SXSW Review: The Best & Worst of SXSW 2013

by J. Lawrence King on March 26, 2013

All photos by Michelle Viray

All photos by Michelle Viray

Now that we’ve all had time to recover from a week’s worth of sun damage, get our voices back, and forget about the hours spent driving through the lonely west Texas desert, it’s time to reflect upon another year of SXSW. While everyone’s experience is different under the Austin sun, these are my recollections as to the best and worst of SXSW 2013.

Best: All the large acts. Though the primary reason for us all to gather in Austin is to be made privy to the new and exciting bands on the horizon, its always nice to catch a major act performing at a small venue, and this is becoming a bigger aspect of the SXSW experience. This year saw an influx of huge artists playing. From the impossibly intimate Justin Timberlake show, to the six-encore Prince show at La Zona Rosa, there was no shortage of artists to get excited about, and certainly something for everyone. Whether you wanted to catch the soulful Justin Timberlake or the sinful Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, there was a major artist for you.

Worst: Ticket Raffles. It is true that this year saw a huge influx in major artists, but gone are the days when you could camp out all day to catch that one act that gets you excited because many of the shows required you to enter a raffle to get a ticket. It used to be that a badge was almost an automatic ticket into all the hottest events, but now even the badge holders are expected to enter raffles to get tickets to those intimate shows that make SXSW such an exciting event each year. Did you get into the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds show at Stubbs? The answer is probably no because there was such a limited run of tickets. This is a trend that seems like it’s going to become more pervasive. As the number of badge holders increases, and the number of major acts gets larger, you’ll want to pay closer attention to those emails you get leading up to SXSW each year, they may include important information to help get that coveted ticket.

Best: Brooklyn Vegan Day Parties. It took me too long to figure out that the secret to having a consistently amazing SXSW each day was to just camp out at the Brooklyn Vegan Day parties at the old Emo’s venue. From the Cloud Nothings and King Tuff, to Autre Ne Veut and Palma Violets, there was always an exciting artist to catch. Not only were all the bands incredible, but there was a nonstop flow of artists playing, either on the Main stage, or the Junior stage, so you could avoid the brutally long sound checks that can be the biggest bane of your SXSW experience.

Worst: Clive Bar security. The Clive Bar is generally regarded as one of the better bars to catch a showcase, with its large stage and excellent seating options for the weary concert goer. This year they had several excellent showcases highlighted by visits from !!! and Macklemore but the venue was poorly equipped to deal with the huge influx of people that these acts brought out to the bar. Concert goers were climbing over barriers and walls to navigate the densely packed venue, cutting in lines without any concern over security- because there was no security.

Best: Joy Formidable. Two years ago Ritzy and the gang launched their debut album, The Big Roar, at the festival with numerous raucous shows. This year they returned to launch their sophomore album, Wolf’s Law, and though they played far fewer showcases they still reminded everyone why they were one of the most exciting bands from 2010. Blowing through a healthy dose of new songs, as well as old songs, each track seemed louder than the last up until the climactic conclusion of “Whirring.” This is a band that is always worth seeing.

Worst: The Parish on Saturday night. The Parish is one of my favorite venues in Austin,  and that’s why I made it a priority to head over on Saturday night to catch DIIV and Beach Fossils, two of my favorite new bands. Unfortunately, this experience was nothing like any of my previous, excellent experiences, at the Parish. The opening acts of the showcase were AWFUL, not just bad. I’ve never sat through such a poorly assembled showcase at any SXSW. From Naomi Punks all the way to Mac DeMarco, we were subjected to an onslaught of bad bands. It didn’t even seem as if Mac DeMarco wanted to be there, they appeared to just be killing time. This showcase was so brutal that we walked out after one song from Widowspeak, without even seeing DIIV or Beach Fossils.

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Best: Specials at The Mohawk. They say that ska is where punk rockers go to dance and that was definitely true Wednesday night at The Mohawk, which saw The Specials skanking their way through an hour long set for a packed house. This was one of the biggest highlights of the entire week, and a welcome surprise, after missing out of the Japandroids, and the Stooges, two of my “must-sees”, earlier in the day.

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Worst: The Japandroids’ sound at Viceland, Tuesday night. As a fairly well seasoned Japandroids fan, I can assure you that these guys are anal about their sounds. The first time I saw them, they yelled at a sound guy who tried to tell them that it was too loud. That’s part of why their sound issues on Tuesday night were so mystifying. Brian King’s guitar was barely audible past the second row. This fact couldn’t have been lost on the band, especially with everyone yelling at them to turn it up. The only explanation that seems reasonable is that the venue stifled the volume to help with crowd control because Wavves, who came on right before the Japandroids, were plenty loud, and the venue obviously couldn’t deal with the rowdy crowd. Most disappointing. This is the only time I got to catch the Japandroids this year and it was a real let down.

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Best: Billy Bragg, Mike Scott at St David’s Historic Sanctuary Wednesday night. This wasn’t the first time I’ve seen Billy Bragg, and it wasn’t even the last time I saw him at this year’s SXSW, but it not only ranks as the best Billy Bragg show I’ve seen, but as one of the best shows I’ve ever seen at SXSW. We got to the Sanctuary just in time to catch Mike Scott perform an acoustic set of Waterboys songs, accompanied by his fiddle player. The sound at St. Davids is unparalleled by any SXSW venue and Mike Scott took full advantage of the acoustics and put on an exemplary show. From his voice, to his guitar, everything sounded crisp and clear, but his fiddle player really stole the show. This was the only time all week that I got physical goosebumps because the sound was so sublime. This set the stage for Billy Bragg to come out and play the most intimate set of songs that I’ve ever seen from him. Between each song he was quintessential Billy Bragg, ripping on everything from hipsters to the new pope. He did two covers: the Woody Guthrie song from his new album and Dylan’s “The times they are a-changin” which he closed the set with. This show was the best experience of the week, and definitely made the 30-hour drive from San Francisco worthwhile.

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