South By Southwest Music Festival is part writing assignment and part spring break for me. A chance to scrape together the little bit of extra cash I do have and go chase down some of my favorite bands for a week.

The Reader graciously provides a badge, the priority access placard that gets the holder first dibs on entry to SXSW’s nighttime showcases. The rest of the trip is on me, so while I do my best to see some of the bigger events and bigger names at SXSW, I never neglect my own vacation by standing in too many ridiculous lines or going to big events where I don’t know, don’t like or don’t have enough confidence in my knowledge of the genre to be able to fairly gauge whether it’s good or not.

This is in short one of the main reasons I rarely attend hip hop showcases. I’d have nothing of depth to say on whether one emcee killed it or not. Also, some of the bigger shows are jam-packed with lines that don’t move, even for badgeholders. So sorry Diplo and Kid Cudi, I missed your secret show. Same goes for you, LL Cool J. Maybe if I had saw Public Enemy was along for the ride with you, L, I would have dropped by. 

Instead, I spent a night learning the new lay of the SXSW land. The nights of hitting 10 showcases in one evening seem to have passed. The event’s larger downtown footprint isn’t quite as massive as the New York City-based CMJ Festival, but it’s no longer possible to run yourself ragged in the search for the next buzz band breakthrough. Now, that mostly guarantees you a spot in line outside the venue.

So I started the night camped out at the Austin Music Hall, in anticipation of Fitz & the Tantrums. The showcase kicked off with the theatrical, flamboyant electro synth pop of Diamond Rings, as artist that should have broke through last year with his single “I’m Just Me.” Diamond Rings has now evolved into a full band, adding a needed heft to what I saw two years ago as a one-man project.

English band the Enemy failed to impress after Diamond Rings, hopefully bringing a merciful end to the era of the overhyped NME guitar band. Think of a shitty mix of Arctic Monkeys and the Libertines. Shaggy-haired Sheepdogs did their best Allman Brothers impression, letting their Americana rock settle in a jammy groove between the Black Crowes and the Band.

Fitz & the Tantrums took the stage with conviction to get the crowd moving. Mostly, it worked as the band placed about four new songs in their set of R&B pop, which gets its unique twist from a heavy 80s New Romantic pop influence. There’s at least two potential radio hits that the band unveiled last night, so 2013 may just be the year this California band kicks it into high gear.

The day’s highlights came not in a big event room like the Austin Music Hall, but back in the dive bars where SXSW made its true name. North Carolina’s Spider Bags killed it with their booze-rock anthems delivered with a conviction that comes from late nights and rough mornings.

Detroit legend Timmy Vulgar brought a hook-filled clarity to his pummeling garage punk, tempering his spaced-out side to directly rock out gems like “Cats on the Moon” and “Bouncing Boobies” with his latest project, Timmy’s Organism. 

The night’s best was a band that I’ve seen evolve over the years at SXSW. Indiana miscreants TV Ghost first appeared as high schoolers playing twisted post-punk slathered in hautned keys and anchored by the possessed force of singer Timothy Gick. It’s interesting seeing oddball punk kids grow up into their potential and that’s what TV Ghost seems to be doing. 

Gick is now the towering center of the band, a truly disturbing frontman that’s hard to take your eyes off of as he writhes and squirms on the floor. He chants his songs like an exorcism, while his band has become a more layered, polished, punishing outfit behind him. They were once odd and intriguiing, now they are creating deeply weird and essential music.

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