Street scene

SXSW: Music’s March Madness – A Preview

This is what passes for spring break in Austin, Texas.

Just in time for spring break, the TV is telling us to “spring forward” our clocks this weekend.  Great – as if we needed another thing to keep us from sleeping over the next seven days. You see, we’re packing for that South by Southwest thing (referred to as SXSW), an insane hurricane of music and hype in Austin, Texas. The interactive and film events are already under way, but the real action begins Wednesday: more than 4,000 musical acts will strain to get attention from official attendees and spring break partiers.

In this year of Twenty Aught Twelve the SXSW music festival has grown to such incredible proportions that “epic” simply does not sufficiently describe it. What started out 26 years ago as an industry conference designed to spotlight unknown and unsigned music acts has morphed into an orgy of superstars, has-beens, wanna-bes and never-wills.

This year, more than 2,000 music acts will play the official part of the festival, but there are hundreds of unofficial side parties featuring at least a couple thousand more performers. SXSW music emanates from Austin’s downtown area to its South Congress neighborhood, to spacious Auditorium Shores park, to the up-and-coming east side and beyond. That makes SXSW one of the country’s largest music festivals, and certainly the one spread out over the most real estate.

Music is literally everywhere during SXSW.

Start at the top of the list of performers and you have Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Lionel Richie, Jay-Z, Santigold, The Roots, Jimmy Cliff, Norah Jones, the Cult, Counting Crows, of Montreal, The Shins, Mumford and Sons, Blitzen Trapper, the dBs, Skrillex, Ingrid Michaelson, the Alabama Shakes, Best Coast, Fiona Apple, Dan Deacon, Andrew WK, various members of R.E.M., Titus Andronicus, Built To Spill, Alejandro Escovedo, Jesse Malin, Garland Jeffreys, Billy Joe Shaver, Thomas Dolby, Gary Clark Jr., the Jesus and Mary Chain, Chuck Prophet, Lil’ Wayne, Nas, Big K.R.I.T., Jack White, Tom Morello and many, many more. Multiply each of those names by about 2,000 fans and you get a picture of what it’s like.

Among the newer acts with “buzz” this year are the Alabama Shakes, a rock and soul unit that just a few years ago was playing covers to pay the rent. Led by guitarist/singer Brittany Howard, the Shakes socked away some original tunes and finally got their big break when the Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood saw them and invited the band to open for the Truckers. The Shakes have since appeared on “Conan” and hope that multiple appearances at SXSW will create some heat for their debut album Boys and Girls, out April 9.

Austin’s own Gary Clark Jr., an electrifying blues guitarist, is ready to leap from hometown hero to household name with three or four sets a day at SXSW. Cheap Girls, from Lansing, Mich., and Diarrhea Planet, from Nashville, plan to keep the punk rock in the garage where it belongs, while L.A.’s Class Actress offers a feast for the eyes as well as the ears. On the rap front,we have hip-hop collective Black Hippy featuring Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul and comes with a rumored Dr. Dre-approved pedigree. For straight-ahead rock fans, bet on Buxton, from the mean streets of Houston.

And let’s not forget the headline: Bruce Springsteen will be the event’s keynote speaker on Thursday, and later that evening he fronts the E Street Band for a performance at an “intimate” still-secret Austin venue. Norah Jones will showcase her new music (made with Danger Mouse), and revitalized rockers the Jesus and Mary Chain, the dBs and the Cult all hope to grab some of the spotlight this time around.

We can go on – and we will, all throughout this coming week. Look for our posts and coverage from deep in the heart of Texas on Popdose, as well as on our home blog 30 Days Out. We are going to post many of our photos on Photobucket and our special Flickr account, and promise to hit as many of these crazy events as we can. It’s rough, but somebody has to do it.