The most telling, most poignant comment about SXSW 2012 came on Twitter. Texas Monthly music writer Jason Cohen tweeted something to the effect that watching the band with the current No. 1 song in the country -- in this case Brooklyn's fun., who plays Warehouse Live tomorrow and whose "We Are Young" you may know because it was in a Chevy commerical that debuted during the Super Bowl -- and having no idea who they are was a signature SXSW moment.
I wish I could take credit for that, but I wholeheartedly agree. I once looked at one of SXSW's banners at the Austin Convention Center and counted 15 different sponsors. I think I counted right. Corporate-sponsored, SXSW-specific venues like the Chevrolet Sound Garage and Doritos Jacked Stage seemed to far outnumber places with normal names open the rest of the year like the Austin Music Hall, Antone's and La Zona Rosa.
But that is just the crassest, most annoying, most commercial layer of SXSW. There are many these days. The things the festival used to be best known for are still there, they're just not quite as easy to notice anymore. Like rings of an old tree or something.
It's still possible to see a band you've never seen before that probably doesn't have much of a prayer of making it to Houston, like Tennessee's Glossary. Or someone who lives halfway around the world, like Nigerian-born Londoner Michael Kiwanuka, who reminded me a little of a young Jimmy Cliff. (The actual Jimmy Cliff was also there, but I'd already seen him at some previous SXSW long ago.)
And local artists you're glad to see play in front of a healthy SXSW crowd of someone besides all their friends from back home. On the other hand, it was also gratifying to see so many people from Houston show up to support Grandfather Child Wednesday night, and Lucas Gorham and the rest of the band delivered with a powerhouse set of slow sexy love jamzzz and psychedelic Texas soul.
I also saw bands that you can almost count on being a lot more famous this time next year, once their new album comes out and they're suddenly ubiquitous after years of hard labor, because their new songs are so good that people can't help but notice. Take a bow, Delta Spirit.
But some bands, like the UK's the Temper Trap, couldn't keep most people in the crowd away from texting and talking. And, unfortunately, a few bands whose enthusiasm for playing music has not developed into writing actual songs yet - looking at you here, Guards and GIVERS.
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I hope bands like fun. Are still in it for the right reasons, like to make great art and not just to land their song in a Chevy commercial. But at the risk of sounding incredibly naïve, after SXSW this year I can't help but doubt it a little bit.
On the other hand, I'm pretty sure bands like Grandfather Child will be just fine whether or not they ever land a song in a commercial or not.