The music portion of South by Southwest is always a slog, but now it's largely a slog in service to America's corporate overlords and celebrity elite. Along with presenting promising new artists, this year's Austin confab served as a tool for big names like Justin Timberlake, Iggy Pop, and Prince to grab eyeballs ahead of promotional cycles, usually with the help of some major brand. (Insert the name of your favorite heavily flavored corn chip, cellphone maker, or rebooted social network here.) Luckily, except for a certain big East Bay group, we stayed away from large shows and explored Austin's endless sea of small clubs, making sure to catch rising Bay Area artists who made the trip out to Texas.
By the end, we sensed the toll the festival takes on the performers. Carson Cox, frontman of rising Tampa punk outfit Merchandise, had a revealing confessional moment when he asked the audience, "So, are you sick of music yet?" Ostensibly, South By Southwest exists to give rising bands like Cox's a broader audience, but witnessing his relief at the conclusion — "It's finally over!" — made us wonder if, between official showcases and unofficial day parties, the event isn't demanding too much of these bands. They sleep on floors, play without sound-checks, and lug gear to multiple shows every day. And if coverage of this year's conference is any indication, most people will only remember that Prince played for three hours in a small club.
But Bay Area bands acquitted themselves most admirably. Here, then, are our awards for the festival's (other) best, weirdest, most profane, and otherwise revealing moments.
Cutest apology: Antwon
Along with excellent songs, San Jose rapper Antwon exudes a whole lot of "don't fuck with me" onstage. He likes to shove his way into the crowd, but he's actually a nice guy: During one set Thursday, the rotund rhymer pushed into two fellows who were understandably intimidated, and then spent the rest of the set watching from the back. Before the final song, though, Antwon spotted them and straight-up apologized from onstage. Then he played his most badass tune, "Helicopter," and danced with them up front.
Most convincing classic rock flashback: Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers
Maybe it was the backyard setting, complete with half a wooden shack for a stage, but S.F.'s Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers' Tuesday-night set felt like a timewarp straight to 1969. Or maybe 1979? With a Rhodes organ, bluesy guitar solos, and her pristine voice, Bluhm and her band conjured visions of the Stevie Nicks of Rumours fronting an American Beauty-era Grateful Dead.
Best dance with gaffer tape: Toro y Moi
When things go wrong during a set at South-By, you roll with them — or, as the case may be, dance with them. We couldn't see exactly what went wrong with Chaz Bundick's synth setup Saturday afternoon, but at one point he ran to the side of the stage for a while and came back with a roll of gaffer tape. While tearing off a strip and getting his keyboard working again, Bundick shimmied along to the music, grinning through it all.
Deftest rapper: Mykki Blanco
Mykki Blanco raps with the tongue of a gender-ambiguous Satan. The onetime San Mateo resident (and current New Yorker) was born with a man's body, lives as a woman, and looks beautiful as either. Many rappers suffer from a sharp fall-off in dexterity in moving from the studio to the stage, but Blanco spat with metallic precision and lurid flair on Thursday night. S/he played the simmering hit "Wavvy," and it was hella wavy.
Gnarliest stage-dive: A young Green Day fan
The distance between the end of the stage and the start of the crowd at the East Bay pop-punkers' Friday show was a gaping eight feet, perhaps. But it's a Green day tradition to bring up fans to sing a verse and stage-dive, and singer Billie Joe Armstrong was too fired-up to abandon it. We had sweaty palms watching the first one, a girl of maybe 11, get ready to leap over the photo pit after helping to sing "Know Your Enemy." Luckily, she launched over the barrier and landed on the receptive crowd — but only barely.
Most likely to be a star in two months: Mikal Cronin
If you haven't heard yet, Mikal Cronin is going to be the next breakout from the S.F. rock scene. Previewing songs from his Merge Records debut, out May 7, Cronin and his four-piece band churned out soaring hooks soaked in fuzz at the label's Thursday showcase. Cronin's songs have all the rancor of his pal Ty Segall — now a nationally loved rawk-peddler himself — but with a stronger sense of tunefulness and more revealing, vulnerable lyrics. It sounded like an ideal mix for appealing to both denizens of the Knockout and El Rio as well as more casual indie rock fans — but, crucially, it seems like the only person Cronin cares about pleasing is himself.