byGENEVIEVE OLIVER < @vittorioe >
2015's iteration was my fifth SXSW, and over the years I've learned a wealth of important knowledge about 1) navigating Austin, 2) avoiding crowds, and 3) my own limits, which explains why at midnight on SXSW Saturday I'm in bed reading Lord of the Rings (on day 5 of seeing music, I could only summon the will to see three bands, and I definitely didn't have the patience to wait in a line more than five minutes). I had the time of my life while I still had energy - I caught 55 bands this year, four of them twice - and, as promised, here's what you need to know, the SXSW ABCs.
A is for ANTHEMS - yeah, we love Sleater-Kinney's "No Anthems" as much as the next blog, but some of SXSW's biggest bands to watch eschewed their advice and went full-on. The best thereof - probably Philly's The Districts, who closed their Thursday set with a nine-minute banger ending in an emotive sing-a-long; it reminded us why we first fell in love with bands like the National or the Arcade Fire. Or look at Nashville's Diarrhea Planet, who make party anthems par excellence - it'll never stop being awesome to sing along to a song called "Ghost With A Boner."
B is for BUTTS - the season of the ass continues, with no shortage of rear nudity (particularly of the male variety) at SXSW. Look no further than Aussies Gooch Palms, whose frontman played most of the set in a jock strap and personalized sports bra.
C is for CHARGING - note to party hosts: if you want surefire attendance, get some power strips. I've become an expert at divining for plugs this week.
D is for DEAFNESS - this year, I had fancy earplugs, so my hearing is still mostly intact after seeing upwards of fifty hastily-mixed bands. I might have gotten a little cocky though, because I took the opportunity of quality ear protection to watch Destruction Unit up close; the Arizona band were so loud they blew Hotel Vegas's circuits twice, but I couldn't give up on a front-row seat to watch one of my favorite bands in the world play new material (which was awesome, by the way). As a result my ears were ringing so hard taking a shower the next morning sounded like a Throbbing Gristle song. I guess it comes with the territory of liking bands with names like Destruction Unit.
Eis forEPONYMOUS SINGER SONGWRITERS - solo musicians going under their own names were on every SXSW bill - Alex G, Lydia Ainsworth, Natalie Prass, Tobias Jesso Jr., Marie Davidson, Laura Welch, Drake collaborator Gabriel Garzon-Montano - but two emerged from the pack, for different reasons. I caught Ryn Weaver at the Hype Hotel on Wednesday night - and mark my words, she's about to be huge. My other favorite was Brooklyn's Mitski, who made me cry at Impose's Friday night party at Longbranch. Backed by a band that take guitar and drum duties while she plays a hot-pink bass, Mitski delivered a well-received set of songs from her new LP Bury Me At Makeout Creek to a crowd that hung on - and sang or screamed along - to her every word. Her vocals recall Angel Olsen's emotive vibrato, and are guaranteed to send chills up your spine on songs like "Drunk Walk Home" (the shout-along bit: "FUCK YOU AND YOUR MONEY!"). I was squeezed in a corner but shed a single womanly tear during Mitski's last song, when her band left her alone with a guitar on stage to make a lot of beautiful, vulnerable noise, like an exposed nerve given sound. Moral of the story - I absolutely cannot wait to see her again.
F is for FREE - the abundance of free stuff at SXSW reminded me of advice given to my friend on a cross-country bus and passed on to me - "ain't nothin' free." You will always pay a price, especially for those gratis vodka lemonades.
G is for GROUP VOCALS - maybe I'm just a sucker for the vocal harmonizing that characterized so many great bands I saw this week. From the dudes busking on East 6th to my favorite Austin band Spray Paint's in-tune communal shouting (select lyric: "you were always such a bitch back when you could walk"), nearly everyone who captured my heart and ears engaged in group singalong. I was impressed by Sealion, a garagey quartet from Dallas who shared songwriting and frontperson duties throughout a set of high-energy psych-punk, and Rozwell Kid, who opened Infinity Cat's Thursday night party with firestorming riffs and shout-along choruses. But the two who stood out most were Manchester's Spring King, whose four fresh-faced members overpowered tech issues to deliver a set of bubbly power-pop tunes, and LA's Girlpool, whose two members Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker sing nearly all their songs together, accompanied only by their own bass and guitar, respectively. I still have "Plants and Worms," their melancholy, nostalgia-summoning set opener, stuck in my head.
H is for HORNS - I'm a sucker for brass, and I hope Chance the Rapper and his band the Social Experiment, who closed out Wednesday at the Fader Fort, will bring brass back to the mainstream. If you prefer your horns part of one of the coolest, most important punk bands out there, look no further than Downtown Boys, whose saxophonist soloed her way through the crowd accompanied by relentless vocalist Victoria Ruiz during more than one track that seamlessly melded the political and the danceable.
I is for INTERNET - it was functionally unreachable in the heart of the SXSW madness, probably due to the masses of people trying to access some bandwidth and share their stories. Sorry for sucking at twitter, y'all - I was trying!!
J is for JUST WING IT - the #1 must-follow SXSW advice. Have a plan, and two backup plans, but be prepared to drop them all at a moment's notice. You might just discover a new favorite. Case in point - Saturday, all of my plans fell through (partly on account of my own surrender) and I ended up at the SXSW audience choice awards for best experimental movie of the festival at the Alamo Ritz, a movie theater on 6th Street where waiters will bring you food and drinks while you watch. The movie, Uncle Kent 2, was great, the theater was empty, the drinks were strong; it was the perfect end to SXSW.
K is for KHALEESI - the LA-via-Boston trio Dirty Dishes' guitarist and singer Jenny Tuite might just bear a resemblance to Game of Thrones’ Mother of Dragons because of her white-blonde hair, but her compelling combination of power and vulnerability evoked Khaleesi too, or maybe I was just exhausted and fantasizing about watching GOT in my bed. Regardless, after one song my friend turned to me and said "That was the best guitar solo I've ever seen." Indeed, Tuite makes harnessing violent noise look as easy as taming a dragon.
L is for LITIGATION - Skyler Spence, the musician and DJ formerly known as Saint Pepsi, was just sued, but he didn't let that get him down - he delivered a DJ set at the Hype Hotel that had kids literally doing the worm.
M is for MADRID - Madrid natives Hinds were definitely one of SXSW's biggest bands to watch - and they totally lived up to the hype with about ten well-received sets - but their countrymen and friends the Parrots are well worth watching too. At Hotel Vegas on Thursday afternoon, Parrots busted out a wild set of fun-as-hell garage tunes that made me think of the Black Lips and had the whole crowd dancing.
N is for NEXT BIG THING - I'm not a prophet, but I'm predicting huge things from Ryn Weaver, Kate Boy, Spring King, and Son Lux. Ryn's anthemic pop started making waves on SoundCloud but I'll be surprised if she's not filling stadiums soon; Kate Boy have the clubby, danceable potential (and badass coordinated outfits) to follow in Robyn's footsteps; Spring King are a pop rock band par excellence who deserve to share stages with Vampire Weekend or Bombay Bicycle Club; Son Lux have a fan in Lorde and make sexy, psychedelic electronic music to soundtrack daydreams or dance parties. In case you care about my new personal favorites, ie. loud, experimental, wild psych-punk, look no further than LA's Wand (who played a raucous, hypnotic set accompanied by a bar TV playing a true crime special) and Dublin's Girl Band (who summon a firestorm of searing energy with more effects pedals than you've ever seen), who melted my face and captured my heart. Keep an eye on all these kids - you heard it here first.
O is for OLFACTORY EXPERIENCE - everyone talks about SXSW's sights and sounds - a trillion bands, beautiful sunsets, awesome street style, etc. - but no one talks about the smells. Street BBQ, food trucks, coffee, booze, blooming spring flowers... and I won't get into the bad ones.
P is for PROBLEMATIC FAVE - dear Girl Band, Viet Cong, and Native America, among others - for bands full of white dudes, you sure picked some inadvisable monikers. You could have picked almost any other band name! Why do you make it so hard for me to love your amazing music?
Q is for QUESTIONABLE DECISIONS - this one speaks for itself. You might as well rename SXSW "south by questionable decisions." My bad decisions are almost always free booze related or standing-in-the-front-row-to-see-a-notoriously-loud-band related, and in both instances, I will probably never learn.
R is for RIFFS - there was no shortage of shredding at Infinity Cat's Thursday showcase at Swan Dive, but possibly the best moment I've ever had at SXSW and maybe one of the best of my whole life was moshing to Diarrhea Planet with my 50 year old cousin. This is a band who needs four guitar players, because they're all busting out wild harmonics and glam-metal moves - especially Emmett Miller, who played like four solos with his teeth. The enthusiasm was totally infectious, especially when the band closed their set with a cover of the Who's "Teenage Wasteland," busting out possibly the guitar riff to end all guitar riffs and plenty of crowdsurfing.
S is for '77 PUNK - Based on a ton of great SXSW sets (and a bunch of new, non-SXSW bands like Vexx and Cheena), I forecast that the minimalist, bare-bones, classic 1977 punk vibe is coming back in spades. Iceage delivered that sound on their 2014 LP Plowing Into the Field of Love - they broke out select highlights at their handful of SXSW gigs, attended by a crowd of bros who didn't quite get how to mosh to the slower, moodier cuts but tried anyway. Bonus - I hadn't heard the band's set-opening tune before, which has me hopeful for new material soon. Elsewhere, Philly's Sheer Mag powered through a riff-heavy set, with singer Christina Halladay shoving a would-be self-exposer off the stage while still belting out her singular, emotive vocals. I don't know how her voice holds up, but she led her band through a powerhouse set that had me even more convinced they're one of the best new punk groups to watch out for. Plus, it'll make you want to bust out your Television and Stooges LPs and get retro.
T is for (FOOD) TRUCKS - during SXSW, every vacant lot in Austin is either packed with a makeshift stage or a massive quantity of food trucks promising everything from Korean comfort food to Cajun goodies to, of course, tacos of every variety. At first it makes you want to fall to your knees in the dust and send up a prayer, then you start longing for indoor cuisine...
U is for UMBRELLA - you're going to need one. Or a raincoat. Every SXSW has at least one rainy, chilly day, and you don't want to be unprepared, like the damp masses. Or you could just spend the rest of your year in Seattle becoming desensitized to rain, like me.
V is for VERY STRICT AGE LIMITS - seriously, WTF? Was it always this bad? Memo to SXSW management - people under 21 like live music too, especially Austin locals, who are already putting up with enough crap SXSW week. I was grateful to be able to catch a few shows at Pearl Street Co-op and Red 7 with my underage cousin, but all-ages venues are generally few and far between.
W is for WHISKEY AND GINGER BEER - my go-to SXSW drink. I'm blessed that seemingly every Austin bar has ginger beer on tap. And ginger is good for you (at least that's what I repeatedly tell myself).
X is for X-RAY - Viet Cong's drummer Mike Wallace had a broken arm at SXSW, and the band still played like six shows, with Wallace playing probably 80% of what he plays on the bands' records. I'm not sure how he even did it, let alone did it while maintaining a sense of humor, flipping off his bandmates for making endless Def Leppard jokes.
Y is for Y DO I KEEP DOING THIS TO MYSELF? - and the answer is, I love music like an insane amount. Seeing it all in one place is like a playground with more eardrum damage and alcohol. For every shitty, stressful moment (hangover, asthma attack, overly spicy taco, horrific porta potty, etc), there are so many great ones - like moshing with my cousin, being front row for my favorite band playing new songs, trying amazing food, spending time with amazing friends, and making exciting new musical discoveries that give me increased hope for the future. I'm happy to say it's still worth it for me, and I hope it always is.
Z is for ZZZZZZZ - which I will be doing for a week now.