We landed at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport yesterday afternoon around 2 p.m. Central time or so, but the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 35 as we entered downtown Austin reminded us more than a little of rush hour in Los Angeles. It’s no surprise that the infrastructure of this college town is stretched to its limits during the annual South By Southwest Festival, as upwards of 50,000 people temporarily relocate to Austin from wherever they normally call home during this ten night extravaganza. After having their run of the town for the last few days, technology companies began ceding ground to the music industry yesterday as the Music portion of SXSW began in earnest.
When we finally got settled yesterday afternoon and picked up our badge from the cavernous Austin Convention Center, we made our way over to the Warner Sound Showcase at La Zona Rosa, located at the far east end of 4th Street. The showcase wasn’t set to start until 7:30, but when we strolled up at 7:00 or so, there were already hundreds of people lined up in the street hoping to see the likes of Neon Hitch, Theophilus London and Santigold.
After a dubstep-heavy DJ set from Alex English (Note: NOT the same Alex English that was the highest-scoring player in the NBA during the 1980s), Neon Hitch took the stage promptly at 8:30 p.m. Flanked by two shirtless dudes with tribal paint on their faces and drums around their waist, Neon Hitch opened her three-song set with “Bad Dog”, an electro stomper in which she declares “You know I’m yours so rip my clothes off.” Well, truth be told, she wasn’t exactly wearing a ton of clothes to begin with, but nonetheless, she succeeded to whip the crowd into an early frenzy with her provocative attire and compelling stage presence. She proceeded to belt out the hook to “Ass Back Home”, her hit with Gym Class Heroes, before closing her too-brief set with her current single, “Love U Betta.” She curiously refrained from dropping the f-bomb that appears in her unedited version of this song in front of the live audience, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind.
Next up was Outasight, one of those artists who is often-described in the media as an “overnight success” despite the fact that he’s been working the scene for years. As he explained to the audience during his brief set, this is his fourth year at SXSW, so it was no surprise to see him engaging the crowd early and often with his blend of hip hop infused, club-friendly pop anthems. The highlight came when he dropped “Tonight Is The Night”, his ubiquitous smash that you’ve been hearing for months in Pepsi commercials.
By the time Theophilus London took the stage at around 9:15 or so, close to a thousand people (we’re guessing) had packed themselves into La Zona Rosa and the excitement in the air was palpable. Most of the attendees we saw were a couple of Lone Stars deep at this point, which certainly didn’t hurt the room’s energy level. The Brooklyn-repping Theophilus was clearly vibing off the buzz in the room and responded in kind, bringing the room to a fever pitch, particularly with songs like “Last Name London” (off his recentish Timez Are Weird These Days LP) and his repeated stage dives into the audience. Whether performing uptempo raps or more chilled-out fare (like “Flying Overseas”), he and his band worked the crowd like a seasoned pro (see the GIF below). He even gave the crowd a tease of two new songs he’s working on, one raunchy one whose chorus goes something like “Let me see your tittays, let me see your p**** girl” (which resulted in a bra being thrown on stage) and another he’s doing with Lil B that samples the Pinky And The Brain theme song (!!!).
After Theophilus got the crowd punch drunk, Santigold came on and delivered them a knockout blow of awesomeness. Dressed up a bit like a hipster Rainbow Brite —complete with a sparkly tiara, no less!— she immediately grabbed the crowd’s attention by dropping both of her big hits off her 2008 debut LP, “L.E.S. Artistes” and “Lights Out.” She was joined on stage by the two women who appear in her “Big Mouth” video, who provided constant entertainment with their syncopated, almost militaristic dance routines and stylish female matador garb — they truly were The Pips to Santi’s Gladys Knight. In fact, everyone on stage with Santigold was insanely stylish; her drummer and guitarist were wearing skullcaps that made them look like a cross between Mozart and Max Headroom.
Aside from a stunning performance of her new single “Disparate Youth” (which included a person on stage who was dressed up as a 10 foot tall pony), the highwater mark of her winning set was her performance of “Creator”, during which she invited 20+ audience members on stage to frenetically dance with her. She broke out into a giant grin when she began grinding on one of the lucky gents who got pulled up on stage, as did everyone in the audience. Festivals like this are all about connecting, both physically and artistically, with passionate music fans, and Santigold certainly accomplished her goal. Based on the reaction to the songs that we heard from her upcoming LP Master Of My Make-Believe, Santigold’s music will definitely be one of this summer’s primary hipster soundtracks.
There were a few more performances at La Zona Rosa last night, but we bailed after Santigold. It’s going to be a long five nights here in Austin, so we thought it wise to save our energy for the long haul. Look for more recaps like this, as well as tons of great interviews, coming from VH1 Tuner over the next few days!
[Photos: Jen Marigliano/VH1, GIF by Lauren Deiman]