This was a year of many firsts for me at the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas. For the first time in 12 years, I didn’t get a wristband, didn’t attend the entire week of events, and didn’t have any friends join me for the week of music madness. All of these firsts were a result of another first for me – my spring break from work didn’t line up with the music festival this year. After spending my actual spring break in San Diego with a friend (great beaches, great weather, and great beer), I didn’t think I’d attend the festival this year due to money, work, and the lack of comrades.
Then, of course, the day of the festival neared and I got the SXSW itch – I had to go. I ended up calling-in sick to work two days (don’t tell my boss) and made the best of my three days in Austin. Usually the SXSW experience contains its moments of frustration (the goose chase that is buying a wristband, the annoyance of not being able to get into shows, and the insanity of 6th Street) but this year didn’t feature any of these issue. I avoided 6th Street for the most part, didn’t worry about the wristband rat race, and was able to get into every venue I walked to. Not only that, but almost every performance I saw was top-notch. Although I don’t have nearly as much experience to draw from for this year’s best of SXSW list, here were some of the highlights (and a few low-lights).
BEST BAND- Deerhoof
I’ve been a fan of Deerhoof for almost a decade now, but I have to admit that I’ve never seen them live. When I learned that they were playing an afternoon show at the Wonderland Bar, I decided it was about time I check them out. I realized pretty early in their set that I’ve been missing out on the experience that is a Deerhoof concert – the back and forth angular guitar battle between John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez, the spastic, erratic cadences of Greg Saunier, and the epic dance moves of Satomi Matsuzaki. The lively performance was so great that at one point Saunier got up from behind his drum-kit, approached the mic, and said, “You know you’re watching a really good set, right?” The crowd responded with the kind of unbridled cheers that one can only experience at a Deerhoof show.
This is from a different performance at Hotel Vegas from last week:
WORST VENUE- Wonderland Bar
I’ve had this category since I started writing these SXSW re-caps eight years ago, and in most cases, I truly disliked the venues discussed. That is not the case this year with the Wonderland Bar. In fact, I quite liked the atmosphere of the place – warm lighting, plush furnishings, and one of the friendliest bar staffs I encountered all week. The backyard stage set-up could have been better, but even it was not something to complain about considering the Deerhoof performance I saw there was my favorite of the week. The reason I chose Wonderland Bar is due simply to the memories buried beneath its sheen exterior.
Let me explain. In the early days of SXSW, the now flourishing East Side of 6th Street was not a happening place. In fact, it got a shadier the further east you ventured. But for a span of several years, the building now known as Wonderland Bar was a quaint little Mexican bar named Mrs. Bea’s. Around 10 years ago, a New York promoter that went by the name Todd P began setting up day parties at the humble venue under the name “Todd P Presents.” The shows were modest – a pawn shop PA system, a stage that consisted of little more than a cement block behind the bar, and a come as you go attitude with bands literally stepping from out of the crowd to take the stage and vice versa. Over the years those shows became legendary with the likes of HEALTH, Woods, Fucked Up, Vivian Girls, Matt & Kim, No Age, and High On Fire performing in the most intimate of settings.
Eventually, Todd P became fed up with the commercialization of SXSW and decided to keep his concert promoting skills in New York. Since then, East Austin has become the trendiest area of town, and as a result, Mrs. Bea’s and its simple environs eventually got swallowed up. I have no hard feelings toward the Wonderland Bar; it just made me sad to remember the days when SXSW still had that underground spirit lurking on the outskirts of the main drag.
BEST BAND DISCOVERED- Girl Band
You know you’re witnessing a great band when their music is so loud and abrasive that half of the crowd is forced to leave the venue out of sheer annoyance. This was the case with the Dublin band Girl Band, the noisiest, most incoherent bunch of scalawags I’ve seen grace the stage at SXSW in many years. At times their brash behavior reminded me of Les Savy Fav while at other times their art-punk approach reminded me of Liars before they went electronica. I have no idea what they were singing or if any of their songs even had a chorus, but Girl Band provided my SXSW experience with the raw energy that has been missing from the event for several years.
BEST SOLO ARTIST- Mac McCaughan
Over my years of SXSW experiences I’ve had the great fortune of seeing Mac McCaughan in his many incarnations – with Superchunk, as the proud owner of Merge Records watching his bands at a showcase, or with his other band, Portastatic. This year I had the pleasure of seeing Mac perform by himself in support of an upcoming solo album. He sounded as great as ever, and he even sprinkled in a few classic Superchunk songs like “Slack Motherfucker” and “Driveway to Driveway” to appease the masses. He may be looking more and more like a suburban dad these days, but his friendly demeanor with fans at the front of the stage was a reminder why he’s still one of the all-time coolest dudes in indie rock.
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT- Gang of Four
Several years ago I had the opportunity to see the legendary post-punk band Gang of Four perform on their reunion tour, but I passed it up. I’ve been kicking myself since. When I saw Gang of Four was playing several shows at SXSW, I thought it would be my opportunity for redemption. Then, as I read further in preparation for the festival, I saw that it wasn’t going to be the actual band – instead, it was Andy Gill and a bunch of guys that could be his kids. Despite this letdown, I still jumped at the chance to see Gill perform live and to hear his renowned, ringing guitar riffs in person.
It didn’t go well. To start off, the band was set to perform at 5:25, but didn’t take the stage until 5:35. This may not seem like a big deal, but at SXSW there are so many bands crammed into so many sets that it’s rare to see this type of late arrival. Then, the crowd had to wait another five minutes as the band awkwardly paced around the stage, waiting for Gill to join them. Their agitation was palpable. Finally, the lead singer stormed backstage and re-emerged several minutes later with Gill, who sauntered onto the stage with a goblet of beer in his hand. Not a can. Not a bottle. A goblet. On one hand this seemed pretentious (coming to the stage late with a goblet of beer), but on the other hand, it was kind of badass. It’s Andy Gill for christ’s sake!
As the band began performing, animosity within the band was quite apparent. From what I could tell, this was a curmudgeonly old legend that gathered up a bunch of starry-eyed kids to try and squeeze a few more sheckels out of the Gang of Four name. However, the one-time fanboy bandmates clearly didn’t look at Gill as a hero any longer. Glares and furrowed brows filled the stage as Gill performed rickety rock and roll poses, completely oblivious to the tension that enveloped him. Clearly, this wasn’t the Gang of Four show I’d hope for, and I left wishing more than ever that I’d seen the actual band years ago when I had the chance.
BIGGEST SURPRISE- Wand
Let me pull back the BDWPS curtain and let you in on my new music listening procedures. I often peruse various websites for hints towards what bands and albums I should check out. I then jot down names of the bands that catch my attention, and over time, I eventually listen to their new music. This was the case in 2014 with the band Wand. I read about the band’s front-man Cory Thomas Hanson and his connections with other BDWPS favorites like Mikal Cronin, Meatbodies, Ty Segall, and Pangea. I listened to several tracks on Ganglion Reef and quickly added their name to my list albums to check out.
But I never did.
By the time December rolled around, they were one of the few bands I hadn’t checked of my list, and by that time, overwhelmed by the amount of music to review for the year end extravaganza, I opted to skip out on Ganglion Reef. Based off of their performance at the Panache Booking Showcase, this was a huge mistake. Their performance was one of the most spirited of the week. Hanson’s guitar antics are a site to behold, his fingers seamlessly gliding up and down the frets as magical melodies melt out his amp. The psychedelic swirls mixed with the reverberating pop-punk spirits hung in the misty Austin night air. It was such a great show that when they finished, I thought to myself, “I might have just seen my new favorite band.”
BEST SHOWCASE- Panache Booking Showcase
One of my biggest concerns this year was my ability to get into official SXSW shows without a wristband, so when I approached Hotel Vegas for the Panache Booking Showcase, I worried I’d be on the outside looking in. Not only did the showcase let me pay a meager 10 dollars to get in, they went against strict SXSW code by allowing me and others in before those with official badges and wristbands! If I was one of these fine, upstanding folks with credentials, I would have been furious, but I took joy in being one of the peons getting the upper-hand for a change.
The blue-collar spirit continued with the show, a series of bands that represent the DIY ethos and punk rock spirit that has been sucked out of SXSW in recent years. Meatbodies, Wand, Twerps, Thee Oh Sees, La Luz, Wax Witches – this was not your over-hyped, next big thing show. Instead, it was bands that grind it out year round, playing raucous sets of rock and roll all around the country. Now if only the rest of the festival could take a hint from Panache Booking and remember what once made SXSW so great.