While gimmicks, such as a giant Doritos vending machine stage and photos with the syndicated Internet icon “Grumpy Cat,” have lured UT students to South By Southwest in past years, the festival also holds another appeal: allowing audiences to immerse themselves in the Austin music scene with local artist showcases while enjoying a brief reprieve from their academic grind. With more than 130 official local showcases this year, it can be tough to pick and choose the best bands to see. Here are five can’t-miss acts to alleviate the decision-making process.
Story and Photos by Samantha Jogenia Grasso
Album: The Bright Light Social Hour
Jack O’Brien, bassist and vocalist of the Bright Light Social Hour, says the band’s craziest show was not actually a SXSW event, but at the 21st Street Co-op, a show he recalls as “clothing optional.” He says it was the only time the band has ever been afraid of an audience. “There were fire dancers, there were naked people swinging from the rafters, people were stage diving, somebody threw a textbook at our keyboardist’s head and hit him in the face,” O’Brien says. “It was just total chaos. It felt like the floor was going to cave in, but it was a wild night.”
That’s not to say the psychedelic-rock band has no prior SXSW experience. Growing up in Austin, O’Brien recalls attending the conference since he was 17 years old and says the band was first selected as a showcase act in 2011. Before then, the band played unofficial shows in friends’ backyards and apartments. “I think we didn’t really know how removed from everything we were, but it felt at least fun, and everybody had friends out of town, so we were always playing for people that we never would have played for,” O’Brien says.
The men of The Bright Light Social Hour boast a distinct style to match their unique sound, sporting flared jeans, weather-beaten boots, long hair and sandpapery beards. For O’Brien, one of the coolest perks of his job is getting to look however he feels most natural. Although the band did not plan to have matching hairstyles, they all gravitated toward the look after watching each other on stage. “It feels cool. Whip your hair around if you have the opportunity,” O'Brien says.
Catch The Bright Light Social Hour:
Tuesday, March 11 - OVRLD Showcase @ Oil Can Harry's
Tuesday, March 11 - City of Austin Official Showcase @ The Main II, 10:30 p.m.
Wednesday, March 12 - Paradigm/Middle West Management Official Showcase @ Holy Mountain, 1:15 a.m.
Thursday, March 13 - KUT/WXPN Showcase @ The Four Seasons Ballroom
Thursday, March 13 - Austin Chronicle Day Party @ The Liberty
Friday, March 14 - Official Showcase @ Soho Lounge, 1
Saturday, March 15 - The Future of Music Showcase @ Shiner’s Saloon
Song: White Lies (acoustic performance)
Album: Low High Low (EP)
Alhough he’s not an official showcase artist this time around, in the last year Austin funk/soul/overall-catchy solo artist Max Frost landed a spot at SXSW 2013, signed to Atlantic Records, played Blues on the Green at Zilker Park, released his own EP, Low High Low, and had his single, “White Lies,” featured on a commercial for Beats by Dre. Still, Frost says the increased attention he has received doesn’t make him feel famous. “I don't get recognized often or anything. The only slight change I've really noticed is when people who used to not seem to care for me are super friendly all of a sudden," he says.
Formerly an English major at UT, the singer/guitarist left the University in the fall of 2012 to pursue his music. Frost admits he’s gotten some good breaks in the last year, but he still considers himself a beginning artist. “Once you have success at one level, you hold yourself to the scale of the next. It's the only way to keep yourself in motion, I guess," he explains.
Catch Max Frost:
Wednesday, March 12 — AudioCommon Launch Party @ Brass House Tavern
Song: You, Me and the Boatman
Album: We Are All Where We Belong
If you are at SXSW and you don’t accidentally read, “QUIET COMPANY IS A BAND FROM AUSTIN TEXAS,” at least three times, you are doing it wrong. The indie-rock band is known at the festival for its enthusiastic street team of poster vigilantes and free hug-givers, methods of community involvement that manager Paul Obson says the group has practiced for more than five years. The band, fronted by Taylor Muse, has recently put the finishing touches on their latest album at Orb Recording Studios, just in time for this year’s conference.
Catch Quiet Company:
Tuesday, March 11 - Official Showcase @ The Main II, 11:30 p.m.
Friday, March 14 - @ Blind Pig Pub, 1:45 p.m.
Friday, March 14 - @ Threadgills, 4:30 p.m.
Saturday, March 15 – Official Showcase @ Soho Lounge, 1 a.m.
Song: The Match
Matt Hines, St. Edward’s University alumnus and vocalist for The Eastern Sea, says the social environment and openness of his peers in college played a large role in the establishment of the folk-rock group. “It helped to grow the initial set, to get people to believe it. I had a lot of my friends in college that way, and it was easier to get people to come out to shows. That growth wouldn’t have happened outside of that environment," Hines explains.
This year marks the band’s third SXSW showcase. After years of playing anywhere between 11 and 18 shows during the conference, both official and unofficial, Hines says he has become more accustomed to the flow of the week and knows to adjust his expectations. “As a musician you hope you’re going to get some work done, people will see your band, and at the end it’s sort of like, some of those [audience members] aren’t paying attention to anything, they’re all getting drunk for free. After a while you get a little bit cynical about it, but for the most part, it’s gotten easier for us as we’ve stopped playing as much as we used to," he says.
Although they’re scaling back the number of performances, Hines says this is the band’s most important year at SXSW, because they’re selling the new record they’ve been working on for the last three months. “It’s important that we actually play to the right people, but not as important in busting our ass. It’s easier physically, it’s easier mentally. There’s just going to be a little more at stake because this is the only South By where we’re coming with this thing we’ve done, and we’re trying to sell it to somebody," Hines says.
Catch The Eastern Sea:
Saturday, March 15 - @ Cheer Up Charlies
Saturday, March 15 – Official Showcase @ Lambert’s, 12 a.m.
Song: Carry Me
Album: Build Anyway
Brandon Kinder, vocalist of indie band The Rocketboys, says SXSW is his favorite week of the year. He says that while he used to focus on seeing as many artists and friends as possible, he’s recently taken to using the conference as a networking opportunity. “I've found that it's much more enjoyable when I'm not running around like crazy. I still try and see a ton of bands, but I guess it's a little more planned out now than the old days," Kinder says.
The Rocketboys played their first official showcase in 2009 and felt it was an exciting honor to be selected. “It really validates you as an artist to know that the ‘powers that be’ are taking you seriously. And all the free stuff and other benefits [of a showcase act] aren't bad either,” he adds.
Kinder humorously recalls the group’s last unofficial showcase in 2008, and the rift it caused between them and their friends’ bands, which were playing official showcases. “They had all the credentials and wristbands that we all wished we had. One night, probably around three in the morning, our friend ripped his wristband off and threw it into the street saying, ‘I hate how this wristband is tearing us all apart,'" he says.
Catch The Rocketboys:
Tuesday, March 11 – Official Showcase @ 512 Rooftop, 1 a.m.
Wednesday, March 12 - @ Javelina, 12 p.m.
Wednesday, March 12 - @ Maggie Mae’s, 3 p.m.
Thursday, March 13 - @ Little Woodrows, 11 a.m.