Fewer big names, plenty of fresh sounds at SXSW

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Victoria Ruiz of the Providence, R.I., band the Downtown Boys at the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, last week.

AUSTIN, Texas — The South by Southwest Music Festival is a giant, sprawling event that resists summation, with more than 1,700 acts in every imaginable genre playing in more than 100 venues.

That said, it was more manageable this year. The fest, which took place in  theaters, clubs, churches, backyards, city parks, and on the streets of the Texas capital city last week, still brought out its share of big names.

Garth Brooks, who comes to the Wells Fargo Center for four shows this weekend, played an outdoor concert and an unscheduled gig at a honky-tonk. Melancholy chanteuse Lana Del Rey teased new music. Hip-hop luminaries included Rick Ross, Snoop Dogg (who also participated in a criminal-justice reform panel), Lil Wayne, and Gucci Mane, as well as Philadelphians Meek Mill and the Roots, both playing closing night shows Saturday.   

But there was no spotlight-hogging megastar, like recent SXSW party crashers Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and Prince. A rumored Frank Ocean surprise failed to materialize. Some corporate brands pulled out or scaled back, with the Fader Fort moving to a much smaller space, where New York rapper Young M.A. headlined on Saturday.  

All that meant more opportunity to see deserving-of-attention showcases at the fest, where it’s entirely feasible to check out a dozen acts a day.

Those that impressed me included Brooklyn glam-garage outfit PWR BTTM, Australian folk quartet All Our Exes Live in Texas, Austin rock heroes Spoon, North Philly activist poet Moor Mother, generation-spanning duo Jason Falkner and R. Stevie Moore, former Philadelphia indie tandem Girlpool, Los Angeles 1960s throwbacks the Molochs (who play free at noon at World Cafe Live on Friday), and ribald Philly rockers Low Cut Connie.

Before the festival began, SXSW came under fire for language in the artists' contract that threatened to report international acts to immigration authorities. There were several instances reported of bands traveling to Austin and being denied entry to the U.S. An Egyptian American cabdriver told me his international ridership was way down.

Nonetheless, the fest had no shortage of global music-makers. I saw a number of standouts. They included Pakistani rock synthesists Qawalistan, Colombian chambeta party band Tribu Baharu, and Afro Cuban guitarist Alex Cuba. Not to mention rock outfits like Japanese guitar-pop band CHAI, Chilean quartet SlowKiss and Italian trio Tiger! S-! Tiger! Tiger!

What follows are edited excerpts from my Austin blog postings. For more, go to philly.com/inthemix.

The Downtown Boys

The Downtown Boys are a Providence, R.I., punk rock band fronted by Victoria Ruiz, a ferocious front woman who unleashes a populism-of-the-left rage in songs that shake you by the shoulders and don’t let go.

“We have to fight fascism; we have to fight white supremacy!” she commanded on Friday at the outdoor SX San Jose showcase.  She introduced “Promissory Note” as a song about “how people of color will not continue to set themselves on fire so white people will be warm.”

This SXSW was marked by sounds of dissent. DIY indie legend R. Stevie Moore ended his Thursday set with Jason Falkner by shouting “Impeach!” No band I saw, however, came across as fully engaged in confrontation as the Downtown Boys, recent signees to storied Seattle label SubPop. Ruiz is a bona fide star you can’t take your eyes off of, and the band backs up her commitment with a muscular attack and an understanding that the music needs to be fun to get a message across. They play Everybody Hits in Philadelphia (529 W. Girard Ave.) on Thursday.

Cherry Glazerr and Khruangbin

Like many Austin clubs, the Seventh Street venue Barracuda has an indoor room and an outdoor stage. Early Thursday, I caught Coco Hames, formerly of Memphis garage band the Ettes, who has a solo album on Merge, and a Chicago punk trio with a name suited to carnivorous music fans: Meat Wave.

Later that night, the Barracuda lure was Cherry Glazerr, the punky Los Angeles rock band fronted by Clementine Creevey. Unbeknownst to me, there was another formidable act outside: Khruangbin, a Houston soul-funk trio. There was a wonderful push and pull between the two acts. Cherry Glazerr songs have prickly, furious energy.  Khruangbin is super-silky and smooth, shaped, strangely enough, by Thai funk from the 1970s. Loved them both.

A theremin, and Temples

SXSW greeted me with a theremin.

It seemed that way, anyway. I arrived on Wednesday afternoon, a day later than planned, thanks to the snowstorm that caused me to miss Tuesday's REC Philly showcase, by all accounts a success with headliners the Districts and other 215 acts ranging from Bilal to Queen of Jeans.

On my way to the Austin Convention Center, I heard a spooky sound, like something out of a Lon Chaney movie.  Emanating from the outdoor stage at the Mohawk, it turned out to be the Octopus Project, the Austin four-piece in which Yvonne Lambert plays the electronic presynthesizer instrument by shaping sound waves with her hands.

Later, I caught Real Estate, the New Jersey quintet that specializes in understated jangle pop that can border on the sublime. Unfortunately, the band, whose In Mind came out Friday, was fighting a bad vocal mix,  with Martin Courtney's voice barely heard.

Next were Temples, the British big-haired neo-psychedelic band that played before curtains shaped to look like melting lava. Their new album is called Volcano. From the harmonies to the fuzz tone guitar, they sounded smashing. They'll be at Underground Arts (1200 Callowhill St.) on May 15.