The stories of huge headlining acts playing SXSW when they were nobody are well-told, with Billy Ray Cyrus (year two) leading a breakout army that includes Green Day, White Stripes, John Mayer, Kendrick Lamar, MIA, the Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, Skrillex, Uncle Tupelo, Florence + the Machine, Death Cab For Cutie, Black Eyed Peas, Gary Clark Jr. and so on.
Then there was a folk-rock band from England that played a day party at a pizza joint in March 2009, just a couple years before they were headlining Glastonbury. Here’s how Mumford & Sons were booked to play SXSW before they had a record deal or any press in the States:
New Zealand native Cary Caldwell, who works for SXSW Planning Dept. and has been part of the artist submission review process for a number of years, was living in Brighton UK in 2008 and had popped into a bar called Prince Albert on his way home from dinner. Mumford and Sons were playing to a packed house of 150 and, quite simply, blew Caldwell away.
He gave Marcus Mumford his SXSW card, got in touch with management and emailed Brent Grulke telling him SXSW had to book this act. “I told Brent that unless he wanted me hassling him every day, he may as well just book them and be done with it,” Caldwell says, with a laugh.
The first Mumford set, at Red House Pizzeria on Airport Boulevard, found the band performing without keyboardist Ben Lovett, who had to hastily exit the plane from London at New York City because peanuts were being served and he has an extreme nut allergy. Lovett arrived the next day, in time for two SXSW day stage performances- at the Convention Center and the Hilton Hotel lobby. That latter set was in front of about 30 people, but one was the person who went on to become their booking agent in the U.S. “They played their official showcase at Maggie Mae’s and the place was rammed, mainly with UK industry,” Caldwell recalls. Mumford and Sons left Austin on a mountain of buzz.
When they returned to England, Cary Caldwell became their temporary tour manager. His first assignment was to drive Mumford and Sons to the Universal building in London, where they signed their recording contract with Island Records.
– Michael Corcoran