South By Southwest 2019: Notable Sets & Standout Moments

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Words by: David Schultz

SXSW :: 03.11-16.19 :: Austin, Texas

Each March, the film, tech and music industries focus their attention on the South By Southwest Festival, taking over much of downtown Austin, Texas for a wide variety of symposiums, panels, speeches and showcases. Where most festivals make the economically prudent decision to revel in the present and celebrate the past, SXSW looks ahead to the future. While the film and interactive portions of the festival have grown in stature, it’s the music portion – attracting nearly 2,000 bands from all over the world – that remains South-By’s centerpiece. Where the appeal of many festivals is the opportunity to see acts you already love, SXSW’s allure is loving the opportunity to see acts before they have festival appeal.

With unofficial parties taking place during the day and official events taking place during the evening, it’s a mainline to the jugular for serious music junkies. Over the course of a week, showcases take place in proper venues, neighborhood watering holes and restaurants, sunbaked patios, sparse cement block caverns and rooms that are nothing more than four walls, a bar, a raised platform and a borrowed P.A. With foresight and intrepidness, it’s a marvelous chance to see buzzed-about bands like The Beths, Illuminati Hotties and Black Pumas without making an entire night of it. If they don’t catch your fancy, you can just walk down the road to another venue or often, the next room, to see who’s playing there. It’s also the opportunity to see bands named Olivia Neutron-John, Flint Eastwood, Jesus Christ Superfly and Psychedelic Porn Crumpets for no other reason than to tell people that you did.

Known for its scope, breadth and outright sprawl, SXSW’s 2019 edition felt considerably scaled down. Sixth Street, always difficult to navigate due to chaos reminiscent of Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, seemed surprisingly tame and traversable without feeling like a spawning salmon. Also downsized were the number of venues, events and attractions. Noticeably missing from this year’s South-By were the annual NPR Showcase at Stubb’s, YouTube’s slate of performances at the Coppertank, Pandora’s presentation of high-profile acts at The Gatsby, the normally well-curated showcases at Blackheart and Sidewinder who shuttered their doors in the past 12 months and SouthBites, the gourmet food truck bonanza just off of Rainey Street and any trace of Rolling Stone, Spin or Pitchfork. Even the Best Wurst trucks and Chupacabra hot dog stand were nowhere to be found.

However, not everything old faded to dust. The Side Bar continued to play home to Midgetmen’s Jump Start and Athens In Austin, two of SXSW’s most dependable day parties; Willie Nelson re-invited SXSW-goers to his ranch for his Luck Reunion; Brooklyn Vegan hosted their eclectic Lost Weekend III; the Miles Davis House returned to Antone’s and Brooklyn Bowl held their 2nd Family Reunion at the Scoot Inn, partnering with Consequence of Sound, Relix and Brooklyn Vegan for wonderful slate of shows. In shedding a bit of corporate gilding while keeping some of the idiosyncrasies that occur when business meets art, this year’s SXSW felt a bit like the older versions that focused more on music and less on brand management.

With hundreds of bands playing at dozens of venues, its difficult for any single act to make a lasting impression. Nonetheless, it would be hard to ignore White Denim’s week. There’s always been a strong argument that the Austin natives are the best band going and SXSW did nothing to refute the claim. Founding members James Petralli and Steve Terebecki are now joined by Greg Clifford (drums) and Michael Hunter (keyboards) and have not sounded as vital or present since Austin Jenkins and Joshua Block departed to join up with Leon Bridges. With sets at the Scoot Inn during the Relix/Brooklyn Bowl showcase, Cedar Street Courtyard for the FloodFest day party, Hotel Vegas for the Austin Chronicle function and at Radio Milk, their recording studio, White Denim unleashed enervating sets focusing mainly on their last three releases and touching upon their upcoming Side Effects. By including “Drug” and “At The Farm,” it becomes startlingly clear how they’ve never succumbed to rehashing past glories in their future work. They’ve had many opportunities to record D II, yet never coasted downhill. Rarely has a band sounded like themselves for such a lengthy period of time without resorting to repetition.

Over the last two years, Shame, a staggeringly compelling outfit from South London, electrified crowds throughout Austin with their modern-day update on The Stooges’ genre-defining crunge. Their influence is starting to be felt as many bands are starting to lean hard into Shame’s mélange of industrial punk. As part of an explosive double bill at the DIY Presents showcase at Swan Dive with Irish punks Fontaines D.C., Sweden’s Viagra Boys launched their initial visit through the United States with a highly anticipated SXSW run. Lead singer Sebastian Murphy, who may be more tattoo than skin, energized and menaced the densely packed backyard patio, ironically taking the piss out of America with “Sports.” It’s loud and boisterous punk rock from people that know how to play their instruments, not unlike the middle of any Velvet Underground version of “Sister Ray,” only with saxophone. Similarly, Aalanche Party, a band belched forth from the North Yorkshire Moors, captivated the SXSW: In The Garage event at the 720 Club. Spreading out into the crowd due to the minuscule stage, guitarist/lead singer Jordan Bell intensely tried to make eye contact with everyone in the crowd, prowling the tiny confines with Adderall-like focus. Heaven help anyone Bell might ever catch looking down at their phone.

As far as headliners, in lieu of a Springsteen, Timberlake, Kanye, Gaga or reunion of The Strokes – who have all played SXSW stages over the past few years – the biggest names to grace a SXSW stage were Lizzo, who headlined the Ticketmaster showcase at Stubbs, an event that likely sent chills up the spine of any proper grudge-bearing Pearl Jam fan, and De La Soul, who laid bare their current grudges at the StubHub showcase at Banger’s Sausage House & Beer Garden. Where Jimmy Cliff, Donovan and Yoko Ono once took career victory laps around downtown Austin, this year The Crazy World of Arthur Brown, equally known for his attempts to set himself on fire as for his ’60s chestnut “Fire,” proved an irresistible curiosity at the LPR X Psycho Entertainment showcase at the Empire Garage.

From another generation, The Crazy World Of Arthur Brown, a true ’60s artifact, resurrected their trippy antics nearly 50 years after the pinnacle of their success. Breaking out the macabre makeup and old costumes – a cross between Holy Grail Monty Python and Game Of Thrones woodland denizen – while digging deep into their catalog of philosophic voodoo ephemera, Brown delighted a crowd that likely possessed little recollection of the band’s original performances. Sadly, the nostalgic tickle in seeing Brown reprise his “God Of Hellfire” persona and belt out a lengthy rendition of “Fire” would be surreally short lived. Hours later, the terrorist slaughter in New Zealand would dominate headlines with a disturbing link emerging between the shooter and “Fire.” In response, Brown canceled the band’s remaining set at Waterloo Records and it’s unclear where the reunion goes from here.

Aughties nostalgia proved to be a fine draw as Broken Social Scene, the Arts & Crafts Canadian collective that were the darlings of the MP3 blogosphere, reemerged after a long hiatus and were ubiquitous throughout the week. Feist, Emily Haines and Jason Collett may no longer be in the fold but Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning remain the beating heart of the conglomeration. Drawing sizable crowds with every set, BSS debuted songs from their recently released EP, Let’s Try The After – Vol 1, but it was the romps through “Ibi Dreams Of Pavement,” “7/4 Shoreline” and other 2000s chestnuts that delighted the crowd.

Going back a little further, Mike D, in town with Adam Horovitz to discuss their recently published Beastie Boys memoir, offered an early afternoon DJ set at the Rachel Ray Feedback party at Stubb’s. Playing old-school rap and hip-hop, he included “So What Cha Want,” “Sabotage” and other Beasties’ classics, dropping the sound to rap his lines live, offering the closest thing left to seeing the Beasties live. Taking heed of how times have changed since the release of Licensed To Ill, the girlies he now likes are “OVER age.”

One of the more delightful incorporations into the 2019 event was a jam scene staple, the Grateful Dead cover set with an intriguing sit-in. Concluding the Relix/Brooklyn Bowl day party, guitarist extraordinaire William Tyler joined Garcia Peoples, a wonderful young jam outfit from Brooklyn, New York, for runs through “I Know You Rider,” “Deal,” “The Other One” and “Don’t Ease Me In.” With most everything at SXSW taking place with a purpose or end goal in mind, the true joy of the Dead set was that it simply existed for the joy it created.