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SXSW 2012: The report

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Actor Matthew McConaughey (right) plays the bongos with Ian Astbury
of the Cult during the band's Saturday night concert at SXSW.
(AP)


AUSTIN, Texas -- The headlines that began appearing throughout media during 2012's South by Southwest told the story: "SXSW: The soul revival continues," "At SXSW, real rock and roll lives," "Hip-hop's SXSW invasion." Bruce Springsteen in his keynote amused a rapt audience by reeling off a list of dozens and dozens of music genres, subgenres and sub-subgenres.

"This is all going on in this town right now," he said.

Indeed, it was. SXSW began 25 years ago as a showcase for aspiring and mid-level music talent. Since then, it's grown to a behemoth event, incorporating film and digital ventures, and the music portion now features big-name acts, as well. Last week at the annual conference in the Texas capital, Springsteen played, Lionel Richie debuted his new country songs, and hip-hop moguls like Lil Wayne, Eminem, 50 Cent and Kanye West made appearances.

As usual, I'm one guy with two feet -- can't see it all. But here's the index of the music I experienced during SXSW 2012:

-- Tom Morello's Occupy SXSW street showcase
-- Don Cornelius and "Soul Train" celebrated
-- Bruce Springsteen keynote, plus the Woody Guthrie centennial
-- Interview with Little Steven Van Zandt
-- Alabama Shakes deserves the hype
-- Fiona Apple's splendid case of nerves
-- Singer-songwriter John Fullbright comes of age
-- Ezra Furman, Sharon Van Etten, Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire, R. Stevie Moore
-- Buzz bands: Hospitality, Ava Luna, Joe Pug
-- Power pop: Big Star tribute, dB's reunion, Brendan Benson
-- Hip-hop fusion: K. Flay, Idle Warship, Robert Glasper
-- SXSW global: K-pop, Juanes, Bensh, Noa Margalit
-- Homeless people turned into wi-fi hotspots

SXSW global: K-pop, Juanes, Bensh, Noa Margalit

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AUSTIN, Texas -- This year's South by Southwest features music acts from every continent except Antarctica (those penguins aren't as musical as you've been lead to believe). Here's some of the international flavor I sampled this week:

* * * * *

The panel session at SXSW 2012 was titled with a question -- "Do Music Moguls Know a Secret About K-Pop?" -- but the non-insider query is simpler: Do you know what K-pop is?

It's a genre of hyper-produced, often sugary sweet pop music mostly out of South Korea. It's got its own Billboard chart, and in December launched its own festival (K-Pop World, Dec. 7 in Seoul). According to the moderator of this industry panel, it's "a huge thing across Asia and other parts of the world," and it's about to invade the states.

SXSW: Hospitality, Ava Luna, Joe Pug

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AUSTIN, Texas -- There's buzz, and there's buzz. When people insist you see a band at South by Southwest, it's usually dicey. When people recommend a band like this -- "Aw, Hospitality. They're really good. I'd like to see them again" -- that you take a little more seriously.

The buzzy Brooklyn band's Friday night showcase at Frank was definitely worth the recommendations, and then some. Unassuming and sometimes unobtrusive, Hospitality segued from sound check to set without any fanfare or introduction; the snugly packed crowd in the small bar simply enjoyed the revelation that, hey, that beautiful music is the room's centerpiece now.

Hospitality, like its namesake, creeps up like that, anyway.

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Tom Morello leads a couple hundred Occupy Austin demonstrators
in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land" in the street outside his SXSW
showcase late Friday night.
(Photo courtesy Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman)


AUSTIN, Texas -- During his keynote speech at this year's South by Southwest music conference, Bruce Springsteen referred to folksinger Woody Guthrie as "a ghost in the machine." In the centennial year of his birth, Guthrie has certainly haunted SXSW 2012. Springsteen and many others have sung his songs. "Woody at 100," a panel session featuring his children, Nora and Arlo Guthrie, considered his legacy.

Then Friday night, Chicago-area native Tom Morello capped off his showcase in the middle of the street, leading a throng of Occupy Austin demonstrators in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land."

IMG_1105.JPGAUSTIN, Texas -- Kristine Flaherty grew up in Wilmette. She went to Stanford. She's also a helluva rapper.

With frenetic flow and live-wire, chicken-dance moves, K. Flay barreled through a Friday showcase at Austin's Red Eyed Fly, crumpling labels and defying genres. Backed by an excellent live drummer, Nicholas Suhr, she crafted loops and samples with real finesse, utilizing grinding guitar sounds and squawky electronic noises for melody and music more than mere beats and punctuation. "We're going to go to a fun place in our minds," she said by way of introducing one song. It was less invitation than advisory -- she picked up drumsticks and attacked her own percussion pad, and she and Suhr lost themselves momentarily in a rhythmic freakout of ecstatic proportions.

SXSW: Fiona Apple's splendid case of nerves

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Fiona Apple, pictured performing Wednesday night at Stubb's during SXSW,
drew an SRO crowd for her second showcase Thursday, as well.
(AP)


AUSTIN, Texas -- Alabama Shakes might be one of the buzziest new bands at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but Fiona Apple is the one of the hottest returning-act tickets. After not having been seen outside of Los Angeles in years, and with her last record of emotionally taut pop-cabaret released in 2005, two lines for her second showcase Thursday night snaked around the block in different directions.

Power pop @ SXSW: Big Star tribute, dB's reunion

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AUSTIN, Texas -- At the 2010 South by Southwest music conference, critics and fans were eager for a scheduled celebration of the '70s band Big Star. The influential pop-rock band was at the height of a popular resurgence, fueled in part by a stellar box set ("Keep an Eye on the Sky") released the previous year. A panel session was planned, a hotly anticipated concert, too. But on the first day of the festival, bandleader and power-pop icon Alex Chilton died.

The pieces of those plans were reassembled in earnest Thursday night at SXSW 2012. In a star-studded concert -- featuring a pantheon of alt-rock greats including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Wilco's Pat Sansone, Tommy Stinson, Peter Case, Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, M. Ward and many more, plus Big Star's lone survivor, drummer Jody Stephens -- musicians inspired by the band, complete with a 12-piece orchestra, performed the whole of Big Star's "Third," their emotionally tangled and rightly acclaimed album recorded in 1974 and released by 1978.

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(AP)


AUSTIN, Texas -- Marveling at the breadth of contemporary pop music, Bruce Springsteen name-checked his own lengthy list of milestone influences during a funny and enlightening keynote address Thursday at the South by Southwest music conference.

The king of this particular musical Mardi Gras, Springsteen hit town Wednesday night and showed up to jam with Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo at the Austin Music Awards. In addition to his keynote speech, the Springsteen blitz continues tonight in concert with the E Street Band, a preview of the tour kicking off this weekend. His latest album, "Wrecking Ball," was released last week and debuted at No. 1 in 14 countries.

"No one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore," Springsteen said in his opening remarks. He expressed awe at the number of bands booked at SXSW.

"There are so many subgenres and factions," he continued -- and then amused the standing-room crowd by listing as many as he could name, dozens of hyphenated musical classifications and creations, from melodic death metal and sadcore to rap-rock and Nintendocore. He ended the list with a slight slump, saying, "And folk music."

"This is all going on in this town right now," he said.

More highlights from Wednesday's music and panels at South by Southwest ...

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AUSTIN, Texas -- "Is that a dude in his underwear, just playing?" asked a guy who wandered into The Jr bar just off Sixth Street on Wednesday night. Why, yes, yes it is.

Ezra Furman, the mad Evanstonian who recently relocated to the Bay Area, stepped onto the bare stage for his SXSW 2012 showcase nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same -- wild eyes, spasmodic poses, a spitting earnestness so unnerving you pray he doesn't make eye contact.

Hurling a mixture of songs from his new solo album, "The Year of No Returning," and gems from "Mysterious Power" and his Chicago tenure with the Harpoons, the skinny folk-punk wunderkind bared his soul, as well, in songs alternating between naked desperation ("Bloodsucking Whore") and mournful reverie (a cover of Tom Waits' "Bottom of the World"). In a new song, "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," he summed up his SXSW moment, singing, "I was hideous and handsome."

"I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore," he said from the stage. "Too bad, marketing team."

SXSW: John Fullbright comes of age

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Singer-songwriter John Fullbright brought the church down
Wednesday night at South by Southwest.
(Photo courtesy Richard Webb)


AUSTIN, Texas -- Let me tell you my quick John Fullbright story before I go on about how mesmerizing and moving his Wednesday evening South by Southwest showcase was.

When I was writing about music in Oklahoma, I covered the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival each July in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah. Okemah has one motel, which is taken over by the artists and production crews during the festival. Folk singers, in my experience, don't sleep much, and every night after the shows wrapped up in town most of them would drag chairs into the motel parking lot and swap songs till dawn.

Every now and then, wide-eyed young buskers would stroll up and try to measure up. Few did -- until, several years ago, a teenaged Johnny Fullbright strode into to the circle with a banjo over his shoulder. Tipping his cap, the Okemah native offered to play a couple of his own songs. Soon, Arlo Guthrie's eyebrows raised and he sat forward in his lawn chair, and we all knew we were hearing something special.

Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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