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SXSW: Day 1 and the amps are cranked

Posted by James Reed  March 14, 2012 04:58 AM

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Bear in Heaven (March-13-2012).JPG

It was the perfect greeting. "We're Bear in Heaven. We're from New York, and you're beautiful." With that bit of flattery, courtesy of the Brooklyn indie-rock band's disarming frontman, Jon Philpot, the South by Southwest music conference felt like it started in earnest late last night.

Vex Ruffin.JPGCertainly the throngs already clogging the streets in Austin, Texas, made it feel like this five-day event is just ramping up. I started my first night on a low-key note, dropping by Vex Ruffin's set at the showcase for Stones Throw, the eclectic indie hip-hop label. Ruffin doesn't exactly fall under that banner. But his performance was taut and tense, anchored by Ruffin on vocals with a drummer, bassist, and synth player behind him.

Dustin Wong (March-13-2012).JPG

En route to see Santigold clear across town, I suddenly stopped in my tracks when I heard Dustin Wong's songs seeping out of a venue next door. Wong, a New York musician, used pedals to loop and layer the melodies he played on electric guitar into dense yet ethereal electronic symphonies. They were instrumental pieces, seemingly conducted by his feet clad in mismatched socks.

Santigold (March-13-2012).JPG

At La Zona Rosa, Santigold made a triumphant return after a lengthy hiatus. She's got an album coming out in May, and it was the first time most of the crowd had heard the new songs. Flanked as usual by her stoic back-up dancers, she wore a gold crown that was as crooked as her music: hip-hop one moment, electro-pop the next, and then down another rabbit hole.

Shut out from seeing Daniel Johnston, no doubt because he's so beloved in this town, instead I moved on to catch Bear in Heaven's pulsating dance rock at the Mohawk Patio. It was a good prelude to Caveman's similarly euphoric songs aimed at both the head and the heart.

Caveman (March 13-2012).JPG

On my agenda for later today: rising British soul singer Michael Kiwanuka, reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, and Fiona Apple's hotly anticipated return, among (too) many other shows. I'll be blogging during the day, but for more frequent updates, you can follow me on Twitter: @GlobeJamesReed.

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Sarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

James Reed is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

Jonathan Perry is the Globe's Scene & Heard columnist, covering local music.

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