AUSTIN, Texas — The state is known for its stalwart independent streak, but on the first night of music at South by Southwest, Austin was a place for the world to mingle.
From L.A. buzz bands to K-pop superstars and pop-rap titans, Tuesday's late-night lineup proved that, for all the worries that SXSW has become a targeted-marketing snake eating its own hashtagged-and-branded tail, there really isn't a better mile of live music in America than what's happening this week.
Our estimable hometown was well represented Tuesday night. Current Echo residents James Supercave started its set at Empire Control Room with a half-full venue and a meticulous but very slow-burning set of '70s art-pop-laced indie. But by the time the band got around to a more punk-funky and populist portion of the set, Joaquin Pastor's vocals got looser and more invigorating,and the crowds on the street streamed in accordingly. The band doesn't have an obvious standout song yet, but it had charisma and precision in spades, and came out of its set with the room of newcomers thoroughly won over.
The same went for the L.A. neo-R&B combo Caught a Ghost at Buffalo Billiards. There's no shortage of young acts with great suits mining the Stax era for inspiration right now. But Caught a Ghost simply writes better songs than most and plays them with more confidence and camaraderie. The dual-frontperson team of Jesse Nolan and Tessa Thompson traded leads and harmonies with the affectionate chemistry of a '40s screwball comedy couple. While they they're rooted in revivalist timbre of peers such as Nick Waterhouse and Mayer Hawthorne, little electro flourishes and a focus on songwriting substance over era-specific style set them apart (and their debut album "Human Nature" should be a marquee local release of 2014).
We did our level best to make it into the 50 Cent showcase just across the freeway at the 1100 Warehouse in East Austin. While the stutter-step swagger of "I Get Money" sounded reliably rousing from outside, it turns out the mainstream interest in 50 Cent is actually far greater than his recent move off Interscope and to an indie might suggest, and we got stonewalled at the door in a mess of a line. If 50 can actually pull off an indie reinvention, it'll be one of the more inspiring stories of recent rap. To judge by the response outside the warehouse, it sounds like he's off to a decent start of it.
Back across the highway at Elysium, the K-pop Night Out showcase was one of the club-circuit's hotter tickets. Someone who looked an awful lot like Lady Gaga was thronged by an entourage during rapper-singer Jay Park's set (Gaga is set to perform and give a keynote later this week). That's probably no accident, as SXSW has gotten friendlier to pop stars, the hallyu wave has gotten weirder in a way that perfectly coincides with the original missions of the festival — exposing all sorts of progressive new artists from everywhere on Earth.
Park isn't quite the genre-exploding sensation of a peer like G-Dragon, but he capably splits the difference between fizzy K-pop dance cuts and more lascivious, deep-bending modern hip-hop. Park was raised in Seattle but came into K-pop fame as a leader of the boy band 2PM. As a solo artist, his music veers from the nihilistic trap influences suggested by his full torso-tattoos to the pop-trance jams of singles like "I Like 2 Party," which sound incompatible but work together under the crazy umbrella of modern K-pop. He's a gifted MC, and as the genre evolves and figures out its next sonic palette, he's got the chops to take K-pop to new places.
The K-pop singer Hyuna embodies where the music of South Korea is now — a candy-spattered and increasingly progressive strain of pop whose bright harmonies and dance-centric appeal is enough to put Gaga on notice. Hyuna's "Bubble Pop" was an early K-pop favorite, and justifiably — it sports one of teenpop's finest recent choruses in any language. But the very polyglot crowd at her short but packed-out showcase implied that K-pop has crossed the finish line into an established genre in America, and her bemused, sassy and urbane presence should keep her at the forefront of it (even if her set looked like it was almost entirely lip-synced, which is standard protocol for much pop anyway).
Is there any better band for a 1:20 a.m. set time at Mohawk than L.A.'s Youth Code? Nope. The violent, sinuous industrial duo is at the forefront of a rediscovery of primitive synth music in L.A., but minus the goth goofiness that plagued some of its '90s practitioners. The band is a perfect balance of muscular synth drums, white-noise analog pulses and singer Sara Taylor's defiant shrieks. It's harsh stuff, but never less than riveting to watch, and a perfect rebuttal to a festival that looks ever more like a A-list party than a place to truly hear something new. Thank God Youth Code was there to fix that at the end.