SXSW in Perspective – First Time Around

2011 was my first SXSW experience. Based on the reports from friends and artists I know that had attended, I never thought of SXSW as a festival that catered too deeply to electronic music or hip hop. Though there was a very obvious focus of blues, rock, folk and guitars in general (they were everywhere) this year’s SXSW boasted in an impressive line-up of quality underground electronic music and hip hop, including the likes of Richie Hawtin, Boys Noize, Diplo, James Blake, DJ Premier, Trentemoller, Mount Kimbie, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Marco Carola, Talib Kweli, Switch, Moby, Housemeister, Daedelus, Big Boi, Afrojack, Addison Groove, Skrillex, De La Soul, Starkey, MSTRKRFT, Spank Rock, Jamie xx, EPMD, Baths, Shabazz Palaces, Pharoahe Monch, Beats Antique, Eskmo and Gold Panda to name some standouts. Though it was a pleasure to see so many familiar artists, the real joy for me came from new discoveries like soul singer Charles Bradley, folk-rock singer Sharon Van Etten and electronic crooner Jamie Woon, all of whom delivered stunning sets.

Part of the charm, and sometimes annoyance, of SXSW was the rapid fire pace and sheer magnitude of the performances (89 stages featuring over 2,000 acts with an average set length of 30 minutes). In total, I was able to catch over 30 performances at the 2011 SXSW Festival. Here are a few of the most memorable performances I caught and why.

1. James Blake – Live at the Central Presbyterian Church

The combination of fatigue, the venue and the brilliant programming (James closed out the night at a gorgeous Church) made this a magical performance. The British producer/singer performed with a trio, which included Ben Assiter on drums & Rob McAndrews on guitar. They played most of the 2011 self-titled album, which sounded even better live.  What James is doing is truly original, emotive and innovative, which I really can’t say about any other artist at the moment.

2. Charles Bradley – Live at the Cedar Street Pavilion

As a Motown native, classic soul is simply part of my DNA. When I heard that Charles Bradley’s album was mixed at Daptone Records’ internationally revered “House of Soul” Studios, I knew that the dude had chops. What I didn’t know is just how incredibly well it would translate live. The second Charles hit the stage, he had the entire audience in the palm of his hand and he never let go. What I enjoyed most about his performance was there was no doubt in my mind that he lived the life that he sang about. Charles Bradley is the real deal.

3. Trentemoller – Live at La Zona Rosa

It’s been interesting watching Trentemoller evolve over the past decade. From house to techno to electro pop to downtempo to shoegaze, in many ways Trentemoller represents the backlash to the often stagnant world of electronic dance music. Trading in turntables for guitars and drum machines for a live drummer, the current six-piece, live incarnation offers a wide spectrum of analog sound, all of which is balanced beautifully with Andreas Trentemoller’s gifted sound design and arrangements. Much like his own music, the groups’ performance was dynamic and at times dark (think Radiohead meets Twin Peaks).

4. Jamie Woon – Live at ND

Though I’d heard a few of Jamie’s songs before, I really didn’t know what to expect. Much like James Blake and Trentemoller, Jamie Woon is an electronic music producer that understands the importance of the performance, which included an incredibly tight quartet assembled for the stage. A talented vocalist, Woon deftly surfs the line between soul and pop, without losing the inherent subtly that makes him such a unique talent. Musically, he offers shades of Massive Attack, Jamie Lidell and Tracey Chapman, the combined effect of which is a dark, atmospheric take on soul.

5. Datarock – Live at The Parish

Probably the most entertaining performance I witnessed at SXSW, this Norwegian quartet hit the stage adorned in matching Datarock tracksuits and grandma shades. You could tell from the first chord that they were seasoned musicians and performers, who had their routine down pat. The solos, breakdowns, dance moves and the inevitable crowd participation all brought their music to vivid, sweaty life. I was pleased to find their lesser known material to be even more infectious than hits like “Fa-Fa-Fa” and “Give It Up”.

6. Sharon Van Etten – Live at the Central Presbyterian Church

I was not at all familiar with Sharon Van Etten and had it not been for a co-worker, I would have missed this memorable performance. Sharon’s voice, songwriting and lyrical sensibilities made her a standout among the hundreds of singer/songwriters performing at SXSW this year. What was remarkable about this particular performance was her voice was so strained from excessive use, that she could barely utter a word between songs. It was like the only way she could communicate was through her music, which I found enduring and in some ways profound.

7. DJ Jazzy Jeff – DJ set at Red Bull Thre3style Stage

As a long time fan and DJ of hip hop, I have to give it up for Jazzy Jeff’s set at the SXSW. Like any good party rockin’ DJ, Jazzy Jeff played the hits going back to the 70s. What was remarkable about his set was just how much he was able to cram in without losing the crowd for second. The end product was a 45 minute homage to hip hop’s most inspiring moments. I will admit, seeing thousands gathered together in unison in what was the largest and most elaborate stage configuration I saw at SXSW was exhilarating. During the event, the crowd outside of the fenced-in area grew so large that they had to close the street!

Sean Horton – Director, Creative / Producer, Branded Music / Tech Advisor – PlayNetwork