SXSW 2014: As the A-listers descend on Austin, the little acts learn to relax

A Zen riddle from Texas: If Lady Gaga hires someone to barf on her in concert and nobody really cares, does it sell Doritos?

Here’s another one: How did South by Southwest — a music festival originally designed 28 years ago for fans with curious eardrums — mutate into a hysterical, capitalist trade show for 18-to-34-year-olds with the munchies?

Gaga was one of more than 2,000 acts that squeezed into Austin last week for SXSW, an annual gathering of musicians (and sponsors) hustling to win hearts and minds.

But Thursday night, she was the only one aiming to win stomachs by inviting a performance artist to vomit on her while she gave a concert hosted by the corporation behind America’s grodiest snack chip.

Keep Austin weird?

Legend has it that SXSW used to be this beautiful Darwinian slugfest where unknown bands would perform at venues dotting the city, competing for fans, glory and record contracts. But this year, it was the festival’s numerous corporate sponsors — and the mega-famous pop stars they shuttled in to shill for them — that were desperately jostling for attention. Coldplay, Kanye West, Jay Z, Soundgarden and Lil Wayne arrived over the course of the week, eager to mop up any available droplets of cred.

Here’s what was different: This year’s attendees didn’t make much fuss over it. SXSW has become so rife with branding, so sodden with superstars, that listeners are learning to tune out the hoopla. The “buzz” is returning to the shadows, where newbie artists are test-driving alien sounds, unburdened by the frenzied, careerist pressures of yesteryear.

This emerging scenario might be far from ideal, but it’ll work for now.

Like on the patio of Cheer Up Charlie’s on Friday night where Kelela — an R&B innovator born in Washington and working in Los Angeles — sang with enough poise, control and vision to prove that she’s capable of finishing the work that the late Aaliyah started. Accordingly, her new converts bobbed their heads, pumped their fists, swayed, swooned and got excited about the future.

Warpaint, a quartet also hailing from Los Angeles, played music that was almost as seductive. Translating post-punk’s sharp angles into liquid curves, the band appeared to be forging a new rock dialect in a democratic way — and danced to it like sea anemones.

Others used beat-up acoustic guitars to carve fresh paths to enlightenment. Ryley Walker, a young gun from Chicago, approached his intricate ballads with an almost animalistic intensity, while Steve Gunn’s colorful folk songs radiated handsomely and effortlessly, like Appalachian mandalas.

But few transcendent troubadours at SXSW seemed more comfortable in their blue jeans than country outsider Sturgill Simpson, whose powerful honky-tonk tunes were inspired by life on the road and the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Does Simpson actually live in Music City or on a higher plane above the skyline?

Skeletonics, Inc. demonstrated a robotic skeleton suit at the South By Southwest festival in Austin. Watch the gadget in action. (Kate M. Tobey/The Washington Post)

“We’re from Nashville,” he told an audience sitting rapt in the pews of a downtown church Saturday night. “We try to never play there.”

Contemporary country’s biggest names haven’t started playing at SXSW, but hip-hop’s A-list has been showing up in greater numbers. Schoolboy Q is still a rap star in the making, but at Stubb’s BBQ on Friday afternoon, he proved why his new album recently shot to the top of the charts. He was tough and tenacious, approaching every word as if hammering a nail through it.

If Atlanta’s Young Thug made the biggest breakout splash in Austin — and he might have — he did it with remarkable efficiency. At the Fader Fort on Friday, the lanky, bespectacled rapper seemed to burst from the starting blocks, throwing all of his strange, squeaky croak into “Danny Glover” and “Stoner.” But this grand entrance doubled as a grand finale. Without a farewell, the guy vanished. Considering SXSW’s hyper-stimulative qualities, perhaps the best way to leave them wanting more is to barely give them anything.

And while SXSW will always overload the senses, this go-round felt a touch less crowded and a bit more mellow. (On Thursday, after a driver fleeing police struck a group of festival-goers, killing two, the mood of the festival changed only slightly.) There was a little more space on the sidewalks, a little more elbow room in the crowds. Even the mosh pits seemed more spacious.

And for the past five years or so, those mosh pits have been sparked by noisy garage-rock bands, SXSW’s most enjoyable underdogs. This year’s standouts included Austin’s Ghetto Ghouls, the ever-feral Coachwhips and Obnox, a one-man band founded by singer-guitarist Lamont “Bim” Thomas.

Thomas grew up near Cedar Point, an Ohio amusement park famed for its roller coasters, and if you squinted your ears, you could almost hear them echo in his ramshackle riffs. This was music that herked and jerked and rumbled and almost made you want to throw up.

But in a good way. Not a trying-to-sell-Cool-Ranch-Doritos way.

More coverage from South by Southwest

Chris Richards became the Post's pop music critic in 2009. He has covered D.I.Y. house shows, White House concerts, go-go and Gaga.
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