So it begins....
A considerable amount of research went into this Austin visit. With changes over the last few years happening at SXSW, with less dependency on corporate sponsors and big name acts and an emphasis on discovery and new bands, it was essential to have a clear plan before we arrived.
Despite a new focus on badge holders, and less lineups at venues, there is still a very good chance that if you try to get to too many venues to see bands around the city, you will run into an issue getting into one of the spots.
Nothing is worse then standing outside of a venue trying to see one band when you had a very good option elsewhere, especially if you had just left a perfectly good showcase...so my plan was to find a showcase that featured a band we really wanted to see, listen to all the bands playing there in advance, and we would just stick to one venue.
The plan worked since the festival is about discovery, ...we succeeded and were able to see 95% of the bands we wanted to see...some twice!
Our trip to Austin started on Sunday, March 12. The music portion of the festival starts earlier every year and now Music Badges can get into other parts of the festival including SXSW Interactive which has a number of great music showcases on their own. We arrive...in Austin, a couple of days before SXSW Music festival really begins but there is still plenty to do, and despite our flight being 4 hours late, we arrived in time to get a good night in.
First a showcase that featured Austin bands....one who we had seen before and a couple of new bands. Amherst Live brought out the local acts as well as a night full of free craft ale and food and for those who know us well...you know how much Sandra and I are fond of good Craft beer, so that little surprise combined with some great little bands was a great way to start our visit.
The first act was Erin Ivey, a young Austin singer songwriter with a lovely voice but sadly, she was having a hard time competing with the volume of neighborhood venues who were cranking out some seriously loud dance music. Still, the songs were solid and the beer was flowing, not crowded and very inviting so we stuck around.
Next up was another local band who we had seen in Toronto playing a free show close to our home. Tje Austin a former contestant on NBC series the Voice, this guy has a very very good voice. An American soul artist accompanied by a full band with plenty of horns and percussion, he had no problem competing with the noise and he put together a great set of his own material.
Tameca Jones was up next, Austin's Queen of Soul, and like Tje Austin, has an incredible voice. Well respected in the industry for putting on great live shows, her and her band put on another great set of music. It seems others have discovered her talents as Gary Clark Jr has used her on his albums and the venue is full now with fans and the venue is jumping, especially when she jumps into a very funky version of Elton Johns "Benny & The Jets” Its a full on funk fest now and we are bouncing Tameca, though, is the last of the bands to perform at this showcase so we are off to Latitude for the start of the British Music Embassy.
We arrive at Latitude for the last show of the night and it’s the band Sykes. This 3 piece Electro pop alternative group from London, featured on BBC 1 and NME a lot over the last year or so, put up a very upbeat, smooth and somewhat nostalgic synth laden set of pop songs that is a perfect way to end the night and after a short set, we are off to rest and get ready for the full days ahead.
Monday is a beautiful morning in Austin. The sun greets us as we wake up. As it is still early in the week and the music showcases have really not kicked off yet, the choices are few today but there is one massive party at the Mohawk from noon until 11:30pm that features a considerable amount of bands so we head to the venue after lunch. There is quite a lineup as this is one of the many parties that occur during the festival that are open to everyone, you need not have a music badge, so into the lineup we go.
When doors open, the bands hit the stage, the venue has two stages, a large stage outside and a smaller stage inside so the sets are back to back and there are plenty of them. As a note for anyone that plans to ever attend the festival, be warned, the stage inside is very small so it gets crowded. Best to leave the main stage area a little early, before the band gets off there, and head into the smaller room, to make sure you get a good spot!
First up outside is Chrissy & Hawley. A Dance Electro Pop group that they themselves refer to as nu-disco...is a energetic duo that perform very upbeat and active dance tracks and their onstage activity and fun approach is perfect on a sunny stage outside.
Inside is a complete change of pace and a blistering punk set from The Muncie Girls. This group from Exeter feature a very active lead singer who reminds me of Patti Smith and sounds like she could be singing for Sleater Kinney. The three piece is exceptionally tight and wakes everyone up from the slumber of the nu disco with a set of fast paced punk that is loud enough to push the day along.
Bash & Pop are up next outside and the crowd has grown even more as this band, who features lead singer and guitarist Tommy Stinson (Replacements), is one of the big buzz bands in Austin and they are only playing a limited amount of shows. They perform a blistering set of Alternative rock and roll...very very loud, and it’s a fierce blues based rock that is led by Stinsons guitar work and his distinctive voice, and his band are great. It is a professional crew of musicians and when they jump into a cover version of the Who's "Kids Are Alright"...it is fantastic. Again, picture yourself outside on a sunny day and a very very good band is cranking out a classic like this and pulling it off...its a great little moment during the day.
Inside is a band I have been really looking forward to seeing, Frankie Rose. Former member of the Vivian Girls and Dum Dum Girls, this band features a very dynamic lead singer and her distorted dream like voice and along with a drony, sonically beautiful guitar work, Frankie Rose is a great afternoon band perhaps best suited to a dark late night setting but this show will have to do. Its a very blissful set of music that reminds me a bit of Lush and that pleases me and really hope to see this band again, back in Toronto.
Outside, and another change of pace with the dance band GGOOLLDD Synth pop hooks and upbeat dance tracks by this big 5 piece band, and if dancing is what you are after, you found it outside with these guys. It’s a big sound and a full set of dance pop.
Inside..we switch it up again and we have the 3 piece Alt Rock band Split Single. This band, hailing from Chicago, put out some Replacements'ish rock. Led by former members of Superchunk and Bob Mould Band, they have some great vocal melodies mixed with some distorted riffs and it all works very well. Another great set of rock and roll
Outside our next band was supposed to be Lizzo but she cancelled so, happily, Har Mar Superstar fills in and its a full on funk party led by one of the most charismatic and entertaining singers you will every see. While he may not ook the part, this guy is a talent, his band are tight and it’s one of the most enjoyable sets of the week. He is a popular artist around here and the crowd is bouncing, it’s wonderful to watch and wish it could go on for hours.
Inside it’s another buzz band with singer songwriter Adam Torres. This 4 piece that features some great violin work creates some solid country tinged roots rock led by Adam's solid singing and while a departure from outsides party, it is still rather lovely.
Outside, a rather large crowd has gathered for Noname.This very popular American hip hop artist was associated with Chance the Rapper and got a reputation as a stand out performer and her freestyle rapping style is clearly why this crowd is here. She is great, very entertaining, and with the amount of people who are singing along with her rhymes, its clear this crowd of mostly US college kids are enjoying this as well. She is a very positive entertainer, choosing to smile and dance around even if her lyrics are about some serious subjects. Good fun.
Inside again and it’s loud, messy guitar band and a great set from Mothers. Its hard to really describe what this band produces live. It’s loud, drone, intense and influences are all over this band. The lead singer will reminds me of Angel Olsen or Sharon Van Etten at times but her voice fades in and out around her band that will one minute be at Pixies level and then swing into a prog rock sound.
Outside is probably one of the bigger bands of the day, English electro singer songwriter Sohn Signed to 4AD, Sohn has worked as a producer for a number of different bands but his work on his own is really quite powerful live. He is a singer, multi instrumentalist, and performer, who I gather is singing rather sad songs but you couldn’t possibly tell that by listening to his live show which, is s a brilliant mix of effects and beautiful singing and despite its rather slow pace, its a constant beat that keeps everyone moving. It may be minimal electronica but it feels much bigger live and is a treat.
A quick peak outside from an upstairs patio reveals that despite the fact that there is only one band left at this showcase, there is still hundreds of people hoping to get in for the last band on the outside stage and that is Sylvan Esso.
Sylvan Esso are a very popular indie pop duo. This two piece pop duo features a lead singer and her partner, who provides the samples and beats. They work hard to entertain but compared to Sohn, it seems a little tired. It is upbeat and is making the crowd happy but it is pure pop and not as clever as what we found Sohn to be so we stay for most of their set and move off to Latitude again for the end of the evening
Quick walk to Latitude and the British Music Embassy and we arrive just in time for Jamie Issac. This London performer leads this downbeat electronic group through transitions from ambient electro to hip hop, its bass heavy and upbeat and good for a late night.
It is 1am and the last band of the day is supposed to be Blaenavon but scheduling issues mean they cannot perform and the band False Advertising is here to play instead. A hard edge 3 piece from Oxford and Manchester produce some very loud, hard rock/alt/guitar rock and they have a bite. The guitar work is rather good and this rock band produce some memorable moments despite the fact i am nearing complete exhaustion! It’s a fuzzy and passionate set to end my evening and an easy walk home to rest up for another day!
Tuesday morning finds a chill in the air and lots of discussion on TV and online about storms that are hitting the US. Again, its early and there are only a few showcases today and we choose one in a bar that we enjoy going to called the Blackheart It’s an afternoon that also features a two stage event so there is no downtime
First up, inside the venue, is a band called Swimming With Bears. A pop/nu soul 4 piece that produce some atmospheric guitar based rock its blissful enough and arty and a comfortable start to the day Outside is another 4 piece pop band, from Brooklyn, called Charly Bliss. Synth based guitar rock with another solid singer, it’s another dreamy pop band in the sun, hard not to like
Inside, is Eric Slick, the drummer from the band Dr Dog. These guys produce some solid Alt Pop Americana. Eric has taken his years of experience producing some quality Americana with his former band and, while his new band has a bit more of a bite to it, it still rolls along smoothly with guitar work and his singing pulls it together as he takes the opportunity to be up front.
Outside is the band The Shelters. Touring with Tom Petty, hand chosen by Tom himself, this is a great rock n roll band. They sound very polished and with Byrds like guitars and great harmonies, The Shelters check a lot of boxes if you like guitar rock and they are a great live band. The songs are well formed and with lots of changes of tempo, it never gets dull. Another great show out in the sun!
Hate to leave the sun but have to go inside to see Naked Giants.These guys are a highly touted new alternative punk band from Seattle. Blistering Blues guitar rock moves seamlessly into some heavy punk, they are loud but its a great bit of noise. If you like lively guitar rock, go check them out.
Outside to another change of pace with Ben Sollee & The Kentucky Native. This band are the real deal, a Kentucky band, lead singer/cellist plays in a unique way with some R&B influences and assisted by banjo, fiddle, lots of string and a true Americana Louisiana sound. Drifting off into the sun, these guys play some great bluegrass based folk music and it’s a nice change.
Back inside and we have Split Single again. Another set of rock n roll and it may be louder than the previous set!
Outside is Communist Daughter. Loved their album last year and am glad to be outside in the sun to see them. 5-piece band, with 5-part harmony and a pure indie rock sound. The songs are rather sad as they seem to tells stories of the lead singers past, time spent in rehab and difficulty dealing with his issues but the songs are built up to portray a more sunny look to the future. It comes across well in a live setting and the songs flowed quickly and the set was finished and I was happy to have had the chance to see them.
Inside, its Jamie Isaac again, just as lively as he was the night before and he made the crowd happy inside
Outside, its Ne-Hi.I had very little knowledge of the band before we got to Austin so I was surprised to see a crowd gathering for these guys. As soon as they kicked off their set, people were singing along and it was clear they had some fans around here!. They are from Chicago, a big grunge/garage rock...at times quite similar to The Cribs. There is a quality to the band and do the indie rock thing very well and they do look like they are a band who is just about to break. They appeal to a large cross section of fans and looks like they have a very dedicated fan base already.
Inside we have Johnny P. This Nashville based soul singer songwriter is a very skilled singer. He is smooth and his band plays very well around him and his voice is suited for his R&B style. The songs he has written are solid and he has a good way about him on stage with the crowd and its a strong set.
Outside is the sunny psych rock band Temples. I was curious to see how the new songs translated to a live show and am happy with how they sounded. Having seen the band a few times, it was a typical Temples set and they are quite popular here so the crowd is into them as well.
In the evening we are at Latitude for one band before we take off for the main showcase of the evening. That one band is Dream Wife. Having heard some of their songs, I was intrigued to see how they would manage to pull it off live. It turns out they have no problem playing their hi octane punk garage rock live.
The band is led by 3 young talented women, one from Iceland and 2 from England with a very versatile drummer behind them. The singer has a delicate style about her but the songs are fierce and powerful. The guitar work reminds me of some very good grunge rock bands and the songs are fantastic. They have an endearing style about them that you can’t ignore and the songs are so sonically smooth that the set is over before I was ready to leave them. Definitely one of the better bands I was going to see this week and I am glad I fit them in here
Next up is a walk over to the Spoon showcase. Spoon were asked by SXSW to create a 3 night residency at one bar and curated showcases based on bands they admired.
On the way to Spoon, we walked through the lobby of the Hilton and happily ran into quite a good band playing there. James Junius was playing inside and this kid was fantastic A young political 70's style singer songwriter who calls his music "heartland shoegaze" and I quite liked it. He is a huge Ride, Slowdive and Cocteau Twins fan and you can tell. His sound is unique and a pure sound, his voice was stunning and I am going to have to do more research on this youngster, as I was very impressed
Now we head to the Spoon party just in time to see Big Big Love. This Mexican rock band is heavy on keyboards and a very big sound. It’s an energetic show of dreamy rock songs and being on the big stage set up for Spoon, they have the advantage of professional sound crews and lighting and its a solid show. Nothing new but a quality set of upbeat lively rock songs
Next up is Bright Light Social Hour. These guys were fantastic. I am partial to big psychedelic rock bands and this one fits the bill. Austin based and with albums produced by Britt Daniels from Spoon, these guys are popular here and it is noticeable with the crowd. This band is very good. Great voices, clever guitar work, rhythms that are brilliantly infectious and it all comes together in a perfect package. Its a high quality set of brooding songs or ones that pack a mighty punch and it keeps you on your toes. I am very impressed
A Giant Dog is up next on the stage. These guys are the big buzz band of the festival. The band has been together for a while but its only recently they have come into their own. The lead singer, Sabrina Ellis, is your quintessential lead singer for a punk rock band. She is fearless, and lively and engaging and a fantastic singer. Her band, of four very solid musicians including two guitarists, bass player and drummer, follow her lead and its a great set of instant punk rock classic songs. When Sabrina splits her lip with her mic, and with blood pouring out of the wound, she doesn't miss a beat, she sings, screams and runs around with a manic approach that must be hard to keep up with.
She is onstage wearing a red one piece bathing suit with a hood, it’s an odd sight but it works. Their songs are powerful and about many social issues and the band is unapologetic, they have a message and its coming at you quick. It was a very very good set of punk rock.
Things slow down a bit with a bit of Canadiana and a rare set by the band New Pornographers. This indie rock band has plenty of songs to choose from but their set was quite solid as far as what I was hoping for. A few new songs and a best of set of some of my favorite songs (Brill Bruisers was brilliant) was a great way to lead into Spoon. New Pornographers are one of the premiere indie rock bands out there and they sound fantastic. Dreamy Rock and Roll is great at midnight and this was very dreamy and high quality stuff.
Local heroes Spoon are up next. The band were once based in Austin and a couple of their members including their lead singer Britt Daniel have moved back. Their new album is out the week of SXSW.
There is a huge lineup outside and the place is buzzing. While the bands leading to Spoon have been great, really, most are just here to see Spoon. The guys hit the stage and the place erupts and that includes people outside as well, they can hear and they know the band has started up. Classic hits like "Inside Out" and "The Underdog" light the place up as does new song "Hot Thoughts". Spoon are a very good rock and roll band and they have a lot of high quality songs, it must be tough to pick and choose what songs to play and I think the crowd would be happy with anything. It’s 2am and its time to get back, get some rest, and start again tomorrow.