"I am the musician," said Foo Fighter, Nirvana drummer, Sir-vana drummer, filmmaker and bona fide rock god Dave Grohl during his SXSW 2013 keynote address at the Austin Convention Center on March 14. "And I come first."
In his speech, Grohl — whose Roswell Records owns all the Foo Fighters masters, licensing them to majors like Capitol and RCA — emphasized the importance of keeping the artist in the driver's seat. Not only that, he also stressed that it is essential for each musician to discover his or her own voice, to "cherish it, respect it, nurture it, challenge it, stretch it and scream it until it's fucking gone," just as he did when he "multi-tracked" his first songs into a handheld tape recorder at age 12.
At this year's annual exhaustingly smorgasbordal, industry-centric mega-festival South by Southwest, there was no shortage of voices on display. Thousands of voices. There were the familiar ones, stretching their chops and branching out: The Flaming Lips debuted their forthcoming The Terror, ditching the familiar hamster-ball, confetti-cannon and feel-good tropes for glowing umbilical cords, mirror balls and darker songs; Green Day and Depeche Mode — even with old standards and fan favorites still in their set lists — played new songs in exceptionally small venues, while critical darlings like Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds presented new material in top form. Prince annihilated a very small and very lucky crowd with a two-hour-and-40-minute show at La Zona Rosa, and MySpace co-owner Justin Timberlake played a not-so-secret "secret" show at the social media site's SXSW headquarters.
There were the new and rising voices as well. Voices like those of Haim, the trio of Los Angeleno sisters who marry the classic-pop sensibilities of Fleetwood Mac with the avant-pop approach of contemporaries Dirty Projectors. There was Kendrick Lamar, one of hip-hop's brightest standouts, who brought songs from last year's fine good kid, m.A.A.D city to big showcases and small hip-hop clubs alike. There was grunge-pop wunderkind Mikal Cronin and indefatigable psych-punk outfit Thee Oh Sees, both of whom put on what are among the best live rock 'n' roll shows of anyone in the country at the moment.
But indeed, some of the finest and most resounding new voices on display were the voices of Nashvillians. At the unofficial Nashville Day Party at Austin Ale House — co-sponsored by our music blog, Nashville Cream — locals Brooke Waggoner, Caitlin Rose and Escondido played tunes from their exceptional brand-new releases alongside sets from folk- and country-imbued indie artists Rayland Baxter, Nikki Lane, Odessa Rose, Luella and the Sun (who were later praised by NPR for an official SXSW performance) and Andrew Combs.
At the day party thrown by the Kings of Leon-owned record label Serpents and Snakes, road-dogging garage rockers Turbo Fruits burned through a set, with frontman Jonas Stein dangling by his legs from an overhead beam. The Weeks — KOL protégés, and something of a grimier, longhaired mini-Kings — stomped, lurched and crowd-surfed through a collection of Southern indie-rock songs, while longtime Middle Tennessean favorites The Features debuted a collection of impossibly tight power-pop songs from their forthcoming self-titled LP. A false rumor that the Kings themselves were to play a secret set made its way through the crowd, but even without the Followills, Nashville made its impression.
At a club on Sixth Street, garishly labeled the Blu Electronic Cigarettes' Electric Lounge for the week, Nashville electronic-dance-music duo Cherub played to a staggeringly packed, pulsing crowd — many of whom knew every lyric, and had lined up for hours just to see the Music City dance-poppers. Local guitar virtuoso William Tyler — whose Merge Records debut was released March 19 — received praise for his exceptional performances from various media outlets. Murfreesboro-bred alt-country heroes Glossary played a showcase for Last Call With Carson Daly. And that isn't even to mention standout official and unofficial shows from fellow Nashvillians Natural Child, Diarrhea Planet, PUJOL, Birdcloud, Tristen, Promised Land, Fielded, Ranch Ghost, Cy Barkley and the Way Outsiders, Clear Plastic Masks, Bad Cop, Jonny Fritz, Those Darlins, The Kingston Springs and many more.
If one voice cut through the static the most loudly this year ... well, it was probably the collective voice of corporate sponsorship. But during a year when the big guys stretched their voices and the little guys made their voices known, Music City fared pretty well herself, leaving an imprint in the Texas sand as deep or deeper than that of any other town. SXSW annually proves to be a rat race for the artists, with media, industry and corporate types judging from the stands, but this year in particular, the home team did us proud. Welcome them home, and maybe even buy a little bit of their merch while you're at it.
Because after all, they are the musicians. And in Music City, the musicians come first.