LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This podcast contains language that may offend some listeners, especially listeners who don't like band names that include profanity.
For a minute, it looked like the 2012 South By Southwest music conference would limp to a close. Late on Saturday night, Bob Boilen walked out of a frustrating set by SBTRKT that was filled with grumpy fans, thinking that his time in Austin was about to end on a down note.
"I walked down the street and there's this Qawwali band playing with 12 musicians, just right down by the Driskill [Hotel]," Bob said. "And there were people dancing, people in Irish hats clapping along and dancing, a man running as fast as he could, he said, 'This is my music!' And then it's over and I walk 12 feet and there's this band from Colombia playing with these beautiful dancers in these white dresses."
SXSW can be overwhelming, but it's never too late for a pleasant surprise or two. The final night before NPR Music's team would depart from Austin offered surprises in many shapes. (You can find all our coverage, including concerts, blog posts and more, at our main SXSW page.)
In East Austin, Ann Powers saw Bay Area-based cocaine rap purveyors The Jacka and Husalah sneak both Black Sabbath's "Iron Man" and a bit of mariachi into a set she called "heartwarming." And she closed out her night by seeing "one of those collaborations that SXSW is famous for: GZA, the rapper from the Wu-Tang Clan, with Grupo Fantasma, the Latin funk band based here in Austin. Really high-energy. It was amazing how that band turned their Latin sound into hip-hop beats."
Bob caught a set by New Orleans Sissy Bounce artist Vockah Redu: "It was really amazing, and you can see emotionally how it really hits people. It's very powerful."
Not everything great was a surprise.
Said Stephen Thompson: "I saw some folk artists perform at St. David's Cathedral. They had guitars and they sang like angels."
Those angelic folk singers go by the name The Milk Carton Kids. "Two boys singing in Simon & Garfunkel-esque harmonies with acoustic guitars. It sounds on paper [like] the most Thompsonian nonsense, just angelic folk pop," Stephen said. But, "They have a song called 'Charlie,' and Robin, it would have killed you dead if you had heard it. It was a song for the daughter that he hopes to one day have, and as the father of a daughter, it's just exactly what you would hope someone to say. ... It was just beautiful."
Two more highlights from St. David's: the rock band Firehorse, led by Leah Siegel, and the prolific-but-underappreciated singer/songwriter Micah P. Hinson, who has, in Stephen's words, a "thousand-year-old voice."
Robin Hilton missed Hinson, but caught a couple of hard rock acts with NPR Music producer and photographer Mike Katzif. The first, Psychedelic Horses---, were "Three entirely indifferent stoner dudes who were just like, 'Whatever, errrrghghhh," Robin says. "It was kind of a sloppy mess of a performance, but it was fun."
After that set, a crowd gathered to see the hard rock band Ceremony turned into a mosh pit that separated Robin from Mike, who was getting "boinked" on the head while trying to photograph the band. "It was kind of a horrifying punk-metal experience."
But Robin called the British pop-rock group Slow Club his highlight of the day. "I had never heard of them, but I ran into Alisa Ali of WFUV and she took me to the show," he said. "I was in love immediately."
Bob wasn't entirely sold on blue-eyed soul singer Allen Stone: "He's a super-talented fellow with an incredible band, [but it's] not my music." There was something notable about the show, though. "Ann, he has your hair and my hat."
Saturday gave Ann her favorite set of the entire week (including the two-and-a-half hour Springsteen concert): the Queens rapper Nas performing his classic album Illmatic in its entirety. That's a trend many older artists have embraced, but Nas took the performance to a new level.
"He had this complete set that was Queensbridge projects, [with a] big sign and buildings that looked like New York City and video that was just crazy and he was almost acting out the complete album," Ann said. "He had DJ Premier and Pete Rock and the other rapper, AZ, who appears on the album. And obviously, it was one of those sets where the audience knew every word, but I was thinking, 'This thing could go to Broadway!' It was a theater piece! 'Nas On Broadway!' That's my new cry."
What act would the guys anoint as their favorite?
Bob broke his rule about only watching performers he'd never seen before a few times, and it paid off in his favorite set of the week: Patrick Watson, "hands down."
"There were some bigger surprises, but I'd agree," Robin said. "Patrick Watson was the most moving that I'll be thinking about for a long time."
Stephen tried to get away with naming a half-dozen bands, at first. "I cried at three different things!" Bob pressed him to pick one. "I'm gonna go with Kishi Bashi, and kind of as a representative of somebody who did not get approved to play the festival and yet there were still these miraculous performances. It's just a sign that as incredibly all-encompassing and enveloping as this experience is over the course of four days, there are still so many discoveries beyond it," he said. "It's such an incredibly invigorating experience. We're here at the end of night five, and as much as I'm not sure any of us want to see a show tomorrow night, I always come out of it feeling full of excitement about music."
We can't wait until next year.