Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

SXSW 2015: Lost in Texas

13 April 2015, 09:31 | Written by Alex Lee Thomson

I’m sat in JFK airport; skimming several hundred pictures, indistinct videos, and screen-grabs of Google Maps that have made their nest in my phone over the last week at SXSW in Austin. Zigzagging the best few square miles in Texas for five days, the festival’s circuitousness blends most of it into one heady misunderstanding of snarling music debauchery, cans of Lone Star, sunburn, unfortunate rain showers, British politeness, hailing cabs, flashing passports, and collapsing.

Around the halfway point you’re damn sure the real world was made up. How could there even be a place on Earth tequila isn’t a breakfast dish? It’s all so much, for so long, that only looking back in the cold priory lights of an airport lounge there’s room to breath, to inhale the abundance of mischief that keeps one so disconnected. Pouring the contents of a phone across my own barely functioning gaze it’s safe to say that SXSW is a heck of a week.

Tuesday was undoubtedly owned by our Record Label Of The Year holders, Transgressive, who took over a billiards hall to showcase their new breed. Gengahr were on as we move from the St Patrick’s Day celebrations of 6th Street, the real heart of SXSW, into the upstairs hall via a brief game of pool with Carl Barat and The Jackals. It’s a somewhat representative inevitability of SXSW, being shoulder to shoulder with the same guys you might see in your local East London boozer. That’s no depreciation though; rather it’s what helps make the festival so charming to out-of-towners - that you can descend here and it feel like home. There will always be people you know to share this amazing town with.

Front man Felix Bushe occupied the space with his composed vocal that contrasts the band’s overall heavier moments. Gengahr have this ability to lean you in, to make you really listen before knocking you on your arse with propelled attack. “Bathed In Light” was amazing and we all sort of fell about under their spell, kissing each other’s foreheads and grinning like mindless children.

Showing off the label’s ability to sign almost any genre and make it fit, Songhoy Blues followed with one of the festival’s standout performances. Exiled from their native Timbuktu home in Mali, the Africa Express alumni are unlike anything else - however their sound could be described as though Stevie Wonder had started an indie band. Give that a second to settle. Okay. But it’s even more than that; it’s wrathful. Their leader Aliou Touré was an unstoppable sprite with preacher-like prowess and control over the crowd. It’s accessible, but your record collection ain’t seen nothing like this.

Inviting the audience to collect and swell beneath them, Dry The River closed the night by performing songs a cappella (due to sound issues at the venue). While many bands would be wiping the venom from their beards, shouting blame down toilet bowls, Dry The River took no time in turning the situation into an evocative vigil. While their full live show is undoubtedly a worthwhile watch, we couldn’t help but appreciate the ether hum, the songs finding new isolation. It had some drama, and that ultimately made it feel more SX. There’s a ramshackle, spit-and-sawdust quality to the festival, which Dry The River took in their stride.

Photograph by Glen Brown

In Austin you can order a hot dog with mac and cheese on it. I mention this purely because it’s an example of the Texan excesses with which you have to become accustomed. A lot of it is needless, but who’s to argue with the whole. Necking a beer at Pitchfork’s takeover of Mohawk in the barely afternoon while Speedy Ortiz rattle-smack new tracks from the upcoming Foil Deer record, for instance, feels a lot to take so early in the day, but jeez. The set growled awkwardly trying to land with the sticky-faced crowd, just about ending up dead on center. Steve Gunn followed and didn’t quite hold attentions the same way. You need some god damn passion at SXSW, and Gunn unloaded enough bravado at coat check to leave this a slightly baked, yet undercooked appointment.

We headed towards the Spotify House, stopping in briefly to see Bad Veins tinker something out of vintage equipment that in the moment tugged an eyebrow but didn’t leave too heavy a lasting impression. One thing that divides opinion at SXSW is its growth, authenticity and increased brand involvement, but for me (as a relative late-comer to the party) it’s pop-ups like the Spotify House which make the festival what it is. Anybody can RSVP for free, rock up, grab a complimentary drink from the bar and settle in for an afternoon’s sonic graze. The UK has nothing like this. We caught the Oscar winning Ryan Bingham lobbing out some genuine country embers giving a proper Southern feel to proceedings. Once SX begins native styles and genres are often overlooked, so while it may not be palatable to British ears as such it’s a vital part of the Americana landscape we were more than happy to indulge. If authenticity is in question, then Bingham’s cowboy roots run deep enough to answer.

At some point or another I snuck off to watch Laura Marling - who’s clearly been touring these parts too much as a curious American accent has developed behind her English lips. It was all a bit off, and I struggled to find the Laura Marling that had me in near tears just a few summers ago. It was a shame to be honest.

I also caught a session with Madisen Ward and The Mama Bear, who again slyly hinted that SXSW still has a fair amount of authenticity. The mother and son duo roared and spat through enough illuminating soul to hear the pages of Rolling Stone magazine crumple and reach out like a plant straining for the sunshine towards their cadence.

Alas, the wind changed and we ran back where we came from. I spied a woman climbing into a suitcase at the side of the road while a large gentleman dressed as a banana rummaged in the underwear of a Hooters waitress on the opposite street corner. Un-phased and spurred on by cocktails and shots, we reconvened at Mohawk for Rae Sremmurd. “No Type” caused a shit storm just as we remembered we’d not eaten anything all day and immediately fell weak at the knees bowing out just as the duo reached maximum flex.

One of those aforementioned hotdogs lathered in cheese later and Courtney Barnett took us pleasantly through dusk. I’ve a lot of time for Barnett and while her songs aren’t immediate, going into them with the most basic of acquaintance there is an obvious allure. It connects if you let it, but you have to really let it in

I then talked myself into joining a taxicab convoy to a party being thrown by college students in what by UK standards would be the sickest common room ever to be closed down. Gathering our team we stumbled around by the pool for a bit as We Are Scientists just about held the increasingly messed-up revellers together enough to be interviewed on camera. Dry The River’s Scott Miller and Matt Taylor built a beer can pyramid between talk of life on the road with eager locals in awe of a classic British accent. A dog ran into the complex, ate a plastic cup and was fussed over by a naked woman with a tattoo of the Brave Little Toaster on her right arse cheek before the drunkest girl at the party knocked down the towering shrine to alcoholism.

The incredible amount of beer we’d bought with us began to dwindle and I found myself quietly rationing them while Hinds played inside. The Spanish troop found a quiet second to catch the mood before ploughing into some of the brightest, invasive guitar stretches of the week. It was classic house party fodder. A sleepy teenager was failing to roll a cigarette on a couch cushion, a couple explored each other way too publicly, tongues were chewed and wagged by the lame stains, bogarts and elite while t-shirts clung across the room. At the centre of it all Hinds were just about the coolest thing in Austin at that time.

Photo by Alex Lee Thompson

Hangovers have no place at SXSW, for spectators and performers alike. Despite Niall Galvin being in high spirits the night before around the pool, there’s no cue missed during Only Real’s afternoon set at the Dr Martin’s stage. Jerk at the End of the Line is as fine a debut as you’re likely to hear in 2015, and the songs thereon fit nicely into the peacefully sober but eager attitude of the crowd. It’s been said before, but fans of Jamie T really should check this out. There’s a manic troubadour ethic conveying the sunny melodies with determined lyrics which made “Panic Prevention” a smash, but Only Real have smoothly swapped out the anxiety for a cool, deep exhale.

There are very few stages at festivals out there somebody like Only Real could be followed by Gang Of Four, but there were no carps when Andy Gill and his band of antiheroes invaded the space next. At a polar end of the SXSW spectrum, peppering the new music showcases, there’s a fair amount of returning idols among the swarm. For bands like Gang Of Four it’s more about renewing affections and premiering a new (ish) line-up they were keen to establish acceptance for. Gill is still the penetrating crux of the outfit, mercilessly staring down everybody who made eye contact, but frontman Goaler had no issue conveying the material with appetite. The new songs do well, and we got a taste for the vintage swagger. A band with a huge Austin following is the The Zombies, who played a handful of new songs among their 1960’s “British Invasion” standards “She’s Not There” and “Time Of The Season” to an overjoyed Stubbs mass. Bill Murray and Jimmy Kimmel were stood among youngsters with artist wristbands showing the band still have huge pull and resonance with a cross-section of intergenerational music fans.

You can’t visit Stubbs without dipping in for some of their famous BBQ, so we filled our guts with more meat than any man should and made our way to the Hype Hotel. En route we passed a line of pedicabs hosting an impromptu disco along the highway offramp while an ice-cream truck was collared by local law enforcement. The why’s of this place do get lost in the why not’s.

This has always been a key venue for SXSW, and in 2015 Hype Machine had levelled up with a whole compound comparable to the Fader Fort containing a grassy outdoor yard, bloggers lounge, and inside (competing with the free bar) the hyper-fun Kero Kero Bonito. The London trio fidgeted J-Pop through British dancehalls to make a chaotic wave of relentless good times. The vodkas went down, and down, and down, to the point Chastity Belt were a certain to please. They wore their Seattle influences proudly, playing the bulk of upcoming LP Time To Go Home slowly and seductively. There was no emergency to the set, and that’s just fine by me.

Emergency though is what AWOLNATION base their entire stage show on. Following a fine but forgettable opening by Big Data at The Moody Theatre, Aaron Bruno blitzed the shit out of debut Megalithic Symphony with some new belters coolly distributed. AWOLNATION casually shred every record you loved as a kid crafting a complex mashup of 90’s pop, hip-hop and rock, rebirthed as solid gold fist-pounding anthems. “Sail” is probably the widest known song on the set list however really doesn’t do the thinking behind this project any justice. Watching the apocalypse unfold from the balcony, crowd surfers came in and out of focus behind the unyielding smoke and lighting. Some people tried to hitchhike the last chopper out of Saigon, while others puffed their weed vaporisers on the sidelines, folding themselves in half with each foreboding, dark beat. God it’s clever, and one of the more remarkable productions touring today.

Somewhere in the twilight we found a concluding surprise in Reuben Hollebon. This gorgeously honest 20-something positioned an exposed homage to the naïve modulation of acts such as Bon Iver, capturing an essence of layered simplicity with robust sonic architecture. We didn’t worry about this being under a lot of people’s radar this year as there’s no doubt he’ll be returning in 2016 to vanquish the bigger line-ups.

Photo by Glen Brown

As was the way our SXSW was heading, full of carnage and coincidence, I caught Reuben for a chat and breakfast cocktail in the morning, discussing the recent success of Kate Tempest with the Mercury Prize nominee in tow. Blimey, he’s a nice chap.

Around that time the Heavens opened and rain gloriously took the piss out of our day. You don’t travel 4,900 miles to Texas to be rained on, and while any discerning British festival-goer can take it on the chin the city really isn’t built for it. The main drag seemed just that, and we hid ourselves away in the Convention Centre to catch Courtney Barnett again.

Submissively and without any irony, I explored the non-SXSW spirit of Austin on Rainey Street where a rather unassuming suburban corner of the city has converted all its detached homes into bars of various themes and flavour. Everybody’s first visit should include a stop-off here as it’s where the locals tuck themselves away during the week, and where resident acts still perform, driven by shots, tips and flumes of green smoke.

There’s not enough rain in the South to keep us away from Bleachers though. It felt for me the entire festival was cresting for Jack Antonoff’s latest project to land at Stubbs. Arriving on stage to jets of tears from the front few rows, the Fun guitarist and Taylor Swift collaborator stepped out as a new generation’s Bruce Springsteen. Controversial, I know.

It’s calculated, intelligent pop exploding with headline confidence. With his shirtsleeves cut off and a six-string poised to communicate with tremendous effect future stadium centrepieces like “Rollercoaster” and “I Wanna Get Better”, Antonoff makes himself the most important star to see at this year’s SX. Few acts straddle the current music fields of elegant pop and next wave guitar band, beckoning this decade’s indie renaissance, as Bleachers do. We were as happy as a dead pig in the sunshine, drunker than Cooter Brown, hanging a lifetime’s worth of listening on each pulse. Never have I smiled as much. It was the spirited, saxophone-blaring crescendo of the festival. A vibrant start of a lifelong love affair with a favourite new band.

If SXSW serves one purpose, it’s to make your chances of such moments unmissable. Shivering and limp we called it a day. The rest of the festival is spent reconnecting with the people, tastes and dirt of the previous days, enjoyed mostly drinking in corners, corridors and under bridges. They say “everything’s bigger in Texas”, and they’re not wrong. It takes a lot out of you, but you take a lot of it in return.

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