Why Bother For Another Music Fest?
Story, photos & videos by Jason Gross
"So, what do you think of SXSW now...?" a Pedi cab driver asked when I mentioned I'd been there to see the Austin, Texas festival since '99. Maybe he expected me to unload on how crowded and commercial it's become, instead I said that I still loved it despite those things.
No amount of corporate sponsorship and spill over crowds from unofficial shows and home-steading U of T students changes the variety, breadth and well-organized clockwork of the shows (whose set-times you could set your watch by). Not to mention the warm weather, amazing food (recommended: Cooper's BBQ, Manuel's), the chance to meet and network with fellow music nuts from across the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, plus the great Mexican art that a Day of the Dead fan like me can load up on (recommended: Mexic-Arte Museum). Then there's the panels, which included good ones on L.A. punk, the Ramones and Ardent records, plus the one that I moderated about the possibility of the music we love disappearing decades from now, along with NPR's Ann Powers, the Rock and Rol Hall of Fame Museum's Andy Leach, the Grammy Foundation's Scott Goldman and Omnivore Recordings' Cheryl Pawelski. And then there were the keynotes with our U.S. president (which I would have loved to see) plus a later one with Queen Latifah interviewing Michelle Obama and Missy Elliott.
That's not even mentioning the wonderfully inexplicit things that you see around Austin otherwise- a sign at a BBQ joint saying "Please check your gun before entering" (which mysteriously disappeared after a day), a chair made of cow horns, a flyer looking for a missing piñata, a llama being led around the streets and a Vader-like figure jamming on guitar at the gear expo.
Is it any wonder that the New York Times music writers said that they'd take a pass on the likes of Coachella and Bonnaroo but did file reports from SX (I ran into NYT writer Jon Pareles several times there).
The Interactive portion didn't have any breakout apps this time and my lack of access to the Film portion cut me out of a number of premieres but I had more than my share of music- about 70 acts seen at about three dozen venues, which is a lotta walking even if most clubs are concentrated on/around 6th Street. Still, when you consider that there were over 2000 acts there, covering everything from punk to electronica to rap to gospel to reggae to country to blues, I only saw less than four percent of the offerings, though it should be noted that since the horrible vehicular manslaughter incident in 2014, SXSW events, in terms of size and number, have been scaled back a bit since then, along with increased police presence and more barricades along the main strip of 6th Street.
Along with thrill of seeing the First Lady, you can get a little star-struck by seeing some of the biggest acts like Iggy Pop (who did a great Stooge-less set with Josh Homme), Lorreta Lynn (who's still got it at age 83), techo legend Ritchie Hawtin (who converted an agnostic like me with his multi-climax DJ act) and Ghostface Killah (who shared some Wu Tang classics and new material). But what makes the SXSW music of a piece is all of the stuff that you discover otherwise. True, if you're in any big city, lots of these acts will come to you eventually but because of geographics/touring/etc. not all of them will (even to NYC). Plus, outside of a festival like SXSW, how often are you actually going to make the effort to see dozens of these bands otherwise when they come around? Having a festival wristband or badge means that you can run around and sample and try them out in a small area in a way that would be almost impossible otherwise.
In that spirit, here's over two dozen SXSW acts that I saw and loved who should be better known, which means that I hope you'll check 'em out, OK?
Was curious to see if this London dance-pop duo could back up strong singles like "You Know You Like It" and "I'm in Control." Thanks to dynamic singer Aluna Francis, they could do it and make you believe that you'd want to hear their next full album (coming out late April).
Take three singing Tel Aviv sisters and add a Rai-type groove that you'd expect to hear from Chab Mami or Cheb Khaled (which makes sense since their North Africa locale is close to Israel) and you have an inspired Middle Eastern dance fusion. Their just-released EP Habib Galbi is jaunty fun but live, the Haim family really brings the funk.
Along with their lovely, why-didn't-I-think-of-that name, this L.A. duo concocted the best, catchiest dance-pop fusion I saw, except maybe for AlunaGeorge (see above) or Sofi Tukker (who featured guitar and a double-sided stand-up electronic drum kit). Though BK's specialties are remixes and tracks featuring other vocalists, they held their own own and then some with an enticing range of beats/samples/melodies. One complaint- BK's Adam Novodor couldn't stop chiding the late night crowd for not being pumped up enough. Didn't he know what we'd seen several acts before that?
This Brooklyn folkie-punk has a sound that recalls the wonderful Kimya Dawson but a nice wry/dry wit added on top of that, plus all of the heart that you'd hope for and want. Example? "How many of you know a post-op trans person?" the crowd was asked (or so I thought). "Well, now you do!" Cheers ensued.
There's a breezy quality to this indie pop/rock band that makes it seem right that they're from Santa Cruz but that doesn't mean they're airheads- Christina Riley knows how to craft catchy tunes that stay with you. They even made me track down their mersh person through the club until I could buy their new CD, Back on my Wall, where they run through 12 tunes in a breezy 26 minutes and manage to make romantic doubt sound like fun.
A Gothamite like me didn't appreciate her dissing Brooklyn where she recorded her recent record and true, the area's too trendy now but still... Nevertheless, this L.A. folkie has an amazing, ethereal voice that transcends any Coastal rivalry.
For those of us who were already fans of this rockin' party girl (known for writing but not having a hit with "I Love It" aka "I Don't Care"), it was interesting to see her transform to a dance diva here with the help of expert DJ Sophie (known for the wonderful kiddie pop of "Lemonade"). Sure, she's more well known that the other acts here but not nearly as well-known as she should be in the pop/dance stakes- in a fair world, she'd be a threat to Robyn (who's also great) if not Be herself.
Was kind of agonistic about this Toronto indie rock quartet who seemed to have more press-love than real heft behind them but Katie Monks is a helluva frontwoman, bringing grit, anger and forcefulness to her songs and not beneath getting a good-luck fist bump before the show.
If there's one thing that this Providence band does, it's wearing heart-sleeve shirts- they call themselves a "Bi bilingual political dance sax punk party" and call their latest album Full Communism. Singer Victoria Ruiz brings her fury in your face, literally, jumping into the crowd and shouting right into your noggin. Not 'hardcore' per se but righteous and full of fury and what's more punk than that?
Seeing them up close, this Sarajevo, Bosnia band looks more like a soccer club than a band- it's the matching yellow sport shirts plus the rowdy (but not mean-spirited) atmosphere that drives their ska/gypsy/punk sound, but it's also the high energy theatrics that makes you want to cheer along with their team. They're nice (and smart) enough to offer their new album as a free download (see link above) but you really lose some of the energy and spirit of their music not seeing them live.
What I loved about this L.A. femme indie guitar crew wasn't just the tunes but their unapologetic commitment to six-string noise. They had (several) fuzz boxes and knew how to use them. Wish I loved their self-released, self-titled recent record more but their energetic stage act is something to behold, especially with some Sonic Youth-like dramatic flourishes- see the poorly lit video above for evidence.
If you side-eye modern country for its slavering rock/pop ambitious (I'm only a booster for Paisley, Lambert, Monroe myself), this wonderful throwback, whose band sports chaps and cowboy hats is a breath of fresh honky tonk. Plus, he's from Texas City, Texas- how much more authentic can you get than that?
This Houston rapper's Big Grrl Small World was so catchy that I was amazed that it wasn't on more people's radar. She managed to up the ante with her live act, which featured two dancers (one gloriously full figured, just like Liz herself) plus the quadruple threat of Sophia Eris, who serves as DJ, rapper, singer and dancer (if you told me she also did nuclear physics and invasive surgery too, I'd believe it), plus she has an upcoming solo project you should look out for. Liz herself is heard on the soundtrack to the upcoming Barbershop sequel.
Was always curious but not much more about this L.A. experimental weirdo and his mixtapes but seeing him live was something of a revelation. Even though he was winging it at times, searching for beats/samples, when he did find the right sound and off-kilter groove, he rode on it and got impassioned enough about each song or fragment to make you believe that he knew exactly what he was doing.
MONTANA OF 300
After a disappointed label showcase for Stones Throw (which featured most un-necessary interruptions and patter than a GOP debate), it was a relief to see this Chicago rapper and his overly enthusiastic posse on stage simply getting down to the business of rockin' the house. The energy was so palpable with almost a dozen boosters bouncing around, you were amazing that the whole bandstand didn't collapse.
Athens, GA is known as the home to various indie, new wave and Southern rock legends but some day it might also be known as the birthplace of this twisted post punk revival ensemble, who earned the right to open for Krautrock legends Faust in their (MB's) hometown. It's not just Joshua Evan's yelped vocals but also the twangy, driving guitars that make them go.
Singers Laura and Kjersten were in constant motion, even doing stretching exercises before this Dallas punk group unleashed their set. Granted, the Hotel Vegas Volstead stage is tiny but they still needed the front part of the crowd area to exercise their grrl impulses.
Was confused by this Nashville rocker as I loved a previous show I'd seen him do but was let down by his recent album. Just to see if I was right, I took a chance again and was glad that I did. On record, he tries too hard and gets too arty when he should play it cool but he makes no mistakes about that live, which is where you need to see him.
OK, you have every right to laugh at the idea of a French band that merges downhome blues and hiphop and includes religious overtones in there. But somehow, it works. Maybe it's Slim Paul's incisive bottleneck guitar or Antibiotik's impassioned raps (en Francais) or maybe it's the combo of the two and the audacity of the concept that they manage to pull off.
Talkable point is that this Scottish band's singer/guitarist/leader Nye Todd is transgender (laughingly noting that it started out with dated guys who turned out to be gay) but what makes this School worth attending is the indelible songs they come up with, sometimes explicitly about the trans world, and driven in no small party by their supposedly "shy and retiring," tattoo-ridden drummer Niall McCamley. Check out the wonderful Try To Be Hopeful (whose cover featuring a blackened, vomiting skeleton), released last year on Fortuna! Pop.
With NOFX's seeming contempt for their audiences (esp. at SXSW), I was kinda squeamish about going to their label showcase but this San Fran quartet was worth seeing. Sure it helps that Jack Dalrymple is a dreamy-looking long-haired singer but it wouldn't mean squat if they didn't have the amped up Chuck Berry riffs to sail on and the sing-a-long songs to go along with them. Made me wanna buy their album but not to stick around for 'FX.
I'm a sucker for anything remotely sounding like shoegaze so latching onto this Baltimore band was a no brainer. Unlike many revival bands, they have the actual songs to back it up, helped especially by the effects/echo-driven vocals of Lauren Shusterich and the guitar noise expertise of Joe Trainor.
This Niger guitarist, in the Desert Blues camp, is a marvel worth seeing multiple times- included down here just 'cause you should known him already (hint, hint).
- DJ Paypal
Great DJ set but because of what might have been confused scheduling, I'm actually not sure if it was Mexican DJ Lao instead (especially since Paypal is usually incognito and this guy wasn't)
- House of Kenzo
This San Antonio crew calls itself a 'multidisciplinary art collective with foundations in dance," and that's what they were- three of them were dressed as flowers in giant pots with soil and you could go up and water them (which I did). The ambient/abstract music in the background was effective but almost besides the point by then.
- Robot Koch
Was hoping for a more ambient vibe with this Berlin DJ but with a sprightly singer in tow (who jumped up on the DJ table at one point), he ably engaged a Euro-trash crowd.
- Sega Bodega
This UK DJ is a self-described "beautiful human being" (hell, that's his whole description on his SXSW page) and with his fluttery melodies and echoed abstractions, he might well be.
Stumbled across the NYC punk band while waiting for another act and was glad I did- they have a nice amateurish, snotty quality to them that's endearing while also cultivating an arty side (they're fans of No Wave and Steve Reich).
- Yonatan Gat
Only caught the tail-end of this punk/free jazz blast of noise happening in the middle of the crowd (àla Lightning Bolt) but even from what I little heard, they were incredibly corrosive.
ALSO SEE THIS SPOTIFY PLAYLIST OF ALMOST OF ALL THE BANDS LISTED ABOVE
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