BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL
For the Sun-Times
AUSTIN, Texas -- South by Southwest is no longer a cottage industry. The cottage was razed to make way for fancy condos long ago. Now Austin's springtime cottage industry is complaining about how SXSW is too crowded, too commercial, the bands too big, the lines too long, and the whole event just not what it used to be.
The changes are undeniable, of course; SXSW has grown up, and its growing pains continue. But Wednesday's first full night of concert showcases offered exactly what the festival is famous for--a profusion of sounds spilling into the streets, unheard new artists next to established veterans in a bustling carnival--and put the focus where it belongs, on the music.
The night's first sets at Stubb's, a signature SXSW venue, encapsulated all things great and terrible about the event circa 2013. There was a daunting line more than two blocks long, but staff and volunteers moved it quickly. Some in the crowd seemed interested in anything but the band onstage, but the community policed itself (one yakker was silenced by a white-haired Brit remarking, "I traveled 5,000 miles to hear Nick Cave, not to listen to you"). Best of all, the performances showed both old masters still at the height of their powers, and a brand-new band that lived up to every bit of its buzz.
Night hadn't fully descended when Cave and his reconstituted Bad Seeds took the stage. The band's forbidding blues-rock and Cave's fallen-preacher persona are late-night fare, however, so Cave got a laugh when he said, "We'll start with a long song, and hopefully when we're done, it'll be daaahk."
Previewing their much-anticipated spring tour -- which stops at the Chicago Theatre on April 1 -- Cave and the six-piece Bad Seeds played an hour-long set that focused on their new album, "Push the Sky Away," but offered glimpses into every cranny of their 30-year career. "Higgs Boson Blues" was slow and churning, "Jubilee Street" a slinky groove. (And very timely!) A noisy, crashing "From Her to Eternity" gave way to the churchlike chimes and ringing organ of "Red Right Hand."
This is the first Bad Seeds album and tour without founding guitarist Mick Harvey, and at Stubb's it was clear the heart of the band is now multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis, Cave's Grinderman bandmate and the violin-sawing leader of the Dirty Three. Flailing at his fiddle, electric guitar or upright piano, his long hair and unkempt beard flying, Ellis was a manic counterpoint to Cave's leering stage presence and slo-mo Mick Jagger moves.
The band's explicit reworking of the archetypal blues "Stagger Lee" gave the set its brutal crescendo, but Cave wrenched beauty from the ugliness to end with the new album's self-affirming title song. One of its couplets summed up why, warts and all, we keep coming back to SXSW: "Some people say that it's just rock and roll / Ah, but it gets right down to your soul."
Those who say SXSW has strayed from its founding mission argue the point of being here is finding new sounds to feed that rock and roll soul. One should be Waxahatchee, who played its first-ever SXSW gig just a few minutes after the Bad Seeds on the small inside stage at Stubb's. With just a couple dozen people in the crowd, it felt like being let in on a secret.
Waxahatchee is a trio led by 23-year-old songwriter Katie Crutchfield, who played a cheap-sounding, low-slung Fender Squier and sang in a plainspoken near-deadpan laced with the honeyed drawl of her Alabama roots. With a minimalist rhythm section, the simple setup suggested kids in a basement knocking out songs for fun, but Crutchfield's lyrics were anything but pedestrian. In "Be Good," she sang, "I've got friendships to mend, I'm selfishly dispossessed/You don't wanna be my boyfriend, and that's probably for the best." Perceptive and lacerating on the confusion of love, lust, family and identity in a way that's artful, not didactic, she sounds like the spiritual heir to Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville.
A few hours later, Waxahatchee played a second set in another club, this time spiking the songs with added bursts of fuzz and feedback. Crutchfield's songs were just as stunning--especially for their dynamic range, from the raucous pop of "Grass Stain" to the stripped, stark "Brother Bryan"--but best of all was the band's brilliant appropriation of Paul Simon's wordy masterpiece "The Boy in the Bubble" from Graceland. Crutchfield crammed discordant verses up against bouncing, giddy choruses, hollering and grinning with unadulterated joy.
Three later gigs showed seasoned artists in various states of reinvention. Playing in a theater that's the new home of Austin City Limits, Natalie Maine of the Dixie Chicks debuted material from her forthcoming solo album, Mother, that's produced by Ben Harper. It sounded less like her band's polished country-pop and more like her Austin upbringing, a blend of roots, rock and blues. The high point was a set-closing guitar duel between Harper--who sat in on lap steel--and Maines's father, veteran pedal steel player Lloyd.
Next up on the same stage was Iron & Wine, whose transformation from hushed bedroom folk to lush widescreen pop appears complete. The 12-piece ensemble backing Sam Beam looked like a veritable Wrecking Crew--string and horn players, a pianist, rhythm section and vocalists including Kelly Hogan and Chicago's Nora O'Connor--and whether previewing songs from the new Iron & Wine record or recasting cuts like "Jezebel," they sounded as smooth, cool and versatile as the legendary L.A. session players, too.
There was less evident growth in the songs and sound of Spain, the band fronted by bassist Josh Haden that released three overlooked albums of expertly crafted, soulful pop starting in the mid-Nineties. The reconfigured four-piece turned out the old tunes faithfully but there was little to suggest the album Haden said they're planning will turn over any new ground.
Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago music critic.