The South by Southwest conference in Austin transitioned into its music festival phase on Tuesday night, with multi-act showcases taking place at dozens of offical venues and many unofficial ones on either side of the I-35 freeway that splits the Texas state capitol down the middle.
The shift from Interactive to Music isn't always subtle. The techies market themselves by slipping a flyer about their innovative app under your hotel room door or dressing up as cute furry animal. The rock bands plug heir amp in on a street corner and crank up the volume.
And the parties all around town start drawing big crowds. None are bigger that those at The Fader Fort, the the vast barn of a space named after the music and lifestyle magazine that's a model of corporate sponsored (by Converse and Intel and Austin-based Dell) music-tech brand integration. Located on the ever gentrifying and hipsterizing, formerly predominantly American-American and African-American east side of town, the Fader Fort, which is right across the stereet from the Taco Bell sponsored Hype Hotel, functions as a sort of music-centric clubhouse, with ping pong tabels, hot dogs, DJ rooms and of course, lots of sneaker ads and sneaker art.
Tuesday night's big Fader headliner was Passion Pit, the buoyant electro-pop band fronted by singer Michael Angelakos, which will release its third album, Kindred, on April 21. Before the band hit the stage, a Dell VP told the crowd they were making history because it would be the "first ever concert live streamed in 4K." He then brought out actor Adrian Grenier, who we were told is an environmentally focused "social good advocate" for Dell, to intro the band and not even mention that the Entourage movie is coming out in June. Way to go, Vince!
In only their second gig after a lengthy break following 2012's Gossamer, the six man Passion Pit sounded tight and focused, with Angelakos bounding about the stage restlessly. The new material previewed from Kindred was as musically effusive, and catchy as ever, while sounding a smidgen les tortured beneath the surface, and Angelakos high pitched vocals, at their best, suggest a dizzying, digital age interpolation of falsettoed classic soul men like The Stylistics Russell Thompkins Jr.
Passion Pit has another big headlining show in Austin - at the Spotify House on Thursday - and they play a Radio 104.5 show at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden on May 10.
Meanwhile, over at the Mohawk on the west side, music was being played in a quieter, more stripped down style. Chicago 12 string guitarist Ryley Walker kicked off the evening seted at the right hand of the stage, fronting a four piece band that luxuariated in lush, pastoral folk, pulled from both last year's All Kinds Of You and the forthcoming Primrose Green. Quietly intense stuff, for John Fahey fans.
Post-PP, I was back at the Mohawk, in hopes of catching Waxahatchee, the Alabama-born, West Philly-based project of songwriter Katie Crutchfield, who I interviewed back home in Philadelphia on a snowy day earlier this month but hadn't seen perform in two years.
The line was long - at SXSW, Waxahatchee is like The Beatles - but while biding my time, i met Brian Walker, the guitarist and songwriter from Glenside who records as A Day Without Love.
People love to get grumpy about SXSW, and how it was better in the less commercial good old days. Talking to the 26 year old Walker, though, was like a breath of fresh air. He took a week off from his management consultant job, and taking the advice from his friends in the Philadelphia bands CRUISR and Cheerleader, both of whom are showcasing in Austin, bought a badge for $600 that gains him access to Convention Center workshops and to see an endless supply of bands.
First time SXSW attendee Brian Walker.
"I came to network," he said. Three days into his trip, he had already met two of his idols - punk acter Renaissance man Henry Rollins and songwriter Kevin Devine - and had panel discussion about balancing business and creativity that he found highly useful. "I've realized that a lot of local bands have an unrealistic reliance on the internet and social media to promote themseves," he said. "At the end of the day, the most important thing is the performance."
Walker is staying at a hostel on the east side ("Really cheap, $250 for the week") and said he is thrilled with his SXSW experience so far. "It's been a very cool ride." The evening got even better, apparently. After the Mohawk he moved on to see Austin indie stalwarts Spoon at the Hype Hotel, and tweeted: "Bout to see @spoontheband at 1am life ain't real."
As for Waxahatchee, she was superb. Crutchfield is playing only four shows in Austin this week - a small, under control number for an act such as she who has the most big deal album of her career, Ivy Tripp, on the Merge label, coming out next month. She plays Union Transfer on April 8, the day after the album is released.
At the Mohawk, Crutchfield performed solo on electric guitar, and for a handle of songs in the middle of the set, with her twin sister Alison, who plays in the band Swearin', on harmony vocals. It was a quietly, powerful pristine performance, and an impressive example of becalmed showmanship and nuanced phrasing that held a tight grip on the audience while rarely raising her voice.
"I'm going to play one more song," she said before passing the stage before two more worthy acts to follow her. "Then Speedy Ortiz is goingt to play. and then Angel Olsen. Yeah, it's a great gig. We're lucky to be here."