Berklee Represents Boston and Beyond at SXSW
On an unassuming, grassy stretch in the heart of downtown Austin, an eclectic, six-hour music marathon became the pop-up headquarters for a select few of Berklee's most exciting talents at one of the most important music festivals in the world—and not a single one of the acts sounded alike.
At Boston and Beyond, the official Berklee SXSW party held on March 13, up-and-coming student bands at Berklee, as well as celebrated alumni and members of the Boston music scene, convened at Brush Square Park just steps from Austin's 6th Street. Rock prevailed, free-form funk laden with bright horns and addictive beats drew passersby from the street to the front of the stage to dance, and the songs—which ranged from sensitive ballads to honky tonk breakdowns to bilingual explosions of sound set to acoustic guitar—kept a healthy crowd ebbing and flowing over the course of the day. It was undoubtedly a success and an afternoon of incredible music, but Boston and Beyond wasn't just a platform for superlative songwriters or the next big thing to come out of Boston: it was a demonstration in musical diversity that reflects why SXSW is a fantastic place for Berklee talent to come and do its thing under an international spotlight.
For Doug Orey of the Field Effect, this was part of the reason why coming to SXSW as a "Berklee band" is something to look forward to. Having played Berklee's party in 2013, the Field Effect returned to Austin as an alumni band, just as Lucius, the Wandas, and countless others have before them. "It's a fun day, and it's cool to get the opportunity to do something like this because we went [to Berklee]," said Orey. "Last year was the first time we got to play anything at SXSW, ever, and it was an opportunity we wouldn't have been able to get otherwise. Everybody's down here right now, and [SXSW] is one of those things you can put on your resume as a band. You never know who's going to be wandering in and out of a bar on 6th Street." The Field Effect is currently recording the follow-up to Cartography, its debut full-length, and the bulk of its SXSW set list consisted of the kind of barreling, amp-blasting rock fans can expect to hear on its forthcoming effort.
Though Los Rumberos was a bit less experienced when it came to entering the SXSW fray, the trio approached its first SXSW ever—and, conversely, its first showcase as the resident all-student Berklee band on the Boston and Beyond lineup—with elated anticipation. "Every experience here is new, and so far it's been very positive!" gushed Lito de la Isla. Together with Ángel Céspedes and Paul Sefchovich, de la Isla revisits familiar flamenco refrains, classical guitar tropes and rumba to contribute to the lustrous musical traditions they embraced while growing up in Mexico. The crowd eventually warmed up to Los Rumberos, and the setting—a sunny, Austin street corner—couldn't have been a more perfect place for their stripped-down approach. "We're only three people!" de la Isla continued. "We don't even have a drum set, or bass, and we sing. It's unusual; it's not mainstream. People take a few songs to get into the mood, but once they do, they enjoy it. We call it 'organic music' with no effects or pedals. Sometimes it's a challenge because you have to fill out all that space that music creates with bass and drums, but it's a challenge, and that's what makes it so interesting and fun for us."
By the end of the band's set, the audience fell for the rhythm just as hard as the crowd had for the riotous, country-pickin' uproar caused by Cask Mouse just a few moments prior, along with the rambunctious, brassy appeal of Evolvo Doofeht. This embrace of independent musicians and Berklee's penchant for celebrating every genre on the same stage is one Elizabeth Ziman of Elizabeth and the Catapult enjoys coming to Austin for year after year, and one she took advantage of as one of the Boston and Beyond artists. "There's an acoustic side to what I do but then I can rock pretty hard, so it's been interesting to try to find a very power-packed yet sensitive four-song set," she said. "Originally, SXSW was really about indie bands and promoting bands that never would've been exposed otherwise. I didn't come to see Jay-Z. (laughs) I want to see some bands I've never heard of. Whatever amount of that is still retained now, that's the part that I'm going for!"
Despite the megawatt presence of Jay-Z, Lady Gaga and her giant Doritos stage up the street, and a presence that continues to grow at a breakneck pace, SXSW proved to be a lucrative playing field for Berklee talent. Berklee's bands at SXSW 2014 may not sound the same, but the chops and fantastic mix of styles and flavors was there, and that's what kept Boston and Beyond thriving over the course of a sun-bleached six hours in Austin.