05/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Top Five Shows I Saw for Free at South by Southwest 2010

1. DâM-FunK. Friday, French Legation Museum

Dâm-FunK is a 38-year-old man from Leimert Park, Los Angeles with a phenomenal perm. He plays a keytar and sings into a vocoder; he riffs Prince-style over boogie-down beats that wouldn't sound out of place on albums by Parliament-Funkadelic, Zapp & Roger, or Rick James; he sings towards the sky and for the people, emphatically yet touchingly.

The French Legation Museum is a historic site -- "the oldest extant wood-frame structure in Austin." Its verdant, hilly lawn is walled off by stone; the house surrounded by short, white picket fences. On this specific day, the weather was warm yet tinged by a cool breeze. Spring was just then revealing itself, and purple flowers were escaping from their buds. The colors were bold and rich, accented by the absolutely impeccable weather.

Put these two together, and the competition is over.

2. NaS & Damian Marley. Wednesday, Levi's/Fader Fort.

The Levi's/Fader Fort is the closest thing to a ground zero for SXSW, due to its size and virtually limitless supply of free beer and SoCo/energy drink mixers. On Wednesday, the lineup included "Special Guests" at 7:30 PM.

The size of the crowd and the lighting helped, but it was mostly NaS's energy that carried his show. He tore through many of his most popular tracks, including "N.Y. State of Mind," "Nas Is Like," and especially "Made You Look," which made one audience member so excited that he dropped his cell phone mid-snapshot and didn't seem to care about picking it up. NaS and Marley performed a couple numbers from their forthcoming album, titled "Distant Cousins." Perhaps the excitement of the crowd and the hurried pace of the show clouded my judgment, but the previews were auspicious.

3. Liars/Vivian Girls. Thursday, Bar Deville.

Liars' new album, Sisterworld, reveals a quieter, more feminine direction for the presently L.A.-based art-rockers. But in concert, the songs were powered by noise and rhythm, a bass and additional guitar augmenting the trio. Consisting mostly of songs on Sisterworld and 2007's Liars, the band's set was muscular, powered by adrenaline and frontman Angus Andrew's 7-foot, wiry frame. Andrew frequently lunged his torso over the audience, his face's strain corresponding to the torturous subject matter of the songs, which often deal with insanity, murder, and paranoia. Vivian Girls' vocal harmonies are swathed in distorted guitars and booming drums. The composite was like a cool blast of wind flowing towards the audience, keeping everyone sedated in the mid-afternoon heat.

4. Matías Aguayo. Red 7, Wednesday.

Aguayo is a Chilean-born, Buenos Aires-based dance music artist. His album Ay Ay Ay, released last year on the German label Kompakt, is a mesmeric blend of techno beats, Latin percussion, and Tropicália-sounding melodies. Thing is, almost all of it is conducted by Aguayo's voice, from the percussion to the bass to the melodies.

Live, Aguayo looked like what a rock star might when he's not performing, with long hair tied back in a ponytail and an unshaven face. Standing over a table that balanced what seemed to have been turntables, a keyboard, and pedals, Aguayo slowly built loops of his voice over a varying selection of beats. Fluidly drifting from track to track, the songs were accented by sporadic percussive effects, each one sustained by echo. The combined sound was a uniquely dreamy funk.

5. The Moonhowlers. ATX Sports Bar, Wednesday.

After an inundation of fashionable young bands performing sundry music sporting outrageous genre tags, it's a breath of fresh air to sit down on an outdoor patio miles from the festival for a dusky, beer-filled set of rockabilly. The Moonhowlers' website, which is under construction, says little more than "It's Rockabilly Dammit!" That about sums it up. A trio consisting of standup bass and two electric guitars, the band nevertheless entertained less than a dozen audience members with rollicking rockabilly covers. The playing was tight and agile, the lead singer a hulking presence with slicked back greaser hair and a persistent beer gulp between numbers. It's possible that the band is little more than a novelty act, but at least they're not hiding behind the PR-filtered distractions of the festival's more prominent acts.