Every year, it seems the South by Southwest music festival can't possibly get any bigger -- and each year it does.
In 2012, Bruce Springsteen came to SXSW, and to keep attendees from lining up a day in advance, a lottery was held. This year, that distribution system is being employed for at least three shows: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds on Wednesday (also featuring Waxahatchee, the nom de rock of Philadelphia songwriter Katie Crutchfield); Dave Grohl and friends on Thursday with Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, and members of Nirvana; and Green Day on Friday.
Those shows are kind of a big deal here, where there are scores of venues -- 100 official sites are listed, but most are on an intimate scale.
Even those are relatively small, though, compared to the two names expected to drop in Saturday night: Prince, who'll bring a 22-piece band to the cozy La Zona Rosa, and Justin Timberlake, who everyone expects to announce a secret show in support of his new album, The 20/20 Experience, out Tuesday.
Tuesday used to be a quiet day at SXSW, but this year, bands played all night at 40 venues. Many of the streets filled with food trucks were already closed to vehicular traffic, and things were already busy at the Austin Convention Center, where Grohl and legendary executive Clive Davis will give keynotes. Among the panels -- Girls and Tech: Why Young Women Rule in Music and Big Data: The New Oil or the New Snake Oil.
Still, it wasn't quite so packed in the clubs as it will get, and the early start gave me a chance to check a handful of acts off my need-to-see list. My first stop, after picking up what may well have been the last unrented bike in Austin and digging into a Korean-Mexican pork burrito, was Ashley Monroe at the Empire Control Room.
Monroe is one-third of the Pistol Annies, a female country trio that includes Miranda Lambert and that will release its second album, Annie Up, in May. Monroe has a new album of her own, Like a Rose, coproduced by Vince Gill, which came out last week and which is an early contender for country album of the year.
Monroe, 26, is a Knoxville, Tenn., native who manages the neat trick of making country steeped in tradition without seeming the slightest bit old-fashioned. Her set was filmed for an MTV/VH1/CMT showcase, and the TV lights were so hot, Monroe sounded more practical than coy when she said, "Wow, this was the wrong gig to wear a leather dress -- at least it's got holes in the side."
She's not as practiced a performer as Lambert, but there's no doubting her songwriting skills. She has a winning way with country wordplay, as when a loser guy leaves her in the lurch in "Two Weeks Late." And she can get dead-serious emotional to heartrending effect, as she did on "Used." A star in the making, for sure.
From there, I moved around the corner on Sixth Street to the Main, where the pure pop aspect of SXSW was on display at the I Heart Radio showcase, with sets by Brooklyn rapper Josh Baze, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and Tegan & Sara.
Macklemore, the Caucasian rapper from Seattle whose "Thrift Shop" reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart, was the main attraction. Accompanied by his DJ, Ryan Lewis, singers, guest rappers, and a trumpet player, he bounded about on stage like a Jack in the Box, wearing a jacket he said he had bought at an Austin thrift shop. "That song went to No. 1 on pop radio," he said, "and the fact a song about buying used clothes infiltrated pop radio seems like a real progression to me."
Macklemore, who'll headline the Roots Picnic in Philadelphia in June, showed he's got his finger on the zeitgeist with "Same Love," his song about tolerance and inclusion that was greeted as a personal anthem in the packed room. "This song is the most endearing song to me and it means the most to me of any song I've ever written," he said.
When he followed that with the catchy rap "Can't Hold Us," he was literally walking atop the crowd. Fans held him overhead as he grabbed at the rafters, and the SXSW music festival was on its way.
Inquirer popular music critic Dan DeLuca reports through Sunday from the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas.
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