I attended my first South by Southwest in 1991. The Austin, Texas megathon was in its sixth year and still intimate enough to fit in one hotel and two dozen venues, with room for all. My ringing memories are of an opening night with Doug Sahm and the Texas Tornadoes and a closing song-and-stories feast with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, then formerly of the Flatlanders (since reunited). If there was much corporate sponsorship, I don't remember it. "The spirit of SXSW," I wrote in my inaugural report on the conference in Rolling Stone, was "music that sells itself."
I still believe that. My 22nd straight SXSW was like all of those before: constant music, long-distance friendships renewed, discoveries made. There is more of everything else too, especially waiting lines and the endless branding. I'm lucky – I get to miss most of the former and ignore the latter. My SXSWs are simple: Musicians come to play. I go to listen. This is some of the best of what happened to me this time around, in rough chronological order:
Royal Thunder, March 13th, Mohawk Patio
This metallic trio from Atlanta, with an album and EP on the Relapse label, was the first act I saw after landing in Austin. It was the right kind of entry: heavy with the meaty, base elements of early-Seventies British blues in guitarist Josh Weaver's harmonic-fuzz sustain and a striking vocal change-up in bassist Miny Parsonz, whose robust projection and supple vibrato made me think of Jefferson Airplane's Grace Slick at a lower, godless pitch.
Iggy and the Stooges, March 13th, Mohawk Patio
"We are the slimy Stooges," Iggy announced, as if they needed introduction, to the fortunate zealots packed into this tiny outdoor space and those left listening in the street. The overdriven PA turned Mike Watt's bass, James Williamson's guitar and Steve Mackay's sax into liquid concrete – a compliment. Iggy howled and wriggled in usual high gear; his shirtless torso, in such rare closeup, looked like chain mail made of human skin. But there was a pause, amid the oldies and new ammo from Ready to Die (Fat Possum), to note the time running out: "The Departed," a ballad for the late Stooge Ron Asheton.
Black Angels, March 13th, Buffalo Billiards
These local, spiritual descendants of the Velvet Underground showed off the sharp pop surprise in the songs from their latest album, Indigo Meadow (Blue Horizon). The usually unforgiving reverb in this long room, upstairs from a pool hall, actually suited the hard, wide drone of the Angels' guitars, heartbeat drive and garage-om vocals.
Houndmouth and Ex-Cops, March 13th, The Parish
Houndmouth, from Indiana and newly signed to Rough Trade, are four children of the Band in a very important way: They are all singers, leading with individual character and harmonizing in saloon-choir empathy. The music is earthy melancholy with a rude garage-rock streak – the kind of garage where you find tractors and hoes, while the writing bodes well for the forthcoming album.
Ex-Cops, from New York, had a tougher city skin and kick. I'm old enough to hear the late-Seventies New Wave in there and note the new in the group's B & B – the Blondie-style frosting in the organ and Amalie Bruun's voice; the Buzzcocks-like zoom and brittle jangle. Originally a duo, Ex-Cops made their new album,True Hallucinations (Other Music), as the quintet I saw. Good idea.
Palma Violets, March 14th, Mohawk Indoors
I'll bet the accommodations at this afternoon set – dark, cramped and humid – were a lot like the house parties where this young quartet made its Britain's-best-new-band bones. The Palma Violets' debut album, 180 (Rough Trade), named after the address where they held those soirées, is one of my year's early pleasures: a haywire-youth pop of raucous jangle and bawling-chorale vocals with flashes of an early, apolitical Clash. That exuberance and the Violets' raw-sugar tunes came a little more unglued here, in the right ways.
Toy, March 14th, Cedar Street Courtyard
Familiar inspirations – psychedelia, early-Seventies German minimalism, British-shoegaze distortion – come in renewed colors, then get shot forward on Toy, the 2012 debut album by this London quintet. The group made the most of its brief set under the stars, letting the natural box-y reverb in this downstairs-outdoors space add to the ascension already in the music.
Chelsea Light Moving and Eric Burdon, March 15th, La Zona Rosa
I cannot take any credit for organizing or booking Rolling Stone's daytime fandangos at SXSW, so I find no conflict of interest in noting the buzz I got from these two sets. Singer-guitarist Thurston Moore dedicated "Empires of Time" from Chelsea Light Moving, the new album by his post-Sonic Youth quartet, to Austin's psychedelic mayor Roky Erickson – apt homage from a band with generous iridescence in its majestic amp-death squall.
Burdon tore through the weekend like a much younger Animal, promoting his new album of blues reflection, 'Til Your River Runs Dry (ABCKO). He opened this brief appearance with three curveballs from his past: "Spill the Wine," his 1970 hit with War; the psychedelic-Animals memoir "When I Was Young"; and "Inside Looking Out," my favorite raveup from the Animals' volcanic-R&B era. Burdon's current band isn't as lean and limber, but they served with fervor. Burdon, who turns 73 in May, roared with distinction.
Bobby Bare, March 16th, ACL Live at the Moody Theater
A pillar of hard truths and warming choruses in country music for almost half a century, this legendary singer-songwriter delivered his breakout hits, 1963's "Detroit City" and '64's "500 Miles From Home," in a voice that reflected that long haul: deep and scarred, with wearied cadence, framed by a band that kept the Nashville icing at stiff-arm's length. Bare's stamina was evident too, in the brawny poignance of the traditional covers from his latest album, Darker Than Light (Plowboy) and his duet with Austin cult hero Alejandro Escovedo in the latter's boozy memoir "I Was Drunk." "This song fits me real well," Bare said, a grin showing under the shadow cast by the broad rim of his cowboy hat. "It fit me real well at one time too," Escovedo cracked in return." Which leads perfectly into . . .
The True Believers, March 17th, the Continental Club
In Austin, in the mid-Eighties, the True Believers were the local band that could not fail, a dream combination of the Exile-era Rolling Stones, early R.E.M. and Moby Grape. But despite a rousing songbook and a murderer's row of glam-gang voices and roaring-treble guitars – Escovedo with his brother Javier and Jon Dee Graham – the Believers stumbled in a minefield of record-label politics, crushing expectations and internal disappointment. They reunited last year to honor their roadie and SXSW creative director, Brent Gulke, who died in August, then decided to continue. This set, the climax of Alejandro's annual SXSW-sunset benefit at the Continental, was sustained resurrection: the Believers at a new cowboy-Mott the Hoople peak in "She's Got," "Hard Road" and their trademark cover of the Velvets' "Foggy Notion." Continental owner Steve Wertheimer introduced the band, noting that the Believers first played at the club 30 years ago, to the night. Some of the Believers look their age; some don't. (Alejandro was drop-dead cool in a white snakeskin jacket.) But they played like their original bond had only been frayed and set aside, never broken. The Believers swear there will be touring and new recordings. Lucky us.