So I did it. I went back to SXSW, after saying in 2016 I thought it would be my last one because it had become too busy. But this one was different from my last visit. I was really ready for a break and was willing to accept difficulties moving around. But in the intervening years, the number of free events has been reduced, leaving SXSW crowded but not overcrowded.
I managed to catch around 150 artists this time. It felt like I caught far fewer bands than in previous years. Some of my ‘core’ day parties had shifted to Rainey Street and I always seemed to be up at 6th and I didn’t feel like heading down there to find queues. Plus, I managed to get some nasty blisters during SXSW Interactive so decided to take it easier. Going on my step count, where one year it hit about 230,000, this year I was down at ‘only’ 150,000 steps. So I did far less walking.
The most unusual thing about this SXSW this year was there wasn’t a buzz around the place. There weren’t any rumours of big bands playing secret shows. There was no Jack White turning up in his mobile shop. There wasn’t Prince turning up. There weren’t rumours of Paul McCartney playing with Dave Grohl. And there wasn’t anything as big as Obama turning up during Interactive. There also appeared to be less rap at the festival. I suspect the lower buzz kept away the Spring Breakers who usually turn up looking to hit the free events causing the overcrowded streets……
…….And SXSW was all the better for being quieter.
It felt like the year where there was the best opportunity to find new bands and to catch the bands who are just starting to create a buzz without being distracted by the big names and queues to get in venues. In fact, it was pretty easy to get into most venues.
This year I’d tried to get a photo pass. Sadly, as I don’t photograph for anyone, it proved impossible. I had hoped that I would be allowed to take my Sony A7iii into venues as the guidance on SXSW website says that none professional cameras are allowed. I assumed that most door staff would let it through because it’s clearly not a big professional SLR. Unfortunately, it turned out so many of the US togs were using Sony’s that I was quickly rumbled and ended up leaving it my hotel room. I instead dragged around an old Sony NEX6 with terrible autofocus, so the quality of the shots in this blog post reflect the fact that I was often manually focusing while drunk. It’s far easier being a drunk dancing photographer with my Sony A7iii! So the quality of my photos was lower than my normal standard, but using old gear meant I wasn’t too concerned about it getting damaged or lost.
Most days followed a similar pattern. I would hit either the conference centre to catch an early performance or head to the Paramount, Stateside or Alamo cinemas for a film or documentary. Then it was off to my favourite venue, the British Music Embassy to watch an early band and grab a free lunch.
The evenings followed a similar pattern. I would usually identify the bar with the earliest official performance – usually BD Riley’s. Then bounce between ‘pins’ in the schedule catching some of the bands I know or wanted to see. The aim to catch as much new and varied music as possible. If the performer wasn’t interesting, it was a case of moving on to the next venue.
While Rainey has all the ‘cool’ bars and often had the bigger artists. 6th Street and Red River continue to be my preferred stomping ground. There’s a good twenty venues you can usually bounce around in the space of half a mile and moving up Red River was always pretty easy as the crowds tended to stick to 6th Street.
I’ve included a list of the performers I know I saw. For the majority, I saw at least one song from them. For some of the UK bands who I knew I could catch at home, I often left after half a set to try and catch somebody else.
So who were my highlights.
Top of the tree were a ‘home band’. A band from my home town. Avalanche Party. I’ve seen them several times in London. They put on a very good show and I wanted them to see some home support. Us Teessiders stick together. I had intended to only see them once but then I bumped into some of the band members casing out Valhalla the night before their set and felt I should make the effort. I was really glad I did, the second show was as explosive as their first. I really hope they see some traction from SXSW.
I had several bands on my list. Bands who I’ve been listening to their album but not had a chance to catch as they rarely tour the UK. Priests, Illuminati Hotties, The Beths and French Vanilla were on my list. Priests and The Beths have toured the UK but I’ve never managed to catch them.
French Vanilla played what has become one of my favourite venues, Cheer Up Charlies. I caught a few bands play there during SXSW and found the staff to be really friendly and it had a nice relaxed vibe. French Vanilla weren’t relaxed. The lead singer Sally Splitz bounded around the stage taking us through a set that had me dancing.
Priests are a band I had heard great things about from friends who caught their London shows. Playing in the early afternoon sun in leather trousers, probably wasn’t the wisest decision the lead singer made (and she said so). But the whole band were excellent. I have to admit, I was surprised by their guitarist. I wasn’t expecting him to be as limber as he is. At times he was like a ballerina with a guitar. They were so good, I immediately ordered a ticket to their 100 Club gig in May.
Sadly, despite many good reviews from friends who had seen them during their UK tour just before SXSW, the Beths did very little for me. The songs I heard were bland and the performance not that exciting and I moved on after a few songs.
There were two hyped UK and Irish bands, that I wanted to catch before they got big. Fontaine’s DC and Black MIDI. SXSW is often a good place to catch home bands in small venues.
So many of my current favourite bands are what we tend to lazily call ‘post-punk’ . If any band deserves that description it’s Fontaine’s DC. Their lead singer paces around the stage with a detached stare that many have compared to Ian Curtis. I can see why. They have driving riffs and rhythms and at times almost anthemic lyrics. Often the lyrics are pure poetry. They’re a really good band live and the audience at the early afternoon show at the Mohawk, knew they’d seen a new great band. They also had the most memorable lyric of the week. ”Dublin in the rain is mine. A pregnant city with a Catholic mind”. A definite highlight. They’re going to be big.
Black MIDI are a different case. It’s not easy to categorise their genre. Some have called it art-rock. To me, they sound like they grew up listening to Primus with vocals that at times are sung so quickly that they sound like gibberish. The lads, all with black ‘x’s on their hands, are too young to drink in Texan bars. But play with a maturity far beyond their years. The drummer is pretty amazing, with an almost jazz like style. Apparently the boys are graduates of the Brit School. While, it’s generally produced pop artists and actors, in the last few years, there seems to have been a few indie performers appearing. These lads are setting the bar very high for future Brit school graduates.
The week continued to throw up surprises. I almost moved on to a new venue when I saw a band called T-Rextasy, assuming they were a T-Rex cover band. Thankfully I didn’t and saw a brilliant performance.
One evening, I decided to grab a pint to rest my weary feet, and caught Bizou. A band featuring a former Smashing Pumpkin. Excellent they were too. It’s these little surprises that makes SXSW for me. As you’ll see from my list. A significant proportion of the bands I saw, were new.
One band I caught several times was Gurr. They’re one of my favourite live bands, playing infectious music that always makes me feel twenty years younger. It’s the same feeling I get every time I put on Teenage Kicks. I think everyone needs a band like that in their life. Gurr are mine.
I also took the opportunity to catch lots of bands I’ve seen before. London band the Abjects, are always good value. The Joy Formidable are regulars at SXSW and although they played a short set at the British Music Embassy, still a great live band. Then there were bands like Teen. A band I always seem to play SXSW the years I’m there. They’ve become a tradition.
I’ve not yet discovered the best way to tackle SXSW Music. I always want to discover great new bands that become part of my life. So I rush around between venues, savouring little bits. I guess to me, SXSW is the Tapas of music festivals. I love the randomness of moving between Chinese electronica, to a punk band in the next door venue.
I know many, tackle the festival as a ‘greatest hits’ festival, researching every band possible moving around on a strict timetable. I suspect no matter which way you tackle it, SXSW is the marathon of festivals.
I guess no matter which way you approach the festival, by the end I think everyone is tired and ready to head home. However, as in 2016, I decided to stick around on the Sunday. Heading to Beerland for their annual post-festival all-dayer. Sadly, I also wasted an hour walking in over to Waterloo Records to see Arthur Brown, but when I got there I found he’d cancelled. (I figure he’s not got many more years left before he calls it a day). But it was clearly the place to be, as both Steve Lamacq and Huw Stephens were catching the Wants before catching their flights home.
Last time I visited Austin, I said I didn’t think I would be back. The cost cripples me for 18 months and last time felt just too busy. This time, it felt right. I’m not really sure what was different this year. I do SXSW on my own. I hate living our of other people’s pockets. I do SXSW my way. But this year there were quite a few people I knew attending. Although I didn’t arrange to meet any of them, I guess it felt more like my usual London scene, with friends around the corner, which meant I often bumped into people I knew. I think this helped make the event more relaxing. I think having the extra few days also meant that I was more ready. In fact I had such a good time this time, I know I will be back. I’ll have to pay this one off first. So sadly it won’t be next year. But SXSW 2021 watch out. I’m coming back.
Listed below are bands I know I caught. If they’re listed in bold, they’re a band I liked. If they’re in italics, they’re a band I’ve seen before.
Abjects, Alex Riegelman & Friends, Annabelle Chairlegs, Andy, Anemone, Another Sky, Anna Altman, Aquarium Blood, Avalanche Party
Balium, Bambara, Bane’s World, BBQT , Beshken, Big Joannie, Big Phony, Bizou , Black Belt Eagle Scout, Black MIDI, Blank Tapes, Blinders, Bloods, Bones Garage, Bruisey Reed
Calico Blue, Chkbns , Christine Su, Cosmic, Crucifixion Nails
Daniel Brandt, Das Body, Deeper, Desert, Devon Mulvaney , DJ Confucius Jones, Doofus, Dyldo & the Darlins
Fathersons, Fontaines DC, Florry, Fragile Rock, Frankie and the Witch Fingers, French For Rabbits, French Vanilla, Frosty Palms
Geowulf, Glove, Gold Cage, Gravy’s Drop, Gurr
HÆLOS, Haley Heynderickx
Illumanti Hotties, I know Leopard
Japanese Breakfast, Jess Williamson, John Paul White, John Wesley Coleman, Jonathan, Jonathan Bree, Juiceboxxx, Jvcki Wai
La Mojarra Electrica, Late, Lia Lia, Lilly, Lucia, Lovelorn
Mavi Phoenix, Magnolia, Merry Jane & The Fondas, Minke, Monstruos del Mañana , Moonwalks, Mr Jimmy, Munya, My Life as Ali Thomas, Murray A. Lightburn
‘Oddonis, Oddonis’, Oh Pep!, Orchards, Otoboke Beaver
Pearl and the Oysters, Phony Pppl, Pip Blom, Pleasure Venom, Priests, Prom Threat, Pscience, Public Practice, Puma Blue
Raquel, Ratboys, ROE, Rose Ette
Saint PHNX, Sam Eagle, Say Sue Me, Scott Yoder, Seazoo, Shy Boys, Skull Shaker, Sofia Portanet, Soft Kill, Sophia Johnson, Sorry Girls, Spendtime Palace, Spiral Stairs, Squid, Stereogirl, Stitched Up, Sun-Sahara, Surfbort, Sweet Spirit
Taco Mouth, Teen, Terminal A, The Beths, The Bright Light, The Brummies, The Chills, The Dunts, The Flytraps, The Fur, The Joy Formidable, The Medium, The Munsens, The Other End, The Small Glories, The Soul Notes, The Upside Down, The Wants, Think No Think, Thumpasauraus, THYLA, T-Rextasy, Twen, Tyson Meade
Vaarwell,Veronica Bianqui, Viagra Boys, Vonne
WAAX, Wand, Warmdusher, Warm Human, Wet Dreams, whenyoung, Wild Moccasins, Worn-Tin
Yola, Yves Jarvis