AUSTIN, TEXAS — When the Austin band Spoon started playing the South by Southwest Music Conference in the mid-1990s, the music venues in town weren’t named after corporate brands such as the Mazda Empire Garage or the Levi’s Outpost, and the VIP speakers at the Austin Convention Center weren’t former vice-presidents like Joe Biden or country music megastars such as Garth Brooks — all examples of this year’s festivities.
Spoon took back some of the old spirit of SXSW as the music side of the conference kicked off Tuesday, the first of three nights when the 2015 Rock the Garden headliners are hosting their own little mini-conference with hand-picked bands and very little marketing mojo behind it at Sixth Street nightclub the Main. The band’s frontman Britt Daniel even went old-school when he asked, “What’s up, Emo’s?,” the name the venue carried for two decades before Austin was overtaken by condo towers and transplanted Brooklyn hipsters.
Daniel led the group through more than half of their new album due out Friday, “Hot Thoughts,” laced with more synth-pop tones and dance-y beats but heavy on drama. The breakup song “I Ain’t the One” was the most hushed ballad in the band’s canon, and the pitter-patting “Do I Have to Talk You Into It” kicked off the show with hints of Roxy Music.
Canadian power-pop giants the New Pornographers also played Spoon’s party, previewing songs from their flowery new album, “Whiteout Conditions.” When leader A.C. Newman introduced the record’s opening track, he quipped at SXSW’s expense, “This song is called ‘Play Money,’ which is ironic since we’re not actually getting paid to play tonight.”
A band making an even sharper sonic turnaround than Spoon on its latest record, New Orleans folk-rockers Hurray for the Riff Raff came off like Bob Dylan’s “Time Out of Mind” backing band at the Mazda compound. Among the newcomers who made big splashes on Tuesday was Los Angeles electro-soul bellower Anna Wise, who stretched out the moody vibes she has brought to Kendrick Lamar’s records into a full, mesmerizing set. Also making themselves known, one of Austin’s most happening young bands, punky new wavers A Giant Dog, went off like a fireworks show under the explosive energy and cool strutting power of frontwoman Sabrina Ellis.
South by Southwest continues through Sunday with some of the biggest shows not yet announced (Brooks is fully expected to get up and play a surprise set somewhere), but new additions including a street party with the Roots (on Saturday, of course, since they still have “The Tonight Show” duties) and an outdoor, public tribute to Prince featuring his early bandmates Dez Dickerson and Andre Cymone along with Fugees co-leader Wyclef Jean and “guests” (also Saturday).