SXSW Music Festival - March 16-20, 2016
In March, 2016, I returned to the SXSW (south by southwest)
music festival, also known as "southby." The music "showcases" actually began on Tuesday, butI didn't arrive until Wednesday night. I could have seen a lot more. I'm not sure I could handle another night of staying up late (last show, 1 am) and getting up with too little sleep (free hotel breakfast ends at 9:30 am), but maybe I'll give it a shot next time. The hotel breakfast is much quicker than going out for breakfast and time is at a premium.
My flight arrived at 8:30pm and I managed to get checked in at the event and the hotel, assemble my bicycle, and ride 3 miles downtown just in time to catch the last few songs played by...
Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, 11 pm, Parish
This was a bonus. I got downtown sooner than expected and caught the end of their set (they happened to be on just before the first band on my schedule). Thao Nguyen (in white, screaming) hails from Northern Virginia. I first saw them at SXSW 2011 and have most of their CDs. Boppy folk rock with great lyrics. Worth checking out.
Adia Victoria, Midnight, Parish
Intense rock and roll. She quoted a few lines of "Strange Fruit" in a song dedicated to Sandra Bland, an activist who died in a jail cell after a "routine" police traffic stop escalated into an arrest.
At one point, Adia climbed down from the stage, walked into the audience and slapped a cell phone out of a guy's hand without missing a beat. But she was very nice about it. She hugged him while continuing to sing. As she got back to the stage she mouthed "you're cute" at him.
Waco Brothers, 1 am, Continental Club
Rocking country and western. Like Hank Williams Sr., amped up. Featuring Jon Langford of the legendary Mekons (search for "mekons fear and whiskey" and listen to whatever you find). They channeled The Clash for a great version of I Fought the Law.
I enjoy live music. If I know the songs or can understand the lyrics and like them, it's even better. Usually I hear music and snippets of words, so don't know if I'll really like a band until I get to know their songs.
It's hard to tell at first blush.
All that is by way of saying that I won't find out until later if
I really like most of these bands. If a band is appealing and sounds
great I'll go see them, even if the songs aren't super compelling. Kitten comes to mind. I first heard them at SXSW 2011. They are a lot of fun live but only have one song that I absolutely love.
Thursday, 3/17, I
I spent a lot of time at the Convention Center, where there were three stages. The Radio Stage is streamed (maybe they all are) and, I think, goes out to some radio station somewhere. The Flatstock Stage is next to Flatstock, a poster art display and sales exhibition. Also in the exhibit hall--farther from the stage but not far enough--is an exhibit promoting music gear, including guitars. A random cacophony of guitarists "shredding" formed the Flatstock sonic background. It wasn't too bad on Thursday but was pretty annoying on Friday. I didn't spend much time at the International Stage.
A typical SXSW set is 40 minutes, followed by a 20 minute changeover to the next band. On this day I bounced between two stages in the convention center, sometimes catching less than half a set before running off. I was, once again, impressed that so many acts played on time.
Fantastic Negrito, 2 pm, Radio Stage, Austin Convention Center
Very Zeppelinesque blues rock, but with more-meaningful songs and fewer guitar pyrotechnics. I missed part of their set to see CallMeKat, but came back. Fun.
CallMeKat, 2:15 pm, Flatstock Stage, Austin Convention Center
From Denmark. One woman loops/electronics show. Great voice. Pretty songs, in English. I hope she will forgive me for not calling her Kat.
Sunflower Bean, 3 pm, Radio Stage, Austin Convention Center
Kind of prog/punk with cool loopy guitar lines. I liked them.
Wild Feathers, 4 pm, Radio Stage, Austin Convention Center
From Nashville. Super cachy Byrdsian rock/pop. Songs were a little too straight forward for me, but everyone else in the universe ought to like it. I snuck away to see...
Hunter Sharpe, 4 pm, Flatstock Stage, Austin Convention Center
Noisy emo rock. They look better than they sound.
Charlie Faye and the Fayettes, 4:45 pm, Flatstock Stage, Austin Convention Center
Super fun retro (as in pre-Beatles) rock. Come out to see them if you are ever in Austin. I hope they tour. I scored a free CD and look forward to hearing it. Update: The CD, simply called Charlie Faye and the Fayettes, is great! Spectoresqe girl group pop. Fun songs. "You've got the green light, baby!"
The DMAs, 5 pm, Radio Stage, Austin Convention Center
From Sydney. Very emo, quiet/loud/quiet/loud rock. No stage presence. Lovely songs, but the loud/quiet/loud thing was a little much. They sound better than they look.
When it comes to buying CDs, I like songs I connect to and can sing. There are exceptions. I like jazz, classial and other interesting music. I enjoy recordings of Led Zeppelin concerts but don't get excited about their songs.
I have a pair of their recordings from Europe in 1973 that I think of as the Page/Bonham guitar/drum duets.
Thursday, 3/17 II
I was feeling wiped out so napped a bit before catching...
Dressy Bessy, 10 pm, Continental Club
Punk. Or maybe psychobilly. Intense.
Boulevards, 10:30 pm, 3TEN
Funk. "You look sexy out there!" he says to a group consisting mainly of overweight white people. I have no idea what it's like to perform, much less in this situation. Some venues had sparse crowds, but the performer has to expect that someone important might be present. They put it out there.
The Dead South, 11 pm, Friends
Amped up old time roots music from Saskatchewan. Check the big fiddle on the left. Very fun.
In answer to a friend, that thing is definitely a fiddle of some kind, which is what the band called it. It has string and stringboard configuration of a fiddle rather than a guitar, making it easier to bow. It was used both ways.
Bleached, Midnight, Barracuda Backyard
Retro punk rock. In this case retro means surf-guitar-ish noises.
Shannon and the Clams, 12:15 am, Cheer Up Charlie's
I'd heard of these guys and figured they'd be kind if fun. They were. Retro pop.
Calliope Musicals, 1 am, Tellers
This is what a normal band looks and sounds like if you take a lot of acid. But with Calliope Musicals you don't need to take the acid! Yay! They are quite similar the parallel-universe version of the Flaming Lips (that's for those of you who visit parallel universes). They came on at 1 am with lots of energy. In one song they quoted a bit of Talking Heads' Psycho Killer, just for fun.
A great band. The songs sounded quite good. All the visual weirdness means nothing without good songs. I got into the music and the audience participation. Enjoy!
Southby has overlapping Music, Film and Interactive festivals. This year there were several music-related films that music-festival attendees could check out.
My day began with a film called "Bang! The Bert Berns Story." Bert is someone you probably never heard of but his story was fascinating. He wrote Twist and Shout, produced Van Morrison's song Brown Eyed Girl, founded Bang Records and had a lot of mobster friends. His mobster friends could get an artist out of a bad record deal or, on the bad side, harrass Neil Diamond for leaving Bang Records. The 2 hour documentary never dragged or fell into cliches at all. Fun slice of rock history. Now back to music...
The Weather Station, 2 pm, Flatstock Stage, Austin Convention Center
Lovely singer/songwriter story songs that begin and end in an informal way. Like actual stories. This was the version of TWS without a backing band. The full band was there for the club shows, but the lead singer thought the Convention Center would be quieter. It was, but a background of random guitar shredding from the exhibitor hall was ever present. Sponsored by Weird Canada.
When I posted this on FaceBook, I suggsted that we need a Weird USA to counter what everyone else in the world thinks is weird about us. We're already putting our weirdest foot forward, I think. We just need a better foot. My sister Carolyn replied. "Not sure we're putting our WEIRDest foot forward......more like our 'bat-shit crazy'est foot. Some genuine WEIRD would be delightful!"
Faith Healer, 2:50 pm, Flatstock Stage, Austin Convention Center
Another Weird Canada artist. Quiet, post-Cale Velvet Underground vibe. Like The Weather Station, they grew on me. Every time I thought there might not be much to their songs, they threw in something interesting.
Young Rival, 3:15 pm, Friends
Alt rock. They look weirder than the Weird Canada bands but aren't. They sounded good though. This was at the Canadian Blast party. Canada does a great job of supporting, if not exporting, it's art scene.
For Esme, 4 pm, Friends
Electronica dream pop. They had one song that would make a pretty good shout-along feminist anthem, about street harassment. That fact makes me feel bad that I interpreted the lead singer's leather skirt and Pink Floyd t-shirt as an attempt to win the hearts of middle-aged record company weasels everywhere.
Here's another photo. For the weasels. In case it isn't clear, SXSW is very much a music industry networking and development event. Think give-away promo CDs instead of merchandise tables.
Escondido, 4:45 pm, Flatstock Stage, Austin Convention Center
Escondido as a trio playing "a very chill set" at SXSW. They have full band for their other shows here. American roots music. Nice harmonies.
The Hinds, 5 pm, Radio Stage, Austin Convention Center
From Madrid, singing in English. Super fun poppy rock. Four women. Three sing. Two sing lead. They take rock cliches apart and put them back together in playful ways. My favorite song was the one with the guitar solo. The lead guitarist gave the impression that she wasn't allowed to do that very often.
They were being heavily promoted and said they were doing 17 shows over the course of SXSW; 5 today. "Five shows, one shower" said the woman on the far right. Super entertaining. If you get a chance, see them.
Robbie Fulks, 5:30 pm, Flatstock Stage, Austin Convention Center
Robbie Fulks is a great American folk/country/rock songwriter. Sample lyric: "And Alabama's grand, the state not the band." Very witty. Very cool.
Brooklyn Raga Massive, 9 pm, The Townsend
After a trip back to my hotel to recharge electonics (even my backup battery was dead) and a rain delay, I managed to catch part of this very cool performance.
The music is a rush of notes and percussion that combine to produce lovely, mellow, twangy sounds.
Modern compositions in the style of Indian classical music. My limited exposure to Indian music dates back 30 years. A friend turned me on to some of the many songs based on the poetry of some dude named Tagore. Really, I have no clue.
Wentru, 10 pm, Half Step
Jangly latin pop/rock from Chile. I couldn't understand a word, but they sure sounded good.
Thelma and the Sleaze, 10:45 pm, Hotel Vegas at Volstead
Hard rock. I ventured east of downtown into metal land for this one. Too intense for me, but nice guitar playing by Thelma.
Death By Unga Bunga, 11 pm, Icenhauer's
Intentionally juvenile band from Norway. Amped up Beatlesesque pop/rock. Catchy. Their name is the punch
line of an offensive joke. Not recommended (the joke,
I mean; you don't need that pollution in your head).
Stardeath and the White Dwarfs, 12:15 pm, Soho Lounge
Their psychedelic music is reminiscent of the Flaming Lips, but without the great songwriting. I was interested in them because I liked their collaboration with the Flaming Lips on a recording of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
Among the several lengthy instrumental passeges was one drum/bass rhythm fest. That is to say that music seemed to be their focus rather than songs, per se.
I began the day with another taste of the SXSW film festival, a documentary called Gary Numan: Android in La La Land. It was interesting but didn't get as far into his Asperger syndrome as I might have liked. It also suffered from the cliche of the classic success/obscurity/comeback story line. But his daughters were super cute.
DietCig, 12:45 pm, Cheer Up Charlie's
Super fun boppy pop/rock. Guitar and drums. Cute songs. Shredding. I was looking forward to this and they didn't disappoint.
Ruby the Rabbitfoot, 2 pm, Radio Stage, Austin Convention Center
Pretty electro pop. "Welcome to our gymnasium show." For some reason the Radio Stage schedule on Saturday ended early, so this was the last act. They finished their 40-minute set in 30 minutes and walked off unceremoniously. I was sad to see them go.
As I mentioned before, SXSW gigs can be tough. Anyone who ends up on the Radio Stage is probably there because they are being heavily promoted and, by Saturday, are pretty exhausted. On top of that they have to put on a good show for the people on the other end of the radio or the live stream, even while playing in a cavernous room full of equally tired curiosity seekers.
Sun Club, 3 pm, FLOODfest at the Cedar St Courtyard
Sun Club at SXSW. Cacophony from Baltimore. Beats. Guitar effects. I couldn't tell if they were angry or just loud. It didn't help that they had all lost their voices from doing so many gigs.
3BallMTY, 4 pm, SXSW Outdoor Stage at Lady Bird Lake
Latino beats. The crowd was eating it up. Beautiful cool day. Sparse occurences of music/singing/rapping. I was hoping for more music/singing/rapping. At least my Music Festival Badge got me a free drink.
Calliope Musicals, 5:30 pm, Doc's on Congress
I caught another Calliope Musicals show.
Note the Bernie sticker. I learned they have a CD out (and two EPs) and wanted to take their songs in again. The songs were great. Possibly because this was not an official SXSW event, they had a merchandise table. I now have a CD and two EPs ($15 for the set, just like on their web site). If you have spare cash, please support art.
5 musicians, one singer, two guys facilitating the weirdness (wearing white, waving happy faces in this photo).
Recently voted best band in Austin. The thing that looks like a big keyboard on the far left is an electronic xylophone/synthesizer.
The singalong lyrics are on the sign.
Doc's on Congress. I'm pretty sure the sign is a reference to bicycling.
Miles Ahead, 7 pm, Stateside Theater
Another visit to the Film Fest. The SXSW schedule is so overwhelming that I don't always read the descriptions very carefully. I spent all of my free time over the course of 2-3 weeks clicking and listening to come up with my schedule.
Long story short, if you go to this movie thinking it is a documentary, you are in for great moment of
"WTF?" The WTF moment is built in. The film opens in a documentary style and then shifts gears rather dramatically. After being hit hard by that, I enjoyed the film. Having seen "Bang! The Bert Berns Story" the day before, I was also set up to believe the rest of this fast-and-loose biopic. Fun. Left me wanting to see a documentary on the same subject. Or a series of them. Miles Davis is a big subject.
Big Thief, 9 pm, Bar 96
Big Thief at SXSW. Melodic indie rock. I liked them.
Dirty Little Blondes, 10 pm, Departure Lounge
Folk pop duo. They played in a wine bar with lots of comfy seating. The setting was so nice that I went for a glass of the overpriced wine. Often they do charming alternating vocals within the same line of a verse. Or sing harmonies. For one song, she was the show. They had many friends in the audience, some of whom contributed "interpretive dance" to the last number. I'm not sure where they are from, but it seems to be populated with happy people who fall in love a lot. Fun.
Sick of Sarah, 11 pm, Tap Room at the Market
Melodic fast-paced hard rock from Minneapolis. The rhythm guitarist had a badge that said "tunecore," so that's my new vocabulary word. Catchy. They grew on me.
Oh Whitney, Midnight, Lamberts
Rock. Sometimes folky. Sometimes soulful. Quite good.
AKW, 1 am, 18th Floor at Hilton Garden Inn
Noisy electronic dream pop from Los Angeles. Pretty, but probably not the best thing to listen to at 1 am while sleep deprived. They were low energy and described their performance as "Zen." This was in a hotel bar with lots of seating. I kept nodding off. I failed, as they say, to be an attentive audient. Maybe only Robert Fripp says stuff like that.
Not much happens on the very last day of southby,
so I had time to
vacation. Based on a FaceBook posting from a former politician/current doughnut-king friend of mine, I decided to visit one of the top 10 doughnut shops in the US, Gourdough's Doughnuts. Sugar Shack in Virginia is on the list. Before someone asks, Voodoo isn't.
Anyway, Gourdough's coffee machine was broken so I went across the street to a coffee house for some decaf (the real stuff gets me too wired). No decaf anything, except spiced chai. The chai had just enough hot pepper in its spice mix to reduce it to hipster chow. Yuk. Once, whicle in Portland, I accidentally ordered a hipster-chow PBJ sandwich with hot-pepper-infused marmalade. Yuk. I don't mind hipsters (really!). I just don't like their cuisine. The doughnut was pretty good, but had so much stuff piled on it that it was best approached with a fork (provided). I would have liked it more if I could have picked it up and taken a bite, I think.
Myopia, The Contemporary Austin
SXSW was pretty much over, but my badge did get me free admission to the Mark Mothersbaugh retrospective at Contemporary Austin. Mark was the main artistic engine driving the band Devo, but Devo was just the tip of the iceberg. My few images here don't even touch the meat of his work.
From the exhibit text. I loved this story.
Mark was severely nearsighted and not diagnosed until second grade. He grew up with a warped view of reality.
He worked in small-format postcards and self-produced books because his strong glasses distorted large objects.
Much of the the Devo imagery comes from these works.
His glasses were so much a part of him that he regarded extensions of a person or object as part of the object. The gas mask is part of the soldier. The effects-pedals are part of the guitar. If you think this is an absurd idea, try telling your fellow Americans that they might enjoy living without a car.
From Devo promotional materials (I photographed this snippet of a Devo press release).
When I was young I thought "devolution" was a cute comment on modern culture. But the USA is now the fattest nation on Earth, a host of exercise-deficit diseases are increasing big time, and we are currently raising the first generation in US history with a life expectancy shorter than their parents. To quote one of the art pieces, "de-evolution is real."
Art and commerce achieve symbiosis. Actual advert for Honda scooters.
In addition to exhibiting Mark's art practice and the resulting objects, this exhibit places the dada-esque Devo in a much larger, more interesting context.
The Contemporary Austin
Practal political art at the entrance of the gallery. Large sign. Impossible to miss.
The gallery entrance. The sign is so prominent that it feels like a political statement. Machines that are designed to kill people freak me out.
For what it's worth, the number of gun-containing households in the US has been falling steadily for years. Last time I checked, it was about 30 percent. Now back to music...
PMS and the Mood Swings, 8 pm, Palm Door
It's Sunday evening and SXSW is down to one club. One band on the schedule caught my attention. Melodic retro rock from NYC. They strayed from rock to pop to girl group with hints of psychobilly. Great band to close out my "southby" experience.
Those are the artists I took in. This is my SXSW 2016 diary.
Thanks for reading.
Comments, if any, to email@example.com.
My SXSW Diary / Jonathan Krall / revised March