SXSW Music Journal - Full Festival Review

SXSW Music Journal - Full Festival Review

by jessicajolly / Mar 20, 2015 / 0 comments
Friday, 20 March 2015

We got there three days early and witnessed the transformation, as the small university town of Austin, TX became an enflamed orgy of music, film, comedy and tech conferences. It would be impossible to encapsulate the entirety of SXSW in one review, but we at FestivalsAndGigs have chronicled the best of the music events that we were privileged enough to catch.

MAR. 18 | 5:40 PM
The Fort

One of the most comfortable places to hear music at SxSW was "the Fort," the paved courtyard of what was previously a youth center in a prime downtown location. Some of the most promising bands here are on the program. A giant tentlike canopy holds off the Texas sun, the sound system is clear, and the beer and Southern Comfort are free. There are services offered: free wi-fi for roving bloggers and a guitar technician on hand for traveling musicians in town.

But the Fort isn't affiliated with SxSW, officially. It's a project of the Fader magazine and other corporate sponsors: the big one is Levi's, but there is also signage for Microsoft, which kindly left out free stacks of Zune coasters to replace those shiny plastic discs people have been using. Anyway, the Fort is a leading example of what might be called the "shadow" SxSW, a sprawling array of private advertiser-backed parties that run day and night here in bars, clubs and temporary spaces built alongside the festival's official showcases. There are so many of these events — sponsored by magazines, record labels, blogs and digital-music companies — that a visitor to Austin last week could see many of the festival's major attractions, including performers like Amy Winehouse, without registering for the convention at all.

It's a tricky situation. The parties, collectively, give more bands chances to be seen (at least by whomever the advertisers choose to put on their guest lists). But SxSW has built a huge, reputable convention and festival, winnowing down its official performers from thousands of applicants — maybe a modest imprimatur, but a genuine one. So does that mean the advertiser parties are parasitical, diluting the convention? Or do they create a symbiosis that lets more artists be seen and heard by more people?

It's a tension that hangs over all manner of arts events, from the Sundance film festival Park City, Utah, to the electronic/dance-centric Winter Music Conference in Miami.

But this year SxSW's annoyance with the proliferation of advertiser events has turned into a quiet crackdown. In particular, festival veterans point to a little-noticed lawsuit SxSW filed in a Texas court last November against Jelly NYC and LIVEstyle Entertainment, two New York event promoters who had planned to stage an day party or similar event at a downtown club called Speakeasy, a bit more than a block away from Sixth Street, the strip of bars and clubs at the heart of the festival. According to the lawsuit, the promoters were pitching advertisers on the idea of creating an event there called the "Concert Series at SxSW" and seeking a main sponsor who would pay $200,000 to be part of it.

SxSW sued the promoters for alleged trademark infringement. But the legal papers indicate the festival organizers want to do more than simply keep such corporate-backed events at arm's length. SxSW did not only ask for a court order preventing Jelly NYC and LIVEstyle from mentioning the festival by name in their marketing materials; organizers asked the court to block the promoters of "sponsoring, producing or participating in" any music event at all in the entire county during the running of the official SxSW. (The promoters pulled the event).

Critics suggest that SxSW is being overly protective and is actually reducing opportunities for artists to attend the festival, since the advertisers sometimes pay the way for bands to come; SxSW doesn't.

Roland Swenson, one of SxSW's three principals and its managing director, said he finds it odd that advertisers would accuse him of heavy-handedness. "We have these billion-dollar corporations that come in and cast themselves as the young rebels," he said. "They're not really willing to acknowledge that we created this environment that they're here to use for their own purposes."

Mr. Swenson said the advertisers — many of which hold invitation-only events — run counter to the "egalitarian" spirit of SxSW, where anyone who pays the registration fee has access to its events. An even bigger concern is the festival's continuing ability to book the best performers for its own official showcases.

"Frequently, the big fight for us is over the talent," he said. "What we are worried about is South by Southwest turning into an event where the acts that are most in demand only play these private corporate parties. If it turns into that, then why would anyone sign up for our event?"

MAR. 18 | 4:45 PM
Jandek, an Outsider

Even in a festival devoted to independent music, Jandek qualifies as an outsider. He has released 49 albums -- yes, 49 -- since 1978, on his own Corwood label. They're full of slow, depressive songs, solo or backed by various ensembles, delivered in a sung-spoken croon that has absolutely nothing to do with catchy melody. Jandek didn't perform in public until 2004, and has given a handful of concerts since then. At SxSW he was backed by drums, bass and the kind of hand-pumped harmonium used in Pakistani qawwali music, and he played a guitar that used no known tuning. The songs were somewhere between free jazz and abstract hard rock: a dissonant clangor from his guitar, dissonant clusters and swells from the harmonium, and rhythms that might pound steadily or melt down and flow like lava. When Jandek intoned, "I feel like a failure, don't ask me why/I can't get a good thing going, not in my mind," he sounded like a man wandering the slough of despondency at an otherworldly pace all his own. Apparently the only sign that a song had any form was that Jandek would repeat the first verse at the end. And for the rest of the night, all the other musicians' neatly formed verses and choruses, riffs and arrangements sounded just a little bit constricted.

MAR. 17 | 2:24 PM
The Black Angels

Indie-rockers love drones, and so do I. They bring the power of simplicity and the aura of meditation and ritual; they invoke the eternally hip Velvet Underground, too. I've been hearing a lot of drone-loving bands at South by Southwest, but I don't expect to hear any more perfectly realized than the music of Black Angels, an Austin band whose SxSW gigs have been mobbed.

Black Angels' name echoes the Velvets' "The Black Angel's Death Song," and so does their music with an implacable, steady 4/4 heartbeat (underlined by a second drummer on tom-tom and topped by tambourine), guitar and keyboard drones behind a lead guitar that bends blues licks or fritzes toward feedback, and measured but overwhelming crescendos. But the Black Angels' lead singer, Alex Maas, has a voice that merges the preacherly side of the Doors' Jim Morrison and the high edge of the Pixies' Frank Black; standing nearly still, he delivers the songs as incantations, dire visions he can't turn away from. When he sang, "You just kill kill kill kill/You kill what you have to," it was almost plaintive. The Black Angels play backward-looking rock -- starting one song by quoting the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" was redundant -- but it revives something enthralling.

MAR. 17 | 1:35 PM
Not the Mainstream

South by Southwest has always been a festival with a heart of twang. When SxSW began in 1987, it was a showcase for the local music that had been overlooked by a music business based in Los Angeles, New York City and Nashville, and that meant a lot of Texas honky-tonk roots. Compared to its fall counterpart, the CMJ Music Marathon held in New York City, South by Southwest is still a haven for music that got its own genre classifications in the 1990's: alt-country and Americana. And unlike much of the music business, this festival is hospitable to musicians with wrinkles and gray hair, as the Austin club scene is.

Musicians aiming for the country mainstream don't bother with SxSW; they're busy with the star-making processes of Nashville. But past country hitmakers who have gone their own way, like Emmylou Harris -- who was interviewed onstage during the convention by an admirer, the director Jonathan Demme -- get a fond welcome, and songwriters who bypass current radio fare, either because they're more traditionalist or wilder, flock to sing their stories at SxSW.

In the realm of indie-rock, twang no longer guarantees traditionalism. Old string-band instruments were tossed into new contexts by two worthwhile bands I heard. Illinois -- a band that's actually from Pennsylvania -- sometimes flaunts a banjo, but its songs mingle 1960's pop, some rickety-tickety skiffle drumming, some punk drive and a perspective that's often wry and rowdy: "Can we help it if we come down from the clouds?" they sang in a lurching waltz, "I don't know about it, I'm having my doubts."

Last Town Chorus, from New York City, revolves around Megan Hickey's breathy voice and her lap steel guitar. She uses it for twangs and slides, but the effect isn't downhome; it's closer to U2 than to Buck Owens. Accompanying her ballads with hovering, sustained tones and chords that can glide into the ether, the lap steel doesn't ground her in tradition. It suspends her voice amid longings and memories.

MAR. 16 | 1:20 PM
Emo's Kids

At the strategic corner of downtown Austin's two main club strips, East Sixth Street and Red River Street, is a cluster of four clubs called Emo's. One, Emo's Annex, is a fenced-in lot under a tent - and there, in its wisdom, South by Southwest regularly books hard rock and metal bands. Rounding that corner, as I end up doing five or six times a night, means walking through what might be called the power-chord zone: a visceral blast of drums and bass and guitar. It's a sound bite's worth of whoever's under the tent, and usually it's all I need to hear of yet another clichéd growl or thrash doubletime. But on Thursday night, the slow, slablike, implacable chords of a English band called Jesu drew me in - just in time, unfortunately, to realize it was the end of their last song. Another time.

One night later I got my dose of heaviness thanks to Zoroaster, a power trio from Atlanta.

There were no power chords, and no intelligible words from the occasional guttural vocals: just low unison riffs from guitar and bass. Mostly, until a big stomping finale, the riffs were slow and slower, getting rhythmic and then dissolving the beat like some monstrous Gregorian chant.

How heavy was it? Well, when the drummer wanted to talk to the bass player as they pounded away, he hurled a stick at him, full force. It got his attention.

MAR. 16 | 12:17 PM
O Canada

I didn't plan it that way, but my Thursday at South by Southwest turned out to be a good day for Canadian bands that work on a grand scale, letting their music unfold to orchestral dimensions.

One was Besnard Lakes, from Montreal, which is led by a married couple, Jace Lasek on guitar and Olga Goreas on bass. Their songs are steeped in the late-1960's rock that found grandeur by turning inward: particularly Brian Wilson, but also the English examples of songs like the Rolling Stones's "We Love You" and "Hey Jude." They sing about romance amid a world of troubles; songs from their new album, "Besnard Lakes Are the Darkhorse" (Jagjaguwar) had titles like "Devastation" and "Disaster." But the music swelled from the delicacy of harmony vocals over a lone instrument to something like a "Hey Jude" buildup for a chorus that went, "You've got disaster on your mind/They see the secrets in your eyes/Little baby come out" - worried, reassuring and upbeat in equal parts.

Do Make Say Think, from Toronto, dispenses with lyrics. It's an eight-member instrumental band whose music often runs at multiple speeds simultaneously: galloping drums, steady-picked guitar patterns, and arching, sustained phrases for violin or trumpet or saxophone, all working toward headlong buildups, like Steve Reich coupled with cinematic fanfares. The music promised that cerebral constructions could drive toward euphoria. No wonder the audience was shouting at its peaks.

MAR. 15 | 2:40 PM
A Wah-Wah From the East, A Vocoder from the West

There was a profound serenity within the music of Lonely China Day, a band that came all the way from Beijing. The lyrics, in Chinese, were ancient poems, and at the core of the songs were mantra-like guitar phrases: three or four notes that often repeated throughout a song, centering it while hinting at a meld of Chinese modes and Western harmonies. The drummer sometimes made his cymbals whoosh and crest like the sound of a Chinese gong. But this wasn't any kind of traditionalist music. It was technologically current, with a laptop adding twitchy techno beats to the live band, and it was rock, as any fan of Sigur Ros would accept it, with ardent, straightforward melodies and inexorable crescendoes. The set rocked harder and moved toward the West as it went along, even unleashing some wah-wah guitar. Yet unlike a lot of international rock that's all to eager to jettison the local in favor of the imported, Lonely China Day stayed grounded in something far older than the electric guitar.


Black Moth Super Rainbow, a band from Pennsylvania, makes its music from a nest of analog keyboards and a rhythm section. Its songs are pulsating neo-psychedelia, driving and dizzying, with vamps that keep on building as the keyboard sounds go whizzing, bubbling, zapping and swooping above the beat. Vocals are run through a vocoder for a vintage robotic tone, repeating lines like "I love to be with you, and this time we'll rise" or "We miss you in the summertime." Above the band, a screen showed eye-popping video animations: wildly proliferating plants, cartoon people and food in metamorphosis. The band's albums revolve around stories and concepts--its current one, "Dandelion Gum," is a tale of witches in a forest--but onstage, its music was one glorious buzz.

MAR. 15 | 2:10 PM
So Much to Play, So Little Time

Both kinds of bands probably hate the thought, but progressive-rock and hardcore bands often share something: an impatience verging on fidgetiness that makes them pack lots of changes into brief timespans. Maps & Atlases, a band from Chicago, is firmly in the math-rock camp: odd meters, intertwining guitar lines and stop-start drumming. The structures wind themselves up, knock themselves apart and veer into something new - which could be another hurtling pattern or a one-chord meditation - within seconds. The lyrics are sung in a reedy, unpolished croon that reminded me of Pere Ubu's David Thomas, and they mention things like coin collections and "reassembling artichokes with Esther," or something like that. Maps & Atlases's music offers every bit of the exhilaration of virtuosity, but it's not about showing off. It's about getting all those ideas out before the next one crowds in.

MAR. 15 | 1:49 PM
Nothing Like a House of God for that Rock and Roll Sound

One of South by Southwest's less-publicized secrets is that in Austin, a town that sometimes bills itself as America's live-music capital - under protest from New York and New Orleans - most of the clubs are less than flattering to live music. They have strange setups, like a giant bar in the middle of the dance floor, and dicey acoustics. And with a SxSW crowd chatting away, texting busily and peering at the schedule to decide on the next band, the music has to fight a lot of distractions.

But a few acts get lucky, and Helene Dineen, a songwriter from London whose band is called Helene, was one of them. Helene's songs turn everyday life into elegies. They play mostly slow, melancholy tunes from the school of the Velvet Underground and Mazzy Star, with a touch of Beth Orton's ache in her voice. And Helene was booked at one of South by Southwest's newer stages: the Central Presbyterian Church. The stage was barely lighted, and her band's minor-key organ chords and steadily tolling guitar-line chords reverberated in the high-ceilinged space while she sang lyrics like, "When you're tired and tight/These are songs to sing along to." People in the pews actually listened, since flipping open a cellphone would pierce the darkness. Helene couldn't have found a more congenial place for its music.

MAR. 15 | 1:40 PM
Townshend's "Lifehouse" Lives Online

Pete Townshend was South by Southwest's keynote speaker in an articulate onstage interview. Among other things, he defined what makes a great song. "A great rock song," he said, "must speak for those who listen to it, not those that play it."

He also announced some internet activity. The Who's first new album in a generation, "Endless Wire," returns to ideas Mr. Townshend had in 1971 for a rock opera called "Lifehouse," which anticipated the internet as a way for people to share virtual lives. "Lifehouse" eventually yielded songs for "Who's Next," but Mr. Townshend didn't give it up.

Now he is about to unveil something he imagined for "Lifehouse": the Method, online software that creates a musical portrait from data supplied by the user, anything from the feelings of the moment to a photo to the size of a waistline. As I understand it, the Method--which is due for launch April 25--is something like what would happen if Myspace generated music instead of webpages. Copyright is shared by the user (1/3) and the website, in case someone's unique portrait turns out to be particulary catchy or commercial. There's more information on it at

Mr. Townshend wants to bring the music together and play it at a big celebration. "We gather, we share our music with each other actually in the flesh, and we see what it sounds like," he said. "It might sound like the sea, it might sound like a plane going by, it might sound like the gentle undulations of the ocean. It might sound terrible, it might sound beautiful. I don't know."

Mr. Townshend insisted that music is best heard live and in the moment, and a few hours later, he was as good as his word. Instead of waiting for the Who's next arena show, he picked up his guitar and played, unannounced, as a guest with the keyboardist Ian McLagan and his Bump Band. Mr. McLagan was a member of the Small Faces along with Mr. Townshend's friend and collaborator (on the album "Rough Mix") Ronnie Lane; Kenney Jones, from the Small Faces, became the Who's drummer after the death of Keith Moon. Mr. McLagan introduced the Small Faces' first single, "What'cha Gonna Do About It," from 1965; he said the group's leader, Steve Marriott, had blatantly copied the Who's style in his guitar solo and urged Mr. Townshend to reclaim it. Mr. Townshend did, pummeling his guitar string until they rang and then wrenching out blues licks. He sounded joyful and vicious, as if they were one and the same.

MAR. 15 | 1:07 PM
Caffeine, Music, Condoms: It's All in the Bag

In Hollywood, it seems a big reason for some to attend awards ceremonies and other glitzy events is to snag the customary gift bag. (Stars at last year’s Oscars received a gift package that included a four-night hotel stay in Honolulu and an espresso machine.) But in Austin, South By Southwest’s cleverly titled “Big Bag” — handed out to eligible music festival attendees — competitively lags in swag. It’s not for lack of volume: the canvas goody bag feels like a solid 15 pounds or so. But what’s inside? Not much that seems intended to last beyond the weekend. Rykodisc has included a sampler CD packaged with a black and gold voodoo doll (the “Ryko Psycho”); there’s a coupon for 10 percent off the purchase of a musical instrument; more coupons for free digital songs from retailers like Wal-Mart and eMusic; a Trojan condom; a guide to Welsh culture from the Welsh Music Foundation (ah, so Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” was recorded at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth…). More CD’s: releases from Ani Difranco and Public Enemy, and a sampler of SxSW-approved artists from Japan. And, to help festivalgoers get through the weekend, courtesy of the music distributor Navarre, there’s a ‘hangover survival kit,’ including aspirin and a packet of pure coffee extract. So just to sum up: Oscars = espresso machine and an island vacation. SxSW = a 0.5 fluid ounces of pre-packaged caffeine and a mild painkiller. Seems fair.

MAR. 15 | 11:07 AM
A Corridor of Sounds

SxSW finally hums to life after the sun descends and Sixth Street, Austin’s main corridor of bars and clubs, fashions itself into a sort of a rock ’ n’ roll version of the French Quarter in New Orleans, with festival-goers idling down the middle of the street and guitar riffs spilling from open doors and windows. The music — rockabilly, metal, pop-punk — combines to create a sheen of white noise. And as the crowd fills , you never know who you’re going to see: a rock band visiting from India; a Mentos breath mint street team; a real-live music executive or two (hey, isn’t that the guy who signed Linkin Park?); curious fans duck their heads into Spiro’s to see the Chinese band Rebuilding the Rights of Statues (who recall — just a little — Joy Division); while up the street, heads are banging to the thunderous sound of the Finnish act Callisto. And as the clock slips toward the wee hours, the weary stumble over to climb aboard a dot-com-sponsored rickshaw bicycle.

MAR. 14 | 1:40 PM
'South By' Kicks Off

CD sales are falling off a cliff. Pink slips are replacing platinum records in record-label suites. In fact, the very financial structure of the music business is verging on collapse. What better time, then, for executives to skip out of the office for a few days, chew on some Texas barbecue, and party into the wee hours while watching unproven rock bands? Well, the industry does treasure its traditions – and South by Southwest, the Austin music festival that marks its 20th anniversary this week, qualifies.

Regarded once as a talent bazaar where labels vacuumed up new artists to add to their rosters, SxSW (that’s the abbreviation, but the clubbiest of the clubby refer to it as “South By”) has morphed into something else. Nowadays, and for the past several years, it has become a place where labels come to showcase talent they’ve already discovered to the assembled hordes of music critics, booking agents, music-publishers, sponsors and anyone else they might be able to enlist in their drive for sales.

And if the showcase doesn’t sell you on a band, they’ll invite you over to the Four Seasons bar for a few shots of persuasion. But even as the festival has become a schmooze-athon, it is seen by many as a beacon of credibility amid a wasteland of overexposed acts and broken marketing machinery. (It is, of course, brought to you by Verizon, Miller Lite, the IFC channel, and Yaris). So break out the BBQ bibs and fire up the echo chamber, SxSW is under way.

Rating out of 11: