SXSW Report: Top Moments for Austin’s Music Fest

The best parts of SXSW are the surprise moments. The bands you don’t plan to see, the people you had no idea you’d meet, the sheer unpredictability that forces you to just go with the flow.

Most of my favorite SXSW moments this year stem from accidentally encountered awesomeness. But that said, it’s no accident that these performers are at SXSW.

As I headed down to Austin to moderate our Guitar World panel on guitar apps, I tried to plan my schedule. Now I know resistance is futile. I should just give in to the good vibes at SXSW and bask in the diversity of amazing performances that make SXSW what it is: A mishmash of amazing wall-to-wall talent.

Check out the photo gallery below for some of my favorite moments this year.

Favorite surprise moment: Walking in randomly to the Saddle Creek Records showcase and stumbling upon Big Harp’s Stefanie Drootin-Senseney takes the prize. Wow. She is a truly skilled bass player with a rare sound, feel, and dexterity that combine into the perfect fusion of raunch and mastery. Look for more on her coming soon!

Favorite stage setup: Doritos wins by a mile. I can’t help it. Any company that makes their stage look like a giant vending machine with humongous Doritos bags ready for purchase is obviously thinking outside normal human dimension. I can’t tell you who played there, but Doritos left a lasting impression on my brain!

Favorite traditional performance: When I walked by and saw Barbara Lynn banging out classics on her Strat like she was born to do it, well, that was truly a delight. Plus, her backing band included Meshell Ndegocello on bass. Smooth like butter but with a side of foot tapping and booty shaking. Thank you, may I have another?

Favorite non-guitar party: Strictly because I strive to be the coolest mom on the planet, I snuck my way into The Main to catch Skrillex, my son’s current favorite. I have to admit, it was extremely enjoyable. His blend of beat, electronics and pure fun had the crowd going…including me!

Favorite band with a fiddle: I caught Honey Honey only because I was there to see the next band and everyone was running late. Good for me! Great lyrics, style, chops and contagious energy made this band a real standout. Singer, banjo, and fiddle player Suzanne Santo was mesmerizing. Dare I say, SWEET!

Favorite rock moment: When I went over to Stubbs to catch the couple of bands before Andrew Bird, little did I know I would be treated to an old-style down and dirty rockin’ performance by Alabama Shakes, fronted by singer/guitarist Brittany Howard. She laughed. She cried. They all satisfied my itch for some soulful blues rock.

Favorite gypsy guitar: Beso Negro was set up on the lawn at Lagunitas Brewery’s Sonoma Sounds party. Great beer, great music, great weather. And, of course, some excellent playing. It's all good!

Favorite band seen from across the street: I couldn’t get anywhere near the Gary Clark Jr. show at Waterloo Records, but I had a great view from across the street and a curb to sit on. Clark dug into his classic blues raunch and gave the thousands who joined me a taste of his toneful magic.

Favorite giveaway: If you checked in at the Nudie Jeans and Marshall headphones party at Cheer Up Charlies on the east side, then you had a chance to win a pair of excellent Marshall headphones or earbuds. A truly fabulous, and appropriate prize!

Even more good stuff

I caught so many performances in three days, it was truly mind-blowing (and fatiguing!). I can’t say I saw one bad show. Austin is geared for live music and these performers didn’t disappoint:

Jennifer O’Connor: I had interviewed Jennifer for Guitar World a few months ago. She was right on the money. I would even venture to say she sounded even better live than on her album. Great songs and her voice was in excellent form. Plus her backing band was kickin’ as well.

Amy Bezunartea: O’Connor’s label-mate opened the showcase for Kiam records. With lush vocals backed by gorgeous guitar, Bezunartea set the stage with excellent songwriting and a lovely performance.

Ian Kelly: I had some time to kill at the convention center before the panel, so I checked out some of the exhibits. Singer/songwriter Ian Kelly was the lone performer playing at the Canada exhibit. His guitar tone, vocal performance, and songwriting blew me away, but the fact that it was all coming out of a small Roland amp were what really caught my eye, and ears! Portable goodness!

Dead Sara: With soaring vocals and some excellent guitar chops, singer Emily Armstrong and guitarist Siouxsie Medley lead the way to some fabulous musical moments. Plus I was totally digging Siousxie’s 65amps rig. Nice!

CounterClock: As my companion at the time said, these guys sound like Bon Jovi, with some good, strong, hit-potential songs. And their guitarist was a dead ringer for Dave Grohl. Is that a recipe for success? Only time will tell.

Waco Brothers: The Bloodshot Records party over at the Yard Dog gallery wrapped up with a rowdy set by The Waco Brothers. Good old-fashioned rollicking fun. Yee-ha!

One last comment

Maybe it’s just me (and the fact that I write a column that focuses on female players), but there seemed to be a lot more ladies on stage than I expected. I encountered awesome female guitarists, bass players, fiddlers and more just about everywhere I went. So I am declaring a trend: Kick-ass female players are taking to the stage in greater numbers than ever!

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 65amps, Acoustic Bass Amps, Agile Partners, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the lead singer for the rock band, Summer Music Project. More at

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Laura B. Whitmore

Laura B. Whitmore is a music industry marketing veteran, music journalist and editor, writing for, Guitar World, and others. She has interviewed hundreds of musicians and hosts the She Rocks Podcast. As the founder of the Women’s International Music Network, she advocates for women in the music industry and produces the annual She Rocks Awards. She is the Senior Vice President of Marketing for Positive Grid, making the world safe for guitar exploration everywhere! A guitarist and singer/songwriter, Laura is currently co-writing an album of pop songs that empower and energize girls.