By Kyle Anderson
Updated March 15, 2012 at 11:50 PM EDT
Credit: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

The mtvU Woodie Awards will always be the bridesmaid to its older, bigger sister, the VMAs.

But a few years ago, MTV got the brilliant idea to move their annual celebration of indie music down to Austin during South By Southwest — and this year, they went ahead and turned the thing into a day-long festival, with more than a dozen artists performing across two different stages and plenty of free barbecue, beer, and popsicles (the three key elements of any balanced diet).

While Thursday night’s proper awards show was clearly designed as a prime-time dance party (Santigold, Steve Aoki, and chart-topping rapper Mac Miller — filling in for Childish Gambino, who pulled out with a foot injury like he was playing in March Madness — make up that lineup), the afternoon sets explored various nooks and crannies of music on the fringe. And most of it could probably find its way onto that other MTV awards show some day.

British folk-hopper Ed Sheeran got the afternoon started with a charming set of tunes from his already-U.K.-famous debut album + (yes, that’s the title). Wearing shorts and looking so pale it’s a wonder he didn’t immolate under the Texas sun, Sheeran could easily get by as a sad-eyed singer-songwriter — a drunker, British Jack Johnson, perhaps — but he has a knack for manipulating samplers and voice loops, various strums, a handful of rhythmic pounds on his guitar’s body, and even the audience. It’s a pretty astounding gimmick that may actually eclipse some of his delicately-crafted songs, especially “The A Team,” an acute narrative written as a tribute to a homeless girl Sheeran once met.

Sheeran also has quite a lightning tongue, and he showed off his rapping skills during the set-closing “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You,” on which he segues into 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” (coincidentally, Fiddy will in fact perform Get Rich Or Die Tryin‘ in its entirety at the festival this weekend) and spitting so fast it brought back memories of Letters to Cleo’s “Here and Now.”

A$AP Rocky, meanwhile, was in no such rush. The Harlem-based mixtape rapper first came up late last year with his guttural, hallucinogenic giveaway LiveLoveA$SAP, and he continued to pick up fans with the performances he dealt on Thursday afternoon. Rocky played it super cool as he stalked across the stage, constantly demanding the crowd get its hands up and letting his crisp flow wallow in the sludgy, bottom-heavy hum spewed forth by his DJ.

“Pretty Flacko” was an early favorite, full of aggression and vigor, and both Rocky and cohort Schoolboy Q turned rags-to-riches anthem “Brand New Guy” into a churning shout-along anthem. Rocky’s natural charisma cannot be understated; it’s refreshingly effortless. Sheeran clearly appreciates hip-hop history, but A$AP Rocky is the future.

In between those two guys, Kimbra came out to do a far different set than the one she ran through on Wednesday night. Rather than the traditional rock set-up from a few hours prior, her band stuck mostly to electronic instruments (one guy even played a borrowed iPad—and we knew it was borrowed because Kimbra had to ask its owner what the passcode was in between songs) and did what was essentially live remixing of some of her more robo-centric tunes—especially set-opening “Settle Down,” which she admitted that she was a little sick of (a problem unique to international artists, since her album Vows doesn’t come out in the United States until May but has been out in Australia and her native New Zealand since last summer).

Under these new circumstances, she came off less like a stylistic rocker chick and more like slightly less whimsical Bjork, enamored with the sounds of things. And like Sheeran, she also looped her own voice—apparently, warbling into a sampler is the new guitar solo.

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