Searching For Authenticity At SXSW

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Blitzen Trapper performs Big Star's "Feel" with members of R.E.M., including Peter Buck, second from left. (Photo by Eric R. Danton)

AUSTIN, Texas — With some 2,000 acts performing just about every style of music imaginable, South by Southwest can be whatever kind of festival you want.

This year I wanted authenticity.

Authenticity in music a thorny concept, however, in that what’s real and what’s authentic are often two different things. No less an authority than Bruce Springsteen dismissed the idea altogether during his SXSW keynote speech on March 15.

“We live in a post-authentic world,” Springsteen said. “Today, authenticity is a house of mirrors. It’s all just what you’re bringing when the lights go down.”

That is authenticity, though. Springsteen has long-since transcended his blue-collar roots, as his detractors love pointing out every time that fatcat Jersey millionaire writes a song sympathetic to the working class. But they’re missing the point: Even if Springsteen no longer has much in common with the characters he sings about, there’s no doubting the emotional authenticity of his songs, nor the conviction with which he performs them.

Those things are what enable him to make such a deep connection with his audiences, and SXSW is all about seeking that connection. It has to be. Given everything that happens during the annual festival and conference, the most memorable groups are the ones that rouse attendees out of the complaisance of free beer, hipster disaffection and music industry shop-talk into something approaching, at its best, ecstasy.

There were ecstatic bands at this year’s SXSW, to be sure. When the lights went down, they were the ones bringing it all, and leaving it all on stage, every time. Springsteen was one of them in a performance studded with special guests Thursday night.

Alabama Shakes was another.

The group, a guitar-soul band from Alabama, plays songs that seem to exert a gravitational pull, drawing the instruments into a tight orbit around singer Brittany Howard’s voice. She sings with cathartic force, her voice wringing with an intensity that pushes the music to dramatic heights, especially on stage, but also on the group’s forthcoming LP debut, “Boys & Girls.”

Who knows whether her songs are autobiographical (ie, “real”), but it doesn’t matter — plenty of autobiographical singers don’t perform with anything approaching Howard’s level of believability. That and the band’s all-in performances are what make Alabama Shakes’ music authentic, in a way that connected with the audience each of the three times I caught them.

There’s more than one way to connect with an audience. Santigold, an electro-dub-rock-whatever singer and Wesleyan alumna, used electronics, backing tracks and a guy in a horse costume in her set Friday at Spin magazine’s annual Spin@Stubbs day party. Portland, Ore., band Blitzen Trapper played a song with members of R.E.M. and Big Star during the last of its 11 SXSW performances. The Roots, the hip-hop group serving as the house band on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” played a riotous set that blended various styles of music into one big party Saturday afternoon at an event hosted by MOG. (Blitzen Trapper played that show, too.)

By contrast, some groups at SXSW behaved as though merely playing in Austin during the festival means they deserve praise. Performing Wednesday afternoon, the Los Angeles group White Arrows looked bored, and as a result, their set was boring. On Tuesday night, Austin band Electric Touch was mostly a collection of hollow poses on songs that felt more like calculated bids for stardom than any sort of honest expression.

The new authenticity, then, has little to do with who you are or where you come from. It’s about what you do.

As Springsteen put it, “The purity of human expression and experience is not confined to guitars, to tubes, to turntables, to microchips. There is no right way, no pure way, of doing. There is just doing.”

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