Gaga's vomit; Tyler's riot—the headlines can make it seem like the South by Southwest music festival exists for already-famous musicians to grab even more publicity. But despite the attention-getting presence of celebrities and sponsorships each year in Austin, there are still upwards of a thousand smaller bands in town for five days. The vast majority of them are undiscovered; some are buzzed-about up and comers. Here are the best sets we happened to catch from people who aren't yet big stars—but might be one day.
The sound: Eighties new wave reconstituted jauntily under the direction of an excellently theatrical lead man who’s not afraid to wear dad jeans.
Key SXSW moment: Playing their seventh (!) set of the festival, Samuel T. Herring promised the crowd at Stubbs for Spin’s Friday party that he’d offer a “sunny afternoon” show, then launched into the same unapologetically spastic dance moves that made the band’s recent Letterman performance go viral.
Listen to: “Seasons (Waiting on You)”
Boy & Bear
The sound: Road-trip-ready folk rock recalling CCR or a slightly perkier version of Sky Blue Sky-era Wilco: virtuoso fretwork, shuffling rhythms, and a soulful drawl.
Key SXSW moment: Saturday afternoon at the Wild Honey Pie’s party at Cheer Up Charlie’s, the band kicked up a good-natured ruckus built around Killian Gavin’s lancing solos. The crowd roared, and singer Dave Hoskin gave credit where it was due, motioning to the guitarist—“I don’t do much on this song, but this man does.”
Listen to: “Southern Sun”
The sound: Dour but gorgeous shoegaze from some kids who clearly grew up in the ‘90s: The guitars heave and shimmer like My Bloody Valentine, vocalist Dominic Palermo sighs like Billy Corgan, and the lyrics wax nihilistic like Kurt Cobain.
Key SXSW moment: The tats-and-beanies-bedecked trio cast empty stares onto the crowd as they blanketed the sunny Red 7 patio with noise on Thursday for Brooklyn Vegan's day party. The only stage patter came when the band made their exit: “We have to go change our diapers.”
Listen to: “Downward Years to Come”
The sound: Dramatic, spare trip hop that leans on the considerable talents of singer Hannah Read. Sounds like The XX, but with bigger ballads.
Key SXSW moment: Opening for Coldplay and Imagine Dragons at the iTunes Festival showcase on South by Southwest's first night of music, the trio proved their mettle at the enormous Moody's Theater while slyly pointing out their youth: The band grew up listening to Coldplay, Read said.
Listen to: “Strong”
Durham, North Carolina
The sounds: Coffee-shop scat-singing diced up by an electronic tinkerer, making for experimental tone poems that appeal to the intellect and to the emotions.
Key SXSW moment: The line to see Little Dragon on Red 7’s patio Thursday afternoon snaked through the bar’s interior, where Sylvan Esso were performing. By the end of the duo's tricky, upbeat set, the queuing bystanders were bobbing just as enthusiastically as the folks up front.
Listen to: “Hey Mami”
The sound: Distinctly 2014 indie pop, which is to say the band has taken cues from MGMT, Passion Pit, and Vampire Weekend to come up with a polyglot sound held together with sticky choruses and springy rhythms.
Key SXSW moment: The five lads of the band seemed genuinely humbled playing inside Mohawk Friday night for ATC's showcase: “We’re a bunch of happy Australians because we’re here at South by Southwest. We can get drunk in Sydney any night.”
Listen to: "Mississippi"
Until the Ribbon Breaks
The Sound: Dreamy breakbeats, soulful samples, and breathy vocals from Welsh mastermind Pete Lawrie Winfield.
Key SXSW Moment: In the middle of a daytime slot at the British Music Embassy, Winfield picked up a trumpet and seamlessly integrated brass into his band's trippy, languid sound.
Listen to: “A Taste of Silver”
The sound: Sardonic, specific tales of life on the road crooned over well-executed honky-tonk tunes.
Key SXSW moment: Fritz’s fashion choices for the GCT showcase Thursday night at Red 7 telegraphed his post-modern lounge-lizard shtick: Underneath an embroidered vest that’d make Neil Young proud, he sported a graphic tee printed to look like a bolo tie and collar.