by Caroline Hirko
OF all the music festivals in Austin, TX none compare to the frenzied mayhem that is South by Southwest. SXSW is a whirlwind romance. It’s what’s best about Austin and dating in general. Just like any new relationship, year after year I think by now I’ve got the hang of it. Yet despite my best laid plans and ‘realistic’ expectations, SXSW can be over and underwhelming at the same time. Both highly rewarding and incredibly frustrating. It can destroy you if you don’t learn to just go with the flow and accept the experience for what it is.
SXSW Music is first and foremost a festival for musicians by musicians. Like an all you can eat buffet of international cuisine, it’s a smorgasbord for music aficionados. It’s a spontaneous clusterfuck of sound. You can literally find whatever genre or artist tickles your fancy.
You can find your comfort food staples, like the large musical headliners, but be prepared to wait in horrendous lines like all the other sheeple. You can end up seeing terrible pop or EDM that literally makes you vomit, or run across a brilliant composer with nothing but a Launchpad and cheap set of speakers – much like our mix of success and failure with shit fast food. And yet you can stumble into real gems, like trying an exotic cuisine for the first time, exposing your ears to a combination of sound and flavors that not only enriches your musical palette, but leaves you a better person for it.
Although the music side of the festival technically runs from Tuesday to Sunday, I started the party early with The Onion and A.V. Club Manic Monday showcase at Red 7.
Courtney Barnett was one of my top headliners to see, and let me state right now that this Aussie rocker is worth every ounce of hype that she’s received. Her set was primarily songs from her new album under Mom + Pop Records, Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit. Here at the very same event was another great band I was fortunate to have seen at SXSW 2013 after the release of their debut self-titled album, METZ. This year leading up to their sophomore album, Metz II, slated to release this spring, I was again pleasantly surprised in their raucous stage performance albeit underwhelmed by a less-than-enthused crowd.
Some notable producers deserving of your attention include the geniuses that are East India Youth (William Doyle) and Son Lux (Ryan Lott). Real Estate was as enjoyable as always, and surprisingly refreshing were the young lads, Hippo Campus, from Minnesota. To my personal dismay, Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen had an absolute snooze fest of a set, minus his hit single, ‘Alexandra,’ from 2014’s solo album, Black Hours. Further disappointment came in Elijah Wood’s DJ set, under the pseudonym Wooden Wisdom with friend Zach Cowie. Despite musical proficiency, the set felt like DJ amateur-hour due to poor transitions and subpar sound quality.
Due to work obligations, I wasn’t able to make it out to the festival until Thursday night for one of the most uplifting and soulful performances at Auditorium Shores by Charles Bradley & His Extraordinaires along with Austin local darlings, Spoon. Not only are both of these acts incredibly entertaining, but both Charles Bradley and Brit Daniel/Jim Eno are masters of their craft. They are able to capture the essence of life and human experience in their superb songwriting, expanding every emotion from heartache and pain to joy and love. The show culminated in fanciful festival fashion with a breathtaking firework display, dedicated to Creative Director, Brent Grulke.
As my Spotify account graciously notified me, I spent the majority of 2014 immersed in my favorite genre, ‘Noise Pop,’ and am apparently the only person mourning the breakup of Chicago band, Smith Westerns. So I was pleasantly surprised to find no line and an intimate crowd at Red Eyed Fly’s Noise Pop showcase, where I caught the beautiful Virginia native Natalie Prass, Australian lo-fi band Twerps, Chicago’s garage punk rockers Twin Peaks, and the Madrid femme fatales Hinds (formerly known as Deers). Sadly, I didn’t stay for Kate Tempest because I wanted to catch Denmark’s Mew, and the great London rocker quartet The Vaccines over at the Container Bar on Rainey Street. As the fates would have it, both Mew and The Vaccines were rained out…on Rainey Street. Thus, I ended up seeing a dismal performance by Robert Delong in the dreary weather, and went home early feeling quite literally sick to my stomach.
Saturday I took it easy on East 6th, Austin’s hip alternative bar scene to the infamous antics of 6th street, to hop around between Burger Records’ 4th annual Burgermania, The Wild Honey Pie’s 6th annual showcase, and Father/Daughter Records’ Liberation Party. The lineups were pretty out-of-control incredible, but personal highlights for me included Hundred Visions, SALES, Torres, Francisco the Man, Mitski, La Luz, and Paperhaus.
And then, just like that most great romances, it ends as chaotically as it started and you’re left wondering if you’re a better person for it. What lessons did I learn at SXSW 2015? Perhaps that the best shows at SX are small and intimate. The best shows are the ones where you don’t have to wait in line, but still get to see great bands. Do the research beforehand and find small, up-and-coming bands. These shows are more likely to amaze you and give you a greater appreciation for all the great musicians at SX without those 3 hours lines!
Here are three up-and-comers from SX you really should check out: