SXSW 2017: Washing Ashore in a Sea of Songs,
Mar 24, 2017
Photography by Stephen Mayne Web Exclusive
The annual South by Southwest conference has an ever-expanding number of strands, but it's the music festival that remains the biggest draw. Each year, acts from around the world come flooding in to play a series of sets across just about every venue capable of fitting a microphone stand in the city of Austin. It's where careers are made and hopes can fade away to nothing. It's also an exercise in organized chaos that takes some getting used to.
Over three evenings I saw 18 shows from 15 bands across 10 venues. Sometimes lines were orderly, volunteers plentiful, and equipment worked just fine. In other cases simply attempting to find a way in proved a feat of endurance.
The experience, bewildering as it proved at times, saw far more positives than negatives. SXSW is an odd combination of music festival and intimate concert. Tens of thousands flood downtown, a mixture of industry figures and locals, but nearly all the shows take place in pokey bars and outside patios. Anywhere performers can set up, they will.
And they did, an array of exciting new acts occupying the city. Only occasionally did grizzled veterans elbow them out the way, fervent fans toeing along in their wake. With so much, and so much of it unknown, the common question I heard was "who's playing?" Most of the time the answer was a shrug. A little bit of planning, and a willingness to go with the flow, and you can get a lot of music in though.
I started across the Atlantic with two British bands: up and coming London four-piece The Big Moon, and retro-flavored Kettering rockers Temples. The former, an all-female group fronted by the charismatic Juliette Jackson, is releasing its debut album in April. Jackson led a solid set of catchy pop rock, but it was cut short by delays, and hampered by an only slowly filling venue, large numbers stuck outside waiting to be let in.
Temples delivered something similar, working through proto-psychedelia with competence but only minimal swagger. Lead singer James Bagshaw wore a neat brown pull-over, mixing hipster style with an old man watering the garden look, adding a bit of character to a show that saw little in the way of audience interaction. The music hit the spot for the already converted, though it lacked standouts.
Crowd interaction remained a chronic problem. One musician told me SXSW is such a big deal it can lead to nerves. No one wants to make the mistake that means attention turns to someone else on the bill. This attitude, understandable as it may be, crippled a few acts.
It didn't help that mic problems kept re-occurring. Hamilton Leithauser, no first-timer himself after fronting The Walkmen for years, could only be heard close to the stage. The superb music from his latest solo album I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, a collaboration with ex-Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij, came through, but his vocals didn't. He spent the first couple of tracks gesturing off-stage for levels to be raised. They were, though not enough. He still managed to capture the crowd with entrancing melodies and a series of slow-build tracks, but a show with the potential to be the best I saw lost a little magic.
New York indie rockers Future Generations had it even worse at a venue down the street. Lead vocalist and keyboard player Eddie Gore cut a frustrated figure trying to explain he was screaming into the mic as loud as he could. His vocals remained inaudible throughout. It didn't seem to matter so much for British now-trio (having gone through line-up changes of late) Mt. Wolf, strolling off into a brand of soaring dream pop oblivious to any problems. The band delivered a mightily impressive performance for a 1 a.m. set on a Wednesday night, playing to a crowd somewhere between drunk and asleep. There was a lot of swaying going on, not all of it entirely rhythmic. With their debut album out later this year, they put down a strong marker.
Thursday saw generally higher levels of confidence and energy. Californian rockers Partybaby certainly helped, blitzing through a set including a furious new political song and a brief burst of REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)." In contrast to previous singers nervously clutching the mic as if it might shatter at any moment, Jamie Schefman went wandering off around the audience, dancing on tables. When I saw them again on Friday, he closed the set on his knees in the middle of the floor surrounded by delighted onlookers. Alongside killer tunes, they brought the rock 'n' roll, downing tequila shots mid-set, before returning to furiously hammer instruments.
A similar feeling emerged from Norwegian four-piece Sløtface playing to drunken St. Patricks Day revellers on Friday. Led by Haley Shea, who morphs into a whirlwind of energy on stage, they all radiated confidence, burning up an adoring audience. A tight performance dashed through a number of tracks from their upcoming debut. Shea even found time to hurl T-shirts out before arranging an ad-hoc merchandise box in the interval before the next act.
Not everyone is a hungry newcomer of course. On Thursday night, Future Islands played to a packed house that offered the most American view possible. From my vantage point I could see towering skyscrapers, government buildings made to look like something from old Europe, a sliver of nature, fast food signs, and the interstate. Not that the band can't hold attention. Channelling introspection into New Wave electro pop, songs build into anthemic finales.
Standing center-stage, frontman Samuel T. Herring cuts an odd figure. He dresses like an insurance salesman preparing for a boating holiday, before going into a frenzy, quickstepping all over the place until he collapses in a puddle of sweat. It was a dazzling performance from a band that had a large line outside for a reason: Proof older hands can still kick through the gears to generate excitement.
Not everyone can though. Weezer was the big draw for my Friday night, and almost unbelievably I discovered they've never played SXSW before. In truth, Rivers Cuomo's outfit were an odd fit, in an odd venue. The hall the band was stuck in felt like it should have contained a neighborhood watch meeting or a small arts and crafts market. Weezer also bring a very different energy. Hardly new to the game, they have little to prove, and need impress no more fans. Plenty already adore them.
It's a strange thing watching an already successful band in a land of those on the make. Everyone in the room sang along to every track, turning it into the lazy day chilli cook-off equivalent of a show. Sure it was pleasant, but it also felt flat, and not really what SXSW is about. Give me Hippo Campus bobbing through jangly love songs and dedicating tracks to a shiny Mazda on a podium, or French band VedeTT playing into a stupor any day. Or give me Her's, an unlikely looking duo from Liverpool who went from a forgettable start to intoxicating funk, all while working through a bag of M&M's.
It's why I closed on Partybaby again, playing through faltering equipment. It was as crazy as before, with members from a previous band beckoned on stage to dance around and bash cymbals while the Californians got their jam going. It's that memory I'm left with, and that sound still ringing in my ears.
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