety for its axemen. You might have thought that he would be out to teach them a thing or two, but he apparently had other priorities. Such as proving that "there ain't no party like a purple party," which there most assuredly is not.
As 3 a.m. drew near, and he came out for his sixth and final encore, he said, "They say we only have 20 minutes. Can we make it the best 20 minutes of our lives?"
If it didn't succeed in reaching that goal for everyone in the room, you couldn't blame Prince. He did his part.
Contact Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @delucadan. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.