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Bob Boilen's SXSW Musical And Not So Musical Highlights, 2012

Thor is a member of Shearwater and Swans. I saw him biking down the street at SXSW.MoreCloseclosemore
Thor is a member of Shearwater and Swans. I saw him biking down the street at SXSW.

In a single day at South by Southwest this year, I experienced a sissy bounce, spent half an hour speaking with one of the most respected musicians in town, saw a guy play his homemade "doo doo" drums, witnessed a fabulous tabla player with a full-blown Qawwali band play on a rug rolled out on the sidewalk, heard some psychedelic sci-fi shriek and a singular voice fill a church.

There are 25 more things I'm not highlighting here and I had five of those days. I am exhausted now that I've stopped (maybe I should go see a show tonight) and exhilarated by days and days of music, some great, some that didn't connect.

I've been carrying around my trusty but amateur Kodak Zi8, documenting one minute of every show I go to this year, so excuse the less than NPR quality, but I think it will give you a feel for the event.

Here are a few highlights, some musical and some not:

Best shows

Patrick Watson: This man and his brilliant band of drums and strings make music that unpacks emotion and story. Stunning with verse and wallops with chorus.

Kishi Bashi: A talented and budding performer on violin and loop pedals who's also a fine singer with a nice range and a great sense of pop. He's traveling alone and though that's cool to see, I hope he adds a band one day. His charm and ability to make songs out of bits of live, performed loops feels like a bit of magic. The cynic would say, "Andrew Bird." I see that too, but don't dismiss him on that observation. He's heading down paths that are promising and unique.

Debo Band - I gushed about this Boston group enough at GlobalFest 2012, but here I'll just say that even though their music is steeped in 1960s Ethiopian music, to me, they're a rock band first. That means the beat is hard, the guitar is blistering, the horns are lyrical and you don't have to understand what is being said to understand the emotions behind the voice. Their appeal is universal.

Firehorse: I often like my rock to be crafty: guitar shrieks in just the right place, lyrics poetic and memorable, drums essential and primal and a singer with soul and surprises. That pretty much describes Firehorse.

La Vida Boheme: This was part of the NPR Music day party at the Parish, so I'd heard the band's music. Still, I wasn't ready for the performance. Their punk was smarter than the often angry noise the genre is stereotyped for. The members' paint-splattered faces and clothing, a nod to Jackson Pollack, was every bit surprising as the electronica that flowed in and out of their music. I was beaming with joy hearing this band live.

Alabama Shakes: Led by the powerful voice of Brittany Howard, this is a band full of soul and so charismatic. Go see them when they come to your town. We'll have video from this concert online soon.

Sharon Van Etten: We've talked a lot in the past year or so about this woman's singular voice, but what happened in Austin is such a leap from what we've seen before. She's gone from a very personal, somewhat folky voice to a talent that can rock a crowd of thousands. We'll have video from this concert online soon, too.

Magnetic Fields: They'll make you laugh, they'll make you cry and they do it all in the same song. Their performance at the Parish was quiet and brilliant, digging deep into their past of 69 Love Songs while rearranging their new songs from quirky electronic pop into droll chamber pop. We'll have video from this concert online soon.

Best Discoveries

Sun Araw: Cameron Stallones manages to take a singular improvised moment and, through repetition and variation, telescope us into an aural experience worth getting lost in.

Silverbus: Climactic guitar-centric trio from Taiwan, epic and fun, not grand and weighty.

Young Magic: Only saw enough to know I want more of their punchy psych-soul. (My video for this band is missing, so here's an official music video.)

Exitmusic: A perfect roar of sound steeped in Radiohead and Sigur Ros but full of talent in voice and texture. A real aural feast. (I don't think they ever turned the lights up at the Mohawk small stage, but you can hear the music.)

THEESatisifaction: The most enjoyable hip-hop show I've seen despite the fact that these two talented singers and improvisors played with only recorded backing tracks. Stasia Irons and Catherine Harris-White (you may have heard them on Shabazz Palaces' recent record) are a joy to hear, with a message that feels so positive. Sometimes sung, sometimes spoken; sometimes that interplay happens simultaneously. As interesting in texture and beats as their backing tracks were, I yearn for real performers behind this duo and I can't wait to hear their Sub Pop release.

Mwahaha: This band, which attracted me with its name alone (think that evil laugh, Mwahaha) makes a lot of noise made from wires and strings that somehow turns to song. Captivating.

Interviews & Talks

Henry D'Arthenay: After La Vida Boheme came off the stage, I spoke with the band's singer, Henry D'Arthenay. Sometimes interviews are just questions, answers, then another question and then another answer. Sometimes they're a conversation where both parties inspire one another and learn from each other. I felt a strong connection to the mission of this band and the art they make. My conversation with D'Arthenay reinforced the importance of art and stance of lyrics and message. I'll see it again along with you when we post these interview online on our SXSW page.

Bruce Springsteen Keynote Address: This is required viewing, honestly. This man would have made a great professor. Dr. Springsteen surprised us all with a one-hour talk on his journey through rock and roll, complete with examples in song, with a guitar. Don't miss this!

Jack White: I've enjoyed conversations with Jack White in the past, including a series of interviews we posted on this blog called The Flip Side With Jack White. After hearing his new record before I left for Austin, I was eager to talk with him about it. What is so striking to me is how he constantly pushes himself and inspires the musicians he works with. That conversation was filmed and will be online close to the release date of Blunderbuss on April 23.

NPR Music's Bob Boilen talking with Jack White while at the SXSW Music Festival 2012 (NPR)

On The Streets

It's never a casual stroll down 6th Street — Austin's main drag — or any other street during SXSW, for that matter. I'm a people watcher. I always want to stop people and ask them to tell me their story, but instead I imagine who they are, how they got to be in this sea of misfits, artists and onlookers.

On one occasion I did stop, and whipped out my camera when I saw a very straight looking fellow drumming intensely on a few mason jars wrapped in latex or elastic and duct taped to his bicycle. After we spoke, I laughed for the next fifteen minutes, alone as I went to my next show. I'm sure I looked to someone else as a character in a hat, laughing to himself and I trust someone seeing me would want to know my story — we all have them and they're so often surprising.

I shot this six-minute stroll down 6th Street on Saturday night. It was the final night of the festival, plus it was St. Patrick's day. If you've never been, this might scare you away. But the ones that it doesn't scare are the ones who have the best time.

This was the last music I saw at SXSW 2012 and after seeing what felt like a let down set of music by SBTRKT (to be fair I didn't stay long) this was an uplifting end to the festival

And some random photos:

St. Patrick's Day in Austin during SXSW 2012 (NPR)
Hoek's Death Metal Pizza, offering good pizza and free Metal concerts (npr)

What I Missed

Performances by Springsteen, Jack White and the Big Star tribute show. I felt fine about missing them. I skip the big stuff intentionally at SXSW — it's too much of a time suck when the name of the game is discovery. I lived it all vicariously through friends.

You can listen to conversations from our team for each day we were at SXSW and hear picks from NPR Music's Robin Hilton, Stephen Thompson and Ann Powers.

So what did you see that knocked you out at SXSW 2012?

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