Another South by Southwest (SXSW) has come and gone, leaving a wake of fuzzy memories, ringing ears and a few triumphant “finds” to keep us listening for another year.
Even as music festivals are growing in popularity across the country, SXSW, which is in fact a conference not a festival, holds a special place in the musical landscape, providing a forum for acts and bands of all sizes and degrees of notoriety to perform their latest creations in the hopes of drawing the attention of someone, or everyone. Prince played. Justin Timberlake played. And, thousands of other bands played, too, in over a hundred clubs in and around Austin, TX for five days in March.
Clearly, it’s impossible to see every band, so a strategy is required. My focus was to see bands I’ve never seen before over acts or bands I’ve seen, or would see soon in DC. To prepare, I listened to as many SXSW bands in advance as I could, which was about 175. That resultant list, augmented by other sources, guided my decision making over the course of the festival. But serendipity and attachment to some of my favorites played a role, too. All in all, I saw 60 bands over 5 days.
Still, despite best-laid plans, for some line-ups, you simply have to change your strategy. Thursday night’ Belmont Warner Sound Nikon showcase was one such night, and as a whole, accounts for my favorite overall night. The lineup? Guards, Surfer Blood, Atlas Genius, Frightened Rabbit, The Joy Formidable and The Flaming Lips. A strong bill that was the perfect mix of beloved bands and new contenders. The Belmont isn’t a large club and the line wrapped around the block, preventing many people from getting in that night, but fortune (in the form of a badge and some kind Austin friends who let me in the line) helped me find my way to the front of the stage.
Guards were dressed slightly formally which suited their dark pop sound. Surfer Blood lead singer John Paul Pitts emerged with a cat’s face painted on his own. Atlas Genius charmed with their infectious single Trojans. Frightened Rabbit sweat it out like the miserably overdressed Scots they were. Alt-J stood almost still while their music undulated through the crowd. The Joy Formidable woke everyone up with irrepressible energy and interaction with the crowd. And Wayne Coyne simply owned us, playing the tiny club as if it was the largest stadium audience possible. By the end of the show, everyone was left shaking, vibrating and shivering, but utterly content. In other words: It was MAGIC.
Over the course of that evening, The Joy Formidable’s interactions with the crowd led to the second most memorable moment of SXSW. Ritzy Bryan’s energy spread throughout the crowd, creating converts and reconfirming the adoration of those already in love. She ventured off the stage, straight into the audience, mixing in, saying hello. Her band mate Rhydian Dafydd followed suit, and in a crazy moment, handed his bass to the guy standing next to me and INSISTED he play it. The guy looked at Dafydd, looked at the bass and with a smile of glee, started picking out notes as the crowd around us went wild - and I got hit in the head by the bass a few times as I frantically tried to shoot a few pictures from underneath it. WOW. Anyone catch the webcast?
Another memorable and distinctively SXSW moment happened late, late Friday night as I found myself watching the crowd bounce and thrash at DIIV at the Mohawk Indoor stage. The room was packed tight, so all I could do was hang at the door. I noticed the guys next to me were dressed so similarly I guessed they had to be in a band, and they were: Italian Brothers-In-Law, one of the artists I’d put on my preview disk. I’d missed their shows, but here they were, enjoying DIIV. I excitedly showed them my playlist with them on it, but unfortunately, they struggled with English and I have no Italian, so they handed communications over to an Irish band they were hanging out with, the Girls’ Names. Cathal, the lead singer, was ultimately so charming that I wished I’d met them or heard of them sooner.
Even though I couldn’t run into people I already know, I ran into both Brothers-in-Law and Girls’ Names the following night at the Parish, watching Mac Demarco try to have a breakdown. Or trying not to – it wasn’t clear which. It’s worth noting that watching bands with newly made friends is another SXSW’s many treasures.
But the real boon of the conference is the bands, bands, bands, and here are some of the higher highs that I took in over the rest of the weekend.
Broncho is another band that made my preview disk, and Friday night at Valhalla, they played a blistering set that threatened to bring the walls down, between the bass, the crowd dancing and the sweat. Broncho is straight forward, and the lead singer mostly stays put, singing with eyes closed, while the bass player thrashes around the stage. The show was perfect. Cathartic even. I wanted to grab everyone from the street and drag them in to let them know what they were missing.
Rhye What could you seriously anticipate? The released songs were quiet, sexy and delicate, but there was a Crying Game mystique about the performers. The lead singer of Rhye is a man, Mike Milosh, and not a man trying to hide his maleness in any way. That voice just comes out of him. Despite sound problems at the venue, Rhye maintained composure, with Milosh even ad-libbing lyrics while sound issues were resolved. By the end, even those who came just to observe the ‘next big thing’ were silent in awe. Lovely set.
TELEKINESIS Prior to his set, Michael Lerner was sort of hanging around Mohawk, probably not expecting to talk to me. But he did, spending a few words on the upcoming record and the tour. Twenty minutes later, he was on stage, completely comfortable with being front and center, leading an ensemble of musicians from his drum kit. He tore through songs from his catalog, including a new one. When someone sang along word for word to a new song, he was excited, telling the crowd the song wasn’t even released. A genuinely nice guy and great musician. At one point, Robin Hilton from NPR slid in beside me, and said, “I have no idea why this band is not bigger.” and he’s right.
Kelly Hogan Ms. Hogan walked by me before the show, and said, “I love your shoes!” If I could be more smitten, that would do it. But Hogan is really about her voice, wit and raw nerves when performing. In a simple t-shirt and rolled up jeans, she brought all the command and passion necessary to the Paste tent to take us on a tour of heartbreak and resolve. Needed to sit down after her set.
HAIM When Haim took the stage at Cedar Street, they joked that their application to SXSW had been turned down two years ago. This time, they owned the festival, even winning the inaugural Brent Grulke award for best developing U.S. act. While I'm not sure the award means anything, I've heard from friends that this band really has grown in the past two years, and appeared to have earned the recognition through hard work and tuneful songs. That said, HAIM rocked and should be on your list for to check out when they're in town next.
The Miracles of Modern Science at the Whiskey Room. It’s late Saturday, 10:00pm. Bands have played 4 or 5 sets, at least, over the last week. 6th Street is filled – jammed – to capacity, with many people there just being burned out, young and looking for a like crowd. Those that are there for the music are burned out too. After 5 days, lines and rumors sending the crowd here and there most people were just wanting to find a place to rest. I found myself rushing to fit in any last minute discoveries, or validations of previous experiences, hoping to fill in some blanks. I walk into a club I haven’t been to before and a band I saw last year takes the stage, if you can call that 6x6’ riser in the corner a stage. Crowded together, a cellist, a violinist, a guy playing standing base and one on mandolin play in front of a drummer as if it’s the first night and all of SXSW is in front of us. Their energy bounds off the stage and the guys in the audience in front of me turn to each other in surprise and delight at the discovery. Suddenly everyone remembers that this has been an awesome SXSW and this moment, crowded in the back of a bar of swaying people, embodies it all.
So much time before and at SXSW is invested in planning, RSVPing to buzz-y events and wondering how long the lines are going to be. In the end, moments and memories at SXSW happen unexpectedly, and this is a big detail. I’m sure that the NPR showcase featuring Nick Cave (among others) was amazing, and I’m sure it was a unique experience for those who got in it w, but it was one of those impossible events that seem to be popping up more and more at the conference. In fact you could only get in by winning a lottery.
But instead of dwelling on what I missed, I instead reflect on how great it was to see Lucius, Phosphorescent, and Foxygen (before they quit the festival) the same night. There’s really no way to go wrong in Austin in March, unless you headed to SXSW just to see Justin Timberlake. No offense JT, but there are so many, many other bands or acts to see - including probably, the next Justin Timberlake – that in the end it’s best to just buy the ticket and take the very loud, very exhausting, but very incredible ride wherever it may go.