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Buzz to the Future: 19 Classic South by Southwest Sets Before Artists Became Stars

on March 11, 2019, 5:48am
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March is here, which means it’s time for the return of South by Southwest, the annual media bacchanal that temporarily turns Austin into the center of the entertainment universe. The conference has evolved into a far bigger, far more #branded event than it was during its inaugural year in 1987, but one thing remain the same: right now, as you’re reading this, your next favorite band is probably en route to Texas, prepping for the showcase that, if caught by the right eyes and ears, might turn them into stars.

In celebration of SXSW’s spirit of discovery, we traveled through the conference’s 32-year history and found 19 before-they-were-stars sets from bands who would go on to make some of our favorite music of the last three decades. So, pop open a Lone Star and settle in for this Texas-sized walk down memory lane. We’ll just be over here figuring out how to enter the coordinates for Stubb’s into this stupid Delorean.

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The Reverend Horton Heat

Reverend Horton Heat

Year at SXSW: 1987

Year of Breakthrough: 1990

Take a look at the poster for the very first SXSW, and you’re likely in for a few surprises — that first fest stuck to a single weekend and occupied a downright manageable 15 venues (instead of this year’s 190+). More than 30 years later, the names of the inaugural lineup of bands are also surprisingly unfamiliar, save one — The Reverend Horton Heat, the Dallas psychobilly rabble-rouser who’d rise to indie prominence in 1990 on the strength of his Sub Pop debut, Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em, and the MTV-friendly video for “Psychobilly Freakout”. His appearance at the inaugural SXSW came before his band even had a single — the first, “Big Little Baby”, wouldn’t come until 1988. It was so early, in fact, that The Reverend had yet to change the spelling of his stage surname from “Heet” to the more familiar (and orthographically correct) “Heat.”

[Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Reverend Horton Heat Shows]

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Billy Ray Cyrus

Billy Ray Cyrus

Year at SXSW: 1988

Year of Breakthrough: 1992

Before he was a pop music patriarch, the most underrated part of Hannah Montana, or even the owner of country music’s achiest, breakiest heart, Billy Ray Cyrus was just another aspiring singer-songwriter road-tripping down to Austin for the chance to make it big. Four years after his appearance at the second SXSW, Cyrus would have the number-one record in America with 1992’s Some Gave All, making him the most prominent alumnus of a year that also featured future buzz bands, including world music lifers Poi Dog Pondering and Chicago power pop legends Material Issue. In addition to serving as a stepping stone for his own career, SXSW has also become a Cyrus family tradition; oldest daughter Miley earned headlines for a surprise appearance at the festival in 2015 while sister Noah made her debut in 2018.

[Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Billy Ray Cyrus Shows]

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Gin Blossoms

The Gin Blossoms

Year at SXSW: 1989

Year of Breakthrough: 1992

If you were of radio-listening age in 1992, you likely became intimately familiar with the singles of the Gin Blossoms’ breakout album, New Miserable Experience, in particular the almost-chart-toppers “Hey Jealousy” and “Found Out About Yo,u”. If you’d been at the band’s SXSW show three years earlier, you’d likely have heard those songs, and others, in a slightly more energetic form. Before appearing on New Miserable Experience, those two tracks (along with opener “Lost Horizons”) were among the raw power pop cuts that defined the band’s 1989 debut, Dusted, which was recorded during a triumphant year that saw the Tempe, AZ quintet play SXSW and earn the designation of “best unsigned band in America” from the tastemakers at CMJ.

[Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Gin Blossoms Shows]

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Dixie Chicks

Dixie Chicks

Year at SXSW: 1991

Year of Breakthrough: 1998

Today, the Dixie Chicks are best known for one of two things: the crossover ascendance of turn-of-the-millennium singles like “Wide Open Spaces” and “Goodbye Earl” or the 2003 Iraq War protest that single-handedly derailed that seemingly unstoppable rise. A decade before both the good and the bad, the Dixie Chicks were still a relatively anonymous bluegrass quartet that graced the stage at SXSW in search of a recording contract that wouldn’t come until they shifted their sound towards a more commercially viable brand of country. If that shift never came, they might’ve been remembered even more fondly; listen to tracks like “The Cowboy Lives Forever” and “West Texas Wind” from their 1991 debut, Thank Heavens for Dale Evans, and tell me, with a straight face, that you really prefer the later stuff.

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Lisa Loeb

Lisa Loeb

Year at SXSW: 1993

Year of Breakthrough: 1994

Lisa Loeb’s rise to prominence famously came with the help of her apartment’s proximity to Ethan Hawke’s, which helped her land eventual Billboard #1 “Stay (I Missed You)” on the Reality Bites soundtrack in 1994. Before she topped the charts, Loeb was a SXSW regular; according to a 1998 retrospective in the Austin Chronicle, Loeb attended the conference every year from 1991 to 1994 and made her first connection with Geffen A&R rep Jim Barber after one of her showcases in 1993. Loeb summed up her early days at the festival with three words familiar to any would-be rock star: “Shameless self-promotion.”

[Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Lisa Loeb Shows]

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Hanson

Hanson

Year at SXSW: 1994

Year of Breakthrough: 1997

Although they built their reputation on their image as fresh-faced, non-threatening children of the Oklahoma corn, the Hanson brothers weren’t above a little light trespassing in their quest to land a major-label contract. The boys behind “MMMBop” crashed SXSW in 1994, staging an unscheduled a capella performance at the conference’s annual softball game that caught the attention of their soon-to-be-manager, who went on to help them land a contract with Mercury Records. Reflecting on their musical skulduggery with the Austin American-Statesman more than two decades later, eldest brother Isaac Hanson remembered an even more pivotal fact about the day: “One of the other things I think is really, really important to talk about, with regard to the baseball diamond story, is the fact that I had never had proper Texas brisket in my life. And there was free barbecue at the baseball diamond. And I’m like, ‘OK, this is amazing, and I want this, for the rest of my life.’”

[Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Hanson Shows]

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Blink-182

Blink-182

Year at SXSW: 1996

Year of Breakthrough: 1999

The poster for this show featured a deranged rabbit skanking on the lawn of the Texas State Capitol. If that wasn’t already a criterion for inclusion on this list, it should be going forward.

[Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Blink-182 Shows]

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Spoon

spoon ga ga ga ga reissue anniversary Buzz to the Future: 19 Classic South by Southwest Sets Before Artists Became Stars

Year at SXSW: 1996

Year of Breakthrough: 2007

It’s hard to get a do-over in the world of music, but hometown Austin rockers Spoon managed to pull it off. During this early appearance at SXSW, they were a month away from releasing their Matador debut Telephono, a record that helped them get signed to Elektra, where they released A Series of Sneaks, which helped them get … dropped from Elektra. Somehow, they rebounded, though; a fruitful partnership with Merge eventually led them to a run of three Billboard Top 10 albums spanning 2007’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (No. 10), 2010’s Transference (No. 4), and 2014’s They Want My Soul (No. 4). Their return suited their status as unlikely local heroes; the band resurrected the beloved (and bygone) Emo’s for a three-night curation residency in 2017.

[Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Spoon Shows]

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of Montreal

of Montreal

Year at SXSW: 1997

Year of Breakthrough: 2007

Kevin Barnes doesn’t have much use for his band’s early work these days; after the band’s veer towards indie disco in the late aughts, the of Montreal frontman disavowed all material recorded before 2004’s Satanic Panic in the Attic during a 2011 interview with Pitchfork‘s Larry Fitzmaurice, saying that “what might have attracted somebody in the beginning is not really there anymore” and “I closed the book on that period of my life and moved forward.” Personal growth aside, that remains a real shame, especially given the enduring strength of the ’90s psych found on records like 1999’s The Gay Parade and 1997’s Cherry Peel. Maybe that’s why this particular SXSW set holds such retroactive appeal; we’d give just about anything to hear “In Dreams I Dance with You” live one more time.

[Buy: Tickets to Upcoming of Montreal Shows]

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Andrew Bird

Andrew-Bird

Andrew Bird, Photo by Philip Cosores

Year at SXSW: 1998

Year of Breakthrough: 2005

By the time Andrew Bird broke fully into indie’s upper echelons with 2005’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs, he’d already put in nearly a decade of journeyman’s years with neo-swing and jazz acts like the Squirrel Nut Zippers and his own Bowl of Fire. That’s who appeared at this SXSW showcase in 1998, and that’s who we’d love to go back in time and catch. Not because intricate violin loops and cryptic come-hither lyrics are bad, mind you; we’d just relish the chance to bust out the Lindy Hop to Bird’s fiddle-forward New Orleans cabaret stompers like “Glass Figurine” and “Minor Stab”. There’s an alternate universe where Bird took over as the host of A Prairie Home Companion instead of Chris Thile, and it echoes through songs and shows like this one.

[Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Andrew Bird Shows]

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Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes

Year at SXSW: 1999

Year of Breakthrough: 2005

When a festival features 829 showcasing artists (as was the case with SXSW in 1999), it’s understandably difficult for critics to make any concrete predictions about which of those artists might make the biggest impact going forward. With that in mind, let’s give some credit to Kim Mellen of the Austin Chronicle, who filed a dispatch from Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes set at the Electric Lounge Pavilion that year. After noting that the word-of-mouth crowd was likely lured in more by free Lone Star than by Oberst’s still-nascent indie cache, she ends her review by noting that “if this prodigy doesn’t implode by the time he hits 21, he could front the next revolution in indie rock.” Six years later, Bright Eyes hit the mainstream with the dual release of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, and Oberst was being called the millennial answer to Bob Dylan. Good ear, Kim. Next Lone Star’s on us.

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Okkervil River

Okkervil River

Okkervil River, Photo by Ben Kaye

Year at SXSW: 2000

Year of Breakthrough: 2007

As was the case with Spoon, Okkervil River’s SXSW trajectory offers another example of the festival’s ability to introduce its hometown bands to the curious ears of the rest of the world. In a pre-fest feature in the Austin Chronicle on March 3, 2000, writer Kate X. Messer calls Will Sheff’s band “our town’s new standard bearers for the folk-rock implosion [who manage] to skate that elusive thin line between utter joy and unbearable pain and turn it into manifesto.” Those words still applied to the band a year later, when they were signed by Jagjaguwar after their second SXSW appearance, as well as six years after that, when The Stage Names and its thrillingly maudlin opening track, “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe”, kicked off a string of three albums in a row to hit No. 5 on Billboard’s Indie chart.

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The Polyphonic Spree

The Polyphonic Spree, Photo by Lauren Logan

The Polyphonic Spree, Photo by Lauren Logan

Year at SXSW: 2002

Year of Breakthrough: 2003

The next band under consideration here is also the biggest – literally and, at least for a moment, artistically. The berobed spectacle of The Polyphonic Spree’s two dozen members managed to command the most attention at a SXSW that also featured early appearances by future megastars like Norah Jones, Mastodon, and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The Austin Chronicle’s Greg Beets said the band offered “aural [affirmations] that will warm even the most cynical heart” via music “that brings Brian Wilson’s Teenage Symphonies to God from the studio to the dance hall.” One particularly keen early adopter was David Bowie, who tapped the group as a featured act at his edition of London’s Meltdown Festival, as well as openers on the tour for his 2003 record, Reality.

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Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens, photo by Philip Cosores

Sufjan Stevens, photo by Philip Cosores

Year at SXSW: 2004

Year of Breakthrough: 2005

Even for a festival that defines itself by its combination of volume and quality, the 2004 edition of SXSW stands out. Had you been in attendance that year, you might’ve caught any number of aughts-defining bands on the come up; Franz Ferdinand played only their eighth American show at Buffalo Billiards that year, and bands like The Hold Steady and The Killers also made buzzed-about appearances in advance of albums that would help define the next few years of blog rock. If we could only pick one set to see from that year, though, we’d go with the one from Sufjan Stevens, who arrived at the conference on the strength of his 2003 record, Michigan, and his then-just-released 2004 record, Seven Swans. Stevens was undeniably on his way to hugeness, a fact which would’ve made seeing him in concert before 2005’s Illinois temporarily reshaped the indie landscape into his own baroque image the truest, twee-est treat.

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LCD Soundsystem

lcd soundsystem live album release date

LCD Soundsystem, photo by David Brendan Hall

Year at SXSW: 2005

Year of Breakthrough: 2007

The first time we heard the shouty, hip-shaking goofs of “Daft Punk Is Playing at My House” in 2005, it was impossible to imagine that the band behind them was just a couple of years away from writing the most affecting hipster anthems of the aughts. Though we wouldn’t trade the dancefloor catharsis found in the best moments of 2007’s Sound of Silver and 2010’s This Is Happening, we also wouldn’t turn down the chance to catch LCD Soundsystem at their first peak in 2005. As James Murphy’s artistry grew in strength and stature, his live performances gained perfect-night gravitas but lost some of the edgy, who-cares frivolity that made those early songs bump extra hard. Then again, that first record also contained a song called “Losing My Edge”, so you can’t say we weren’t warned.

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St. Vincent

St. Vincent, Photo by Julia Drummond

St. Vincent, Photo by Julia Drummond

Year at SXSW: 2007

Year of Breakthrough: 2011

From shredding herself to the ground at Pitchfork to leading a marching band with David Byrne on the stage of the Chicago Theatre, we’ve seen some truly memorable sets during Annie Clark’s ever-morphing quest to claim the title of 21st-Century Bowie. Just as it’s fascinating to search the songs of 1967’s David Bowie for signs of the stardust to come, so too is it already rewarding to revisit the beginning of St. Vincent on 2007’s Marry Me, which the Austin Chronicle’s Audra Schroeder called “one of [2007’s] religious experiences.” If Clark’s career stays on its current trajectory, performances like her 4 PM set on the Austin Ventures stage will only continue accruing their own set of I-was-there mythology.

[Buy: Tickets to Upcoming St. Vincent Shows]

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Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe, Austin City Limits 2018, photo by Amy Price

Janelle Monáe, Photo by Amy Price

Year at SXSW: 2009

Year of Breakthrough: 2010

An R&B/funk concept album about an Art Deco Afrofuturist android messiah was buckwild even by 2010 standards, but even The ArchAndroid didn’t prepare us for Janelle Monáe’s ongoing ascent towards icon status. Much like St. Vincent (who she’s also challenging for that Bowie title), Monáe’s early appearances seem poised to grow in legend right alongside her career. If nothing else, she’s certainly our pick for valedictorian of the SXSW class of 2009, which also included Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, Kid Cudi, and Mumford and Sons.

[Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Janelle Monáe Shows]

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Odd Future

odd future camp flog gnaw live Buzz to the Future: 19 Classic South by Southwest Sets Before Artists Became Stars

Year at SXSW: 2011

Year of Breakthrough: 2011

You could barely file a story from SXSW 2011 without one of the madcap members of Odd Future raging around the periphery. Just one month removed from what still stands as the greatest Tonight Show musical performance of all time, Tyler, the Creator and his rising crew were the hardest working artists in Austin; they popped up at the MTVu Woodie Awards on Wednesday, stress-tested the barricades at the Scoot Inn on Thursday, and “[rampaged] through a thousand years of day parties” before their showcase at Buffalo Billiards on Saturday. Though the collective’s members would go on to both wear out their welcome (including being met with anti-domestic violence protests at Pitchfork later that summer) and make better music (Frank Ocean’s channel ORANGE, and Tyler’s Flower Boy, in particular), we’re not sure they ever had quite as much fun as they did here.

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Solange

Solange, Photo by David Brendan Hall

Solange, Photo by David Brendan Hall

Year at SXSW: 2013

Year of Breakthrough: 2016

Solange already had plenty of industry momentum behind her in advance of her 2013 appearance at SXSW: her 2008 record, Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams, debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 200, plus, I mean — you never stop being Beyoncé’s sister, you know? However, knowing what we know now (especially in regards to the triumph of her 2016 record A Seat at the Table), it seems somehow unfair that we’re not all as lucky as our own Editor-in-Chief, Michael Roffman, who caught Solange’s Friday afternoon set at Stubb’s and summed it up thusly: “Think of that throwback schtick Janelle Monáe champions, only flick on the Miami Sound Machine.” Wise words, Roffman. Our jealousy is palpable.

[Buy: Tickets to Upcoming Solange Shows]

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