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South by Southwest: Iconic festival rocks


Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2014 at 12:11 PM

Robert Plant, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Pete Townshend.

An argument could be made that the faces of those rock legends be chiseled into a musical version of Mount Rushmore. One of the common denominators the lionized singer-songwriters have is that each delivered a South by Southwest keynote address recently. Each impressed, particularly Springsteen, who apparently prepares for a keynote just like Lisa Lampanelli does for a Friars Club roast.

Lady Gaga did the honors Friday at South by Southwest, which ran March 7 through Sunday. Her state of the musical union was underwhelming at best. MTV veteran John Norris lobbed her softballs, and she defended her decision to let Frito-Lay sponsor her much celebrated show at Stubb’s BBQ. Much was made of a performance artist vomiting on Gaga (perhaps too much free Tex-Mex, or had she just listened to “Artpop” for the first time?)

Unfortunately, Gaga represents how this still wonderful festival has morphed. There are too many established bands invading Austin, Texas, trying to score credibility. Why else was Soundgarden playing the capital of Texas in front of industry folk sporting badges and slacker music fans?

“Without sponsorships, we won’t have any more artists in Austin?” Gaga said.

Tell that to the unknown entities who drive across the country to play as many as 10 brief sets at South by Southwest. Those under-the-radar performers are playing parties at clubs during the day and showcasing at venues at night. Some of these artists were even looking for house parties to play.

The members of the trippy duo Turbo Goth were looking for opportunity. The only electronic band from the Philippines, which is comparable to an amalgam of Daft Punk and White Stripes, flew thousands of miles to Texas for just one showcase. “We’re looking to do house parties,” guitarist Paolo Peralta said. “Do you know anyone that will have us? We want to play in front of as many people as possible.”

Turbo Goth spent a fortune to travel to Austin. Many bands sleep in their cars or on friend’s floors since hotels are booked and the rooms available are expensive. Corporate sponsorship doesn’t impact bands such as Turbo Goth, who offered an offbeat cover of Sonic Youth’s “100 Percent.” When asked whether the tandem liked Sonic Youth’s brilliant “Daydream Nation,” impossibly thin singer Sarah Gaugler was refreshingly honest.

“We haven’t heard that album yet,” Gaugler said.

Just a bit more innocent and inexperienced than Lady Gaga. The fest can’t be faulted for failing to book the emerging acts. The lion’s share of baby bands are present in Austin, but some music fans are distracted by the glare of a Jay Z-Kanye West performance, which was the highlight for some.

Schoolboy Q is a rapper to watch. The clever wordsmith is a socially conscious player who raps over catchy sonics. His recently released “Oxymoron” could become a blockbuster. Q easily connected with the audience and has more energy and stage presence than most rappers.

Nobody had more fun than the Hold Steady, but that’s the way it always is with the exceptional Brooklyn band. Vocalist-lyricist Craig Finn grinned from ear to ear while previewing cuts from the band’s forthcoming “Teeth Dreams,” which drops Tuesday. Finn, a short, bespectacled sort who makes Woody Allen seem masculine, doesn’t look like he belongs onstage. He knows it, and he revels in the wonderfully crazy hand he’s been dealt in life. The Hold Steady were kickin’ it while delivering their anthemic “singalong songs,” as Finn calls them.

It’s easy to accentuate the negative, but let’s look at what SXSW does better than anyone: putting together star-studded tribute shows. The hat was tipped toward the late Lou Reed. Six years after Reed’s keynote, Suzanne Vega, who was a close friend of the antisocial bard, Richard Barone, Alejandro Escovedo and Spandau Ballet and many others delivered songs by arguably the greatest songwriter to come out of New York.

Thumbs up to Rachael Ray for her seventh annual “Feedback” party, which featured the amusing Cee Lo Green, a spirited set by Blondie and the wonderfully kooky Har Mar Superstar, not to mention eggplant sandwiches and wings. Give the television cooking star credit. She really loves music and knows how to throw a heck of a soiree for 5,000 music aficionados.

“Jimi: All Is by My Side,’ a film about Jimi Hendrix just before he broke, is engrossing. Andre Benjamin of OutKast fame plays Hendrix. Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) wrote and directed the film, which will screen nationally in June. Ridley was smart enough to realize that less is more with Hendrix. The biopic focuses on Hendrix in 1966 and 1967, his music and loves.

Sure, SXSW, which commenced in 1987, is like most success stories, it just gets bigger and bigger. If you can look past the Lady Gagas and all that is corporate, there is still plenty to groove on.

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