Austin, Texas One by one, the hands came thumping down on Matt Lamkin’s plaid-clad shoulder.
“Good show, bro!” Pat-pat-pat.
“Amazing set!” Pat-pat-squeeze.
Lamkin had just led his band the Soft Pack through 30 minutes of brawny rock in the basement of a downtown wine bar in Austin, one of countless venues hosting concerts at this year’s South by Southwest music festival. Bright-eyed fans were eager to reach out and touch the guy.
The annual spring festival used to be about discovery — a five-night binge of gigs where fans, journalists and record-label executives scoured Austin’s frenzied nightclubs in hopes of tripping over their favorite new band.
Not anymore. Now in its 24th year, SXSW has become the one place on Earth where ephemeral blog buzz turns corporeal — a marathon of live music where doubting Thomases can poke their fingers into rock-and-roll’s pulsating guts.
For so many artists here in Austin — including the much buzzed-about Soft Pack — playing SXSW is no longer about finding an agent or scoring a record deal. Much of that business now happens exclusively online, where acts can build a devoted following in the digital realm without ever hitting the road.
But artists still flock to SXSW in droves. It’s become a declaration of existence — not to mention pop music’s biggest, most boisterous party. “It’s cool to see all the bands that you hear about,” Lamkin said as his band mates hustled their gear out of the wine bar en route to a Thursday evening gig. “We just think of it as a fun way to see our friends.”
And the whole gang is here. This year, more than 10,000 acts applied to perform at official SXSW showcases and a whopping 1,980 were accepted. Scores of others came to play unofficial showcases, too. And although SXSW officials don’t release exact figures until the festival’s Sunday finale, they confirmed that attendance exceeded last year’s, despite the bleak economy.
SXSW may no longer be a place where stars are born, but some hoped it would be a place where they could be reborn. Courtney Love was scheduled to bring a new version of Hole to SXSW on Friday. Meanwhile, gearing up for the release of a comeback album, reunited rock dudes Stone Temple Pilots performed to elated fans at Austin Music Hall on Thursday night. Frontman Scott Weiland peacocked across the stage in a satin vest, black necktie and wrap-around shades while STP faithful sang along to post-grunge hits “Vaseline” and “Wicked Garden.”
The band sounded fine but looked fantastic. Perhaps they should shelve that comeback disc and release a workout video instead. Stone Temple Pilates, anyone?
Doors guitarist Robby Krieger joined the Pilots later in the set, but by then sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks were premiering their new side project, Court Yard Hounds, a few blocks away. The two women have probably sold more albums than about 95 percent of this year’s SXSW performers combined, but they unveiled their new songs to a modest crowd. The tunes were rich with resplendent vocal harmonies — the kind that can only come from a lifetime of singing together. Forget about their platinum pedigree. Maguire and Robison had what so many newcomers at SXSW often lack: chops.
Sixth Street has historically been the nexus of activity for SXSW but, in recent years, some of the festival’s most talked-about performances have taken place during daylight hours — and without SXSW’s official blessing. This year, almost all of them are happening east of Interstate 35, and there were plenty of newcomers to be found.
On Thursday afternoon, a sprawling queue had formed outside of the French Legation Museum, where British band the XX was scheduled to perform. The line had stalled, causing impatient fans to scale the stone walls around the museum’s beautifully landscaped grounds.
Gotta get in, right? So over the wall we jumped, and tromped up the grassy hill to see the band Dum Dum Girls. The Los Angeles quartet swaddled classic girl-group harmonies in garage-rock fuzz while exuding a glamorous, sexy cool that felt refreshing compared with the hordes of hardscrabble rock troupes that had descended upon Austin.