AUSTIN, TEXAS – The kind of oddball but highly entertaining act you wind up catching in the waning hours of South by Southwest — because you’ve seen most of the serious arteests on your list by then — Montreal’s rap/rock/klezmer band the Socalled unexpectedly provided a spot-on epitaph for the 29th annual music conference early Sunday morning.
“How many of you just despise music by now?” Socalled’s wry creator Josh Dolgin asked.
Actually, considering the bloated commercialization and celebrity-driven hoopla of previous years, there wasn’t much to hate about SXSW 2015, which ended its five-day run Sunday. This year, Austin’s mega-fest was more about what it’s supposed to be about: The chance to see 2,300-plus bands in 100 or so different venues within a three-mile radius.
Dolgin thought maybe we’d had enough. For once, that wasn’t the case.
In lieu of bigger names — even Kanye West seemed to take the hint and bowed out last-minute this year — all kinds of newcomers rose to the top of SXSW. They included everything from Dublin’s freaky noise-rock band Girl Band to slick, vintage Texas crooner Leon Bridges, and from a sweet mother/son folk combo from Kansas City named Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear to loads of relatively straight-up, fuzzed-out rock bands from all over, such as Alvvays, Houndmouth, Palma Violets and the Districts.
The list of must-sees included many hot new rap acts, from Los Angeles wiz kid Vince Staples to Jay-Z’s British protege Little Simz to acclaimed duo Run the Jewels. Hip-hop took a central role at SXSW this year, with Snoop Dogg serving as keynote speaker and two full nights dedicated to it at the biggest and best full-time venue in town, the Moody Theater, where PBS’s “Austin City Limits” is filmed.
A few Minnesota acts earned ample attention, too. Suburban jangle-pop rockers Hippo Campus played hip parties ranging from Lollapalooza promoters C3’s VIP gig to Rachel Ray’s Feedback bash. Kanye’s young St. Paul collaborator Allan Kingdom ended his first SXSW opening for J. Cole in front of 2,500 fans at the “ACL” studio. And hard-blasting roar-rock trio the Blind Shake seemed to pop up and plug in everywhere, with nine shows total, using borrowed gear.
“I’m 2-for-2 on blowing amps,” Blind Shake guitarist Jim Blaha complained/bragged before his band’s third set of the week.
If amps are the only thing getting damaged, that’s a sign SXSW might be fixed. Here’s a recap from the 50 or so acts this writer blew through from Wednesday to Sunday in Austin:
SXSW 2015’s 10 breakout acts
Girl Band: By coincidence the very last act on my itinerary for the week, they were also my personal fave. These pleasantly jarring Dublin rockers blend the post-punk rhythmic patter of the Fall with manic bursts of noise-rock guitar into a wicked, electrifying performance.
Courtney Barnett: We got to know the droll-voiced Australian fuzz-rocker last year, but she seemed to make a new first impression with the more confidently swaggering, heavily amped-up tunes from her debut full-length album, which lands Tuesday. (Barnett plays Rock the Garden at Walker Art Center on June 20.)
Leon Bridges: The smooth-voiced, vintage-attired soul-rocker proved to be a smooth performer, too, previewing the libidinous love songs and sweet family odes from his Columbia Records debut and making the way-too-trendy Spotify House feel more like a classic supper club. (Bridges opens for Lord Huron at First Avenue on April 26.)
Alvvays: Led by bittersweet singer Molly Rankin, the Toronto quartet melded bubbly, Camera Obscura-like indie-pop melodies with heavier, shoegazerly guitar whir. (Opening for the Decemberists at Northrop Auditorium on Tuesday night.)
Codrington Pan Family: The steelpan ensemble from Trinidad and Tobago sparked one of the liveliest dance parties of the fest late Saturday, even using the “Green Acres” theme as groove fodder.
Vince Staples: The 22-year-old Los Angeles rapper of Odd Future association had a thick sound but rapid-flowed coolly in a packed and rowdy tent at the Fader Fort, a scene that could be very similar to his Soundset festival debut. (May 25 at Canterbury Park.)
James Bay: The British songwriter can get a little mushy, like in his relationship song “Scars” — coincidentally about a girlfriend who moved to Austin. But his willowy voice and harmonious band matched the pristine setting of St. David’s Episcopal Church. He seems like a shoo-in for a future church gig at the Basilica Block Party.
Madisen Ward & the Mama Bear: Madisen’s rich, bellowing baritone voice and evocative folk-writer lyricism was nicely counterbalanced by his mother Ruth’s pretty harmonies and their serene acoustic guitar work.
Springtime Carnivore: The Los Angeles quartet’s catchy, piano-plunky pop-rock was lively and giddy enough to have fans dancing between the pews at St. David’s.
Pirates Canoe: Seeing a Japanese bluegrass band covering Lady Gaga in Austin’s goth dance venue Elysium might go down as one of my most quintessential SXSW experiences.
Girlpool: Quirky, off-tune, lo-fi Los Angeles duo with a big SXSW buzz came off like a two-headed Kimya Dawson.
Big Data: A lot of drama, but too much else was going on in the New York electro-pop band’s overthought, underrealized arrangements.
Stromae: Belgian/French rapper/singer had the coveted slot before TV on the Radio at NPR Music’s showcase, but with his corny Euro-pop dance beats, it sounded like he should be playing spring break in Cannes instead.
Will Butler: Win Butler’s brother and bandmate proved a little too cutesy, coy and ragtag trying to differentiate himself from Arcade Fire.
Natalie Prass: The new songs by the sidewoman in Jenny Lewis’ band sounded too precious and languid, at least for a SXSW day party.
Laura Marling: The acclaimed British folkie, a veteran at only age 25, debuted her first-ever electric band and didn’t sacrifice any of her raw power.
Ghostface Killah: Wu-Tang Clan’s star rapper did his usual thing but proved all the more killer with Toronto’s electro-funk band BadBadNotGood for backers.
TV on the Radio: Despite a long hiatus between albums and some canceled tour dates, the Brooklynite art-rock heroes came back firing on all cylinders behind their new album “Seeds.”