AUSTIN, TEXAS – After her first-ever gig at the South by Southwest Music Conference, Bdot Croc had to wonder if it was worth it.
She and her stage partner, DJ Keezy, bought airfare, rented a place via Airbnb and made it to a 6th Street club for their first gig, only to see a lot of familiar faces.
“It was mostly all Minnesota people there,” the Minneapolis rapper said.
The caravan of bands traveling down I-35 in mid-March has actually slimmed in recent years. At its peak in the early 2010s, SXSW Music drew more than 40 Minnesota acts. This year, the world’s biggest music-biz convention saw about two dozen — and that’s if you still count Meghan Trainor’s ex-Minnesotan co-writer Caitlyn Smith and Prince cohorts Dez Dickerson and André Cymone as locals.
The most prominent Minnesotans who attended SXSW ’17 were vets of the fest. Jeremy Messersmith has been there enough times that he’s made it a tradition to get away from the mayhem and hide out one afternoon at the famed Alamo Drafthouse cinemas (he and his bandmates took in “Logan” this time). Other regulars in Austin last week included Har Mar Superstar — who was literally there all week — Lizzo, the Blind Shake, the 4onthefloor, Communist Daughter, Red Lake rapper Baby Shel and returning champions Hippo Campus.
Despite escalating costs and hassles in getting there, plus its dwindling reputation as a trendsetting event, SXSW still draws eager newcomers from Minnesota. Bdot Croc was part of a crop of newbies this year that also included Gaelynn Lea and Tabah.
Here’s a look at SXSW through their eyes and slightly damaged ears.
Why she went: The Minneapolis rapper, aka Brynne Crockett, said she saw SXSW as a chance to network with people from out of state and gain traction elsewhere. “It’s a good place to meet a lot of people you wouldn’t otherwise meet,” she said.
Where she played: Her first of two SXSW gigs included the mostly Minnesotan party put on by Pledge Empire Records at Voodoo Donuts on 6th Street. “It was cool to see the friendly faces, but I also wanted to get in front of new people,” she said. She did just that at her official SXSW showcase in the Tap Room at the Market, part of a lineup put on by Los Angeles-based company the Color Agent, also featuring “Empire” cast member Bre-Z (Freda Gatz on the Fox TV show) and recent Diddy and Chris Brown collaborator Gizzle.
What else she saw: Besides the other acts at her showcases, she got to take in Lil Wayne’s performance at Stubb’s. “His set blew me away. It was a reminder how much of a legacy he has.”
Was it worth it? Yes, she said. “It was inspiring more than anything. It was like a musical Mardi Gras, full of people who are artists themselves or want to support artists. I’m trying to fulfill this dream, and I think it was a step in that direction.”
Why she went: Duluth’s violin-looping singer/songwriter wanted to add to the momentum set off at this time last year when she won NPR’s nationwide Tiny Desk Contest. She and her husband, Paul Tressler, fit it in amid an ongoing tour in an outfitted sleeper van, although their Austin stay was spent at the house of a friend’s family. “It was nice to be in a real home and get away from all the craziness for a bit,” she said.
Where she played: Lea had six gigs in total, including two SXSW Second Stage sets in hotel bars and an official showcase at Bethel Hall in St. David’s Episcopal Church. Oh, and she did her usual street busking, too, but that didn’t last long. “Too many drunk people,” she complained.
How it went: The centerpiece of Lea’s schedule was the church gig, where she and part-time guitarist Al Church were met with a sizable and attentive crowd that included other musicians and public-radio staffers. She earned big applause for her contest winner, “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun,” and a lovely new ballad with Church on grand piano titled “Bound by a Thread.” Startled by a dropped microphone, Lea let out a loud, “Oh, my God!” and then became more aghast realizing she was in a church. “Sorry for taking the Lord’s name in vain,” she gasped to laughter.
Other business: She also did a live Q&A on the news aggregation site Reddit and was followed around by a film crew from HBO’s Latin America, which Church didn’t know about until later. “I told him they have 25 million viewers, and he said, ‘Gee, it would’ve been nice to know that,’ ” Lea laughed.
What else she saw: She and Tressler were able to take in sets by established indie-rock favorites the New Pornographers and Minus the Bear, but her favorite was by another Minnesota act, the 4onthefloor. “I think Gabe is such a talented musician, but also someone who realizes you have to put on a show, too,” Lea said of 4onthefloor frontman Gabriel Douglas.
Was it worth it? “I was nervous about it, to be honest, but I really wound up liking it,” she said. “It’s a great way to meet people, and it was really just a good time.” Hustling between the venues in her wheelchair, she also saw her trip as something of a valuable test to SXSW’s accessibility. “I personally did not run into any serious problems, but I’ve heard it can be a lot worse, so it’s definitely something they need to keep in mind,” she said.
Why they went: The art-punky, guitar-noodly Minneapolis quintet just dropped its debut album, “Symmetry Somewhere,” and is making a national publicity and radio push for it. SXSW came midway through a monthlong tour in the band’s vintage mini-RV, roomy enough to sleep in.
Where they played: Among Tabah’s five gigs was an official showcase Wednesday night at the Handlebar and a laid-back informal Thursday afternoon at the Cherrywood Coffeehouse, where they played to mostly local residents and even a few dogs. “It was nice to mix it up and play more in a neighborhood, really get a feel for the city more,” singer/guitarist Cecilia Erholtz said after the latter gig.
How it went: Also featuring Los Angeles band Insects Vs. Robots, the Handlebar showcase drew a big crowd including Lukas Nelson (Willie’s kid) and members of his band Promises of the Real. “The crowd wanted an encore,” bassist Charlie Bruber bragged. “We’d heard horror stories about [official] showcases, but ours went great.”
What else they saw: They enthused about Insects vs. Robots but were also smitten by Boogarins, a Brazilian psychedelic band they happened to catch on Austin’s east side at the Scoot Inn. “They were these rocking soul brothers from Rio,” Erholtz raved. “Where else can you run into something like that besides SXSW?”
Was it worth it? “It’s been absolutely wonderful,” Erholtz enthused, citing networking the band did with booking representatives and an amplifier company that’s sponsoring their show in Nashville. “People say it’s a waste of time coming [to SXSW], but it depends on what your expectations are. It exceeded our expectations.”
More MN SXSW snapshots
Communist Daughter: Already on tour behind their new album, “The Cracks That Built the Wall,” Johnny Solomon and his moody, harmonious rock band sounded extra stormy at SXSW’s unlikeliest rock venue, Central Presbyterian Church. On stage (or: on altar?), Solomon confessed he was feeling tumultuous after a couple of days in the heart of Austin’s beast: “I’m coming back here tomorrow because there’s an AA meeting. I’m sober, and SXSW is just … whoa!”
Hippo Campus: We tried to catch the young Twin Cities pop-rockers at a Twix-sponsored afternoon party on the hipster drag Rainey Street but couldn’t get in. Then we showed up at Waterloo Records in time for a post-show signing, where young fans were lined up out the store and down W. 6th Street. “You guys really should consider coming to Oklahoma so I don’t have to keep driving to Texas,” one teenage fan complained as she lined up for a selfie with the band. That scene alone confirms the band is on the rise more than any media buzz it generated off SXSW.
Tancred: After garnering a strong indie buzz for her other band, Now Now, singer/guitarist Jess Abbott debuted this new group at SXSW ahead of an album coming April 1. Their well-attended showcase under the small cliffs beside Cheer Up Charlies was reminiscent of Superchunk, with a crunchier sound and gnarlier guitar work than Now Now.
Lizzo: Her impressive 11-performance run at SXSW included a coveted set at the NPR showcase at Stubb’s, where NPR itself said she “stole the show.” We were able to cut the long line for her appearance at Pandora’s day party, where she and her dancers didn’t cut down on their elaborate stage show, nor did she bite her tongue at all. She railed against Vice President Mike Pence at one point and dedicated “Good As Hell” to “the men who try to ruin your day.” “I say ‘try,’ ” she added.