Now in its 31st year, SXSW is not like most other festivals. You don't come here because you see that your favorite mega-act is headlining. You turn up and wander in and out of gigs and you see some stuff that you don't like and stuff that will stay with you your whole life. It's an adventure; a voyage of discovery. Furthermore, instead of being stuck in a large field with lots of Molly-popping aspiring VIP's who are more concerned with what's behind the velvet rope than what's on stage, you're in a living, working city. And it's a great city. Austin is as much a music city as Nashville or New Orleans, so it's packed with venues; from the small and divey (720 patios), to the larger outdoor spaces with the big sound and lights (Stubb's). The only time-space to steer the mothership around is 6th street on the day when spring breakers and Paddy's Day revelers turn Austin's main thoroughfare into a Petri dish of human dysfunction. I should say here that SXSW has not always got it right. At one point it appeared to have lost its way and its very reason for existing in the first place. Intoxicated by the potential for big corporate sponsorship, the institution arrived at a nadir which found LL Cool J headlined the Doritos Stage and a lottery to win tickets to an 'exclusive' Justin Timberlake show. But now all is forgiven because 2018 was once again about discovering new bands -and some older obscure acts, too- from around the world. The brands are still there, but their presence doesn’t have such an invasive impact on the programming. And SXSW is thirsty work, so a booze company offering cheap drinks specials at the bars of various venues is perfectly welcome. There were well over a thousand official showcasing acts this year, and we were soon reassured that there's still a lot to say with drums, bass, guitar and the human voice!
There seems to be a bit of a trend for Garage bands at the moment. The first band I saw this year was Breakfast Muff (I confess, I went to check them out because of the name), whose rude, scrappy Glasgow Garage DIY was impossible to not enjoy. That night I stayed at Latitude to enjoy Our Girl, a trio from Brighton formed by Soph Nathan, whose other band, The Big Moon, were one of last year’s triumphant breakthrough acts. They served up a brand of scuzzy post-Courtney Bartnett vocals with passages of intimate springverb guitar and ride cymbal whoosh. Last on the bill was LIFE, part of the burgeoning Hull music scene, who'd evidently been raised on strict diet of Pulp, The Sultans of Ping FC and The Fall, and that was fine by me. Frontman, Mez Sanders-Green, strutted around on top of the bar projecting the minimal lyrics in modish sprechgesang.
SXSW is not just about music from out of town. Austin’s own stalwarts and newcomers are well-represented each year. There was Ringo Deathstarr, Okkervil River and Band of Heathens, but we went off to a favourite venue, Cheer Up Charlie’s, where SXSW veterans Ume were holding court. Frontgirl Lauren Larson’s diminutive stature belies unbelievable power in the form of growling vocals and sparkly fuzz-guitar shred. During the festival, you visit many venues, but there are some you will want to come back and back to. Cheer Up Charlie’s is one of those. If you decided to spend the entire week camped out here, you’d probably not see a single dud on either of its stages. We came back to see Bodega a few nights later. This Brooklyn collective looks like it’s fronted by David Byrne’s wasted younger brother and a deviant Sarah Palin after a debauched night on the tiles. They crafted a brand of naughties garage-funk, at times reminiscent of both LCD Soundsystem and Velvet Underground. It was great fun and impossible not to move to.
One of our favourite bands of last year, IDLES from Bristol, returned to entertain us with their idiot savant renaissance caveman punk. There’s nothing DIY about these guys; they can really play, and their guitar heavy songs -whose lyrics are characterized by a heady mix of pithy social consciousness and rambunctious self-deprecating humour- stand up to repeated album listening. At the show we saw outside at Hotel Vegas, the guitarist, sporting nothing but green Y-fronts and looking like he’d just escaped from Gogol Bordello, ran out into the crowd mid-song, a worn Strat slung over his back, climbed a tree, and promptly fell out of it.
There’s no doubt that East London’s Superorganism were the buzz band of this year’s festival. Even BBC Radio royalty Jo Wiley couldn’t get into their show at Latitude, where the crowd spilled out into the street with wouldbe fans craning their necks to get a flavor of the multinational kooky quirkpop being served up inside. This cult-like collective could have walked straight out of a video game and would not have been out of place as the latter-day Branch Dividians’ house band in Waco.
From Madrid, Hinds, brought their raucous ingénue birthday party garage jangle to a sunny Cedar Street Courtyard on Wednesday. They're well known both here and in the UK and have played SXSW five times now, but in their home country they are largely unheard of. Guitarist and vocalist, Carlotta Cosials, explained to me that this is because they don’t sing in Spanish and that Madrid lacks an Indie music scene. "There's only really the DIY thing there…", she said in perfect English.
Young Irish mod-punk trio, Touts, closed the DIY Magazine party at Latitude on Tuesday night with an abrasive and unrefined set. These teenagers seem to be angry about something, but they didn’t compel me to figure out what that was. With so many great Punk and Post-punk acts at the festival this year, one has to wonder about the shelf life of a one-dimensional band like this is.
One band who may already have ensured that their sell-by date is a long way off is South London Indie-Punk outfit, Shame. Lead singer, Charlie Steen, juxtaposed glaring megalomaniac swagger with moves like a cockney grandad on Speed, and in doing so wavered between alpha celeb and anti-rockstar. Impeccably rehearsed, and tighter than J.Lo’s pants, the band dominated the stage at Barracuda on Thursday night leaving the industry-heavy audience open-mouthed. Indie-punk this may be, but they are not afraid to show that they have brains along with spleen, such is the sophistication of their arrangements and lyrics alike. Shame’s visceral sound made The Strypes, who I’d seen play earlier that evening, seem contrived and bland, their sunglasses looking even more absurd than before. Scumbag Shitty Blues indeed.
They conquered the stage at the Thrasher X Vans party on Saturday afternoon. Winner of the Grulke Prize for US Developing Act at SXSW, stoner glam rockers Starcrawler performed songs from their acclaimed Ryan Adams-produced debut album. The fact that they’re from Echo Park would explain why the band’s sound is more Silverlake than Hollywood and Vine. 23-year-old Arrow de Wilde’s performance oozed strung out heroin hooker theatrics. Or was it? Maybe I was telling myself that it was all artifice in order to assuage the uneasy feeling that her bloodstained clothes might be evidence of genuine self-destruction. Nevertheless, in this age of #metoo and #timesup, it is striking to see a young woman who doesn’t give a flying Maxi pad about posing for the male gaze. I’d love to see what would happen if Weinstein tried it on with her!
I love having my preconceptions decimated. And that’s exactly what happened when I went to see Marlon Williams at Barracuda. I had read about him being a crooner, and heard that he sounded ‘a bit like Roy Orbison’. Now if I think of a crooner, the image of Michael Bublé enters my mind and I immediately have to think of something else like Pizza or my old Geography teacher so that it goes away. Imagine my relief, then, when the New Zealander delivered an enchanting set with a voice that really isn’t like anyone else I’ve ever heard. It’s terrifically honest music and the expressive songs are delivered with such understated power that it’s like someone casually juggling with ignited sticks of dynamite. If pressed I would say that sometimes his fast vibrato reminds me a little of Antony Hegarty, but otherwise, his voice is all his own.
Call it earnest post-New Wave Punk or something. Montreal’s Ought has a completely alien vibe that’s beguiling. Being at their Barracuda show where they went on before Shame, and it was like discovering a new taste. I didn’t quite know what to do with the information. Frontman Tim Darcy is a walking paradox; I’ve never seen anyone with such a self-assured awkwardness.
Just as strange, but in a way that was much more familiar, on Thursday night we got up close and personal with Ezra Furman at Hotel Vegas. His genre fluid, post-punk melodic avant-cabaret, rather like a serendipitous collision between T. Rex and Randy Newman, was a truly original delight. This was the sort of show that has absolute universal appeal and the diversity of the audience reflected that.
On Friday night we went back to Barracuda to see what would be one of the standout shows of the week, hell, one of the stand out shows of any in our twelve years coming here. METZ, playing on the floor in front of the stage, assaulted us with bellicose shards of grinding Chicago punk, and they reminded us exactly what this kind of music is for. We gathered around them in a circle. Bodies writhed and jolted in ecstatic dissent like a riptide, and at one point it felt as though we were collectively emitting a giant cathartic scream of FUCK YOU that could be felt all the way inside the White House.
Austin is changing at an alarming rate. Last year, nearly 160 people moved here every day. There are high rise hotels, offices and condo buildings sprouting up everywhere to accommodate the influx of tech industry employees. This transformation is undoubtedly pouring a lot of capital into the local economy. The downside is that people from the low-income community who have been here for several generations are now being pushed out to the end of the tram line. And as rents skyrocket, music venues in Downtown and East Austin are going to find it more and more difficult to keep their doors open. As Jason McNeely, who runs Hotel Vegas and Barracuda, said in a recent interview with BBC 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq “It’s frightening for people who are in the creative industry. It’s really difficult to acquire a space to run a small business out of.” This trajectory is likely to have a significant impact on SXSW itself in the future. But in 2018, we have celebrated a vintage SXSW; a festival that has gone through growing pains and a mid-life crisis, only to emerge on the other side stronger and more inspiring than ever.