Review & Photos | SXSW Music 2015 | Austin

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Words by: David Schultz
Images by: Scott Dudelson

SXSW Music :: 03.17 -22.15 :: Various Venues :: Austin, TX

Read David’s review after the gallery.

Every March the music industry migrates to Austin, Texas for a week of seminars, workshops and panels, comparing notes on significant issues affecting their core business. Beyond the newsworthiness of the keynote speaker, which this year was Snoop Dogg, this aspect of the South By Southwest Music Festival gets practically no attention whatsoever. Rightfully so, as the ancillary day parties and official showcases, which are where most of the networking actually takes place, turn out to be infinitely more interesting and are the engine that fuels the SXSW machine. Unlike most festivals which strive to feature high-profile artists, SXSW has always focused on up-and-coming musicians, providing them a stage to ply their craft. Whether it’s to be heard by management companies, record labels, journalists that can advance an artist’s career or simply music fans open to hearing something new, SXSW is a stepping stone on any act’s ladder of success.

Unlike most festivals centered on a set of finite stages, SXSW spreads out across a good portion of downtown Austin with nearly 100 venues running simultaneously from noon to 2 a.m. from Tuesday through Saturday. Befitting an event that can accurately be called Disneyland for music lovers, very little at SXSW comes without corporate attachment. Every official and unofficial showcase is designed to promote a specific brand, whether it be online streaming services like Pandora, Spotify and YouTube, shoe companies like Dr. Martens and Converse, music publications like Rolling Stone and Spin, taste-making sites like Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan or touring and booking companies whose names don’t resonate outside of industry circles. Experienced sponsors have learned that the best promotion is to put together a fine slate of bands, decorate the venue – even if it’s just hanging a banner behind the stage so that their name appears in every photo – have an open bar, hire a caterer (preferably one of the excellent local barbecue or Tex-Mex joints) and then stay out of the way. For the most part, sponsors understand that the best way to avoid corporate backlash is to obey the unwritten rule of never trying to make themselves bigger than the artists. By forgetting this mantra or possibly never acknowledging it in the first place, McDonald’s turned themselves into a festival joke. After the monumental PR fumble of mocking the indie-band Ex Cops who just wanted to get paid for implicitly endorsing the billion dollar corporation, the burger giant’s pastel colored outdoor lounge received no publicity, generated little interest and required overnight security to keep vandals at bay. It’s unlikely McDonald’s will be featuring its SXSW experience in any of its future “I’m Lovin’ It” ads.

SXSW’s main charm is the ability to see bands in venues much smaller than they regularly play. At the Rolling Stone party on Tuesday afternoon, TV On The Radio played a set at Mellow Johnny’s bike store for approximately 700 people. Where larger venues sterilize TVOTR, separating the audience from the swirling textures they create, in cozier environs their soundscapes envelop the entire crowd, generating a feel otherwise missing from their bigger shows. The same can be said for The War On Drugs, who headlined Wednesday night’s YouTube function at the inefficiently designed Coppertank, their aural washes reverberating around the space. Yahoo’s Brazos Hall, a relatively roomy yet modestly laid out gallery-style space, played host to sets by Heartless Bastards, who kicked out a greatest hits set, and Black Joe Lewis, who has completed his transformation from James Brown inflected rocker to down-and-dirty guitar shredder. Unquestionably, the greatest disparity between SXSW venue size and an artist’s normal audience belonged to Academy Award winner John Legend, who played at Cheer Up Charlie’s along with the artists he’s mentoring as part of the Axe White Label Collective. His sparse piano-accompanied version of “All Of Me” inspired one of the few true SXSW singalongs.

[John Legend]

Last year’s celebration of the music of Lou Reed, organized and led by Alejandro Escovedo and Richard Barone, featured a whole host of New York musicians paying tribute to the legendary rocker. This year, in conjunction with the debut of Texas chronicler Joe Patoski’s documentary Sir Doug & The Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove, many of Austin’s notable musicians gathered to honor the underappreciated repertoire of San Antonio native Doug Sahm. Charlie Sexton anchored a stellar house band that covered practically every song in the Sahm catalog over a more than two hour set which featured appearances by The Iguanas, Westside Horns, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, his sister Patricia Vonne, Luluc and Steve Earle, as well The Texas Tornados, the band fronted by Sahm’s son Shandon that continues to carry on his legacy. Recognizing that the near capacity Paramount Theater might be the band’s biggest gig, Shandon Sahm seemed disinclined to let the night end, his excitement palpable to the rafters.

The biggest buzzes of the week surrounded Australian rocker Courtney Barnett and retro-soul revivalist Leon Bridges, whose vintage look and sound echo back to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. They were both hard to miss, each playing at least a half dozen sets over the course of the week. Even though more than a year’s passed since their viral appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, Future Islands’ appeal hasn’t diminished one iota. The rest of their catalog may not rise to the level of their marvelous single, “Seasons (Waiting On You),” but their set at the Coppertank demonstrated why Sam Herring is the most captivating singer fronting any band today. Far from just singing a song, Herring delivers it as if it’s the last one he may ever sing. Over the one hour set, the chest pumping, glory posing and hypnotically sinuous dance moves never grew old.

[Courtney Barnett]

A cornucopia for music fans, SXSW sometimes proves an ordeal for the bands running from set to set. Foxygen’s Sam France had a memorable breakdown on the Red 7 Patio a couple years back and Savages’ Jenny Beth once finished their last set of the week by cursing out the entire festival. On Thursday afternoon at The Scoot Inn, Elias Ronnenfelt, lead singer of the noise making Danish band Iceage, appeared to simply give up on the entire performance. Sitting on a chair with one leg crossed, Ronnenfelt disinterestedly recited the lyrics to each song while members of the audience heckled him to “give a shit.” On the other end of the spectrum, Diarrhea Planet opened the patio stage of the Midgetmens’ Jumpstart fiesta at Side Bar with an enthusiasm rarely seen at a noontime set. Treating the entire patio as a stage, the band’s phalanx of guitarists leapt upon every speaker and picnic table they could find to entertain those that braved the imminent rain.

SXSW gives you a wonderful opportunity to see artists that you would probably never see but for the relative ease of catching a timely set. In that vein, poet turned rapper Kate Tempest proved to be an absolute revelation. Joking that she gets criticized for having too many words in her songs, the delightfully charming Brit unleashed a torrent of them over the synthesized beats generated by her producer Dan Carey. As her set at the Red Eyed Fly was being broken down, Tempest regaled the crowd with a bit of slam poetry that was legitimately moving and created a truly emotional SXSW moment. On the other end of the aural spectrum, Ireland’s Girl Band proved to be quite interesting, their set being the primal scream that is the ticking time bomb of 21st century madness. Occasionally, SXSW will attract a 1980s oddity like Men Without Hats or Gary Numan (who decidedly was no joke) that draws interest out of sheer curiosity. Even though they have almost 50 years under their belt, The Zombies probably wouldn’t have had half the crowd they drew to Stubbs were it not for their conveniently timed Thursday evening set.

[Kate Tempest]

The sheer volume of sets cannot help but produce some idiosyncratic moments. Whether its Jon Dee Graham foregoing a pitch of his own album to laud James McMurty’s Complicated Game at a daytime set at Dogwoods, Quiet Company’s Taylor Muse jumping into the crowd and bringing their cover of Elton John’s “Bennie And The Jets” into the laps of everyone at the Parish, Alvvays’ Molly Rankin imploring the crowd at Cheer Up Charlies to let all the shorter people up front so everyone could see, Sam Pace railing against the unoriginality of pop music in the midst of a set where he cribs blues licks right out the Hendrix and Led Zeppelin playbooks or Kabaka Pyramid attempting to give the Flamingo Cantina a lesson in the sociopolitical history of Jamaica as the clock neared 2:00 a.m.

Easily, one of the most memorable moments occurred on Tuesday night at Buffalo Billiards, an oversized pool hall. Despite working fine for Songhoy Blues – who sound like a fine cross between Toots & The Maytals and Toubab Krewe – the sound system wouldn’t cooperate for British rockers Dry The River. After one attempt to move the show into a side room was deemed a fire hazard, Peter Liddle, Matthew Taylor and Scott Miller stood atop a table in the main ballroom with one acoustic guitar between the three of them. Battling the din from the game room below, the three harmonized through an acoustic set unlike any of their other offerings from the week. It turned into a true reward for the few dozen fans that stuck out the ordeal.

Notwithstanding the immense variety of genres at SXSW, it never fails to bring the rock ‘n’ roll. Texas’ Israel Nash overcame the first true rain shower of the week at The Gatsby by offering up a wonderful set of Neil Young inspired guitar rock. The Yawpers, an intriguing trio from Denver, managed to generate a mighty sound with only a pair of acoustic guitars and drums. In fairness, the acoustic guitars were wired to the hilt. Rev. Peyton’s Big Damn Band served up the finest hillbilly swamp rock heard on any side of the Mason-Dixon line. About the only thing that could draw more raves then the good reverend’s resonator guitar was his wife Breezy’s penchant for lighting her washboard on fire. Heaters, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, crafted a heady mix of psychedelic rock while Twin Peaks, Palma Violets and Cloud Nothings simply blew away the Bar 96 crowd on a rainy Friday night. Hands down, the finest band whose sound echoes the past was Ultimate Painting. Following up on an enlightening run at CMJ, the British band kept their buzz going with sets that displayed their mastery of the bluesy elements of The Velvet Underground, their extended, “Talking Central Park Blues,” a direct descendant of, “What Goes On.”

[Buskers On 6th Street]

While Sixth Street and Red River may serve as the focal point for most of SXSW, the Sabbath-inspired hard rock crowd that craves powerful licks and substance over form tends to find themselves east of the highway at the sprawling Hotel Vegas and its neighboring Gypsy Lounge, which has its own mini skate-park. Hard charging outfits like JEFF The Brotherhood, The Spits and Thee Oh Sees played memorable sets but none more so than California’s The Shrine. Propelled forward by guitarist Josh Landau’s lightning solos, The Shrine’s cosmic jams achieve the hardcore goal of being felt as well as heard.

It’s not a proper SXSW without finding one band that truly leaves you awestruck. This year, I give you Death By Unga Bunga, who proclaimed to come from the North Pole. (They are actually from Norway). Rifling off a barrage of straight from the garage punk rock while dressed like they might be playing a Tiki lounge, the delight comes from the fact that they give off no British, Aussie or American affect or attitude, which often can be inextricable from any punk band’s delivery. Getting past the silly name – which is a punchline to a very funny joke -their Saturday night set at Valhalla was easily one of my favorites.

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