At South by Southwest, there is always a bigger act. This year, those would be Prince, Justin Timberlake and Green Day, among others. But when it came to Seattle performers, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis were the hot ticket. On March 13 at Antone’s, a small Austin, Texas, club, they showed why.
Hip-hop’s rag-and-bone man took the stage and let fly with his eroticized paen to second-hand shopping, the massive hit “Thrift Shop” — and the crowd went ballistic. Not surprising, since the song has not only spent four weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, it also has nearly 180 million views on YouTube.
Their arms upstretched, the crowd bobbed to the beat as the duo cycled through their set of hits, and, judging from audience reaction, soon-to-be hits. Working the entire room, Macklemore marshaled his signature kinetic dance moves, and even crowd surfed standing up at one point.
And he brought Northwestern friends, too. Wanz (né Michael Wansley) was, of course, there to offer his can’t-get-it-out-of-your head chorus, “I’m gonna pop some tags.”
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But also joining Macklemore on stage were Seattleites Mary Lambert — who sang her achingly straightforward hook for “Same Love” — and Allen Stone, who accompanied on “Neon Cathedral,” an elegy for the drinking life.
“I’m a big fan of small, grimy shows, and that was what South by Southwest has to offer,” Macklemore said in an interview with MTV’s John Norris a few days later. “The first two or three shows we had, it was refreshing to go back to 200 or 300 people and a sound system that maybe doesn’t work very well.”
Indeed sound systems that don’t work very well (sometimes that was putting it mildly) were a leitmotif of the festival.
Now in its 26th year, SXSW takes over most of central Austin every March, with hundreds of performances at dozens of venues. Every year, a substantial roster of Seattle groups makes the trek, and 2013 was no exception, with more than 20 local bands in Austin for the five-day musical circus.
Lambert, who has toured extensively with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, played a lovely and heartfelt set of her own March 15, but was beset, like many performers, by poor sound engineering. In this and other ways, she had a classic SXSW experience.
“I’ve always wanted to go,” she said, adding, “I was like really nervous, there was a big label going to my showcase … I was just stressed for the entire week.”
Allen Stone’s performance on the same night at Maggie Mae’s had its sound issues as well. Stone, whose soulful, limber voice could likely compensate for most sonic shortcomings, was nevertheless visibly frustrated on stage, alternately grimacing and grinning at the crowd apologetically. Never mind that the path to the bar bathroom ran roughly three feet from where he was singing.
In the end, Stone’s charismatic stage presence carried the set.
Less affected by foot traffic during their performance were Pony Time, the energetic duo of guitarist/bass player Luke Beetham and drummer Stacy Peck. The pair charged through a vigorous set at a party thrown by Sailor Jerry rum on March 15. And while some people filed past the small stage to a larger party out back, many were taken in by the infectious, thrumming set.
The Rose Windows, who recently signed to Sub Pop, were less fortunate. The band stopped in Austin to play several showcases, only to have their singer, Rabia Shaheen Qazi, fall ill. In the end, they had to cancel their sets, but Qazi is reportedly rejoining them on tour for this weekend’s Treefort festival in Boise.
At a showcase with a Seattle-heavy lineup, NPR darlings Ivan & Alyosha played to a packed room at TenOak, many of those in attendance familiar with the group already, it seemed.
Later that evening, Hey Marseilles, who are touring behind a new record “Lines We Trace,” had one of the last official showcases of the conference, at 1 a.m. on March 17. In the backyard of a bar called Bungalow, as a cool night breeze blew, the 8-piece crew of melodic indie rockers played the evening to a close.
“We are entirely appreciative,” singer Matt Bishop told the crowd, “that you guys are here in the wee hours of St. Patrick’s Day, willing to listen to some cello and acoustic instruments.”
The band was headed to New Orleans the next day.
Brian Thomas Gallagher: firstname.lastname@example.org