AUSTIN, Texas - South by Southwest transitioned into its music-festival phase on Tuesday night. Multi-act showcases broke out at dozens of official venues - and many unofficial ones - on either side of the I-35 freeway that splits the Texas state capital down the middle.
No parties are bigger that those at the Fader Fort, a vast barn of a space named after the music and lifestyle magazine that's a model of corporate-sponsored (Converse sneakers, computer firms Intel and Austin-based Dell), music-tech brand integration. Located on the ever-gentrifying and -hipsterizing east side of town, the Fort is right across the street from the Taco Bell-sponsored Hype Hotel. The Fort functions as a sort of music-centric clubhouse, with table tennis, hot dogs, DJ rooms, and, of course, lots of sneaker ads and sneaker art.
Tuesday night's big Fort headliner was Passion Pit, the buoyant electro-pop band fronted by singer Michael Angelakos, which will release its third album, Kindred, on April 21. Actor Adrian Grenier (Entourage's Vincent Chase) introduced the band and never even mentioned that the Entourage movie is coming out in June. Way to go, Vince!
In only their second gig after a lengthy break following 2012's Gossamer, the six man Passion Pit sounded tight and focused, with Angelakos bounding about the stage restlessly. New material from Kindred was as musically effusive and catchy as ever, while sounding a smidgen less tortured beneath the surface, and Angelakos' high-pitched vocals, at their best, suggest a dizzying, digital-age version of classic soul falsetto men such as the Stylistics' Russell Thompkins Jr.
Passion Pit has another big headlining show in Austin - at the Spotify House on Thursday - and it plays a Radio 104.5 show at the Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden on May 10.
Later, I went to the Mohawk on the west side, hoping to catch Waxahatchee, the Alabama-born, West Philly-based project of songwriter Katie Crutchfield. I interviewed her back home in Philadelphia on a snowy day earlier this month but hadn't seen her perform in two years.
The line was long - at SXSW, Waxahatchee is like the Beatles - but while biding my time, I met Brian Walker, the guitarist and songwriter from Glenside who records as A Day Without Love.
Walker, 26, took a week off from his management consultant job to come down here. He also took the advice of his friends in the Philadelphia bands Cruisr and Cheerleader, both of which are showcasing in Austin, and he bought a badge for $600 that gains him access to Convention Center workshops and lets him see an endless supply of bands.
"I came to network," he said. Three days into his trip, he had already met two of his idols - punk actor and Renaissance man Henry Rollins and songwriter Kevin Devine - and had seen a panel discussion about balancing business and creativity that he found highly useful.
"I've realized that a lot of local bands have an unrealistic reliance on the Internet and social media to promote themselves," he said. "At the end of the day, the most important thing is the performance."
Walker is staying at a hostel on the east side ("Really cheap, $250 for the week") and called his SXSW experience so far "a very cool ride."
As for Waxahatchee, she was superb. Crutchfield is playing only four shows in Austin this week - a small, under-control number for such an act. She has the biggest-deal album of her career, Ivy Tripp, on the Merge label, coming out next month. She will play Union Transfer on April 8, the day after the album is released.
Crutchfield performed solo on electric guitar - and, for a handful of songs in the middle of the set, with her twin sister Alison, who plays in the band Swearin', on harmony vocals. It was a quietly powerful, pristine performance, an impressive example of becalmed showmanship and nuanced phrasing that held a tight grip on the audience while rarely raising her voice.
"I'm going to play one more song," she said. "Then Speedy Ortiz is going to play. and then Angel Olsen. Yeah, it's a great gig. We're lucky to be here."