SXSW can be overwhelming, to say the least. Bands set up camp in just about every building in downtown Austin. Bars and clubs are booked solid, but so are churches, pool halls, parking lots and everything in between. Choosing your SXSW schedule in this chaos can be challenging, but with most musicians playing multiple shows, you can catch what you want to see if you plan ahead. There are major artists you already love (see: Bruce Springsteen), bands you know and bands you've never heard of. The best SXSW schedule includes all of these, as well as the little surprises you just can't plan for. We've earmarked 25 acts that are worth the effort.
And, it goes without saying that all of the bands we've invited to our Rock Room day parties on March 16th and 17th are not to be missed. See the full schedule – including Keane, Gary Clark Jr., Hot Water Music and lots more – here.
This selection comes with an asterisk and a disclaimer. Springsteen’s SXSW showcase is not to be missed – but most SXSW attendees will have no option but to do just that. He’s scheduled to perform at an intimate secret location on Thursday, March 15th and tickets are only available to SXSW badge holders by raffle. One sure bet, raffle or not: Springsteen's SXSW keynote address, beginning at noon on March 15th at the Austin Convention Center. You can tune in from anywhere, as NPR is both broadcasting his address and streaming it online.
Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman
After winning accolades as the fiery guitar slinger for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, Tom Morello surprised audiences when he unveiled his folksinger alter-ego the Nightwatchman. That his songs were protest songs was no surprise. Morello has performed in support of the Occupy movement in encampments both on Wall Street and in Los Angeles. He plays Rolling Stone's Rock Room day party at La Zona Rosa on March 17th.
The Barr Brothers
Brothers Brad and Andrew Barr – guitar and drums, respectively – have played together their entire career, dating back to the Nineties with New England jazz-rock trio the Slip. That band morphed into an indie five-piece called Surprise Me Mr. Davis. When the brothers relocated to Montreal in 2005, they formed a side project with their neighbor, harpist Sarah Page. What was a band of happenstance turned into a serious pursuit under the name the Barr Brothers. Don't miss their sacred-sounding and emotionally moving songs when they perform in St. David's Historic Sanctuary on March 15th.
We Were Promised Jetpacks
Part of the same Glasglow scene that produced the Twilight Sad and Frightened Rabbit, We Were Promised Jetpacks offer an anthemic take on the marriage between post-punk and indie pop. The band is set to appear at a multitude of SXSW showcases before embarking on an extensive U.S. tour, including a stop at Coachella. Catch them at Rolling Stone's Rock Room day party on March 16th at La Zona Rosa.
New Zealand's Kimbra was already on the rise before the runaway success of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know," featuring her vocals, propelled her into the spotlight. The video, in which she appears, has racked up over 100 million views. Following SXSW, the 21-year-old will head out on tour with Gotye and later Foster the People, so catch her in bars around Austin while you still can.
Although he may not quite be a rags-to-riches story just yet, Devin wrote all of the songs from his 2011 EP, You're Mine, while working at a shipping warehouse and living with a roommate in a windowless apartment in Brooklyn. Now signed to Frenchkiss Records – with his first full-length, Romancing, set to drop in April – Devin was able to quit his day job and work on the music thing full-time. His amped-up garage rock nods as much towards Jack White as it does the New York Dolls. See him at Rolling Stone's Rock Room day party on March 17th.
San Diego's Delta Spirit aren't new at this, having first created a buzz around their 2006 tours with Cold War Kids and Dr. Dog. Delta Spirit will surely use their SXSW showcases to present songs from their brand new album, Delta Spirit, released the week of the conference. Think of SXSW as their week-long album release party.
Canadian boogie rock band the Sheepdogs earned the distinction of being the first unsigned band to grace the cover of Rolling Stone last August when they battled 15 bands in the our “Choose the Cover” contest. The band signed to Atlantic Records following their win and a victorious performance at Bonnaroo. Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney is producing the band's full-length, due in late spring.
Atlanta's Killer Mike recently told Rolling Stone that he just fully discovered himself as an artist through his work with producer El-P. The resulting album, entitled R.A.P. Music, will be released in May. With it, Mike says, he "set a new bar for rap." He'll aim to back up that claim when he unveils new material at SXSW. "I’m not trying to redo Public Enemy. I’m not trying to reinvent Ice Cube," he says. "I'm trying to progress what that music made me."
Jonny Corndawg's official bio states that he is a "country singer, not a singer-songwriter" and the distinction punctuates his anti-hero tendencies. Corndawg does write and sing his own songs, and while they may be a little bit country, they're not exactly the stuff they're playing down in Nashville. During his SXSW showcases, check out his merch – it just might include his own leatherwork and other homemade souvenirs.
Taking a week off from their international tour to strut their stuff at SXSW, roots-rockers Alabama Shakes hail from, yeah, you guessed it. The Alabama-centric band doesn't even have a full-length album under their Bible belt, but their four-song EP and raw early appearances were enough to land them an opening slot with the Drive-By Truckers. SXSW will be their chance to show off material from their upcoming debut, Boys & Girls. Catch them now before everyone "discovers" them on the festival circuit this summer.
Dry the River
Coming to SXSW from London by way of Norway, Dry the River's Peter Liddle brings a post-punk background and emo sensibility to music that is neither: the band performs indie folk that's been compared to Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes. Truth be told, they don't really sound like either. Last year at SXSW, visa issues prevented Dry the River from performing with their drummer. This time, the five-piece will all be present and accounted for. Look for them to drop the beat in their folky freak-outs.
In 2007, Patrick Watson took home the Polaris Prize – Canada's esteemed music award – for the album Close to Paradise. It was a feat he almost repeated just two years later when the follow-up, Wooden Arms, became a finalist for the honor. Whether Watson's upcoming album, Adventures in Your Own Backyard, goes three-for-three with a nomination remains to be seen. Watson's hushed, intensely musical pieces are often created using found instruments such as bicycle parts and common household items. Patrick Watson will showcase selections from the new album at St. David's Historical Sanctuary on March 15th.
Miike Snow's new album, Happy to You, drops on March 27th, so the international electro-pop band will no doubt be eager to show off new material during their numerous SXSW appearances. At SXSW 2010, they packed their showcases and picked up a strong industry buzz along the way; expect the same for their 2012 return. Having worked as producers and songwriters for pop stars such as Madonna and Britney Spears, the three artists behind Miike Snow bring an undeniable pop sensibility to their music.
Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley met in philosophy class. They fell in love. They got married. They sailed along the Eastern Seaboard. When they returned from their seven-month journey, they formed a band. It's easy to compare their easy-breezy indie pop to their sailing expedition, but their first album, 2011's Cape Dory, actually was influenced by the 2,500 nautical miles they covered. Their latest album, Young & Old, finds the couple still very much in love, but with feet planted firmly on solid ground. See them at the Rolling Stone Rock Room day party at La Zona Rosa on March 16th.
Fanfarlo have gone three-for-three with their previous SXSW appearances, earning praise (and new fans) after each consecutive year. This year, the British band comes in support of new album Rooms Filled With Light. They still reference influences ranging from Broken Social Scene to Pavement, but they've developed their own signature sound. Among other showcases, Fanfarlo will perform at the Radio Day Stage in the Austin convention center on Friday, March 16th.
ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra)
With lyrics like "I'm in love with everyone," ALO might be more San Francisco than Rice-a-Roni. But their open-air grooves and bonfire-ready vibes are just as well-suited for the beaches of Hawaii, where they recorded 2010's Man of the World with pal Jack Johnson. It makes sense: keyboardist Zach Gill moonlights in Johnson's touring band. The band plays SXSW in advance of a busy touring season where they will hit the summer festival circuit, including an appearance at Bonnaroo.
The Shins are back, and what better place than SXSW to reintroduce themselves? After taking time off to record and tour with Broken Bells, ringleader James Mercer reassembled the Shins, this time featuring Richard Swift (keyboards), Yuuki Matthews (bass), Jessica Dobson (guitar) and Joe Plummer (drums). The band's new album, Port of Morrow, marks a welcome return to form for the indie pop band. They'll showcase the new material at the large, outdoor Auditorium Shores stage on March 15th.
Seattle's glitch-folk rockers Motopony come well prepared for the SXSW shuffle, having performed in four cities in just one day as part of a Southwest Airlines promotion last year. The four-piece features Daniel Blue, a former fashion designer, in the pilot seat. Still touring behind 2011's Motopony, the group will pull into SXSW beginning on March 14th for a set at the Belmont.
Built to Spill
Unlike most bands that come to SXSW to plug a new album or build a buzz, Built to Spill are just coming to play. Latest album There Is No Enemy was released back in 2009 and a label rep confirms that they will head into the studio in April – but there's no guarantee the band will test-drive any new material in Austin. And that's just fine, because Built to Spill are indie rock vanguards who already have a vast catalog to draw from. They're playing a number of SXSW showcases as well as the concurrent MXTX (Mess With Texas) festival on March 16th.
All-star hardcore outfit OFF! will release their self-titled album on May 8th. With a power lineup that features vocalist Keith Morris (Circle Jerks/Black Flag), guitarist Dimitri Coats (Burning Brides), bassist Steven McDonald (Red Kross) and drummer Mario Rubalcaba (Rocket from the Crypt/Hot Snakes), OFF! will feature 16 tracks of fury. It's only appropriate that the band would choose SXSW as a staging ground to preview the new material – OFF! made their live debut at SXSW back in 2010. They'll make several stops at this year's festival, including a set at the Lustre Pearl on the afternoon of March 17th, followed by a set that night at Club DeVille.
The Magnetic Fields
It's taken them more than a decade, but indie darlings the Magnetic Fields will finally make their first SXSW appearance this year. And with such convenient timing: The band's new album, Love at the Bottom of the Sea, came out March 6th. Their tenth full-length, it features a return to the use of synthesizers – something bandleader and visionary Stephen Merritt avoided altogether on their previous three albums. The Magnetic Fields will show off the new material, keyboards and all, at NPR's showcase on March 15th and again at ACL Live the following night.
When Santigold first started making waves in 2007, she was often compared to another eccentric frontwoman, M.I.A. But the artist formerly known as Santogold has since carved out her own path through opening stints for Coldplay, the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z and Kanye West, establishing herself as a live force to be reckoned with. Her new record, Master of My Make Believe, is out in April.
In London, circa 2006, guitarist Imaad Wasif, on tour with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, got into an elevator with drummer Josh Garza from the Secret Machines. The elevator got stuck. They had their respective instruments with them and jammed to pass the time. When a technician saved them, they went their separate ways and thought nothing of it – until bumping into each other on a street in Los Angeles five years later. This time, they jammed in Wasif's rehearsal space, formed a band, cut an EP, and are now letting the rest of the world catch on. Electric Flower could easily be one of this year's SXSW breakouts.
Much like he did when he formed Middle Brother, Deer Tick's John McCauley thought he was simply assembling a group of musicians to help him cut an extracurricular album. This time, he called in Steve Berlin (Los Lobos), Ian St. Pe (Black Lips), Hardy Morris (Dead Confederate), Bryan Dufresne (Six Finger Satellite) and Deer Tick bandmate Robbie Crowell. These star players all started contributing songs, and a band was born. And, again like Middle Brother, the buzz has been nearly instantaneous. For one of their SXSW appearances, Diamond Rugs will perform on the big stage at Auditorium Shores (March 16th).