This year’s SXSW was one of good fortune. It seemed like everything went our way – from transportation, to a plethora of engaging shows, to one fantastic food truck choice after another. To sum up, this SXSW 2017 was one of the best I’ve attended in years, and here are some reasons why. Continue reading
Category Archives: South by Southwest
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).
Before I get into all the fun that is South By Southwest, I wanted to first take a moment to express my sympathy for those who were injured and lost their lives during Wednesday night’s festivities. My two friends actually witnessed the horrific event, and if I hadn’t gone for a quick restroom break before leaving Cheer Up Charlie’s, we could have been out there when the drunken asshole selfishly plowed through a barricaded street. I’m not sure if the media conveyed the amazing speed and efficiency executed by the medics, volunteers, and police that evening. By the time I emerged to meet up with my friends, only minutes after the atrocity, all 25 of the victims were already receiving assistance, often from groups of three to five people, administering CPR and helping to bandage wounds.
With SXSW growing more and more each year, the streets feel more chaotic and dangerous than ever, but the quickness and professionalism displayed by everyone that night assured me that both SXSW and the city of Austin are prepared for literally anything. While this event certainly put a damper on the week, there were still a lot of highlights to look back on. Here are some of the best and worst moments from the week…
Just moments before sitting down to write about the best and worst of the South By Southwest music festival of last week, I found out about the death of Jason Molina, the troubled genius behind folk-blues outfits like Songs/Ohia and Magnolia Electric Company. This news would have been unsettling and heartbreaking regardless of what I was about to embark on, but sitting here trying to write about my 10th year at the music festival, I can’t help but think back to my first year in attendance and how I got to see Magnolia Electric Company perform at The Parish.
A lot has changed since that night a decade ago when Molina first enchanted me with his fragile, somber voice. Over the years I’ve seen SXSW grow along with my understanding of the festival and all its nuances. I think back to those performances from the first few years and wonder where the festival’s one time luster has gone. Don’t get me wrong, I still had a great week, seeing dozens of bands each day, but along with the growth of social media, SXSW has become more about the hype and less about discovering unpolished gems like my friends and I did 10 years ago with Jason Molina and his band. Yes, Dave Grohl, Stevie Nicks, and John Fogerty played a surprise set together, as well as Prince and Green Day (badge only shows), but due to the influx of speculation and misinformation within the Twitter world, I was unable to see several shows I would have in years past due to the miles of sheep lined up in hopes of seeing MTV TRL darlings like of Usher and Justin Timberlake.
Yet as much as these moments of frustration tainted my week, I still relished my chance to see up-and-coming artists pour their hearts out on the stage. Within the past ten years I’ve seen unknown artists perform at SXSW that went on to big time success (Bon Iver, The Fleet Foxes, and TV On the Radio), and I expect that many of the artists seen this week will go on to do just the same. Who knows? Maybe in ten years folks will be lining up for miles to see some of my favorites from this past week while I roam 6th street, 10 years older and wiser, in search of that next great unearthed treasure.
In memory of Jason Molina, I present to you my list of the best and worst of SXSW 2013.
This year, my SXSW experience felt a bit like a walk down memory lane with performances by such 80s and 90s legends as Jesus and the Mary Chain, Corrosion of Conformity, Built to Spill, and Pennywise. All these bands, although aged and weathered, put on inspired performances that were highlights of my week. Despite the daily rekindling of my youth, I also discovered more bands this year than I have in years past. As with every year, below you will find some of my favorite performances, showcases, and the less than stellar experiences of the week.
Worst Day Party- Whoopsy Party
Slough Feg. The instant I saw this name on the SXSW 2011 roster, I vowed to myself that I would see them. With only a couple of appearances, I knew I couldn’t afford to do like I do with most bands and figure I can see them at a show later in the week. No, I had to see Slough Feg again after discovering them two years ago at a show that still runs vividly in my memory.
After spending the day being pampered at the Rhapsody Rocks day show (read SXSW 2011 part I for more information on this “Spa Day for Drunks”), we hailed a cab and began the long drive over to Trophy’s Bar on Congress where Slough Feg would be playing in an hour. A 15-dollar cab fare just to see one band? You obviously haven’t seen Slough Feg before. Once at Trophy’s, we burst through the door, worried we’d missed the start of the show, but instead, we walked into a bar of zombies, sitting casually at the bar, not seeming concerned at all about the band that was about to blow the roof off the murky little crap-hole. To keep our Guinness buzzes alive, I ordered up a round of four-dollar cans of Lone Star. So much for being spoiled.
I then planted myself in front of the stage as the band set-up. Soon after, the madness began. Slough Feg sounded as good as I remembered and put on a performance just as grandiose as the last. The silly banter, the costume changes, the epic double lead guitar solos: it was all there as I recalled. Within five minutes, the once zombie patrons had turned into a raging mass of minions, crowding the stage and begging for more guitar solo insanity.
But then, as singer Michael Scalzi stepped backstage to change shirts one last time, the house music suddenly came up. The band shot confused looks towards the sound guy who made a cutting motion with his hand over his throat. Done? How could they be done? It seemed like they’d just begun! The now frothing crowd began booing and sending their own sign language toward the sound guy, but he stood like a mindless bobble-head, shaking his head left to right. Soon a chant of “SLOUGH FEG! SLOUGH FEG! SLOUGH FEG!” filled every inch of the bar. The band forsaw this riot with their album “Ape Uprising!”
Despite our efforts, he wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t fathom why. They were the final band of the show! There was no reason to make them quit. Yet, he ignored us, exerting his power trip upon all of us and angering the Gods of Metal up above (somewhere Dio is plotting revenge on Trophy’s). And how had he resisted the power of Slough Feg so easily? He must have been a warlock. It’s the only explanation.
How could anyone shut this down?:
Best Look Alike- Jon Koncak
In the early years, I had a category set aside for former MTV VJs I spotted (Matt Pinfield, Dave Holmes), but it soon after transformed into a look-a-like award. For a few years I had an award for the guy who looked the most like my high school basketball coach Jared Cecil, but that ended when I realized that Justin Vernon was not only the brains behind Bon Iver but that he also served as the bassist to The Rosebuds (I could have continued this tradition if I’d only caught a Gayngs show this year).
For SXSW 2011, the award takes another obscure turn as I name the biggest Jon Koncak look-a-like. Who’s Jon Koncak? Well, from what I remember as a basketball card-collecting child, he was a power forward for the Atlanta Hawks during the late 80s and early 90s. It’s not like I’m a huge fan, in fact, I probably haven’t thought of his name since I was 13. Then of course, while sitting around at the Rhapsody Rocks show, I spotted a hipster walking around in a retro Atlanta Hawks jersey, and that old NBA Hoops basketball card came rushing back into my memory. The combination of his quaffed hair and the bright red and gold jersey sent me back to my adolescence within an instant, and I couldn’t stop laughing for the next half hour.
Then, while writing about the Rhapsody Rocks show last week, I went to the Rhapsody Facebook for photos and I came upon a Jon Koncak goldmine:
Best Solo Artist- Colin Stetson
I wasn’t expecting much from Colin Stetson. Don’t get me wrong, his latest release “New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges” has been in constant rotation on my i-Pod for the past month, but I just didn’t see how he could transfer the sounds he conjures up on the album to the stage. If anything, I figured he had to use a loop pedal or at least have a back-up band of some sorts. You can imagine my shock when he walked out at the NPR day party with only a saxophone in hand. No drum machine, no pedals, no back-up. Just Stetson and his enormous bass sax.
For the next 20 minutes I was transfixed on Stetson, honking an endless stream of notes out of his saxophone while howling out humming parts via his vocal chords. In all my years of going to shows, I’ve never seen one musician exert so much effort, focus, and passion within a performance. You could see his muscle tensing, every vein straining, his lungs constantly heaving for air as he continued a flow of endless cascading melodies. The fact that he only played four songs didn’t even bother me; the man deserved a break after putting on what would be the best show I saw all week.
Unfortunately, I probably captured his worst song of the set, and even it is pretty impressive:
Biggest Surprise- tUnE-yArDs
The NPR party had even more surprises in store with tUnE-yArDs breaking the mold I’d set for who and what they were all about. I enjoy Merrill Garbus’s album “Bird-Brains” for its intimacy and raw energy, so I expected a show that was barebones and delicate. Wrong again. Garbus and her band, composed of a bass player and two saxophonists, put on a spirited show filled with head-thumping beats created via loop pedal, live on the spot, all banged away by Garbus herself. Who knew that she is an 808 in human form? For each song, she’d start off with what sounded like a mistake, off-beats and strange clicks and clacks – everything out of place. Then, right before all our eyes, one beat at a time, layer upon layer, it suddenly turned into the freshest beat south of the Canada (we all know that Canadians can rock a fresh beat). Her music also took a turn toward a more dub-reggae direction while her unpredictable hooting and hollering that reverberated off the walls like a pinball. If her performance means anything, her next album should be a boisterous affair.
This is from a different SXSW show, but you get the idea:
Biggest Let-Down- Cloud Nothings
I probably set myself up for this let-down. Since first hearing Cloud Nothings last November, I’ve been gushing about Dylan Baldi’s irresistible pop sensibilities and listening to his three official albums constantly. I should not be shocked that after such hero-treatment for an 19-year-old kid that he wouldn’t live up to my expectations. I thought his brand of pop-punk would be perfect for an afternoon show at SXSW, but something was missing. The guitars seemed weak and trebly, the vocals strained and lost, and the songs lacked the fun that I’ve always found while listening to the albums. But probably what hurt the show the most was Dylan’s complete lack of confidence as the front man. It felt like watching a 10-year old kid play his first piano recital. Then again, he’s only 19. I’ll give him a few more years before I write off his stage presence.
Best Band- Pete & the Pirates
A few years ago PtheStudP introduced me to Pete and the Pirates, and I really haven’t been the same since. There pop-melodies have the playfulness of Pavement with the British swagger and sensibility of early Blur. Thomas Sander’s vocals take their already brilliant riffs and songwriting to a new level, his falsetto childlike and his anthem’s feisty. Of all the bands that were “must-see” for me this year, Pete & the Pirates topped my list because:
- I’m obviously a fan-boy
- They rarely tour in the U.S.
Not to toot my own horn too much, but of everything I saw during the week, it truly was the “must see performance”. They somehow sounded better than they do on “Little Deaths” with the guitars crunching out a little more attitude to take their already stellar set list to another level. Throughout most of the show I found myself lost in the music, but during one song break I took a moment to think about my old SXSW buddy PtheStudP and how much he would have loved their performance. For a show that didn’t seem like it could get any better, having my pal PtheStudP would have made it just a little bit sweeter. Here’s to hoping the Pirates find their way to Austin’s shores in 2012.
This clip is for you PtheStudP: