After nearly a week at Austin’s SXSW festival, I feel like I’ve seen almost nothing!
Yes, I heard some amazing performers, watched several engrossing panels, checked out the gear show, schmoozed, networked, wined and dined. And yet I’ve probably really seen only about 1 percent of what this oversized event has to offer.
But does that worry me? Not a bit! With SXSW, you have to take things in stride. The unexpected discoveries while you’re waiting for your pick to perform are what make this festival worthwhile.
So here, without further ado, are my favorite moments from 2013 SXSW.
The Rachel Ray Backyard Showcase
When a lineup features bands like ZZ Ward, Butch Walker and Matt Nathanson, you know I’m there. Held at an out-of-the-way meat emporium called Bangers, this intimate showcase proved that great music, picnic tables and sangria do go together. Really well. Sadly, I missed ZZ, but I’m told she did a kick-ass set. Next up was Butch Walker, who rocked it hard and got me a bit thirsty (for more, of course!). In case you didn’t know, he’s a top-level producer (Pink, Avril, Fall Out Boy) but obviously loves to play and has a good touring thing going on as well. His bassist, Jake Sinclair, co-produced the new Matt Nathanson LP.
And speaking of Matt, he took the last slot of the evening (featuring my buddy Aaron Tap on guitar) and rocked crowd favorites like “Modern Love” and “Come on Get Higher,” but also treated us to a few songs off his upcoming album, which, rumor has it, will be out this summer.
The Gear Expo
I spent more time than the average Joe at the gear festival. Full disclosure, I was helping out with the product launch of an amazing new keyboard called the Seaboard GRAND from a new company called ROLI. Why do you, my guitar-playing friends, care? Not only is the Seaboard GRAND something you have never seen before, the control technology in this baby will blow your mind. Seriously. You never know, one day there might be a ROLI Sea interface built into your guitar. Jordan Rudess, keyboardist with Dream Theater, was on hand to show off what this keyboard can do. Inspiring!
Other cool guitar finds were some mouth-watering acoustics on display in the Taylor booth. I couldn’t help but gawk. Plus Eventide was showing off its new H9 Harmonizer. Very cool. They obliged me with a great demo.
Small and quirky companies were the mainstay of the expo, with gear like Bohemian Guitars’ BOHO Series of guitars made from vintage oilcans. Metallic, twangy blues tone, they tell me! And the odd but somehow compelling percussion guitar by Jasperbridge.
I popped over to say hey to Chris Petti at Dubspot, a cool school for music and tech in Manhattan on 14th Street.
There were also offerings from Gretsch, a bunch of apps including some cool ones from Korg, several cool artist signings at the Casio booth and more. Plus a happy hour every day.
A bevy of surprises
I ventured out one night with a couple of friends and no particular agenda, one of my favorite things to do at SXSW. And the first (but not last) of the evening’s pleasant surprises was the heavily bearded Ben Caplan. I’m a sucker for feisty banter, and Caplan did not disappoint. He drew me in with some rowdy crowd participation and then slayed with a gravelly voice and some excellent songwriting.
We stepped over to The Stages and caught the end of Rodney Crowell with Jed Hughes’ set. Another amazing songwriter, his mellow wit and finely honed story telling skills made me wish I had shown up just a wee bit earlier! Crowell performed with Emmylou Harris at other showcases throughout the festival as well.
Later that night I caught the entire set from the Legendary Muscle Shoals backing band, also known as The Swampers. These guys have been around the block and got us going with hits like, “Mustang Sally” and “Sweet Inspiration.” Holy moly. They kicked ass then and they still do. The stage was filled with greats like Jimmy Johnson, Spooner Oldham, David Hood, Will McFarlane and Donna Jean Thatcher Godchaux. I heard they were in town to promote a documentary about Muscle Shoals. Definitely need to check that one out!
There was such a variety of music going on at the festival that I almost forgot I was in Texas until I went to see The Black Lillies from Knoxville, Tennessee, a real died-in-the-wool Americana band. Their pedal steel guitarist, Tom Pryor, stole the show. Sweet harmonies by Trisha Gene Brady and good storytelling and stage charisma by frontman Cruz Contreras clinched the deal.
The ladies slay SXSW
I swear to you I didn’t plan it this way, but Friday was ladies day for me at SXSW. First up, I attended a lunch hosted by Carla DeSantis Black and her organization, MEOW (Musicians for Equal Opportunities for Women). The ladies there were just inspiring. It was a networking smorgasbord!
Next up came a showcase by von Grey, one of my favorites of the entire festival. These four sisters possess incredible talent. This Atlanta-based quartet – Kathryn, Annika, Fiona and Petra von Grey, included cello, guitar, violin and keyboards, and some tight harmonies and top-notch songwriting that’s going to propel these youngsters to big things. One to watch!
I stopped in and spent an hour at the panel "Women in Metal: Why is it Still an Issue in 2013." Led by journalist Kim Kelly, the panel brought up some interesting points about the world of metal from a female musician’s perspective. Some smart discussion and equally intelligent questions kept the panel lively and engrossing. A-plus!
Later that night I caught Malina Moye at the Sony showcase at The Hangar. One of my favorite guitarists on the planet, Moye shared some songs from her upcoming album, Rock & Roll Baby, and closed out the set with a rousing version of Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady.” Appropriate on many levels!
I was having such a good time, I stayed to catch Dessa, and boy was I glad I did! Fronted by Margret Wander, the band combined rowdy elements of white girl hip-hop with intelligent lyrics and a musical groove. I liked it!
Then I stopped in to catch the tail end of a set by singer/songwriter Craig Marshall. He’s got a new album out called Hiding in the Doorway. I first met Craig at the movie premiere for the film My Uncle Rafael, as he had a song on the soundtrack. This album features some great heart-tugging tracks with a country twang. Okay, he doesn’t fit in the Friday lady category, but still very tasty dessert to some excellent musical fare!
That’s my SXSW in a nutshell. Up too late, met some amazing people, ate some amazing sushi (Yes, I did say sushi in Austin!), had a blast and checked out some cool products. Were you there? Share some of your favorite moments so I know what to look for next year!
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents Dean Markley, Agile Partners, Peavey, Jammit, Notion Music, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the founder of the Women's International Music Network at thewimn.com, producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.