This year’s SXSW was a unique experience for several reasons. For one, it was the first year where I spent the entire week going to shows by myself. In the past I’ve been able to coerce a friend or two into joining me, but my persuasive skills were not as effective this year. This year’s list of bands also lacked the same “star power” as it usually contains. Most years, I have a handful of must-see artists on my list. In a weird way, this lack of beloved artists made for a more exciting week of shows. Instead of spending my time trying to catch some of my favorite bands, I focused my energy on discovering new music, which really is the point of attending SXSW. Without a list of favorites bogging down my days, I was allowed to explore the musical landscape. Here are some of my favorite moments/performances of the week.
Best Band Discovered – WALL
The first day at SXSW is always filled with a feeling of giddy excitement, and that feeling was reinforced two-fold when I wandered into Cheer Up Charlies new indoor stage to discover WALL, the post-punk four-piece from New York City. Front-woman Sam York stood at the mic with a steely visage, shouting out anti-war rhetoric with a voice that was one part Kim Gordon, one part Mark E. Smith. The band behind her popped with energy, guitarist Vince McClelland dishing out Mission of Burma riffage that jutted up against Elizabeth Skadden’s machine-like basslines. You know a band has had an impact on you when they’re the third performance you see in a week of 50 shows, and there mark remains after four days of music submersion.
WALL’s latest video for “Cuban Cigars”:
Best Solo Artist Discovered – Julia Jacklin
On the same stage, the following day, I saw another of my favorite discoveries of the week in Australian native, Julia Jacklin. I’d listened to a few Jacklin tracks in preparation for the week and found myself mildly interested in her soft, swoony serenades. To be honest, I went into her performance with a bit of skepticism – yes, I enjoyed what I’d heard but could she pull it off on the stage? Within minutes, all skepticism dissipated to make way for a feeling of awe at her mesmerizing set. Between songs she gave off an awkward, out-of-place persona, but once she started back into playing, it was obvious that she was in complete control of the room.
Julia Jacklin performing “L.A. Dream”:
Best Performance – Big Ups
I’ve been listening to Big Ups latest release Before a Million Universes a lot over the past few weeks and have been anticipating the chance to see their unique blend of hardcore and the avant garde on stage. When I finally saw them perform at the Sindwinder, I was a bit surprised to see such an aggressive sounding band look so commonplace. The four guys that make up Big Ups looked more like the cast of “Silicon Valley” than a rough and tumble hardcore ensemble (it’s no coincidence that the band met while taking a technology course at NYU). The band’s performance, for the most part, had that same straightforward approach. Amar Lal (guitar), Carlos Salguero, Jr. (bass), and Brendan Finn (drums) played with a business-like manner. Then, of course, there’s front man Joe Galarraga, sending the band’s straight-laced demeanor into disarray, bounding about the stage like a madman, hamming it up for the crowd with one strange pose after another. His vocals shifted quickly from a monotone whisper to a caterwaul throughout the set, furthering the uneasiness of the performance. If Salguero, Finn, and Lal are the nerds you knew in high school, then Galarraga is the spastic weirdo that was sequestered to a resource room because he might eat glue or throw scissors.
Big Ups “National Treasure”:
Best Hip-Hop – milo
To be honest, I only saw three hip-hop acts perform and two of them were embarrassingly bad (Trae the Truth and Lil Dicky). This doesn’t take away from how great milo’s performance was at the Karma Lounge on Thursday night. He started his set by announcing, “I’m old enough to remember when rappers had to know how to rap.” He then commenced putting on a phenomenal show with his low-key vocals spitting out lyrics that were wry and biting. Instead of relying on a DJ or simply pushing play on a laptop, he used a sampler throughout the performance, keeping his mix interesting with continuous mid-song manipulation. While much of the SXSW crowd flocked to see Future and Drake, the best MC in town was crushing it for the intimate crowd at the Karma Lounge.
milo “Budlong Woods & Xergiok’s Chagrin”:
Best Metal Band – Author & Punisher
One of the best things about SXSW is that you can pick a random bar and discover something completely unexpected. Such was the case with Author & Punisher. On the last night of SXSW, I found myself without a show to see. The HEALTH show had a giant line (I blame the Drake show that just let out across the street), and the Soul Asylum set would have been too long of a walk from where I was at. Instead, I decided to wander from show to show and hoped I find something interesting. The word “interesting” doesn’t come even close to describing what Tristan Shone does with his music project Author & Punisher. With a set-up that resembles the control board of the Millennium Falcon, Shone creates music that is part performance art, part industrial doom metal. At first, I thought it was just a gimmick, an act better fit for the America’s Got Talent stage, but the longer I watched in marvel, the more I realized that this mechanical genius could also write some pretty crushing songs.
Tristan Shone discussing his art form:
Most Surprising Performance – Your Friend
Every year there are bands that get over-hyped by the music press. Your Friend is one of those bands I saw on many “must see bands” lists this year. I checked them out in preparation for the week and found what I heard to be pretty underwhelming. I had no plans of seeing them perform until fate would have it that they’d be playing a half hour slot between two bands I wanted to see. It would turn out to be a blessing with Your Friend putting on a riveting set of psychedelic, chill wave. At times their blend of 70s wistfulness reminded me of Mettle-era Pink Floyd, the only difference being Taryn Blake Miller’s languid vocal aesthetic. Maybe the live set is better than the produced album work, but this highlight performance of the week has encouraged me to check out the latest Your Friend release, Gumption.
Your Friend “Tame One”:
Best Day Party Swag– The Big One
As if checking out great live music isn’t enough to make SXSW worth the trip (and money), the free swag at some day shows is the cherry on top. Free stuff this week ranged from vegan breakfast tacos to hard cider, but the best swag of all could be found on Saturday’s The Big One day party. The show, which was loaded with great acts like Yung, Sun Club, Diarrhea Planet, and Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, provided its attendees with the following free items: Skinny Pop Popcorn, Topo Chico Mineral Water, Clif Bars, and Karbach Beers. The strangest freebie of all though had to be the Clif Bar headphones. Eat your hearts out, Beats by Dre.
Best Day Party – Fat Wreck Chords
Saturday is one of the most difficult days of the SXSW for several reasons. Besides the exhaustion and music overload, the biggest issue with the weekend shows is that Austinites are off work, doubling the size of crowds at many shows. For example, the annual Rachael Ray show had a line that wrapped around the building, down the hill, and all the way to the edge of the interstate entrance ramp. The Fat Wreck Chords day party had a line early in the afternoon, but by the time I arrived at 3 pm, I was able to get right in to the show that was filled with tried and true punkers (there wasn’t a Rachael Ray appetizer in sight). By the time I arrived the Night Birds were putting on a raucous set with their front man jumping around like a lunatic. Something about him reminded me of 80s era Roddy Piper. Night Birds were followed by NOFX, a staple of my teen years, and Fat Mike and company didn’t disappoint. While the rest of Austin lined up for miles to see the next overhyped band, or even worse, Drake, a bunch of punkers happily pogoed about to the punk music that doesn’t look to fade away anytime soon.
A teaser for the upcoming Fat Wreck Chord documentary:
Most Nostalgic Performance – K’s Choice
In high school I listened to the band K’s Choice, due primarily to their MTV Buzz Bin hit “I’m Not an Addict.” I would continue following the band with their follow-up album Cocoon Crash, but my connection with the band ended there. It was a bit random and unexpected to see that K’s Choice was not only still together but also playing a day show on Friday afternoon. I decided I had to check it out just to make the 16-year-old version of myself happy. To be honest, 90% of the set was disappointing with the band playing mostly new material that just didn’t sound quite like the band I enjoyed in high school. Then, of course, they closed the set with “I’m Not An Addict,” and I was instantly covered in goose bumps. For reasons unbeknownst to me, a lump grew in my throat and tears welled up in my eyes. I don’t remember being a huge fan of this band, but something about hearing this long lost song from my teenage years brought back feelings of nostalgia for when music meant the world to me. Don’t get me wrong, I still love music, but I don’t know if it will ever hit me like it did when I was 16 and trying to understand the world around me.
K’s Choice “It’s Not a Habit”:
Favorite Moment of the Week – Mike Watt
While we are on the nostalgia train, the first concert I ever attended was Primus at the age of 15. The opening act for the St. Paul show was Mike Watt and his band. They played mostly material from his solo album at that time, Ball-Hog or Tugboat, and I expected a similar set of new material during his Thursday night SXSW show. Unexpectedly, he started the set with a Minutemen song, the legendary band that he started his career with. The crowd went nuts, including myself. Then, he played another Minutemen song, and another, and another. He would go on to play only Minutemen songs, including this website’s namesake “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs”! Near the end of the show he held up a set list that resembled Santa’s list and informed the crowd it had 36 songs on it. To those that are SXSW naysayers, I present you with this – where else are you going to see Mike Watt perform 36 Minutemen songs?
Mike Watt & the Missingmen performing a Minutemen classic in 2013: