32 bands in five days. My feet still hurt.
For those who aren’t in the know, SXSW is a conference in Austin, TX. It’s a place where folks in the technology, film, comedy, and music worlds come together and share ideas. The music portion is the primary reason why I come down, because it gives you an opportunity to see a large amount of music, often crossing dozens of genres, all in intimate venues all across town. This year, I feel like I “took it easy” and managed to see 32 different bands during the week (I saw Lizzo and Bleached both perform twice. You’d want to, too, if given the chance).
Without further ado, here are my thoughts on all 32 bands that I saw, in venues ranging from a donut shop to a lakeside amphitheater.
Barf Day is, thus far, my favorite single of 2017. I’ve been dying to see them live since that delicious ear worm infected my brain. So, gratefully, they were my first band of the fest. And, holy shit! Alex Luciano is practically the perfect front person. She makes eye contact with every person in the room, while doing kicks in the air and playing guitar simultaneously. Solid opening band!
Rainbow Kitten Surprise
I’ve never been in a more passionate crowd at 1pm on a Tuesday than for Rainbow Kitten Surprise. Their name is designed to throw you off. Imagine if Two Gallants were fleshed out by highly skilled progressive rock players. Their singer, Sam Melo, moved like a ballerina on acid around the stage, only with the perfect guttural yelp of Isaac Brock accompanied by lovely four part harmonies.
Lizzo opened her set by instructing the audience how to dance. She knew SXSW audiences aren’t great for getting down, and took it upon herself to correct that. She had two dancers, as well as a DJ who managed to display effortless cool and ecstatic joy at the same time. She went political, she went party, and she even covered fellow buzz artist Noname.
Thee Oh Sees
Plenty has been said about Thee Oh Sees. They are a rock n roll institution. He whipped up the crowd into giant muddy mosh. Beer and bodies were flying everywhere while the band played 70 minutes of blistering psych punk. The current line up consists of two drummers, bass, and frontman John Dwyer on guitar and keyboards, and he also swallowed the microphone whole. It was such a treat to get a full set at the fest.
House of Heaven
Houses of Heaven are a new band from Oakland, comprised of former members of the band Chambers. They have a dark sound with primal drums that is layered and rich, but stays intense. Imagine if Joy Division stayed together and progressed in the direction they were heading when Ian Curtis passed away.
Dark Times were billed as pop punk out of Norway. This is not quite right… The thing is that Norway is famous for another genre: black metal. And Dark Times were filled with black metal riffs played with pop punk rhythms, and their set was so much fun. These folks will definitely be sticking around.
This was Mega Pixel’s first show ever, ata donut shop on 6th Street. Acoustic guitar, laptop, and a rapper. Doing some folky hip hop, in a genre that I’m calling Sheerancore. The frontman made great use of the wireless mic, joining people at their tables, and dancing with people outside on the street. These guys have skill, and once they start figuring out their own identity, they will be great.
The Shelters are one of the most perfectly put together bands I’ve seen in awhile. They day they played was quite the hot one, but they were wearing sports jackets and crisp pants, doing high energy power pop. I don’t want to know what those outfits smelled like after the set, but they were plenty of fun.
This was another surprise… An act that I was unfamiliar with that brought a large number of passionate fans along for the ride. Musically, they reminded me a lot of Vampire Weekend… Really clean sounding, radio friendly rock ‘n’ roll.
Bleached are my favorite modern band. They have amazing hooks and a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the entire history of punk that comes out in both their live performance and their records. I’ve been seeing them for a number of years, since the days when bandleaders Jennifer and Jessica Calvin were in Mika Miko. They keep getting better live, with a practically fearless approach to performance. Jennifer will climb on anything, and bassist Micayla Grace has managed to figure out how to roll around on the floor without missing a beat. An epic performance, and, seriously, if you ever get a chance to see them, go.They are spending the spring opening for The Damned all around the country, which is a double bill not to be missed.
It seemed like a weird pairing to put the mosh friendly Bleached up against the significantly calmer Sylvan Esso. At least, that’s what I used to think of this band. They set themselves up for a high energy, raucous set by coming out to the sounds of Believe by Cher, one of the great crowd pump-up songs. Focusing on material from their not yet released second record, this was a super fun dance party! Front woman Amelia Meath moves in such amazing ways… She dances like the floor has no friction, gliding everywhere she goes. Beat master Nick Sanborn is one of the happiest people I’ve ever seen performing behind a sampler and mixing board. It makes sense that these folks are playing the big rooms now, and this show proved that they are more than ready for it!
This is the first Mongolian band to ever play in the US. They performed delicate folk songs, akin to Pink Moon era Nick Drake. The lyrics beautifully wove together Mongolian and English. There were two singers, a male and a female, who sang in harmony nearly the whole set. It was lovely.
Temples are most often compared to Oasis. I think that’s a terrible comparison, though, as the only thing they really have in common is that they both sound like an obscene amount of drugs are being consumed. The Temples set I saw was closer to a louder, heavier version of Tame Impala. There were plenty of swirly sounds, but with an accompanying hard hit, making the sound feel less like chill out music and more like classic acid rock.
Denzel Curry had a difficult task. He ended up playing ahead of an At The Drive In set that was announced merely hours before the show. So, what does a young rapper do to win over a room full of people waiting on a legendary hardcore band playing the smallest venue they’ve played in years? Play as loud as you can, then grab the audience by the face and melt it right off. He played a hip hop set as if it were a punk show, and played it off nicely. The songs were frantic, bordering on death metal without the guitars. Curry spent almost as much time in the audience as he did on stage. He selected somebody in the audience as the guy to start the pit, brought the mic down with him, and then rapped while getting the pit going, keeping things going the entire set. This guy has a passion that is rarely seen, and is gonna make sure you feel it. Because if you aren’t paying attention, he will find you and make sure you are.
At The Drive In
The “secret show” is a fun game at SXSW. You scan the listings for “special guests” and then try to guess who it will be. In this case, Texas’s own At The Drive In decided to use this to warm up for their upcoming arena tour. Well, I don’t think they needed any help warming up, as they seemed plenty warm. Focusing on their extensive back catalog rather than new material, they turned the tiny floor at Mohawk into a massive free-or-all of bodies everywhere. Cedric is still one of the most dynamic lead singers, dancing around in every possible space on the tiny stage, thrusting himself into the audience, and playing the show as if it’s his last moment on earth.
Jimmy Eat World
Jimmy Eat World are, consistently, one of the tightest live bands in the business. I saw them play a 1:00 am gig after performing at least one set already that night, if not more. And, in true form, they sounded like they were the most well rested band at the Fest. There wasn’t a single missed note or sour vocal. They played a solid 40 minutes, during which you kept thinking, “They played all of their hits. What’s left? Oh! I can’t believe I forgot about that one!” They even managed to get the primarily industry heavy crowd to get a small pit going during “Pain,” and prompted the full audience to overpower the band when we opted to “sing it back” when asked if we “are listening” during “Sweetness.” It was a beautiful way to end a fantastic day.
One of the major points behind SXSW is to promote new music. So it’s pretty likely that you’ll end up seeing a band whose records you love do a full set of entirely new music. Even weirder is when that’s inspired by a near total style change. Chastity Belt did just that. Gone was the pogo punk of “Healthy Punk.” Instead we got a set of beautiful, reverb-heavy, jangle pop.
Ne – Hi
There are two ways to do SXSW. You can spend weeks listening to bands ahead of time, working out a perfect schedule based on YouTube clips and Spotify. Or you simply hang out for a hit at a BBQ joint, and hangout with a totally stellar dude who you just met, and he asks you to check out his band. That’s how I found Ne-Hi. The lazy way to describe these guys is “Pavement-esque.” This would be true, but also unfair to the band. These guys played with way more passion that Pavement ever did, with their singer harmonizing perfectly with his guitar. They had the less-than-enviable time slot of 5:30 pm on Thursday, when people were more concerned with dinner than music, but they proved to be an excellent distraction from the prospect of dinner.
Chicano Batman were one of the best dressed bands of the fest, in their finest formal wear. Musically, they managed to find the perfect sweet spot of experimental and accessible. They blended together the sound of timeless Lowrider oldies with the triply punch of classic acid rock. They bounced between English and Spanish, often mid song. They are the kind of band that you can play for both your Grandma and your super picky indie rock geek friend, and they’ll both enjoy it equally.
Much like the aforementioned Rainbow Kitten Surprise, I had a very different idea as to what Cherry Glazerr would sound like based on their name. I was expecting LoFi, female fronted pop punk. Instead we got a deep, dark set of organ driven psychedelic rock. Only it was really, really heavy. And loud. And wild. My notes simply said, “This band makes it OK that Black Sabbath are gone.” They didn’t sound much like Sabbath, but they tapped into that same, undefinable feeling that Sabbath gave me.
S U R V I V E
I N A P P E D I N S T E A D.
Jidenna will be one of the breakout stars of 2017. Sure, we’ve all heard “Classic Man.” It’s a fine song. But, aside from describing how well he dresses, it hardly sets you up for the amount of talent this man has. He can dance. He can sing. He can rap. He is funny. He is inspirational. His band was able to slide between modern R&B, afrobeat, jazz, psych rock, hip hop, and whatever else they felt like with great ease. It was almost a modern take on the classic soul revue, only with one performer covering the ground that a team of performers would usually take. If we aren’t seeing Jidenna in arenas by next year, then the system is broken.
Annie Hart used to front the LA synth pop trio, Au Revoir Simone. At this showcase, she had the unenviable position of playing before two titans of modern folk music, M Ward and Neko Case. You could tell she was nervous at first. But, instead of pulling back because of nerves, she dove head first into the fear. She looped her keyboard playing, and brought her mic into the audience, singing directly to individual audience members while wearing an all black, form fitting bodysuit. By the end of the song, she was in tears, as was nearly every person in the room. Maximum musical catharsis was reached during this set.
Before tonight, if you asked me how I felt about M Ward, my response would’ve been less than enthusiastic. This set converted me. He was armed with nothing but an acoustic guitar and a harmonic. And he played the living daylights out of that guitar. He didn’t use a pic, even. He just used his fingers and shredded on that acoustic in a way that would humiliate Eddie Van Halen. During one song, his guitar cable shorted out. Without skipping a note, he moved his vocal mic to the body of his guitar and finished the song without losing sound for more than a few seconds!
Neko Case came out dressed in cloak of bird’s eyes. She also expressly forbade photographs, so I have no way of sharing this with you other than saying that. It was quite the impressive outfit. The theme of venue was the upcoming “Twin Peaks” revival on Showtime, and Case did not hide her intense fandom of the show. She even claimed to get distracted whenever the monitors in the back of the room flashed the trailer for the show. Despite allthis, she and her band put on a pitch perfect greatest hits set of some of the darkest material from Case’s extensive catalog. The only thing lacking from this set was that it was light on banter between Case and back up singer Kelly Hogan, which may have been due to the solemnity of the gathering, or simply put, the shortness of the set meant there wasn’t the time. Still, we got an amazing set of music by one of the most unique and powerful voices in music in one of the most intimate spaces Case has played in decades.
This was Charly Bliss’s final set of SXSW. I think they played somewhere around 12 times in four days, which is a lot for most bands. Charly Bliss, however, didn’t play like they were exhausted. Instead, they put a full on, furiously energetic set. There isn’t much totally original about this band, who wears influences like Letters To Cleo and Veruca Salt on their sleeves. However, sometimes it doesn’t matter how unique you are, as long as you just put on a good show. And that’s what Charly Bliss did at 1:00 am in the attic of a restaurant in Austin.
Lawrence are the only Austin based band I caught at this year. This was a terrible mistake, because the local scene is pretty fantastic. They played some fun funk music, making sure to play throughout the crowd, and got everyone energized for a day of music.
The venue was packed to the gills for Bridgit Mendler. I thought this was because she was supporting Hanson, but I was mistaken. She had one of the most passionate fanbases of the Fest. People knew every lyric by heart. Her minimalist electronic pop seemed to resonate with the younger folks in the audience very well. (A quick Google search showed that she starred in Cheer Up Charlie and Witches Of Waverly Place, so we know a bit about how people found her.) Still, it was a solid show!
Want to feel old? Hanson are preparing to embark on a 25th anniversary tour. With the novelty of a band made up of children no longer relevant, the band has managed to carry on with one of the most consistent and passionate fan bases in music. The also still know how to write some of the catchiest pop songs out there, and this set drew from that entire career, capping off with an excellent cover of Johnny B. Goode in tribute to Chuck Berry, who passed away hours before the show.
Keeping with the theme of 25th anniversaries, Garth Brooks made note from the stage that this was the first time he’s played Austin in 25 years (second, if you count the drop in set he did the night before at Austin honky tonk, Golden Spoke). He played for free for SXSW attendees and Austin residents in a space called Auditorium Shores along Ladybird Lake. This is the largest SXSW venue, but still the smallest room Brooks has played with his full band in close to 35 years. And he brought nearly his full stadium spectacle with him, leaving out only the pyro for his closing number “Standing Outside The Fire.”
Garth Brooks is a living legend, and this nearly two hour set proved why. He is both larger than life and exceedingly humble, all at the same time. You can tell by watching him that he loves nothing more than playing music. He littered his set with Dad jokes like, “This guitar isn’t on; I just use it to hide my gut.” And singing along on a classic like “Friends In Low Places” in a field with 20,000 other music fans is an experience that everyone needs to have at least once in their lifetime.
Simply sounded like they were riffing on War Pigs for 45 minutes. Poorly.
Another exceedingly clever name for a band whose chops match up nicely. This surf punk quartet always puts on a blistering live show. Bassist Chevelle Wiseman plays prog level bass lines and breakneck punk speeds, and, for a closing set of the Fest, it was great ending on a high note, especially when the band closed up their set with “It’s Too Late,” a feeling that everyone I’m sure was sharing at 1:30 am after a week of amazing music. And thus they closed the book on another wonderful SXSW.