The music was really what I went to SXSW for. I wanted to be surprised, to make some cool discoveries, to be blown away by styles I didn't expect.
Some of that happened. But mostly I heard a lot of bands trying to sound like each other, or like the big name acts. Even the best tended to be somewhat disappointing on the originality scale.
By far my most interesting find of the festival was the Mexican Institute of Sound. This act is basically DJ Camilo Lara, shown above, and whatever musicians he decides to work with. Lara was solo this outing, spinning a combination of traditional and pop tunes (including a hilariously timed Blister in the Sun by the Violent Femmes), sound painting on a canvas of cultural expectations for a crowd of probably more than half native Spanish speakers.
What sets Lara apart from other DJs can't be described succinctly, except to call it artistry. He draws heavily on traditional Mexican styles, mixing them with cool urban hip-hop sensibilities and beats. His original work takes on political overtones, as in the popular 2012 track Mexico. His T-Shirt says "Mexico Is a White Canvas," a slogan we were meant to ponder and that, to my mind, has about three different possible meanings, probably all intentional.
Even just spinning other people's tunes, he is the Diego Rivera of DJs, creating huge abstract landscapes that are easily accessible, recognizable and powerful all at once.
I loved listening to him at Austin's Mexican American Cultural Center. I wish he had done more of the more experimental original material that attracted me to him from his recordings, but probably it was the wrong venue for it.
Among other acts that I enjoyed, the Australian Rufus du Sol appeared about to break big in the U.S. I heard them at the SoundCloud venue with an audience that probably didn't reach 100 people at its peak. A sexy, polished blend of electronic dance music with a world music and rock sensibility, every song seemed built on some intriguing rhythm and honed, flexible vocals. Rufus is continuing a tour of the U.S. right now, swinging through New York with an appearance at the Highline Ballroom, March 26.
A Brooklyn-based experimental singer and electronics artist Tei Shi built her style on classical influences a la Bjork. There were about 20 people in the small Iron Bear bar on 8th St. to hear Tei Shi. Two Berlin bands, HVOB and Ballet School provided back-to-back gemstone sets at Austin's club Lucille on Rainey Street, which served as the German Haus stage. Both acts were a lot of fun and great examples of the Berlin scene, likewise playing to smaller crowds.