"Last stop at a horrible (expletive) festival," hissed singer Jehnny Beth, before she and her bandmates -- bassist Ayse Hassan, drummer Fay Milton and guitarist Gemma Thompson ripped into their venemous "Husbands."
Seeing a band that almost nobody knew about a year ago seize the moment is the premise on which South by Southwest was built. But the festival has also become something else: a platform for dozens of stars performing for big corporate money to advertise products. There was Ice Cube cavorting on an eight-story stage designed to look like a vending machine, shilling for corn chips. There was Prince making a crowd wait for hours before delivering hits and deep cuts in the name of a cellphone. There was Justin Timberlake promoting his new album with help from a car manufacturer. Money from multinational conglomerates is nothing new in the music business, of course, but here it was particularly lavish, a tale of the one percent grabbing the lion's share of the attention and the dollars at the expense of everyone else. Talent agents estimated that performers like Ice Cube and Prince hauled down $500,000 or more to perform at their non-sanctioned South by Southwest events, which in turn brought thousands more to Austin who came not to attend the music conference but the countless corporate shows and parties surrounding it.
When South by Southwest began 27 years ago, it was primarily a regional festival that celebrated up-and-comers and Texas-bred artists. But since the mid-'90s demise of the New Music Seminar in New York, South by Southwest has grown in stature to become a platform for music-industry promotion. This year, conference-sanctioned events helped launch new albums, tours or projects from such heavy hitters as Green Day, Dave Grohl, Vampire Weekend, Nick Cave, Iggy Pop and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Some agents, managers and artists groused that the stars were taking away from the newcomers the conference was supposedly created to expose. Indeed, to attend Saturday's Prince concert required a six-hour time investment that effectively negated any opportunity to see the hundreds of other bands performing that night.
Artists lower on the food chain than Prince often performed with less than ideal sound. The intricate, delicate layers created by the electro-soul band Rhye were hampered by a faulty mix at Buffalo Billiards, and bands such as Youngblood Hawke ate up as much as half of their alloted time trying to adjust their mix and fix their gear. Dirty looks flashed at sound technicians were almost as common as free drinks at the various VIP parties. As Martin Atkins, the former Public Image Ltd. drummer-turned-music oracle proclaimed at one of his typically irreverent seminars on the music business: "Practice for catastrophe." Many bands clearly had not, hence the frayed nerves and indelicate proclamations about "horrible" festivals. Hyped hip-hop artists such as Angel Haze, Odd Future's Earl Sweatshirt and rising Chicago star Chance the Rapper took the risk out of it, with live vocals over backing tracks in short, 15-minute sets that essentially served as advertisements for their on-line music and videos, but fell short as live entertainment.
Pushing through the din and breakdowns were a number of fresh new voices:
-- Danish singer and multi-instrumentalist Soren Lokke Juul, the core member in Indians, felt right at home at the Central Presbyterian Church on 8th Street. He made his live debut at a church in Denmark a year ago, and the natural reverb of the high ceiling enhanced his songs of longing and disconnection.
-- Guards not only got bonus points for best hair -- brother-sister combo Richie and Madeline Follin must use the same stylist -- they delivered guitar-based, melody-saturated songs in the tradition of great power-pop combos such as the Raspberries and Shoes (the Zion, Ill., home-recording pioneers who also played the festival for the first time).
-- U.K. trio No Ceremony/// did the best job of any band I saw of orchestrating their set, starting in a slow, quiet, dimly lit place and building patiently to a big payoff by carefully orchestrating electronic percussion, co-ed harmonies and haunting melodies.
-- Sohn, a songwriter who splits his time between London and Vienna, nearly got derailed by the punk band next door, as the sound bleed between venues threatened to drown him out. But he soldiered on, and his music eventually rose above the distractions; his yearning voice and insinuating melodies were too good to be denied.
-- The Danish singer who goes by the name of MO, aka Karen Marie Orsted, brought a mix of big vocals, exuberant pony-tailed dance moves and melodies that bridged electro-pop and hard rock. If there's room for a punkier, more down-to-earth voice amid the divas on the pop charts, she has the songs to break through.
-- Acts that typically get ignored even more than most at South by Southwest: middle-tier bands that are neither new nor huge commercial successes. But how about the middle-tier bands that just get better at their jobs? Telekinesis debuted new songs from their third album, and the Pacific Northwest band with a retooled lineup led by drummer Michael Benjamin Lerner sounded sharp and exuberant.
-- METZ is a Canadian punk band that may never truly capture what they're about on a recording, but their midafternoon set Saturday went off like a blowtorch in a propane warehouse, as the trio pushed itself and its instruments to the breaking point. How that sort of intensity can be sustained night after night is beyond me, but for that moment, they were the best band on Earth.
-- Parquet Courts projected a casual, slacker vibe that will be familiar to lovers of mid-'90s indie guitar rock, but their hooks and riffs are precisely deployed, and their sharp lyrics capture that destitute gap between youth and adulthood in all its humor and anxiety. They played most of their brilliant debut album, "Light Up Gold," amping up the melody or the noise as the moment dictated. The quartet found itself in front of a particularly inattentive audience Saturday night and played the moment for laughs. "It's hard to keep up with Twitter," one guitarist said as he gazed out at the smart-phone-laden audience. "I feel like we're failing in our job as entertainers." Later, his counterpart on guitar flipped open his own cellphone as if to count the minutes until the group's exit and let loose with a particularly deranged and aggressively noisy guitar solo.
-- With her severe hair and even more severe 1,000-mile stare, singer Jehnny Beth provided the charismatic focal point of Savages. Her smart, scowling lyrics were matched by her bandmates' multi-dimensional attack: lead bass, inventive drumming, textured guitar. The quartet's musicianship and command of dynamics suggested there was much more to them than an arresting look; the band also has great songs that could carry them well beyond 2013 -- though it's highly unlikely they'll be back at South by Southwest, let alone playing on a stage shaped like a vending machine.