SXSW Review: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Action Bronson, Icona Pop @ The Belmont

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Welcome to South by Southwest! Spring arrived in sunny Austin, Texas to welcome the music industry after a week of technology and film festivities. Tuesday was the official start of the music leg, but the meat of the presentation will be served later in the week. There were a few panels to munch on during the afternoon, but our time was better spent exploring the streets of Austin, enjoying a coffee at the corner café and generally finding our bearings for the long week ahead. With thousands of bands packing the bevy of Austin clubs and music venues, charting the nightly schedule is like trying to heard cats. Even with the best made plans, some choice bands will slide through our fingers. We decided to head over to 6th street and park ourselves at one of the college hangouts for the evening – The Belmont.

The line to get it wasn’t too bad. The venue helped contain the madness by blocking off the show to badge and wristband holders. As wristband holders, we waited around 20 minutes to get in at around 10pm. The mighty badge holders have their own line that basically cuts in front of everyone else. At the $200+ price bump for the badge, I guess you should see some extra perks to console your poorer wallet.

The layout of the Belmont was a split venue with an enclosed bar sitting beside an open air music hall. The temperatures were steadily dropping as night settled in, but you wouldn’t have known it packed in this sardine can. Someone should have been praying that the fire marshal didn’t make a surprise appearance because I’m certain this joint wouldn’t pass code. The Belmont was a snapshot of SXSW Tuesday evening. If you aren’t into sweating, getting drinks sloshed on you and generally getting pushed around as the lushes make their way to and from the bar, SXSW may not be your cup of tea.

The first band we were introduced to was Icona Pop. The ladies from Sweden came in to SXSW as one of the up and comers to see. They’ve seen their profile ratchet up lately thanks to touring in support of Passion Pit as well as Matt and Kim. Their hit “I Love It” has been featured on Girls (the unforgettable episode where Hannah is tripping on cocaine), German commercials and even a TV theme song. The abbreviated set that we saw was a strong, high energy affair. They marched out a lot of the tracks off their eponymous EP including “Ready for the Weekend” and “Good for You.” When they closed with “I Love It,” they pulled Charlie XCX back onto the stage to help them with the duet. Brit Charlie had played the 8 o’clock slot at the Belmont so probably didn’t mind grabbing a couple drinks backstage to help out her sisters.

Rockie Fresh ushered in the hip hop segment of the evening. The Chicago-native has an interesting groove. He’s got a strong alternative-rock flavor to his sound. He’s toured with Fall Out Boy and lists the group as a major influence to his music. He’s released a half dozen mix tapes since 2009 as well as his aptly titled Debut Studio Album this year. His music has been featured on the CW’s Nikita and he was named one of Metromix’s “25 Hottest Artists Under 25.” You can tell Rockie Fresh is still finding his sound and cementing his place in hip hop’s fragmented landscape. He’s got a lot of potential housed within him, and I look forward to seeing his evolution as he finishes putting the pieces together.

The most interesting character of the night was Action Bronson. He’s a white-boy rapper from Queens whose sports more than a few extra pounds, a cue ball head with a frentic beard. He’s an ex-chef in the Big Apple who hung up his puffy hat to throw down the rhymes. He doesn’t look like your protypical rapper, but he has certainly has the styling. He won the most interactive artist award for the evening. Several artists came off the stage to mingle with the masses crammed against the security gate. Action Bronson went a step further, wading into the crowd and making his way into the bowels of the venue. Soon he was scaling the balcony stairs, singing from the couch previously reserved for SXSW VIPs. Action was busting up stereotypes and doing his Flushing faithful proud with his set at South by Southwest.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis were our target band in choosing the Belmont for SXSW’s opening evening. The Seattle duo has broken into the music biz from the side door. Their video for “Thrift Shop” has been viewed on YouTube an astounding 140 million times, and it even rose to number one on Billboard’s hot 100 chart. The amazing part of this is they are independent artists who have risen to fame solely based on their inherent talent and self-promotion much akin to the Arctic Monkeys a decade ago. They’ve been featured on Ellen for their same sex marriage anthem (“Same Love”) and Jimmy Kimmel (“Thrift Shop”).

Macklemore is the unquestionable front man as Ryan Lewis sits tucked the background dressing the beats from his command center laptop. They certainly brought their ‘A’ game to the Belmont stage. When they performed their kitschy hit “Thrift Shop,” they had Wanz in tow to really put their stamp on this viral gem. The gay marriage manifesto “Same Love” featured Mary Lambert on stage. This was the huge plus of South by Southwest. Since everyone in the biz was in town for the week, it’s not a stretch to see random acts showing up to make cameo appearance during a friend’s set. I’ve got to say these guys are pretty bad ass. They’ve got a unique sound that’s much like English hip hop — think The Streets. Truthfully, I thought Macklemore was a Brit when I first heard him. I don’t know how long he can hold as an independent, but more power to him for taking the road less traveled.

It was a good opening night at SXSW. The marathon of music is in its first mile at this point so it’s hard to see exactly where we are running to or how torched our legs will feel, but it’s exciting to envision the path. Kudos to all the players at the Belmont who pulled together a great show on Tuesday.

Check back with over the next week as we report from the front lines of the SXSW festival.

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