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All that glitters: Eight acts we loved at SXSW
by Khyentse James and Nick Browning

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When South by Southwest ( SXSW ) was mentioned during the commercial break for the Grammys, we knew the festival had reached new heights for 2012.

With more than 50,000 attendees and 2,000 acts from 55 countries, the festival has become more expansive than ever; NPR and Carson Daly aired national broadcasts and Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z rocked the main stages. On the streets, we passed the dragon tattoo lady herself, Rooney Mara, and spotted Fiona Apple lounging at the Fader Fort. Elliot Bergman of the band Wild Belle told us he played 14 shows at SXSW and Brittany of The Alabama Shakes told us that " [ SXSW ] is an endurance test." After spending five 13-hour days at concerts with everyone from Santigold to Skrillex and Jimmy Cliff, we couldn't agree more.

Check out the gold we've gleamed from this extraordinary experience, which took place March 9-18 in Austin, Texas. ( All of the acts' performances can be seen on YouTube. )

Alabama Shakes

The Alabama Shakes have been the rare overnight sensation that deserves all the hype. In the past month, they've been everywhere from Conan O'Brien to NPR and Rolling Stone. Having formed in high school in Alabama, the Shakes are a tour de force of the music industry, with powerful blues riffs; gritty vocals reminiscent of Janis Joplin; and steady, catchy bass lines.

It is this organic sound that they brought out March 15 at Stubb's BBQ to a packed house; everybody was there to bask in the stripped-down, rock-blues sound that is currently taking the country by storm. Headed by lead vocalist Brittany Howard, the band takes vocal dynamics to another level, and that is reflected when you see them in concert. With its highly anticipated first album, Boys and Girls, due April 10, fans and critics alike will be singing the band's praise.


With a legit musical background, this 21-year-old Canadian has really started to make a name for herself. Grimes was a prominent figure in the illegal DIY loft culture of Montreal at a place called Lab Synthèse—a 4,600-square-foot re-appropriated textile factory rooted in punk ethos and pop music. Her hyper-futuristic new album, Visions, is influenced by everything from Enya and TLC to industrial and glitch music, and embodies 2D arts, performance, dance, video and sound. With these dynamic pop and R&B vocals and quirky electronic beats, Grimes got the party hopping at SXSW all the way from Pitchfork to the Fader Fort and Filter Magazine's showcases.

Bomba Estereo

Hailing from Bogotá, Colombia, Bomba Estereo mixes traditional Columbian cumbia music with electro to create a unique fusion that is unlike anything that you have heard. Being classified as "electro tropical," the band has peaked the interest of the entire music industry, being named one of the top 25 bands on MTV Iggy. They are slowly being recognized in the United States as one of the pre-eminent musical groups to come out of South America since CSS; during the band's March 15 showcase at the Red 7 stage, Carson Daly introduced the group, and its performance was recorded and broadcast on his show.

Wild Belle

Attention Chicagoans: Go to the nearest computer, find Wild Belle's "Keep You," light a candle and pretend you're sitting by a fire on Molokai. What you will hear is a careful blend of traditional island rhythms backed by unique and organic electro synth sounds as well as strong female vocals.

The group is fronted by Chicago natives, brother and sister duo Elliot and Natalie Bergman. Natalie recalls having been around music all their lives: "We grew up in a very musical household—I played the violin and Elliot the clarinet." This musical union is evident, as they carefully blend what Elliot referred to as "man and machine" with both man-made sounds and natural instruments being run through processors. The music is rooted in "earthly sounds" and is unmistakably innovative. After SXSW, they are off on an eight-date West Coast tour with Tennis, then over to Sweden and London—and Wild Belle's first album hasn't even been released yet. Keep an eye out for this band.



Last time we covered SXSW we were so stuck by Nneka that we wrote an entire piece on her prophetic hip-hop, funk, reggae and Afrobeat sounds. This year, she's released a new album, Soul is Heavy, and if you haven't checked her out yet, now is the time. Hailing from the Niger Delta and using her soulful voice as a platform to promote social change, Nneka is reaching new depths of artistic expression. We managed to catch her at the Stage on Sixth—a medium-sized venue right in the heart of SXSW—and were once again blown away.

Sharon Van Etten

Sharon's showcase at Stubb's BBQ March 14 was charming. Her vocals are mellow and sweet, yet as evidenced by the thousands of quiet attendees, completely captivating. She just released her third studio album in February, and we're hoping there's a lot more to come.


Kimbra is not only somebody you used to know; she is somebody you should continue to get to know for the foreseeable future. She blew the crowed away at Perez Hilton's SXSW show, and Hilton himself was quoted saying that if you're a fan of Nina Simone, Florence and the Machine, and Bjork, you need to familiarize yourself with this New Zealand-born, Australia-based vocalist. Having won the New Zealand Critics' choice awards in 2011 and Best Female Artist and Best song at the 2011 ARIA awards, she is becoming a household name.

Balkan Beat Box

The co-founders of this group met when they were teenagers on the Streets of Brooklyn; one played the clarinet and the other was a drummer in a punk band. After jamming together a few times, they couldn't decide on what genre they wanted to play, so they decided to create their own. This creative musical fusion combines Jamaican dancehall, dub, traditional Balkan music and hip-hop beats. At its SXSW show at Stage on Sixth, every nationality and age group was represented. If you want to get the party started quickly, throw on some Balkan Beat Box and let the eclectic blend of music rock you into the night.

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