An Esquire article written immediately after the event describe South by Southwest 2016 as “the worst-attended, least buzzy version of the...festival in more than a decade.” Having volunteered at the Austin-Texas-based festival for my fifth consecutive year, I can somewhat agree with that sentiment. Originally started in 1987 as a regional music gathering, South by Southwest has expanded its scope greatly over its last 30 incarnations. Slowly but surely, the music portion of the event has, to some extent at least, retreated into the background. When I first attended SXSW in 2011, the music acts were clearly the main attraction, and the festival was a dream come true for anyone looking to see the latest, greatest, and flat-out coolest bands and performers. To be completely honest, my first few years of attending, I wasn't even sure what the so-called interactive portion of the festival was all about: I was in it for the music, with the added bonus of probably seeing a film or two. In the years since, SXSW has seemed more and more like a chaotic industry party, one that has an increasingly noticeable corporate presence looming around every corner.
While the music-related programming continues, it no longer seems to even remotely be the key ingredient of the proceedings, even though it may be the festival's most consistent attention-grabber and profit generator. More than 2200 bands performed at SXSW this year, and while music journalists and publications pumped out the usual lists of “Must See Acts,” even they seemed almost disinterested when attempting to separate the wheat from the chaff. South by Southwest is supposedly about shining the spotlight on up-and-coming bands, and the last pair of years have seen renewed focus on artists who are on the verge of crossover success in the mainstream. Still, much of the attention year in and year out inevitably falls on festival veterans. Chvrches (who've played in town two other times in the last six months or so), Empress Of (billed as a "next big thing" for the last four SXSW's), Neon Indian, and Diarrhea Planet are just a few of the groups who carved out some kind of niche based on past SXSW success, yet keep making spring break trips to Austin .
Having been handed a somewhat terrible volunteer work schedule this year, and with relatively little time to check shows out in the first place, I was more or less left to select a few concerts that I really wanted to see; thus, I avoided most of the “hype” shows taking place throughout the week. Despite hearing stories about an alternately fantastic/disastrous Stooges set from the ACL Festival a few years back, I decided to check out Iggy Pop's Wednesday night gig at the Moody Theater – if for no other reason than I could actually sit in a seat while enjoying the show. Opening acts at the show were somewhat hit or miss, with Fat White Family and Eccentronic Research Council side project The Moonlandingz kicking things off. The group's brand of noisy garage psych wasn't bad, with nifty soulful background female vocals incorporated nicely into the mix, however it was somewhat alarming that lead vocalist Lias Saoudi seemed unable to keep his hands out of his pants. Literally, the guy spent almost the entire set playing with himself.
Second act Noveller was refreshingly different – a solo instrumental project in which layers of looped guitar add up to more expansive, generally relaxed and ethereal compositions. Frankly, catching acts like these are one of my favorites parts of SXSW, as I had no clue what to expect from this artist going into the show. That said, Noveller struck me as an odd choice leading up to Iggy Pop: I noticed several concertgoers literally sleeping through the set and the amount of faces around the Moody Theater drenched in the glow of smartphone screens through the performance was actually somewhat disturbing, perhaps an indicator of one of the unfortunate side effects of SXSW's focus on technology. People are often so caught up in trying to find out where the latest buzz band, impromptu event, or free alcohol are happening to catch any single event that they actually are at.
Once Iggy took the stage (backed up by an outstanding group of players that included Queens of the Stone Age guitarist Josh Homme and Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders among others), the show went quite a different direction. Iggy opened with “Lust for Life” and mixed things up nicely between old songs and new, eventually playing through the majority of new album Post Pop Depression while tossing in a few songs that he's rarely, if ever, performed live. I was amused by the fact that all three tunes included on the Trainspotting film soundtrack – which had introduced me to Iggy Pop in the late '90s – were on the set list, but was more stunned by the way Pop moves around even at 68 years of age. The man sauntered, danced, pranced, and even ran and dove into the crowd at points, making this a hugely-enjoyable performance from one of the highest-profile acts of the festival.
Two days later, after finishing my volunteer shift, I managed to get back downtown for a film screening of We are X, a feature-length documentary about the legendary Japanese rock group X Japan. Though wildly popular overseas (30 million records sold), this group has only managed a cult-like following in the U.S., but it's not for a lack of trying. The gripping documentary chronicles the ups and downs of the group very effectively, focusing largely on drummer/lead songwriter Yoshiki and his ability to hold the band together after not only the departure of its singer, but also the suicide deaths of highly-touted guitarist hide and bassist Taiji. The documentary (directed by Stephen Kijak) also chronicles the manner in which the physically fragile Yoshiki literally pours himself into his live performances, to the point that it's been said without exaggeration that any single performance could be his last.
Being somewhat familiar with X Japan previous to the film, I thought it told the band's story fairly well even if it isn't something that I would label as being a great film, but the best was yet to come as, following a brief Q&A with the film's director, Yoshiki himself appeared with a string quartet to perform a handful of music selections: three X Japan songs, an adaptation of Tchaikovsky's “Swan Lake,” and even a surprisingly moving rendering of David Bowie's “Space Oddity.” The soft-spoken Yoshiki stepped away from his piano to introduce each track individually, briefly discussing the documentary as well as some of the circumstances it covers, and occasionally becoming quite emotional when dedicating performances to his deceased bandmates and father. While not the most bombastic show at SXSW 2016 by far, I could hardly come up with a more compelling and affecting one, and I'm immensely glad I decided to and was able to check this event out.
It's a rather good thing the Yoshiki performance turned out as well as it did, since the rest of Friday night was mostly a bummer. The SXSW mainstay of Japan Nite suffered from the fact that three scheduled acts were refused access into the country due to visa problems, and electrical storms moving through Austin caused additional issues – a free Coheed and Cambria show at Auditorium Shores was canceled entirely, and a show I was very much looking forward to at Stubb's only took place after a 90-plus-minute delay.
Stubb's staff finally announced a somewhat abbreviated performance schedule would begin around 9:30, with a cheer erupting when it was announced that Crystal Castles would go on at 11PM. This was a relief to me, since this electro group was the only act on the card I was sincerely interested in seeing. Having first been introduced to Crystal Castles shortly after the release of their debut album, I'd grown fond of their glitched-out electronic sound and had seen them live a few times during the Alice Glass era. Since Glass had somewhat acrimoniously departed the group in 2014, I was extremely interested to hear what new singer Edith (universally described as “mysterious”) brought to the project – and see if the Ethan Kath-led group would play older songs with the new vocalist performing Glass's original lines.
Playing immediately as the gates were opened, Australia's DMA's opened the set off with a group of finely-tuned rock songs that were, if nothing else, a very agreeable start to the showcase. British group Everything Everything were a bit more to my liking, boasting powerhouse vocals and lots of catchy hooks. Once set up for Crystal Castles began however, there were signs of trouble: instead of taking the stage at 11, the band didn't appear for 20 minutes or more, with various stage personnel seeming to be fiddling with Kath's electronic rig in an attempt to get things to work. When the band finally did take the stage, they made it through roughly two songs, one of which featured Edith performing the voice parts previously sung by Glass, before technical gremlins reared their ugly head. After several minutes attempting to rectify the situation – and with only minutes left in their scheduled set duration – the band made a hasty exit before the already disgruntled crowd grew any more restless.
Disappointing as it was that one of the few bands I really wanted to see could only manage slightly less than ten minutes of music, I did get some answers as to where the Crystal Castles project appears to be heading. Edith does manage to do a fairly competent Alice Glass impression, first appearing from copious amounts of fog, smoking a cigarette and proceeding to dance around with unrestrained glee. At least at this early stage in her life with the group though, her performance feels forced, as if she's having to push the envelope just to maintain the band's status quo – let's not forget that Glass was known to slam an entire bottle of whiskey during a set while frequently jumping off the stage and/or into the crowd. Additionally, if the opening moments of the Stubb's performance are an indicator of things to come, songwriter and producer Kath seems to be mining the world of EDM for material. Personally, I'm not sure I can entirely get behind that decision: it was the glitched-out quirkiness of Crystal Castles that initially made them of interest to me. Trying to sound like every other electronic music project out there strikes me as an iffy decision moving forward.
Friday night's debacle was just the climax of a troubled week for Crystal Castles - they'd previously been booted off the lineup of a Tumblr-sponsored, feminist-themed event after some criticisms were raised about Kath's statements regarding Glass's departure, and the messy performance all but solidified this year's SXSW for me as one that stood as a mostly unfulfilled quest.
Maybe that's the truest description of this festival, one where each and every attendee has to pick battles. There's literally hundreds of events going on at any given time, and the best one can do is to hope that the shows chosen to attend are worthwhile, that they maybe, just maybe, give up one of those moments that becomes the stuff of SXSW legend, a story that can be told with pride every March hence. Yet the reality is that most of the time, one winds up at shows that woulda could shoulda: genuine busts tend to happen with unfortunate regularity at SXSW, the result of people, performers, production staff, and venue personnel simply being stretched too far over the course of a crazy ten days. I've frequently wondered if there even is such a thing as a genuinely outstanding SXSW show; often, it seems like the best one can get is a problematic show that's entertaining and/or amusing precisely because of its imperfections.
If 2016's SXSW was a bit of a downturn, the festival undoubtedly solidified its place as a culturally significant event by having none other than the acting President of the United States and the First Lady both deliver keynote speeches – about as unbelievable an attraction as could be imagined for a festival that started out 30 years ago with a mere 750 attendees. Honest headline acts during the 2016 Music Festival may have, as was the case the previous year, been largely absent, yet a solid line up of recognizable names scattered across Austin's landscape: NOFX (who also did a keynote speech discussing their unexpectedly lengthy career), Peaches, Soul Asylum, Parliament Funkadelic and others played alongside masses of artists looking for their proverbial big break. A further keynote featuring The Minutemen's Mike Watt and X's John Doe sought to explain the origins of Southern California punk and hardcore, making this one of the only times I can remember there being such high-profile speakers who catered to the punk crowd at the festival.
Per usual, SXSW offered up some surprises – the Deftones were added as a last-minute replacement at Thursday's Auditorium Shores gig, even bringing the one and only Bushwick Bill onstage during the performance, and in my fairly limited time downtown, it was in fact a more-or-less random show that turned out to be my favorite. Music may not be the biggest focal point of SXSW anymore, however, it's virtually impossible not to find something to like at SXSW, and the event will undoubtedly continue to be regarded as one of the music industry's most important yearly occurrences.