Even after he barely made his gig due to airport delays and landed in a city swarming with music professionals and fans from around the world, Denzel Curry still was unmoved by what he saw at the South by Southwest Music Conference last week.
“I thought it would be crazier than this,” complained the Florida rapper, 22, standing before a packed crowd at the House of Vans showcase.
One of the many young buzzers performing in Austin last week who also have an upcoming Minnesota date, Curry was right. SXSW is not what it used to be.
Those words can even be applied to the host city for the world’s biggest music industry conference, but in an opposite way. As Austin booms with tall, new hotel/condo towers and traffic problems, its best-known event has ironically downsized and turned calmer, more navigable.
Instead of Kanye West, Prince or Justin Timberlake putting on surprise shows with friends in hi-fi places, like in recent years, the nearest SXSW 2017 came to a major velvet-rope VIP event was keynote speaker Garth Brooks’ short set in south Austin’s low-ceilinged honky-tonk the Broken Spoke — a surprise to which most attendees paid little mind.
There was a lot more interest in electro-pop queen Lana Del Rey’s unannounced set Thursday, but cronies for the show’s sponsors Sony and Bud Light got in over SXSW’s traditional press, radio and record-company minions.
On the upside, serious musicheads hoping to catch acclaimed indie bands such as Spoon, At the Drive-In or Hurray for the Riff Raff previewing new albums had plenty of chances to do so without waiting in long lines. They also had umpteen opportunities to catch this year’s breakout newcomers such as the Middle Kids, Rag’n’Bone Man, Priests, the Shelters and Minnesota’s own Hippo Campus.
One reason SXSW has changed: There’s more buzz and money behind the conference’s tech-industry offshoot. SXSW Interactive has exploded in popularity and now spills over into the music festivities early in the week. Music-biz honchos and hipsters used to cutting in lines now play second fiddle to internet moguls and tech geeks.
By Saturday night, SXSW felt like the Tuesday nights of a decade ago: quiet, kind of boring but full of opportunity. This was the night to go check out the wild and seedy Eastern European jazz-punk band Orkestar Kriminal (who took advantage of the wall of vodka at their venue, the Russian House) or the funky young masters of old-school Louisiana swamp music, Lafayette’s Cedryl Ballou & the Zydeco Trendsetters (who lit up the dance floor at the new Antone’s location).
The festival took a bad public-relations hit this year over fine-print legal language that ostensibly threatened deportation to ill-behaved foreign acts. However, international artists played a major role this year. Most notably, the so-called Contrabanned showcase featured acts rooted in countries singled out by the Trump administration’s new travel ban, including Somali-Canadian hip-hop/dance duo Faarow and Iraqi-American neoclassical artist Dena El Saffar.
Also, many of the hip-hop acts who kicked up buzz this year were women, from Chicago’s intellectual, sharp-witted Noname to New York’s thuggish, razor-tongued Young M.A. and Minneapolis’ own Lizzo, who might have made the biggest splash of any newish act at SXSW.
We already knew how awesome Lizzo is, though. Here’s a rundown of what we discovered at SXSW.
5 SXSW newbies to discover
Middle Kids: Although the singer’s voice was already a little shot by late Wednesday night, the Sydney rock quartet churned up some gnarly guitar work around excellent loud-quiet-louder songs.
Rag’n’Bone Man: While his debut record is overproduced and overwrought, the big-framed British singer Rory Graham still impressively came off like the male answer to Adele in a stripped-down concert format at a historic church, where his voice boomed gloriously, and the setting matched the drama in his songs.
Anna Wise: Known for her spacey vocal contributions to “These Walls” and other Kendrick Lamar tunes, the Los Angeles singer stretched that warmly psychedelic vibe into a mesmerizing, feel-good set of her own, laced with FKA Twigs-style grooves and self-confident, hopeful lyrics.
Priests: This riotous D.C. band’s compelling frontwoman Katie Alice Greer got political but also got physical in a highly charged but also impressively musical/experimental performance.
A Giant Dog: Hand-picked to open one of Spoon’s residency gigs, this Austin band has an even wilder and more animated frontwoman, Sabrina Ellis, and its Stooges-gone-new-wave melodic punk songs are also full of spark.
5 SXSW albums to hear
Spoon: Austin’s own indie-rock institution set up shop for three nights at the Main (formerly Emo’s) leading up to Friday’s release of its ninth album, “Hot Thoughts.” Opening night found the band sounding tighter than a well-wrapped breakfast taco, even as it stretched musically into synth-laced, new-wavy territory and some of frontman Britt Daniel’s most personal songs.
Hurray for the Riff Raff: A breakout act at SXSW in 2014 that’s also coming to the Fine Line on April 30, Alynda Lee Segarra’s New Orleans-based Americana band returned with a rockier yet more elegant sound heard on its week-old record “The Navigator.” The songs recall Bob Dylan’s best ’80s/’90s work, including Segarra’s poetic and provocative lyrical style.
Benjamin Booker: The scrappy, hard-shuffling New Orleans rocker’s second album (not out until June 2) sounds more moody, intricate and experimental as he previewed new songs between De La Soul and Weezer at Rachael Ray’s annual day party at Stubb’s.
At the Drive-In: Back after a 15-year hiatus that saw their cultish fan base grow, these bombastic, high-adrenaline El Paso rockers — coming June 17 to the Palace Theatre in St. Paul — debuted a very capable replacement for original guitarist Jim Ward and several songs off the upcoming record “Interalia” as intense and fiery as their prior work.
Lift to Experience: Josh T. Pearson’s freakishly noisy yet sophisticatedly dramatic north Texas trio actually released its epic, religious double-LP 16 years ago on the Cocteau Twins-affiliated label Bella Union, but the reissue prompted a riveting reunion set in a downtown church that quite literally raised holy hell.
5 SXSW acts to go see
Agnes Obel: The Danish answer to Joanna Newsom came off like a fine wine amid the swill of SXSW, contrasting the noise and chaos with ornately arranged, classically moody songs from last year’s conceptual LP “Citizen of Glass.” (See her March 31, Cedar Cultural Center)
Denzel Curry: The wild-eyed and wilder-haired, crowd-surfing rapper eschewed the sleepy, weedy sonic approach permeating indie hip-hop and sounded like he was on strong uppers instead. (May 28, Soundset festival)
Jay Som: San Francisco singer/songwriter Melina Duterte played charmingly bedheaded, lush guitar pop with a trio that looked more book shop than record store. (March 22, 7th Street Entry)
Jain: French dance-pop singer Jeanne Galice kicked aside some of her more pretentious musings and cut loose in a fun, energetic live set fueled by an innovative mix of Mediterranean grooves. (March 31, 7th Street Entry)
Ron Gallo: The spazzy Philly garage-rocker on New West Records writes fun, wiseacre songs such as “Why Do You Have Kids?” He kicked up seriously intense psychedelic guitar grooves before collapsing on stage claiming it was his “116th show of the week.” (April 30, Fine Line)
See how the Minnesota acts at SXSW fared in Tuesday’s Variety.
Chris Riemenschneider • @ChrisRstrib