The South by Southwest Music Festival is a giant mess. The theme of the festival should be “standing in line” because that’s what you spend a good portion of your time doing. A line to get a wristband, a line to get into the club, a line to get a beer, a line to get the free Doritos Locos Taco, and of course the long lines for the bathroom. It can be frustrating and confusing, but at the same time it’s an amazing experience. You meet really cool people in those lines who are there to see a band just like you. People that you end up sharing stuff with or having a beer and taco with, and maybe they tell you to stick around for that band you haven’t heard of and you tell them the same. Then you end up loving that band and forming a friendship with a stranger over music. It’s a beautiful thing.
So, I’m actually going to change the first line of this piece: The South by Southwest Music Festival is a magnificent, awesome, and beautifully fun mess. That’s a little better. My good friend Jeremy and I set out on Friday March, 7 for our trip to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest (heretofore referred to as “SXSW” because typing that out every time gets annoying). SXSW is a little over a week long and includes an Interactive, Film and Music festival. Most people are there for the music festival but we had passes for film and music.
The first part of the week we saw tons of movies, attended various panel discussions given by stars of movie and television and screened pilots for new television shows. One night we even went to a “Midnight Shorts” screening of a ton of really weird short films. Film wasn’t too exhausting other then the occasional midnight flick. Music was another story.
As mentioned in the first paragraph, “standing in line” is the theme of the SXSW Music Fest. I was equipped with only a music wristband, and my press credentialed camera and video camera, which got me into most of all the SXSW showcases after about 6pm every day. The daytime showcases are pretty much RSVP only, but they do let wristband and badge holders in.
Here’s an example for, let’s call it, the “Indie Music Blog Sponsored by Popular Domestic Beer and American Fast Food Chain Showcase.” Go to the blog on the internet and RSVP, go to specified location in downtown Austin to stand in line for a wristband at 10 a.m., get wristband, go stand in other line at actual location for the showcase at 11:15 a.m., get in at 12:15 p.m., stand in line for free beer until about 12:30 p.m., (first band has already started) go stand in line for free taco at 12:35 p.m., get taco around 1p.m., (first band has already ended), second band starts at 1:20 p.m., get back in line for fresh beer, get back near stage around 1:35 p.m. to catch most of the second band, and so on.
(Here’s a picture of people standing in line.)
Yes, that does sound annoying. But you get free food and beer and there’s almost always some sort of “swag” like a t-shirt, button, sunglasses, sticker, etc. Also, while you are in line, as I mentioned before, you meet other cool people. People who are cool enough to hold your place in line while you go get mediocre Chinese food from a food truck. You meet people from Australia, New Zealand, Austin, New York, and Minneapolis, even Japan. Everyone is really chill. Everyone wants to see music. You talk about where you’re from and what you do or why you are at SXSW. Then you see those people at another showcases and share stories about a band you saw over an ice cold Lone Star. SXSW is truly a meeting place for real music fans.
Here’s a line we heard from a few actual Austinites, “I’m glad you are enjoying the festival but please leave when it’s over. Please do not move here.” They say that in jest but on a real note Austin is literally one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Maybe it’s because of SXSW or Austin City Limits or maybe it’s because Austin is one of the coolest cities in the world.
Either way, it’s a very cool city with a lot of culture and industry so it’s not hard to believe that people want to move there. I compared it to another music city, Nashville. Everyone is trying to be somebody and stand out, but everyone desires to be around other “somebodies” too, which is totally cool. Also, the culinary delight in Austin, in case you didn’t know, is the taco, which my colleague and I consumed a lot of.
Now, here’s the part where I tell you about the bands I saw at SXSW. I saw nearly 40 bands in the span of five days. That’s eight bands per day. Seems like a lot right? Well, it is. When workshopping this post in my head, I thought I would do something simple and fairly easy to read. I’m breaking the bands that made the biggest impression on me down into lists with photos (And, please forgive some of the photo work. My good camera ran out of battery pretty quickly and I was actually using my video camera to take stills, not great but you get the point.) and antidotes. So, here it is my official SXSW recap. (Please keep in mind these performances are in no particular order at all.)
Real Estate, Spotify House: I saw them twice and both times they were superb but the Spotify House performance was their best. The crowd was seriously vibing. Real Estate is one of the best American Indie bands around.
(Real Estate at the Spotify House)
Albert Hammond Jr, Hype Hotel Day Party: Albert and his band put on an amazing high energy show and I got to meet him and another member of The Strokes, Fab Moretti, after the show. Here’s a picture!
Speedy Ortiz, Brooklyn Vegan Day Party: If this band had existed in the 1990s, Hole wouldn’t have been as popular and that’s not a bad thing. I loved hearing them live for the first time and loved Sadie’s (lead singer) jokes about all the showcase sponsors in between songs.
Damon Albarn, Austin Convention Center Ballroom: I only saw him in the intimate setting of Ballroom 4 in the Austin Convention center in a very stripped down set but still, Damon was fantastic. This guy is such a master of his craft and you can tell he really cares about his performance.
(Damon Albarn at the Austin Convention Center)
Parquet Courts, Doc Martin’s Showcase: These guys have so much spirit. People call their style of music “slacker punk,” but there is nothing slacking about their performance. I loved the crowd’s energy during this one too. It was a perfect storm.
Ejecta, Gorilla vs Bear Showcase: New wave, Goth, dark wave, whatever you want to call it, Ejecta probably fits the bill. Lead guitar, bass guitar, vocals, and Abelton software programmed beats running on the computer. A very minimal setup, but a massive sound.
(Ejecta at the Gorilla vs Bear Showcase)
Radkey, Spotify House: Jeremy figured out that the median age for these guys is 18. They are so young, but play like they were around during the early days of punk. These dudes sound like early Misfits and took everyone in the crowd totally by surprise.
Quilt, Brooklyn Vegan Day Party: I heard this band’s name a lot just walking around the festival and I was fortunate enough to catch them on the last full day we were in Austin. Quilt echoes the sound of the 1960s. Psychedelic rock and roll music to the max. I would put them in with modern day bands like White Fence and Tame Impala and they reminded me so much of the old band from the 60s, Strawberry Alarm Clock.
(Quilt at the Brooklyn Vegan Showcase)
The Hold Steady, Austin Convention Center Ballroom: I didn’t know much about The Hold Steady but Jeremy was raving about them and they were on in the early part of the day at the Convention Center, so I had no problem checking them out. Craig, the lead singer, looks like your cool English Comp professor but his nerdy swagger just grabs you throughout the band’s performance. They turned me into a fan pretty quick with their beer chugging rock and roll literary prowess.
MØ, Spotify House: Pronounced “Muh,” these Danes were overjoyed to be in Austin and it showed. They put on a fun performance and gave off a lot of 1990s pop vibes. For fans of: Lorde, Purity Ring, and probably TLC.
Belle Adair, Single Lock Records Showcase: Single Lock Records is a label out of the Shoals, Alabama and Belle Adair is one band in their stable of artists. Belle Adair was a pleasant surprise because I had to go all the way to Austin to hear them live for the first time, although they are from the same state where I reside. I loved their relaxing indie rock sound. Definitely for fans of Wilco. And, as fate would have it, I used to live next door to the lead singer Matt! The world is small.
together PANGEA, Hype Hotel These L.A. thrash punkers destroyed the audience as one of the earlier acts in the daytime showcase. They even played a nasty cover of The Cranberries hit “Zombie”.
(together PANGEA at the Hype Hotel)
Robert Ellis, Billy Reid Shindig: Again, a recommendation from my SXSW partner Jeremy. Robert Ellis is old school country music with a new school twist. He’s got some crazy good jazz guitar chops but writes heartfelt country love songs about watching television. I wasn’t too sure if I’d like this but I ended up loving it.
THE BAND WHO “WON” SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST:
This one is going to seem like a total homer move but I have to do this. I saw this band four times during the festival and they gave every bit of energy they had during every single performance. They played nine shows total and every performance I saw seemed like it was their first of the festival. They are Birmingham’s native sons: St. Paul and the Broken Bones.
(St. P and the Broke B’s, as I like to call them, at the Single Lock Records Showcase)
I know. I know. “C’mon man. You are just trying to boost up the egos of the local yocals!” No way! I’m serious! They killed it during every set I saw them. Paul had the crowd in the palm of his hand even when he knew his band was not the “headliner.” It’s a bizarre phenomenon that I witnessed at SXSW. I saw a band actually create a buzz in a week. Literally. From the first time we caught St. Paul and the Broken Bones at a private party in a rooftop bar to the last time I saw them at the Spotify House just before Real Estate came on, the crowd grew bigger and bigger each time. People were buzzing about these guys from The Magic City. It was a wonderful thing and that’s why I’m naming them the “winners” of South by Southwest Music Festival 2014. Sorry. But, I’m not sorry.
Finally, I have created a Spotify mixtape of all of the bands I saw at SXSW, including the ones I did not mention above. Not because I didn’t like them but because they may not have made the same impression as the bands listed above. I don’t remember seeing a band I just flat out did not like. I tried to see a band or group from many different genres while I was in Austin. I covered most of my bases and I think this mixtape will show that.
Although some of the bigger companies and promoters booked bands with established mainstream success (like Lady GaGa, Kanye West, Imagine Dragons, Jay Z, and Coldplay), I do not feel like the original idea of South By lost any of its purpose of showcasing the talents of up and coming bands and artists. I know some would disagree with me but I feel like the real music fans ignored all the hype surrounding the mainstream acts and went to the smaller clubs to see the up and comers. As long as promoters and labels are willing to take risks and send these bands to Austin in March, people will be there. Maybe some of those people wanting to see the bigger bands might just drop by Stubb’s or Red 7 and catch a band they’ve never heard of and go buy their record or download their songs. South by Southwest is a gigantic, corporate sponsored mess of a music festival but it’s also one of the greatest experiences music fans, bands, and artists can have. I would absolutely attend the South by Southwest Music festival again, and I hope to in the near future.
Here’s the playlist, subscribe and enjoy it!
P.S. I must mention this. There was a tragedy at this festival on March 12 on the streets of downtown Austin. A drunk driver drove down a blocked, one-way street while allegedly running from the police, and hit several people waiting in line to get into a showcase, killing four of them. This was a completely senseless act by an obviously careless person. The police and authorities in Austin did a great job of keeping the peace during the festival, but sometimes you just cannot prepare for everything. Jeremy and I were about six blocks away from the area of downtown where this occurred, but we both felt the weight of the tragedy nonetheless. My heart and prayers go out to the victims and their families. If you would like to donate money to those victims’ families, you can go to this website and make a donation: http://www.austincommunityfoundation.org/?nd=donate_detail&donation_id=2831&return_nd=donate. Please be careful on the roads. Thanks.