Every year, it seems like the South by Southwest music festival can't possibly get any bigger - and each year it does.
In 2012, Bruce Springsteen came to SXSW, and in order to keep badge wearing conference goers from lining up day in advance, a lottery was held to decide who got in. This year, that distribution system is being employed for at least three shows expected to draw oversized crowds: A Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds show on Wednesday, that also features Mexican rock band Cafe Tacuba, New York art-punks Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Waxahatchee, the nom de rock of Philadelphia songwriter Katie Crutchfield; a Dave Grohl & Friends show on Thursday with Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty and members of Nirvana; and a Green Day concert on Friday night.
Those shows are kind of a big deal in the Lone Star State capital city where there are scores of venues - an even 100 official sites are listed in this year's handy pocket guide - but most are on an intimate scale. They're relatively small potatoes, though, compared to the two big names expected to drop in on Austin on Saturday night: Prince, who will bring a 22-piece band to the realtively cozy La Zona Rosa, and Justin Timberlake, who everyone expects to anounce a secret show any day now in support of his new album The 20 / 20 Experience, which comes out Tuesday.
But while we wait for that frenzy to achieve exactly what it aims to - let a select number of people in the door, and have everybody else talking and Tweeting about it - the music fest is already in pretty much full swing. Tuesday used to be a quiet day at SXSW, but this year there were bands playing all night long at 40 venues.
Many of the food truck filled streets were already closed to vehicular traffic, and the action at the Austin Convention Center, where Dave Grohl and legendary executive Clive Davis will each give keynote speeches Thursday and panel discussions will be held on topics such as Girls and Tech: Why Young Women Rule In Music and Big Data: The New Oil or The New Snake Oil was already in full swing. While I was in the air between Philadelphia and Austin, I missed convention center interviews with Nick Cave, Rob Zombie and Spotify founder Daniel Ek.
Still it wasn't quite so packed in the clubs on Tuesday as it will undoubtedly get later in the week, and the early start gave me a chance to check a handful of acts off my need-to-see list. My first stop, after picking up what may well have been the last unrented bike in Austin and digging into a Korean-Mexican pork burrito from the Chilantro food truck, was Ashley Monroe at the Empire Control Room.
Monroe is one third of the Pistol Annies, the female country trio that also includes Miranda Lambert, who just announced that they'll release their second album, Annie Up, in May. Monroe has new album of her own called Like A Rose that was co-produced by Vince Gill. It came out last week, and it's an early contender for country album of the year.
Monroe is a 26-year-old Knoxville, Tenn., native who manages the neat trick of making country that is steeped in tradition without seeming the slightest bit old fashioned. Her Empire Control Room set was part of a MTV / VH1/ CMT filmed for TV showcase, with the words "Live from Austin" on the stage set behind her. The TV lights were so hot up near the stage that Monroe sounded more practical than coy when she said, "Wow, this was the wrong gig to wear a leather dress - at least its got holes in the side."
She's not as practiced a performer as Lambert and her four-piece band couldn't make her songs sound quite as crisp as they do on Like A Rose, but there's no doubting Monroe's songwriting skills. She has a winning way with country wordplay, as when a loser guy leaves her in the lurch in "Two Weeks Late," and she can get dead serious emotional to heartrending effect, too, as she did on Tuesday on "Used." A star in the making, for sure.
From there, I moved around the corner on Sixth Street to The Main, where the pure pop aspect of SXSW was on display at the I Heart Radio showcase, where sets by Brooklyn rapper Josh Baze (a worth-watching MC who performed with a DJ, live drummer and saxophonist), Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and Tegan & Sara were interpersed by a DJ playing hip-hop hits.
Macklemore, the Caucasian rapper from Seattle whose "Thrift Shop" reached #1 on the Billboard chart, was the main attraction. Accompanied by his DJ, Ryan Lewis, and an assortment of singers, guest rappers and a trumpet player, he bounded about on the stage like a ginger Jack in the Box (or out of the box, as it were). His half hour set was packed with crowd-pleasers. Wearing a jacket that he said he had purchased at an Austin thrift shop the day before. "That song went to number one on pop radio," he said. "And the fact a song about buying used clothes infiltrated pop radio seems like a real progression to me."
And if that song about creating your own style while economizing showed that Macklemore has his finger on the zeitgesit these days, there was further evidence when the rapper, who will co-headline the Roots Picnic in June in Philadelphia this year, did "Same Love," his song about tolerance and inclusion that was greeted as a personal anthem in the packed, all-ages room. "This song is the most endearing song to me and it means the most to me of any song I've ever written," the hard not to like emcee said. When he followed that with the hyper-catchy rap, "Can't Hold Us," he was literally walking atop the crowd. Fans held him over head as he grabbed at the rafters of The Main, and the 2013 edition of SXSW music was well on its way.