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Concert Review: SXSW 2011 Music Conference

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For four days 2,000 bands, 13,000 registrants and thousands music fans made up the musical madness that was 2011 SXSW Music Conference, the largest one in its 25-year history.

The scene was electric as most of downtown Austin, especially the epicenter on 6th street, was a constant swarming parade of people and bands marching and hunting for the next show. It felt like we were a part of a non-stop Mardi Gras-esque carnival of live music that flowed in and out of hundreds of venues.

Speed sets and official showcases took place at the Austin Convention Center and in bars such as the legendary Stubb’s and Emo’s, while multiple official showcases were hosted by eager labels and buzz-generating music blogs at venues like The Mohawk, Buffalo Billiards and Bats. And whether you got into those parties or not, as a fan one of best parts of SXSW was stumbling upon the random local and international artists who set up shop on the street corners, in the alleys, and in the middle of 6th Street with hopes of wooing fans as we headed to the next show. You just never knew what would cross your path with each step and passing moment.

Yes, without a doubt, it was a crazy experience in which any music fan would have a blast. And yes, everything you’ve ever heard about it is true: it’s a glorious mixture of musical madness, surprising discovery and unexpected disappointment that grabs you by the heart and takes you on a wild ride until the final show wraps up early Sunday morning. And what about that Super Moon that hung over 6th Street on Saturday night? Well, lets just say that it made things even more epic and weird (which I learned is just how the locals like it).

So what bands, panels and random moments made their mark on us? Too many to share in just one post, but here are the musical performances that we loved the most and highlights from panel discussions that got us thinking about the future of music, the ticket industry and what to do when an artist is addicted.

SXSW Top Shows, Let Downs and Surprises

In our preview I told you we were looking forward to seeing the soul-funk crooner Cee-Lo Green, the man behind the Grammy-nominated-hit track “Fuck You,” and rapper Lupe Fiasco, who recently released his long-awaited new album Lasers. But unfortunately, on Thursday night, both artists canceled their showcases. Which then led to label mates, Janelle Monae, B.o.B and Wiz Kalifa to step in as replacements.

Backed by her usual band of gifted and groovy players, the Grammy-nominated Monae was angelic, awesome and mesmerizing. Her stage presence was stunning and deeply soulful. I instantly forgot that she was a last-minute replacement as she floated and jetted across stage with grit, grace and power, unfurling tracks from her latest album Archandroid, a brilliant, cutting-edge and timeless mix of jazz, funk, showtunes, soul and hip hop. By far, Monae’s performance was one of the week’s best shows and one that I will always remember when I look back at this year’s festival. And I wish I could say the same for her label mates. B.o.B has done better before and he seemed tired, distracted and caught off guard as he lumbered through his set. And Wiz Kalifa? Well, he really needs to go back to the drawing board when it comes to playing live. He might want to make it even easier for himself and watch the tape of Monae’s show and and take notes. Monae had us all in the palm of her hand beginning to end, and I was just wishing for Kalifa’s set to end.

One on Friday’s top shows was the fantastic hip hop, snyth-rock and jazz fusion of Toronto trio Keys N Krates. With sweaty smiles of joy and ecstasy plastered on their faces throughout their set, DJ Jr Flo (turntables), Matisse (keys) and Adam Tune (drums), rocked the crowd in to a dancing frenzy with tracks from their mixtape Almost 39 Minutes. Fan shouted and danced as they got caught up in the undeniable and unified flow of funk, dance and electro-pop grooves. The scene was electrifying. And the emotional explosion of real-time remixing, turntablism, sizzling synths and live percussion stayed on my skin and continued to pulse through my heart for the rest of the weekend and hasn’t left since. I hope to see more of these guys as they continue to tour and develop what is already a powerful and extremely promising live show.

On Saturday night — while rapper/producer Kayne West, his protege Kid Cudi and other artists were busy throwing an unofficial and Twitter-invite only party at the Power Plant on the other side of Austin — there was a different sort of celebration going on at the PepsiMax Lot.

In the wake of the passing of celebrated gangsta-rap crooner Nate Dogg earlier in the week, SXSW was a place of mourning via the g-funkified beats and rhymes. Long time friend and label mate Snoop Dogg invited Warren G and Sean Diddy Combs onstage during the Pepsimax showcase to rock the stage for a righteous and proper RIP tribute. It was hard to tell if tears were shed during the show with all the bling flashing and gansta posturing going on. But those shirts were moving and it was obvious that emotions were deeply felt and the sentiments were genuinely expressed by all in attendance.

Panel Discussions Talk State of Ticket Industry and Artist Addiction

During the day, the music industry gathered in the Austin Convention Center to discuss hot topics and future trends. Among a wide range of panels, two of the most interesting and poignant explored 1) the state of the ticket industry and concert promotion along with 2) how to get an addicted artist into treatment before it’s too late.

During the “Indie Davids take on the Goliath Ticketmaster-Live Nation” as the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot reported, the conversation was way “too neutral and civil.” And I would say the same for the “BackStage Pass: The Lifecycle of the Concert Ticket” panel later in the day when members of the ticket industry from Ticketfly, Stubhub, Eventbrite and Bridgestone Arena shared their thoughts about the historic and controversial Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger in 2010. During the chat panelists said that the merger has had a positive impact on their business thus far, allowing for more competition, and that the advent and increased popularity of social media and social commerce has greatly increased ticket sales. And when asked about the reason for the service fees and high ticket prices, some panelists expressed that high ticket prices are not the result of greedy ticket services or the secondary market, which have turned many fans away and ultimately hurt the concert industry bottom line in 2010, but rather that the high fees could be reduced or even be eliminated if more artists would take greater risk when putting money up front for shows. If this happens the panelists said that the ticketing companies would then be able to lower their service fees.

And when the question of the Department of Justice’s role in the merger, panel moderator Tamara Conniff of, and the rest of the panel collectively agreed that the government organization “really has no idea how the ticket industry works.” They also said that the DOJ merger ruling was made largely in ignorance and with lack of knowledge of how the ticketing industry truly operates. And, to sum things up, the panel said that it’s still too early to give say on how the merger has impacted the industry.

Next we checked out a panel called “What To Do If Your Artist Is Addicted” that boldly discussed artist addiction and sobriety in a place where there wasn’t a whole lot of sobriety going on. And as the panel developed it was sad to think that only a few folks besides us were there to listen and learn about a vital topic, especially in the wake of the unfortunate death of Alice in Chains bassist Mike Starr, who had overdosed just a few couple weeks earlier.

Moderating the artist addiction panel was Harold Owens of MusicCares foundation with guests British singer and actor Michael Des Barres, Amy Blackman of Cookman management and Ozomatli bassist Will Abers. As artists in recovery Des Barres and Abers told candid stores of why and how they got sober and how their choice has not only saved their lives but also forever changed the dynamic of their bands and careers.

With a cunning mix of wit and heartfelt frankness, Des Barres cracked jokes while he spoke openly about how much the industry has improved when it comes to helping an artist get clean and maintaining sobriety. He went on several enlightening rants and told a few entertaining anecdotes, speaking at great length about the early years of his career when it was virtually unheard of for artist addiction to be handled in the way it is today. Shaking their heads in affirmation, the rest of the panel agreed that the industry has indeed come a long way, but it still has a long way to go when it comes to educating and increasing the awareness of artist addiction, gaining industry acceptance and providing more treatment opportunities for artists in need.

What stuck me as most profound, though, was when Abers, after being asked about the impact of his sobriety on the band dynamics, said emphatically with wide eyes and a massive smile of gratification and confidence, that his daily journey of sobriety has created a deeper intimacy among the band members, which as a result has allowed his band to make better music in the studio and perform more emotionally present and memorable live shows than when the band was using drugs.

Though the panel was one of the best of SXSW, it could have benefited from the presence of a licensed counselor who could have complemented the personal stories with a more in-depth clinical perspective on addiction and sobriety. Hopefully, we’ll see this addition made for next year’s panel.

What Is SXSW All About and More Bands To Watch in 2011

When it was all said and done, SXSW is all about the live show. A mega-plethora of bands played, but only a select few were able to capture the action of the masses with how good their live performances were and not how much buzz they were able to generate before Austin.

We told you earlier about the SXSW bands we loved the most and here’s a few other bands that’ll be bright spots on our radar in 2011 because they made us go “wow” when we saw them at SXSW: California Wives, Dam- Funk, Jessica Lee MayField, The Antlers, The Seedy Seeds and Jezabels.

That wraps it up, my friends. If you were at SXSW we’d love to hear about the bands you loved the most and which ones left you wanting more. And what were your favorite weird moments at this year’s festival besides the Super Moon or that Screeching Weasel guy punching out the girl in the first row.

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About Chris Catania