There is a reason why events unnerve anyone. At SXSW everyone can find a different story. And that story plays out differently with every choice you make. Imagine: when you choose to eat at one restaurant you are turning down hundreds, if not thousands of deserving establishments in your fair city—at SX when you affirmatively head down one of many diverging roads to see a band, you are implicitly (but not knowingly) rejecting at least hundreds of other potentially deserving bands–each of whom you can hear groan when they learn they were not let in your tourney–at least on that day or that evening. Simultaneously, you have created a path where anything could still happen–just be ready.
I am not a fatalist, I believe in luck and that an individual’s actions can increase the likelihood luck will migrate towards you. Yet neither you nor an event’s organizers can account for something as unnerving as a tornado/severe thunderstorm such that even a behemoth like SX can be forced to head for cover. On Friday night, this happened, forcing the closing of many outdoor venues and cancellation of many shows, including probably one I thought I was headed for. Instead of cashing in and choosing NCAA > SX or some other show I grabbed an umbrella and stormed towards the alley entrance to Barracuda outdoor to find the gate shut. So I decided to check out the Barracuda indoor entrance, even though it is usually a second and different venue at night, and was fortunate to learn the venue had pivoted by choosing to combine two showcases into one by moving the outdoor showcases indoors–taping off an area in the middle of the floor as the “outdoor” stage.
By converting floor space into a stage, the Barracuda “backyard” showcase suddenly was transformed, into the indie roots of SXSW, an intensely personal diy space with virtually no sound check, no monitors to speak of, an unmiked drum set and the band performing “in the trapezoid” face to face with themselves and/or the audience. For Providence punks GymShorts, this eliminated stage diving–the lead singer/guitarist simply sang directly at, and moshed with guitar and the crowd. Los Angeles’ Death Valley Girls (after a team huddle) chose an alignment where the lead singer and guitarists played and sang directly across from, at and to the drummer–which created intimacy within the band as well as with those watching. It imbued a stormy, blah kind of night full of long into a reaffirmation of what SXSW is all about–raw, new music, connection with performers and just a tinge of nervousness about what might happen next. And that made all the difference.
OK, so what about the bands?
Downtown Boys (Hole in the Wall) — There is enough to write a whole separate article about Victoria Ruiz and her crew from Providence (how did that get to be a punk epicenter?). They are a fiery combination of anti-racist and pro-people diatribes served with a side of thick sax/guitar pulse activating both the body and mind to betterment. The commentary/intros are as important, meaningful and entertaining as the songs, challenging what right the Texas lawmakers or US Supreme Court have to tell people what they can or can’t do with their bodies, the importance of words and context, the meaning of Malcolm X, the evils of slumlords, and how Bruce Springsteen uses more punk words in his songs like “fire,” “burn” and “desire” than most “punk” bands. In fact, even though many compare Downtown Boys to X Ray Spex because they are a punk band with a key saxophone player, Victoria pronounced that her band is closer to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band!
Party Static (Volstead Room) — A chaotic, beautiful mess of a good time from Dallas, featuring two female vocalists who alternatively sing together and then AT each other with almost an accusatory nature reminiscent of Mika Miko. They dance and bump into each other while roaming freeform on top of a pulsing, driving backbeat and black and decker scuzzy guitars.
Fear of Men (Sidewinder)–The ethereal floating vocals of Jessica Weiss combine with the swirly guitar rhythms of Dan Falvey and intentionally off the beaten path drums to provide a haunting pop tableau. About to release their second album, this Brighton group is focusing more on creating space for vocals, eschewing hypnotic guitar interplay for dream time.
Thee Oh Sees (Hotel Vegas-Outside). Now in their 17th year at SX, John Dwyer and his psychotic garage rock express train about to go off the rails are one of my SX traditions of a decade or more!. Basically playing in residence each day, either heading the afternoon at 6 pm or the evening at 1 am, they even started their She Shreds’ set early so they could play a longer set! After changing the band completely last year (not necessarily for the best) John has re-adopted a double drum line up which allows a stronger and faster backbeat for his frenzied revved up Nuggets-infused raves.
Haelos — (Space 2420-what used to be the backyard of Urban Outfitters) –A chill, kind of trip hop band from London that provides a shimmering, moody sound track for what the start or more likely is the end of a late night clubbing session. Repetitive boy/girl vocals, electronica and percussion with some Edge guitar and interspersed recorded historical voices to make you sway–lull your head, shoulders, and ultimately your hips, into submission.
Cosmonauts — (Hotel Vegas Bar) These slackers from Santa Cruz are kind of the west coast version of Parquet Courts, able to outstone the Rolling Stones (think of an amped up Gimme Shelter).
Future Punx (Sidecar)– Talking Heads and Devo are mashed together and brought to a new generation by Brooklyn (you tell me if they are hip or geek) sters.
Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires (Stubb’s) — His escape from the Brooklyn projects is tracked in a 2012 documentary and now at 67, this soul singer is starting to hit the height of his popularity, using a full horn section to help him channel the energy of James Brown and the uplifting spirit of Al Green. that can force you to shake your tail as he On “Changes” (a Black Sabbath cover) from his upcoming release, he slowly but forcefully preaches with bonechilling elegiac sadness about his mother’s passing. He shows the breadth of human emotion with one voice and an earthy horn section.
Diet Cig (Hole in the Wall) –A two piece drum and guitar group form New Paltz, New York, combines adolescent Liz Phair themes with early Wavves emotional power punk, punctuated by Alex Luciano’s whirling dervish kicks and leaps in between verses. Infectious.
Death Valley Girls -(Barricuda–on the floor)- Not letting the whole stage on the floor thing get them down, this LA band charged into their Cramp-infused insistent bloozy guitar grind and fluesy vocals including their song “No Reason” (from which I lifted the title of this piece).
Oscar (Space 2420)– You wouldn’t expect a tall Brit wearing a Disney-character jacket could deliver deep dark vocals and lush harmonies. But when this English popstar gets revved up his music gets , dare I say, Smiths-like.
The Foreign Resort (Tiniest Bar in Texas)–Post punk dark wave dance music lives on in this band from Copenhagen, Denmark. Propulsive early Cure lead bass guitars and automatic drums support roaring and chiming guitars and plaintive vocals about how “everybody is empty now” or how “you are my downfall.” Depression can be so uplifiting!
Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression (ACL Moody Theatre). I admit to being a late adopter of Iggy, but he certainly is one of the Seven World Wonders at this point. A buzzsaw of energy, punching, kicking, preening, waving, daring the audience to come down an f__k him, stage diving–he is literally, figuratively and bodily busting at the seams to keep doing something. Maybe that is the point: like his mentor that he is gonna go out fighting on his own terms. But despite or maybe because of his electrifying persona, the sound of the new material from Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age did not quite do it for me–a bit too slick and not enough of the Iggy primal nature in the sound as in the performance and the feel.
People are always asking about how crowded SX has become after so many years and what impact that has. The impact is significant. Certain places, like Hotel Vegas, with, essentially 4 venues with 2 or 3 bands playing at once have now been “discovered” so that you need to get there early or wait in line or both. And, you have to make a more considered decision if you leave, because you might not get back in. Also, many day parties have become democratized, so that badges do not give you priority as often as they used to (another reason why badges are less relevant now). Sometimes that means trying new or retrying old venues. For example, when downtown and east side got too crowded, I headed for the drag–by the University of Texas, where many of the same groups were playing to much smaller crowds. I escaped there a few years ago and saw Wild Flag, Times New Viking and an early version of Cloud Nothings in one of the best curated showcases, so it was time for a return visit!