Following a year in 2014 that not only saw Tyler, the Creator get arrested for “inciting a riot” during a show but also a tragic event in which an intoxicated driver plowed into a crowd, injuring close to two dozen and killing four, many people I talked to expressed the idea that 2015 was a “down” year for South by Southwest, the expansive and multi-faceted festival held annually in Austin, Texas. Indeed, the lack of music high-caliber headliners of recent years (i.e. the likes of Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Jay-Z, and Kanye West--all of whom showed up in 2014) was noticeable this year - and the city of Austin’s reduction in the amount of permits available for temporary venues cut down on the number of wild, free-for-all parties. Some attendees were undoubtedly disappointed by this almost inevitable evolution, which saw the event’s promoters attempting to reign things in a bit from the utter insanity of the past few years (admittedly, I was as well), but it’s hard to argue with changes that are designed to increase overall safety.
Chaotic Moon Party at SXSW – Photo by Ed Schipul
All that said, the 2015 version of SXSW still featured some 2000 musicians playing at venues, streets, parking lots, alleys, wherever throughout Austin as well as a stellar lineup of films and exciting tech, and I think the event getting back to its roots as a celebration of emerging talent rather than exhibition of established acts isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Having lived in the Austin area for the past four years and been a SXSW volunteer that entire time, I’ve become familiar with all that this festival has to offer and have, like many “locals,” become somewhat annoyed by not only the overwhelming size and scale of the event, but also the increasingly overbearing corporate presence that hangs over it. Obviously, SXSW needs corporate dollars to stay afloat and grow, but the hard-working and under-appreciated bands the festival was supposed to be about, have frequently been overlooked in favor of well-established performers who hog the spotlight. I’ve always been more interested in hearing the smaller acts in a cool setting than trying to cram into the ultra-packed venues in which the star players perform, so the changes evident in 2015 were perfectly fine with me, and actually indicate a step in the right direction as far as I’m concerned.
This year’s festival, like others before it, brought almost incalculable numbers of musicians and performers to Austin, all of whom attempted to play as many shows as possible during the 10 day event. Perhaps the music genre most well-represented this year’s event in terms of recognizable names was hip-hop: aside from having Snoop Dogg on hand for a keynote session and performance, the festival also gathered artists like Wyclef Jean, 2 Chainz, Big K.R.I.T., Wiz Khalifa,Run the Jewels (who, like many artists at the festival, literally appeared to be everywhere throughout the week) and many others. In terms of rock music, the list of well-known names was significantly smaller: TV on the Radio, The War on Drugs, Spoon, and AWOLNATION arguably being the “biggest.” Nevertheless, the lineup of “hype bands” was typically impressive: from female-led Canadian indie pop group Alvvays, much-lauded Viet Cong, and Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett to lesser-known acts like Ex Cops, Speedy Ortiz, and Pity Sex. In addition, 20 music-related documentaries played at the film portion of the festival, several of which were screened in collaboration with live performances from the bands featured in them: The Damned, for instance, were on hand to promote Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead, while equally (in)famous Louisiana group The Residents showed up to draw attention to Theory of Obscurity. Additionally, the Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck rock doc was picked up for distribution and a theatrical release by HBO, and features about the persecuted musicians in the African country of Mali (They Will Have to Kill Us First) and the famous 808 drum machine (simply called 808) also garnered plenty of attention.
Volunteering for SXSW has its benefits and drawbacks: the whole getting a badge for free thing is pretty damn sweet, but the festival is a “pick your battles” affair to begin with since there’s simply so much stuff going on at any given time. Because volunteering limits what I can attend even further, I often find myself attending more or less random events and performances. The music portion of 2015’s festival kicked off on Tuesday, March 17, and by Friday, all my work shifts had been completed and I was ready to venture into the wild: prepared for battle (and a substantial amount of rain) in order to see some cool shows. After perusing the (staggering) lineup of daytime events, I decided on attending the last two days of BrooklynVegan’s day party that took place at Red 7, a medium-sized, two-stage venue just outside the Sixth Street “epicenter” of the music festival.
Austin, the host city of SXSW, as seen from the Hilton Downtown – photo by Ed Schipul.
The lineup at this dayparty offered a nice mixture of bands I was familiar with and ones that I had no clue what to expect-–pretty much a typical SXSW card. One of the more pleasant surprises was the band which kicked off Friday’s show: a four-piece from Philadelphia called Creepoid. I’d never heard of this band prior to this, but I really dug their set of sludgy and grinding psychedelic rock. The remaining bands on Friday’s schedule alternately delivered music that was really aggressive (the No Age/Pissed Jeans side project Rat Fist and the downright violent Single Mothers) or somewhat more subdued music (Sweden’s Makthaverskan and the aforementioned Pity Sex, who played a very solid and enjoyable set). By the time Pianos Become the Teeth took the stage playing their brand of post-rock-influenced emo, rain was coming down pretty heavily around the outdoor stage, and though I might have wanted to venture inside to get out of the elements, I was glad I braved the weather to hear the solo set (literally, a guy playing an electric guitar) from Superchunk guitarist Mac McCaughan.
McCaughan effectively got an audience that was not entirely enthused about standing in the rain, playing songs both new and old and finishing things off with Superchunk’s “Slack Motherfucker.” With its chorus of “I’m working / but I’m not working for you / slack motherfucker,” McCaughan urged that any audience members involved in the music scene to pay attention to the message of the song. While contemplating that message, I was reminded of the story that broke earlier in the week of how fast food giant McDonald’s was refusing to compensate at least some of the bands playing at their official venue-–until a Facebook post from the band Ex Cops called attention to the fact and the corporation suddenly changed its tune. Friday’s set at Red 7 ended with a performance from the reunited British band Swervedriver, who played numerous shows throughout the week in support of their first album in seventeen years. The band hardly seemed to have missed a beat during that time as they played some classics as well as new songs, and though it maybe wasn’t a slammer of a performance, I certainly enjoyed it.
The choice of entertainment for Friday night was a pretty easy one for me, since weirdo, notoriously anonymous collective group The Residents had scheduled a show in the gorgeous Paramount Theatre, situated just blocks from the Texas capitol building. Though I was prepared (somewhat??) for the bad acid trip that was headline performance--one which found singer Randy, wearing a muscle-bound bodysuit that made him appear nearly nude while keyboardist/percussionist Chuck and guitarist Bob situated themselves in front of a giant checkerboard backdrop that created a Moiré effect overload--the jaw-dropping highlight of the evening for me was opening band su?m (pronounced “soom”). Made up of two tiny Korean females, this performance involved the use of traditional, and often bizarre, instruments in modern, classical-type compositions and mainly featured the juxtaposition of odd, groaning wind melodies with hammered-dulcimer-like string accompaniment. The amount of technical ability displayed here was astonishing, and I was simply awe-struck by the performance as a whole: the standing ovation su?m received at the end of their roughly forty minute set seemed most deserved in my book.
MRY at SXSW 2015 – photo by Anthony Quintano.
Afterward, The Residents unleashed their perfected brand of utterly unique and completely bonkers music in a conceptually-based, performance art extravaganza called “Shadowland” which was punctuated by a series of humorous video vignettes. Randy strutted and paraded around the stage, wailing his vocals with demented glee while Chuck and Bob (sporting skull masks with pipe-cleaner-like dreadlocks sprouting out of them) nonchalantly went about their business alongside. Apparently, this was Chuck’s last performance as a member of the group which, considering he’d been performing with the band since the early 1980s, isn’t altogether surprising, but hearing that I was witnessing the last performance of this lineup made me glad that I had caught this show instead of any of the other events going on around town that night.
For all the delicate, flawlessly performed music of the su?m variety one can find at SXSW, it’s almost inevitable that at least one show will be marred by abysmal sound quality and/or lackadaisical performance – the result of bands playing multiple shows per day under haphazard conditions and with minimal sound checks. Steady Texas rain didn’t help matters at the shows I was at on Saturday, but although the rain can be annoying when attending outdoor music events, any amount of precipitation in Texas is always welcome. Regardless, BrooklynVegan’s third and final day at Red 7 had its ups and downs; on the plus side was Danish band Mew’s headlining set in which vocalist Jonas Bjerre showed off his incredible range and super-smooth delivery, New Jersey’s Screaming Females who positively and literally shredded through their mid-afternoon set, and East India Youth’s throbbing electronic jams which kicked off the lineup.
On the downside was a technically sound but uninspired show from NYC’s Public Access TV and one by California’s Ceremony that I wasn’t sure disheveled and exhausted-looking vocalist Ross Farar would make it through. This was the second of three the band had lined up for the day and points out an unfortunate reality of cramming multiple shows into just a few day’s time: at some point, casualties will happen. The fact that audio engineers have to try and do the best they can in situations that simply aren’t ideal also leads to some problems, which was certainly the case at an outdoor, evening show at Wonderland that I caught a bit of. Featuring a truly eclectic lineup of bands organized by BirdDog Promo and Paper Garden Records, most every performance here was imperfect at best and plain disheartening at worst--a situation not at all helped by the rather atrocious weather during the event’s early hours. Three-piece Shmu, a band who seems a bit like a more socially acceptable version of Lightning Bolt, were plagued by all sorts of snafus, the opening few songs being absolutely drenched in ear-piercing feedback that made them difficult to stomach, and a later set by dreampop band Candy Claws, one that I really wanted to see, was equally sketchy in terms of its audio quality. Still, these issues couldn’t entirely take away from what was one of the best music lineups in town that almost no one knew about.
"Calling this year’s festival a disappointment due to the lack of headline-level shows is thoroughly missing the point."
My Saturday highlight was a refreshingly laid-back and unassuming set by Philadelphia musician Alex G, who performed with a full four-piece band inside Red 7. Much as was the case with a 2014 SXSW set I caught from Meg Myers, Alex’s set was a bit awkward: he didn’t really “play up” to the crowd and appeared somewhat sluggish and shy, wearing a hat and singing down into a microphone so he didn’t have to make eye contact with the room of onlookers. Even if the performer didn’t quite seem comfortable in front of people, the music sounded fantastic with the band’s strangely catchy songs highlighted by shrieking guitar solos that added flash and pizzazz. Though I really like Alex G’s music to begin with (he may have been the performer I was most eager to see going into the festival), what really struck me about this show was how down-to-earth the guy seems: his group’s workmanlike performance was downright impressive, even if it was unlikely to truly knock anyone’s socks off.
Ultimately, SXSW as a whole presents an opportunity for anyone interested in music to stumble across music they might never otherwise have the chance to hear, all while being bombarded by exciting technology (Meerkat was the big hit this year apparently) and a wide range of films. Perhaps 2015 was comparatively smaller than the festival has been in years past, but calling this year’s festival a disappointment due to the lack of headline-level shows is thoroughly missing the point. There was still way too much going on for anyone to keep track of--the scope of the event is so large that no two festival attendees would have an even remotely similar experience--and several big-name musical personalities did show up (Miley Cyrus, for one, made a “surprise” appearance during a Thursday night performance from Mike Will Made It).
For me, the real question is whether SXSW will eventually revert back to its previously held “bigger is better” mentality, or whether the festival organizers will continue to keep things on a level or even tone them down toward its original focus toshowcasing unsigned and/or up-and-coming musicians. There always has an extremely strong music lineup at SXSW and indeed the festival prides itself on being an event that acts as a stepping stone to stardom that many artists use to break through to the mainstream (CHVRCHES, Perfect Pussy, and Haim are some of the more notable groups who have made names for themselves at the festival in the past few years), yet the allure of corporate dollars may be the deciding factor in how things play out in the event’s future. In the meanwhile, I’ll be scouring the list of artists and discovering new music for months to come while counting down the days until next year’s event...