Thee Satisfaction; Courtney Love with Hole Credit: Jessica Hopper; Megan Holmes

More than 1,800 acts played this year’s South by Southwest, and that’s not even counting all the unofficial events—including several small anti- or parallel festivals—happening all over Austin. I saw about 20 and overheard dozens more spilling from outdoor concerts as I walked from party to showcase to in-store. Often I caught a song here or there simply because I was waiting on the curb for the traffic signal to change.

My rounds started last Wednesday afternoon. I hit a fourth-floor conference room at the Austin Convention Center to check out MNDR, aka Brooklyn producer and singer Amanda Warner, whose recent Empty Bottle show I’d missed. The convention-center sets are probably the weirdest you’ll see at SXSW—or at least the ones that give you the clearest sense you’re at an industry gathering. The cavernous, carpeted room had a snack kiosk and a lounge with twin bed-size pillows, where patrons could recline among potted plants and use the free wi-fi. (I would go to way more shows if I could lie down, eat a soft pretzel, and check my e-mail.) But MNDR belongs in a stadium, opening for Rihanna—she’s Jumbotron ready. The air-conditioned room was no match for her hi-NRG techno-pop heat. Her glasses fell off while she was whipping her head around, but she caught them and passed it off as a dance move. A few rows behind me a kid with a mohawk yelled “Bring it, bitch!” but it had already been brought.

Later that afternoon I ventured off SXSW’s main drag—only just beginning to acquire its odoriferous crust of piss and puke—to Book People, Austin’s big indie bookstore. Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance of Superchunk, co-owners of Merge Records, were reading from their new book, Our Noise, which chronicles their 20 years of DIY success. (In the interest of full disclosure, we share a book publisher.) In between they played acoustic versions of Superchunk songs and covers from the Merge catalog (Magnetic Fields, Spoon, Butterglory). When I got there they were doing “Driveway to Driveway” for 16 people—I hadn’t seen them play such an intimate show since 1991, when they were touring behind their first album.

Wednesday night I took a cab into residential Austin, hoping to see teen Tampa booty-bass MC Dominique Young Unique in the parking lot of the Flannel Annex, an arts center a couple miles northeast of downtown. Instead I caught 20 minutes—three songs—of Brooklyn trio Prince Rama of Ayodhya, whose regrettable Photoshopped promo photo has them doing yoga on flying God’s eyes in front of the Sphinx. They were awesome, though—brain-frying electro-prog with a stand-up drummer pushing the synths. After their set ended and everyone started leaving, the girls manning the keg kindly informed me that I was a day early for Dominique’s show.

At that point I realized that I’d failed to give much thought to how I’d be getting back into the city. I’m five months pregnant, so the prospect of hoofing it for 2.6 miles (thanks, otherwise useless Google Maps!) at 10 PM on a school night was daunting. But the buses were running every half hour and I’d just missed one, so I started walking. I kept passing little concerts in yards and garages—it was like John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” except the parties were louder and I was sober. I stopped at a backyard rap show for a few minutes. I don’t know who was playing, but they were angry about not being rich and they loved Austin. Me too, I thought.

After an hour of this sort of thing, I finally caught a bus, though I still wasn’t sure where to get off. A few minutes later I saw a bunch of cool-looking kids massing in a parking lot and decided this might as well be my stop—the crowd turned out to be for a showcase by Chicago’s HoZac label. I was just in time to see the Fresh & Onlys from San Francisco, who sound chiming and poppy on their records but turned out to be nihilistic and scuzzed-out live. Word had just gotten around about Alex Chilton’s death, and people were tipping out 40-ouncers on the blacktop for him.

On Thursday I parked at the Kill Rock Stars party for the afternoon and saw a bit of new signees Grass Widow, an all-female Bay Area trio whose angular pop reminded me of the Au Pairs. Up next was Viv Albertine, who’s returned to the fray almost 30 years after her band the Slits broke up. I like her new recordings—they’re naive and fuzzy—but her SXSW pickup band was clearly unrehearsed and her between-song banter was like reading your mom’s boozy postdivorce Facebook updates. “Dating when you are my age is hard,” she said. “You know, I just can’t do the whole ‘hookup’ thing. I know it would be easier if I just started waxing my legs.” Please. Just. Stop.

Another recent KRS signing, Explode Into Colors, brought the dance party and a crowd. Onstage they’re a funky machine—main drummer Lisa Schonberg is locomotive. I would’ve gone to their other eight shows in Austin if I’d been able.

Nonetheless I skipped out on the end of their set to catch Thee Satisfaction, a female hip-hop duo from Seattle, three blocks away—their show was already four hours late getting started, and I’d been checking back every half hour all day to make sure I didn’t miss it. If I’d known how amazing they were going to be—ultraskilled, Afrocentric, feminist, queer, and both funny and fun—I would’ve been willing to wait in a Porta-Potty the whole time. I know my description strings together the good parts with stuff that isn’t exactly enticing—normally I wouldn’t get out of bed for Seattle hip-hop, not even if the show was in my living room—but they do it so right it gave me chills. Those of you who’ve been hoping for hip-hop to go from no-homo to pro-homo, this could be the group that makes it happen. Thee Satisfaction are sort of like Erykah Badu split into two ladies (one for the rapping side, one for the singing side) and sort of like teen reggae team Althea & Donna. They rapped about seducing your girl right off your arm (“Bisexual”), kicked out a summery party starter built on a sample of Anita Baker’s “Real Love,” and cooed about what “bad bitches” they are. I’m hard-pressed to think of any badder.

Friday afternoon, though, I saw another bona fide bad bitch just a few blocks away: Courtney Love and the reconstituted Hole played their first show in America. (“Reunited” would be too strong a word, since the new lineup is all hired guns.) They opened with a medley: “Pretty on the Inside,” the title track from Hole’s 1991 debut; the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”; and “Skinny Little Bitch,” the lead single from Nobody’s Daughter, due in April. Love was in proving mode, knowing that most of the audience was hoping for an ugly, immodest spectacle. To her credit, she denied them that. But the set was uneven. The old material, with its discordant thrust and loud-quiet-loud drama, still suited her voice best—and the audience, pumped to hear it, sang along. The new material, save for “Skinny Little Bitch,” fell flat: heads went down (time to tweet about the guitarist’s top hat), beer lines doubled, crowd chatter almost overpowered the band. A song about a highway started out sounding like No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” and wound up getting more and more Velvet Revolver as it wore on. Love took some cheap shots at Poison’s Bret Michaels, but it seemed like she was trying to beat him at his own power-ballad game. A lot of the new songs felt samey and overbroad, without the ups and downs that made the old ones work—something that may be partly the fault of new guitarist Micko Larkin, who’s young and British and thus presumably grew up under the delusion that Oasis was a band worth emulating. Love’s between-song banter was strained and obvious, a kind of potty-mouthed kabuki clearly intended to reestablish what we already know: she’s as nasty as she wants to be.

That night I hit the showcase hosted by Chicago PR firm Biz 3 in an attempt to catch rapper Freddie Gibbs, the mix-tape king of Gary, Indiana. I arrived an hour early and caught Salem, who apparently deploy a grown woman as an onstage prop. It was like watching my rural Indiana cousins’ Oxycontin-dealer buddies having a cipher, too high to do anything wittier than rhyme “bitch” with “bitch.” Then came Diplo’s latest protege, Maluca, who had a kind of Rhythm Nation take on Caribbean bounce. Next I was expecting Gibbs, but talent-free fake French girl and nonrapping rapper Uffie took the stage, which was such a harsh toke I chose to leave.

I waddled down the street to the Aquarius Records showcase and caught Sonny & the Sunsets, a bright, happy pure-pop band from San Francisco fronted by Sonny Smith (who made 2006’s Fruitvale with Leroy Bach and a bunch of other Chicagoans) and featuring Kelley Stoltz on bass. They were an unexpected delight and a much-needed palate cleanser—their live show, compared to their records, was more upbeat Buddy Holly and less dreamy Crosby, Stills & Nash. Plus Sonny Smith was dressed the way my dad used to on weekends in 1985 (faded black jeans, white shoes, smallish sweatshirt), and without a shred of irony warned the audience not to smoke pot. Good advice—drugs can lead to you to do bad things, like join Salem.

Saturday bright and early (OK, at 1:30 PM), I finally managed to catch Dominique Young Unique. She went on after Pasadena producer and singer Dam-Funk, who plays a kind of 80s-style electro R & B. “I’m still waking up,” he sang through a vocoder, “but it’s gonna be a good show.” Dominique is downright Amazonian and had to yank up the top of her skintight minidress every few seconds to keep her boobs covered. She did her best to command the crowd of maybe two dozen—mostly white rock-critic dudes with their eyes popping out of their heads—but her live show was rough and disappointing. Her singsong rapping is more like hyper yelling, and it’s obvious she’s used to feeding off the energy of a bigger, less hungover audience. She kept stopping songs and yelling for us to “have fun”—she’d look out at her meager crowd, most of us squinting up at her in the daylight, and crack up. We must’ve been a sight.