AUSTIN, TEXAS -- Sure, plenty of stars and superstars descended on the South by Southwest Music Conference, which concluded Sunday after five days of glad-handing, pitch-making and music scouting by thousands of attendees. There were sets by everyone from Bruce Springsteen and Jack White to Erykah Badu and 50 Cent (with a drop-in from Eminem).
But mostly this was about the 2,000 bands or artists who aren't Springsteen, the up-and-comers who might be, could be next in line to make life-changing music. Wild Belle -- Chicago brother-sister duo Elliot and Natalie Bergman -- demonstrated a mix of craft and charisma that suggested its immediate future will be filled with offers from record labels. The duo's sound, fleshed out with a full band, is a deceptively breezy brand of pop, accented by Jamaican rock-steady beats and trip-hop atmospherics. Natalie Bergman's sly, poised vocals suggest there's a lot more to these songs than first meets the ear, a hint of sophistication and nuance that puts the melodies a cut above.
Another Chicago group, Kids These Days, was all but unknown outside its hometown a year ago, but has had a swift rise in the last year and played multiple times at South by Southwest. The septet's third and final show on Saturday alone found the band in a high-energy, almost feverish mood, rolling over some of the subtle jazz inflections and textural shifts in its arrangements. But the group's genre-swinging versatility -- everything from rap and lounge to blues and soul -- and exuberance carried the day. The group received a visit from Epic Records executive L.A. Reid in Chicago a few days ago, and its Austin appearances played like auditions for many of Reid's peers.
Commerce is never very far from the music at South by Southwest, but this year the lines were particularly blurred as big corporate money brought in big-name artists. One huge outdoor stage outside the conference center sponsored by a snack-chip company was shaped like a giant vending machine. Hotel room keys advertised the new album by a U.K. rock band. Advertising by Internet and car companies turned the interior walls of revered clubs such as Antone's into big billboards.
It wasn't always so. In its inaugural year of 1987, South by Southwest hosted 200 mostly local or regional bands at 12 clubs. Still, even as the conference has grown to 2,000 bands from as far away as Spain and Taiwan vying for attention at 92 clubs over five days and nights, there were signs of intelligence and heart. Springsteen's keynote address was nothing less than inspiring, a tour of personal influences that played like a mini history of the music. There is nothing "pure" about the music he and countless others play, Springsteen asserted, nor was it meant to be. It is an ever-changing hybrid in which doo-wop, the Sex Pistols,Eric Burdon's growl and Roy Orbison's operatic longing can co-exist. He then enumerated just about every genre known to music geeks, from death metal to neo-soul, and said they are all worth hearing, so long as they are done with "power and purpose."
Springsteen's message of inclusiveness pointedly ignored the business side of the equation, but many of the daytime panels did not. One discussion centered on how critical social media had become to bands' success, even even as one panelist suggested that the most powerful social-media platform, Facebook, would be passe in a decade. Perhaps the only certainty was that technology used to connect bands to their fans will change almost as rapidly as the fortunes of many of the artists using it. As physical product has been replaced by downloading and now streaming, the revenue pie for artists continues to shrink, another panel observed, but tiny revenue streams can eventually turn into something substantial if enough users buy in.
"Consumers are telling us they want to experience music this way (via streaming)," artist manager Nick Stern said. "So it would be stupid to fight it. Otherwise we're just going to repeat the last 10 years."
Meanwhile, the music kept coming. A few highlights from South by Southwest:
Who's got the biggest buzz? Alabama Shakes were the band everyone needed to see if they hadn't already. The quintet, led by vocal powerhouse Brittany Howard, played numerous sets to nearly universal acclaim. Howard and her bandmates wed a rootsy soul-rock sound to resonant songs.
Next up in hip-hop: The Shakes' fellow Alabamans, G Side, have been around for a few years, and the co-ed collective has honed its live sound to match its excellent recordings. Gospel-fired sung vocals aren't just tacked on as hooks in the choruses, but blend with the MCs' rhymes to create a swirling collage.
Unlikely soul man: Nick Waterhouse may look like a bespectacled engineering student, but he and his band brought a raw shimmy to their soul-pop tunes. Waterhouse isn't retro in the polite, slavish manner of so many revivalists. He mines early soul and R&B for their erotic possibilities, and you can hear it in the recklessness of his guitar solos and the rasp in his vocals.
Hooks, hooks, hooks: When every vocal line, every guitar riff sounds like a little sonic forget-me-not, you've got something. Bleached, a quartet led by sisters Jessica and Jennifer Clavin, cut through the din with the kind of bouncy melodies that can turn even the darkest, dingiest club into a beach party.
They took us to church: There are no apparent religious connotations in many of the lyrics in Lumineers songs, but the Denver group turned the audience inside a 7th Street church into a congregation of believers with their folk-rock bravado. Singing without the aid of microphones, standing on the pews and in the aisles, the band staged a hootenanny sing-along. Now that's how to make a 20-minute set memorable.
Don't mess with her: Lydia Loveless led her band through a fierce set of country-punk, taking aim at ex-boyfriends, stalkers and the self-righteous with stiletto-tipped lyrics and no-nonsense vocals. She may not stand very tall, but Loveless joined a long line of self-empowered ladies with a twang in their vocals and steel in the tips of their cowgirl boots.
Dance or go home: Tanlines, a New York City duo, draped moody melodies over intersecting rhythms that brought to mind everything from a Caribbean dance party to an early disco-flavored New Order single. The band had no trouble energizing the crowd in a small club, and one could easily see this music translating on a bigger scale, in the recent tradition of LCD Soundsystem, Phoenix or Cut Copy.
Promise and potential, but not there yet: That sums up more than handful of acts at South by Southwest, bands or artists who have talent but still haven't quite worked out how to best present it. There was London's Cold Specks, which featured the bruised vocals of Al Spx. She's got star quality in her voice, but her band's chamber pop arrangements featuring cello and saxophone didn't really coalesce into anything memorable until the closing, slow-build song. THEESatisfaction, a spinoff of Seattle hip-hop group Shabazz Palaces, made music perfect for a 3 a.m. post-party chillout. Trouble was the duo was performing in a noisy club at the height of the weekend musical rush hour. Next time, Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White should ditch the instrumental backing track and bring a DJ or keyboardist, or both, to help them deliver their dreamy, neo-psychedelic songs.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun