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Kendrick Lamar performs at the iTunes Festival at SXSW.
Associated Press/Photo by Jack Plunkett/Invision
Kendrick Lamar performs at the iTunes Festival at SXSW.

Listening for signals in SXSW’s noise

Culture | The music portion of SXSW has moved far from its singer-songwriter roots, but you can still catch notes of greatness, if you listen closely

AUSTIN, Texas—The South by Southwest Music-Film-Interactive Festival taking place this week in Austin moved into full party mode yesterday, as both the film and interactive parts of the festival came to an end. Music dominates now until the festival’s end.

Of course, it was as a music festival that SXSW got its start, so it is tempting to say that South By returns to its roots during the festival’s last days. Resist the temptation. Neither the music nor the crowd resembles in any way SXSW’s roots. The music venues host fewer Americana artists and singer-songwriters each year. This year, hip-hop—long a part of the festival—moved to a top-tier position. Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Sean “P-Diddy” Combs generated the most buzz.

One of the ironies of all the rap and hip-hop is that this art form born on the streets has become a tool of the boardroom. Samsung, for example, hosted Kanye West and Jay-Z in a show on Wednesday night that they even didn’t announce until Monday. That’s not so unusual. South by Southwest is famous for schedule changes and surprises. The real drama came when Samsung said its Austin Music Hall show would happen at the same time as the iTunes Festival’s hip-hop night, featuring Kendrick Lamar and ScHoolboy Q at the nearby ACL Moody Theater. If you didn’t have a VIP pass, you had to stand in line for hours to get into the Samsung show, but you got in for free if you had a Samsung device with the company’s new streaming music service, Milk Music, loaded on it. It was a direct slap at Apple, who Kanye West had called out recently for exploiting artists with its iTunes system. It’s hard to know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing when rappers go to battle over operating systems. It’s certainly hard to imagine Tupac or Biggie doing it.

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Here for the beer. More than 2,000 bands are playing at SXSW. No one can hear them all, or even know who’s playing and where. South by Southwest, even more than most festivals, has a reputation for hipster coolness: The interactive part of the festival means, in part, that the really cool stuff is not in the official guide or on billboards. You have to download the SXSW apps and keep an eye on updates if you want to know where the most interesting stuff is happening.

But the late-night show Jimmy Kimmel Live, broadcasting from Austin this week, made the point that a lot of festival-goers are just here for the beer. According to Kimmel, “people who come to music festivals pride themselves on knowing who the new, up and coming acts are.” So to test festival-goers knowledge (and honesty), Kimmel sent a camera crew into the streets of Austin to ask SXSW attendees about bands that do not exist in a special South By Southwest edition of “Lie Witness News.” The results were often funny, and sometimes pathetic.

Signals in the noise. That said, it’s possible to find some humanity among the walking dead. I had a long conversation with singer-songwriter Andrew Belle yesterday, and he restored my waning faith in the ability of South By to find and nurture emerging talent. Belle graduated from the Christian college Taylor University, but had a spiritual crisis after college that in the end deepened both his faith and his commitment to his music. Microsoft and others have licensed his music for commercials and television use, but that success hasn’t turned his head, and his latest album Black Bear explores relationships and mystery in interesting and compelling ways. (Listen for my interview with Belle on an upcoming edition of my new radio program Listening In.)

Other signs of life at South By include Penny and Sparrow. They played a late Thursday-night showcase at a venue called The Tap Room in front of a respectful crowd of 200 or more. Penny and Sparrow are Texas singers and former roommates Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke. They claim The Swell Season, Bon Iver, and Mumford and Sons as musical influences. You can certainly hear all that in their music, but there’s more. They weave biblical imagery into their lyrics in ways that are surprising and completely un-self-conscious, and the duo’s backing band allows for sonic adventure as well. At one point, Jahnke sang a capella, highlighting the power of his voice (and the group’s songwriting). The band’s latest album is Tenboom, featuring a line drawing of Corrie Ten Boom on the cover.

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