If you're a music fan, the place to be this week is Austin, Texas. The annual South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival -- known by many as SXSW -- has been a staple of the music-festival circuit since 1987. It's a two-week celebration of independent sounds by both up-and-coming bands and established acts, as well as interactive media and film.
This year promises to be the biggest SXSW yet; more than 1,300 bands and artists will perform in just about every venue the Texas capital has to offer. Stephen Thompson, editor of the new NPR.org feature Song of the Day is one of the hundreds of music journalists descending on the city, looking for the hottest new acts. Here's a short list of some of his favorites:
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The place to be this week for music fans is Austin, Texas. It's the annual South by Southwest Festival where this year, over 1,300 different artists are filling every nook and cranny of the Texas capital with music. There are also hundreds and hundreds of music journalists, among them, Stephen Thompson. He's a writer for NPR.org's own Song of the Day and he took a road trip from his home in Madison, Wisconsin to South by Southwest. We got him to stop on his way out of town and give us a call and you're on the line there, aren't you? Hi!
STEPHEN THOMPSON reporting:
I am, hi, how's it going?
MONTAGNE: Fine, thanks. I hope you're stopped and not talking as you drive.
THOMPSON: I have pulled over. I'm outside a BP station in sunny Edgerton, Wisconsin, 25 miles from where I started. I just sort of decided to re-stake my claim on my position as a reckless road warrior and listen to some music for 19 hours each way.
MONTAGNE: It sounds like, though, you do plan to get some work done along the way which is not a bad idea because you can listen while you're driving.
THOMPSON: Exactly. You know, I got a chance to download like this huge file with about 700 MP3's of songs by bands playing South by Southwest this year, so it's sort of a chance to try to discover some new talent before I even get to where I'm going to discover new talent.
MONTAGNE: Do you have something up there right now that you turned down probably to talk to us?
THOMPSON: Let's turn it on and see what I got goin' here. There's a singer I love named David Mead who I'm really excited to see--just a wonderful singer/songwriter. He's just got this beautiful, warm croon to this voice. This is a song off an EP he did. The song is called Wherever You Are.
(Soundbite of song "Wherever You Are")
MONTAGNE: We're hearing the slightly improved version here, but--yeah, nice!
THOMPSON: It's a beautiful song. That's Wherever You Are by David Mead. You know what, it's funny cause when you strive to discover as much of the music as possible, you know, so much of it just isn't going to strike your fancy and part of even going to a festival like South by Southwest is you get a chance to kind of just walk in and out of rooms where music is playing and decide whether you're gonna fall in love that instant.
You know, there was a time a few years ago where I went to the festival and, you know, I was just walking around, like, the convention center and I hear this incredible voice, a sort of operatic yodel, and it was a singer from Austin named Don Walser who is retired now. He's in his 70's and they call him the Pavarotti of the Plains. If you can find a song called I'll Hold You in My Heart Till I Can Hold You in My Arms it's just absolutely beautiful.
(Soundbite of song "I'll Hold You in My Heart Till I Can Hold You in My Arms")
THOMPSON: You know, that musical discovery, that opportunity to immerse yourself in things that you wouldn't otherwise hear, is really exciting and intoxicating and I can't wait to get there.
MONTAGNE: It sounds like the spontaneous moments and the unexpected are part of the big deal of South by Southwest. There are also big expectations for some bands. Anybody on the horizon that you imagine might break out at this festival?
THOMPSON: Well, it's interesting because, you know, South by Southwest used to be much more about unsigned bands. Hundreds and hundreds of people will sort of flock lemming-like to certain shows by certain bands and I think, you know, Arctic Monkees is certainly a band like that this year. You know, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah is a band that people have been talking about for a long time that's gonna be a very difficult show to get into. You know, already plowing through this monster MP3 batch, I've discovered a couple of things where, wow, I can't wait to see this band. There's a duo from L.A. called Chris and Thomas which has a song called Take These Thoughts that's very sweet, sort of, almost Simon & Garfunkel-esq ballad--a great driving song!
MONTAGNE: Now, we're talking to you on the phone. You're in your car, but hey, play us a sample.
THOMPSON: Alright, this is Take These Thoughts by Chris and Thomas.
(Soundbite of "Take These Thoughts")
CHRIS AND THOMAS: (singing) And all I want I want is all that you possess. And all I want is all that I can't get.
THOMPSON: It's beautiful and like I said, it's one of those, if you're driving while sad (laughs)...
THOMPSON: ...it's a great complement to that.
MONTAGNE: Yeah, well, and then also, then of course you'll want to change the mood at some point. Another possible example?
THOMPSON: Well, completely different, there's a rapper whose work I love named Brother Ali, who's a large, Muslim, albino, rapper and I can't wait. He's got a new record coming out this year that I can't wait to hear. There's a song on this sampler called Forest Whitaker, which is basically, it's sort of his celebration of being ugly.
(Soundbite of music)
BROTHER ALI: (rapping) Ayo Dependin on the day and dependin on what I ate, I'm anywhere from 20 to 35 pounds over weight, I got red eyes and one of them's lazy, and they both squint when the sun shines so I look crazy, I'm albino man, I know I'm pink and pale...
MONTAGNE: Well, I hate to hold you up so why don't I just...
THOMPSON: Oh, it's nice to get a break 25 minutes into the trip. You know, I don't know, I've got another 19 hours to compute the difference between my age and the age when this sort of thing stopped being a good idea.
MONTAGNE: (Laughs) Well, Stephen, safe driving and happy listening.
THOMPSON: Thank you so much.
(Soundbite of music)
BROTHER ALI: (rapping) To everyone out there, who's a little different, I say damn a magazine,these are gods fingerprints, You can call me ugly but cant take nothing from me, I am what I am doctor, you ain't gotta love me...
MONTAGNE: Stephen Thompson has made it safe and sound to Austin by now. On his agenda tonight is a show for the band Headlights. He suggested leaving you with this song called It Isn't Easy to Live That Well.
(Soundbite of song It Isn't Easy to Live That Well)
MONTAGNE: You can hear full-length versions of all the songs you just heard at our web site, NPR.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.