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, the Strokes, Uncle Tupelo, Florence + the Machine, Gary Clark Jr. and so on.
Then there was a folk-rock band from England that played a day party at Red House Pizza in front of a couple dozen people in March 2009, then were headlining Glastonbury a couple years later. 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 about this act, he may as well just book them and be done with it,” Caldwell says.
It’s important to note that the Mumfords were on the rise in the UK and had strong management from the team that also handled Keane and Laura Marling, who had already been accepted to SXSW. Since “and Sons” were in her backing band, they were all coming to Austin anyway.
The first Mumford set, at the Dart International showcase on a Tuesday, found the band performing without keyboardist Ben Lovett, who had to hastily exit the band’s plane at Heathrow because peanuts were being 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 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.
SXSW 2002: Polyphonic Spree makes the most of 10 a.m.
When a new, unknown act plays SXSW for the first time, they feel lucky if a handful of critics catch their performance. But as the opener for 2002 keynote speaker Robbie Robertson, 28-member choral rock band Polyphonic Spree thrilled a packed ballroom full of music scribes from all over the world. “They told us it was going to be an industry event in a huge, ballroom at 10 a.m., and nobody was going to be there to see us,” recalls Spree leader Tim Delaughter.
But at the end of 30-minute performance by the robe-wearing aggregation from Dallas “a bunch of people made a beeline for us and the first one introduced himself as Jon Pareles of the New York Times,” Delaughter recalls. “He said, ‘Do you realize what you just did? You got every music critic in the country on their feet!’ We ended up getting our picture in all these newspapers covering South By Southwest.” Pareles wrote a feature on the group.
Also in the audience were reps for David Bowie, who was curating London’s Meltdown Festival, and three weeks later Polyphonic Spree was playing Britain’s Royal Festival Hall. Polyphonic later opened for Bowie for the entire “Reality” tour.
SXSW has employed keynote musical preludes since the beginning, when octogenarian blues man the Grey Ghost played stride piano and the Golden Echoes sang gospel, but it was staffer Craig Stewart’s idea to go over-the-top in 2002 with the Spree choir. Delaughter’s ambitious post-Tripping Daisy outfit had played only three or four gigs up to that point, but Stewart was at one of them.
One concern was the quick turnaround before the keynote address, so the group’s request to bring risers for the choir was shot down. But they brought them anyway. “Rather than blow her top, Leslie (production chief Uppinghouse) decided to work with them,” recalls SXSW panelist coordinator Andy Flynn. It was under the condition the 28 members turned into stagehands the second their set ended.
“We had three rooms at the La Quinta the night before, so we were sleeping 9 and 10 to a room,” Delaughter laughs. “It was hectic and we were out of our minds,” says Delaughter, whose band “slept” nine to a room at La Quinta the night before. “But we all got together before we went on and said ‘OK, this gig is awkward as hell, but let’s just blow these people’s minds’ and that’s what happened.”
By 10:30 in the morning, a band nobody had heard of at 9:59 was the talk of SXSW.