Alabama Shakes
Credit: Bobby Longoria/Getty Images

Though it sometimes seems like this year’s South by Southwest Festival was designed to tap into ’90s nostalgia (Counting Crows are back, for some reason!) and let rappers relive the glory days (Mystikal and Busta Rhymes on the same bill! 50 Cent performing Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in full!), there are still bona-fide buzz bands filling Austin’s many bars, lounges, restaurants, and music halls with the songs that just may be the cornerstones of mixtapes six months from now.

Kimbra is a perfect example: The New Zealand-born sprite probably best known so far as the guest vocalist on Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” brought an excellent, eclectic mix of dance rhythms, theatrical piano pop, and epic rock.

“Love Is a Two Way Street” let her lace into some dreamy echo-rock harmonies, while “Old Flame” was an intense cabaret-rock burn that ran circles around anything from that Lana Del Rey album. But there’s plenty of jittery funk embedded in her DNA, too—with an album out on May 22, expect one of her songs (perhaps the blissfully danceable “Cameo Love,” which has already seduced millions of YouTube users and EW’s own Valentines Day playlist?) to be a dark horse entry in the Official Song of Summer 2012 Sweepstakes.

In fact, Wednesday night was a terrific showcase all around for strong, singular women. Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard may be the only member of her band with a reproductive system, but she is clearly the alpha star. She guided her group through the group’s swampy, upbeat talking blues. Single “Hold On” already feels like a familiar, lived-in classic, overflowing with bluesy charisma and froggy bass tones.

The snakey-sweet narrative of “Boys and Girls” also landed solidly, showing off the band’s growing dynamism. At the moment, some of their songs hang in the pocket a little too long, but the potential for radio chart-busting is strong in these ones. Best case scenario: They become My Morning Jacket (but with a woman on vocals). Worst case: They become the Black Crowes (but with a woman on vocals).

Before the Shakes, Sharon Van Etten smoked the same stage only a few hours earlier with her own version of late-night buzz. Her brand of amped-up folk rock has grown since her 2009 debut, and in a live setting, the best moments from her most recent album Tramp came off like throwbacks to mid-’90s fuzz merchants.

Her ability to maintain a steady grip on the noise is perhaps her best asset; even the hard and loud set-closer “Holding Out” left room for plenty of well-developed harmonies and an anthemic chorus. Van Etten and Alabama Shakes’ Howard actually have similar voices, blessed with clarity and steeped in rootsy power, but the former’s experience really allowed her to harness her instrument and fully integrate it into her band’s ever-shifting layers.

The only non-lady grabbing attention on Wednesday night? Dan Deacon, who played in between Van Etten and Alabama Shakes at the NPR showcase and confused everybody in the loudest, drum-heaviest way possible. Augmented by two dudes on the skins, Baltimore’s finest post-modern dance deity blew most of his truncated show setting up lighting gimmicks and trying to get people to engage in a dance contest.

Most disco kings would do well to dress up their beats with a few gimmicks, but Deacon’s compositions are so complex that the sideshow did him a disservice. He could learn a thing or two from the women surrounding him—sometimes, it just needs to be about the songs.

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