AUSTIN — When you can’t laugh in the purple rain, you crowd surf through a hurricane of ice cubes and beer suds. Because, yeah, the rumors came true — the mighty Prince closed out the 27th annual South By Southwest music festival with great hullabaloo and six encores. But 15 blocks across town during those same tiny hours of Sunday morning, San Francisco garage rockers Thee Oh Sees were peeling off maniac riffs on a rowdy nightclub patio. If you were lucky enough to be sucked into this cyclone of hair, sweat, pumped fists, lobbed drinks and distortion, it was no consolation prize. It was the reason you came to Texas.
Thousands arrived in Austin last week seeking moments of spontaneous sonic combustion like this one, but quickly found themselves in a city that had pitted pop stars against peons. Like so many energy drink and snack food brands before them, Depeche Mode, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Iggy Pop and other marquee names had all come to town to leech some cred from America’s most vibrant music festival, which drew more than 2,000 acts this year.
And of course there was endless chatter about appearances from Justin Timberlake and Prince, two maestros who, despite the gulf between their talents, make the most Herculean pop songs look effortless.
But SXSW is all about effort. It’s a place where unknown underdogs sign up for dozens of gigs, rolling their boulders up all kinds of hills, hoping we’ll fall in love with what we hear. It’s a courtship ritual, and the presence of icons who already own our hearts just mucks it up. So back to Mount Olympus, you jerks. Beat it.
Down in the trenches, even rookies making high-sheen pop had to spill some sweat, including British singer Charli XCX. Performing in the Thursday afternoon sunshine, she dressed like an exiled Spice Girl (baggy trousers, fluorescent sports bra), sang like a child of Madonna (small voice, XXL attitude) and danced as if she fully intended to leave Austin a superstar.
Her competition didn’t hold up as well. Sky Ferreira, perhaps the most promising new pop singer in town, allegedly got sick, lost her voice and nixed her remaining gigs. Hyped Brooklyn indie band DIIV tweeted their disenchantment with SXSW, calling it “a glorified corporate networking party.” And by Saturday afternoon, many young acts seemed utterly exhausted. New York rapper Angel Haze struggled to translate the gripping intensity of her recordings to the stage, while Merchandise, a band of punky Floridians, soldiered through with the check-engine light flashing. “This is show number 10 for us,” frontman Carson Cox announced at the outset. “We’re all out of pretty songs.”
As for big songs, they were everywhere. The three guys with the two biggest hits on the current Billboard singles chart were in Austin for the week — Bauuer of “Harlem Shake” fame, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis of “Thrift Shop” infamy — delivering heaps of performances, perhaps to convince the world they are actual humans and not online memes.
A Tribe Called Red, a visionary trio of DJs from Ottawa, made the dance floor feel like the most ripe setting for discovery in Austin, stacking Native American pow-wow chants over bruising hip-hop beats and sternum-punching bass lines. There wasn’t anything else like it at SXSW. There probably isn’t anything else like it on Earth.
But it was tough to suss out that kind of magic with so many uppercase names sucking up our time and brain space. The first whiff of trouble arrived Wednesday night with a masterfully physical performance from gloom rock anti-hero Nick Cave, who worked the stage as if he were brawling with ghosts, or perhaps seducing them.
Sporting a black blazer that could have been plucked from Cave’s closet, former Dixie Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines signaled her big comeback with a midnight show in a well-lit church, but didn’t cast the same spell. With some help from Ben Harper, who helped out on Maines’s upcoming solo album, the resurgent country superstar sang her sweeping new tunes for too many empty pews.
Country and hip-hop played a bigger role this year, but SXSW is still the most generous to the scrappiest of rock-and-roll bands — groups who can charm ears without so much as a sound check. Warm Soda, a foursome from Oakland, Calif., proved as much Thursday afternoon, dumping out a bag of dreamy power pop hooks that instantly turned the audience into beer-swilling bobbleheads.
Even better was a Friday night sugar rush from Mikal Cronin, whose rock anthems came dunked in color, charisma and electricity. From song to song to song, you could see the stiff-jointed audience slowly committing to the music with their bodies — and then with their giggles, namely whenever Cronin, who looks like a grunge John Cusack, flung his hair skyward. And so a heartthrob is born — and with no Mickey Mouse Club on his resume.
Did the meek resent the increased uber-star invasion at this year’s SXSW? Maybe a little. “Justin Timberlake is playing down the street,” said frontman John Dwyer during Thee Oh Sees’s set in the final, wee-hour throes of SXSW. “But you weren’t getting into that show anyway.”
And while his band riffed for passers-by on Red River Street, actually seeing Dwyer through the mini-mob was tricky. For a better view, a dozen faithful climbed up onto the roof of his band’s Ford E-350 tour van, parked in an adjacent alleyway. On the patio, two peroxide blondes perched atop an ATM like punk gargoyles. Hairy pedestrians stopped in the middle of Red River and started headbanging as if it were a completely involuntary response. And thankfully, one demographic didn’t pay Thee Oh Sees any attention at all.
“Still no cops?” Dwyer asked during the band’s encore. Then he tore into another riff that would keep ears ringing all the way to the airport and beyond.