SXSW 2017 REPORT

SXSW 2

This year’s Xmas in March for music nuts braves two storms along with immigration dust-ups and more overcrowding than usual for Austin. See below for our exclusive photo gallery in addition to the report.

TEXT & PHOTOS BY JASON GROSS

Two storms hovered over the annual SXSW festival in Austin.  The first one was weather-related- Stella, a category 3 blizzard that beat up the east coast just as the music part of the festival was beginning, causing a number of speakers to cancel out.  The other storm was a political one over immigration starting with a Tweet from Todd Slant about SX contracts, followed by pushback from SXSW, followed by SXSW vowing to change their 2018 artist contracts. Judging by downtown foot traffic, it felt like attendance might have been done a little but regardless, plenty of performers and attendees made it to the Texas state capital. At one point on Friday the 17th, the Sixth Street area (where most of the clubs are) was more packed with people than I’d ever seen in the 18 years I attended and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing- thanks to the ‘safety’ barriers installed in the middle of the street, the road left barely any breathing room and made for a situation that could have easily turned dangerous. Funny what we’ll do and put up with to see some music and chow down on BBQ.

Aside from some clueless volunteers, the festival went along again just fine otherwise, with the tech/Interactive portion as the main pull, followed by the Comedy and Film sessions with the Music part pulling up the rear as usual.  There was some impressive panels and speakers this year too- I missed the Nile Rodgers, Mick Fleetwood and Lou Adler interview sessions but have write-ups of the Prince and Garth Brooks sessions below.  We also had a music journo panel with Greg Kot (Chicago Tribune), author Chuck Eddy and Rachel Brodsky (Paste) that wasn’t all doom and gloom and I had to politely take turns telling everyone to shut up to keep things moving along. (KJZZ/NPR did a nice interview with me beforehand about the panel too-
https://t.co/wbFGrUej7D – and I did a pre-panel write-up about music scribing for the Reverie Report).

And a bunch of bands showed up again too of course. I usually avoid the big name shows (Garth, Migos, Gucci Maine) ‘cause it’s a pain to get in and not too fun to be sardine-packed in when you make it in.  Otherwise, I find SX a great way to find out about a lot of acts I wouldn’t know about otherwise. I always say it’s a musical smorgasbord where you can aurally pig out, especially since most clubs are easy to jump to from one another (something that NYC can’t match).  I noticed that despite the immigration controversy, there was plenty of impressive foreign acts there, even a showcase of music from the list of travel-banned countries.  And of course, there was no shortage of political commentary, running from the very subtle to the very blatant, concerning an ego-driven, thin-shinned orange autocrat. I caught almost 50 memorable acts and learned about a bunch of good albums from2016 that I didn’t know were out there.  You’ll no doubt recognize a couple of names here but I tried to bear down on acts I didn’t know about before I hit Austin.  Maybe you’ll like some of ‘em too and even support ‘em.

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Below, check out a Spotify playlist of the acts reviewed here. Following the text you you can also see a YouTube playlist of footage from some of the shows.

A Giant Dog

  • A Giant Dog (Barracuda, March 16th)
    • Eternally clad in gym tights, singer Sabrina Ellis pulls double duty in the appropriately named Sweet Spirit but here’s where the Austin local rocks out as ringleader/cheerleader, appearing here beside a giant inflatable dragon with its wings flapping.  She/they sing so passionately about rock and roll that you’d think they’re hushing up the stupid naysayers that keep insisting the music’s dead.

Bad Pop

  • Bad Pop (ScartcHouse, March 14th)
    • What happens when you combine a geek, hipster chic and a long-haired wrestler-type dude? You get these hilarious indie rock Canucks.  Chris Connelly (guitarist/geek) has plenty of sly stage banter and an occasional robot vocal, Catherine Hiltz (the hipster) doubles on bass and trumpet at the same time and drummer Aaron Klassen (the dude) is an impressive driving force, even if he’s resultant to solo.

Sho Baraka

  • Sho Baraka (TenOak, March 18th)
    • This California (via Canadian) Christian rapper put out one of 2016’s finest releases, The Narrative. And though the grooveful songs came through for the show, his beef about his late slot and the sound guy got kind of tired after a while.  Did have some meaningful things to say about why inner city projects spring up though and he’s always one stylish dude.

Bastards of Fate

  • The Bastards of Fate (Tellers, March 17th)
    • Singer Doug Cheatwood looked like an office boy but with the rest of his bizarre post-rock band on the small stage, he took to the floor with the crowd, shining a light around himself most of the time and used his voice as a sound effect. Makes you wonder how he’d do on a bigger stage.

Benjamin Booker

  • Benjamin Booker (Container, March 15th)
    • I admired and respected this blues-rocker but wasn’t totally sold on him until this show where his admiration for the Gun Club came out, even in his casual manner.

Boyfriend

  • Boyfriend (Palm Door on Sixth, March 16th)
    • She calls her act ‘rap cabaret’ but that sells this diminutive natural actress short. Clad in a wedding gown and then panties, bra and curlers, she led her dance crew through some high-end gymnastics with a knee-slapping number where she complains to her man that he doesn’t satisfy her as good as her hand.

Garth Brooks

  • Garth Brooks (Austin Convention Center, March 17th)
    • You might have heard of this country megastar and he was definitely the BMOC star of the music fest. I like some of his early stuff and was curious to see what his ‘keynote’ was like though I didn’t need to see his big late-announced show on Saturday.  For tech, he’s definitely tone-deaf, even if he was there to boost his partnership with Amazon.  He did have something meaningful to say about the dying art of songwriters in Nashville though and it was kind of refreshing to see such a huge act be so low-key and casual.  Too bad that he didn’t bring out Chris Gaines for a cameo.

Chain of Flowers

  • Chain of Flowers (Sidewinder, March 15th)
    • These Cardiff boys took their name from a Cure song and you can see the influence- the sensitive vocals and synth riffs/atmosphere. They do have a strong sound though, especially with singer Joshua Smith (related to Robert?) who shared a beer shower with us. Just hoped that it wasn’t domestic.

Kasey Chambers

  • Kasey Chambers (Cooper’s, March 15th)
    • Cooper’s is a great place for BBQ but too cramped for shows and though she was a little long on banter about her life (quite a thick shrimp-on-the-barbie accent), this Aussie country legend brought the goods with her voice and her songs. Nashville should get up some courage and just adopt her.

Sturle Dagsland

  • Sturle Dagsland (Tellers, March 16th)
    • Even though the entire audience for the first five minutes was just me and the sound guy, this Norwegian experimental artist put on one of the most memorable shows at the fest. Alongside his brother on guitar, he ran through all kinds of theatrical dancing and pawing at instruments strewn around the stage (including bamboo sax, skateboard, harp, bells, homemade instruments) like it was a mad scientist’s lab.  When he intro’d the songs, he gave the titles as squeaks and squawks.  Wondering if the songs actually had titles, he later told me that ‘they don’t have names in any readable languages.’ Can’t wait to decipher them later.

DakhaBrakha

  • DakhaBrakha (Austin Convention Center, March 16th)
    • Just your typical trio of Ukrainian women with big fur hats who play modernized traditional music, including a cellist who raps in their native language and a crazed drum circle that would drive jam band fans wild. Not so typical actually.

Dark Times

  • Dark Times (BD Riley, March 14th)
    • This Oslo trio ID’s itself as punk but there’s an arty, drone-filled edge to them that sets that apart. Maybe it’s AK’s angry, insistent vocals and noise guitar.  Maybe it’s her background in radio that also gives her roots too.

DJ Yoda

  • DJ Yoda (Valhalla, March 17th)
    • Though the accompanying rapper didn’t do much for this London DJ, he proved himself worthy of all the mixtape buzz by making dance music out of early 70’s mellow classics like “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” Has Girl Talk done that yet?

Dream Wife

  • Dream Wife (Maggie Mae’s, March 17th)
    • Boosted by confident Icelandic singer Rakel Mjöll, this London band started as performance art and you can see that in their act, a cunning poppy-punk mix of sugar and spice. The Friday show I caught was their 3rd gig of the day and 8th gig at SX and it showed occasionally- guitarist Alice Go struggled mightily to stay aloft.

Kinky Friedman

  • Kinky Friedman (Threadgill’s, March 18th)
    • Though they frown on unofficial day shows, there’s plenty of non-showcase action going around during the fest. One example was a great singer-songwriter showcase featuring this Jewish comedian, Willie Nelson pal and conservative Democrat. The jokes were as good as the songs and he even pulled out one so new that an audience member had to hold the lyrics next to him just in case he forgot the words (which he did).

Frontier Folk Nebraska

  • Frontier Folk Nebraska (Swan Dive, March 18th)
    • As much of a misnomer as the Austin pizza joint called Hoboken Pie, this Cincinnati quartet provided anthemic, roots/indie rock songs that any Drive-By Truckers fan would appreciate. Don’t let the Southern rock logos fool you though- good ol’ boys they ain’t.  They’re good boys for sure though.

Gabriel Royal

  • Gabriel Royal (Stephen F’s, March 18th)
    • A soul-styled cellist is the type of act that stands out but he’s more than a novelty. He does have soul for real and a voice to go with it and he sounds just fine plucking or strumming his instrument all by himself.

Grandaddy

  • Grandaddy (Stubb’s, March 17th)
    • They didn’t have the production/videos of a smaller NYC gig I caught recently but the bigger stage (at Stubb’s) suited the grandeur of some of the early material of this recently reunited band, earning their headline spot for the evening. Jason Lytle’s high pitched voice filled the warm Texas night nicely too.

Hanba!

  • Hanba! (Flamingo Cantina, March 16th)
    • If the Pogues can do trad-punk, why can’t this unplugged Polish band do the same? Featuring banjo, tuba, accordion, parade drums and clarinet, they not only had the punky fast-paced chants down, they also provided a history lesson and a sly warning to us Yanks about nationalism.

High Waisted

  • High Waisted (Cheer Up Charlie’s, March 18th)
    • Though I loved their “Party In the Back” single, I wasn’t sure if there was more to this poppy little indie band. Thanks to singer Jessica Louise’s cheery spirits, there was.

Idle Bloom

  • Idle Bloom (Sidewinder, March 14th)
    • Though they’re from Nashville, they’re definitely not conservative- this indie band dished out the most in-your-face anger about the Orange Imperial Menace that I heard at the fest. Guitarist/singer Olivia Scibelli and bassist Katie Banyay twist through songs that are gnarled and somehow catchy at the same time. Would be great to think that some hometown country acts could pick up on their vibe somehow.

King Cayman

  • King Cayman (Trinity House at Old School, March 14th)
    • This tireless wild man, one-man band, who was barely visible through his shaggy hair, blazed through one song after enough with such furry that at first I thought his garage-rock sound was garage-dance-drum-and-bass related. He’s definitely got his BPM’s notched up high and even if some of it sounds the same, who cares if there’s a great sound attached to it?

Lizzo

  • Lizzo (Stubb’s, March 15th)
    • Even when she went poppy, this Minneapolis rapper still hasn’t quite gotten the respect she deserves. She’s got a strong attitude, great dancers, an impressive stage act and an amazing polymath DJ backing her up- that would be Sophia Eris and you should remember that name.  Is the pop market really that freakin’ stupid that it has to reject a talent like this just ’cause she’s large-size?  Guess so.  Their loss.

Low Cut Connie

  • Low Cut Connie (Tellers, March 16th)
    • This Philly rock and roll (not rock) band never fails to bring it live. Singer/leader Adam Weiner is a born-showman, banging on and standing on a full sized piano, taking a stroll through the audience and assuring us that we’ll make it if we all stick together (a subtle political reference). Didn’t even mind it when he grabbed and tossed my cap.

New Pornographers

  • New Pornographers (Empire Control Room, March 15th)
    • OK, so you know who these guys are but almost 20 years on, it’s worth reminding ourselves what a pleasure they are. Carl Newman’s a great songwriter and singer Neko Case is an eternal treasure.  Hope they stick around for another 20 years.

Octopus Project

  • The Octopus Project (Mohawk, March 15th)
    • This brainy, rock/indie/post-rock Austin outfit is worth multiple viewings. Your head will spin watching them switch instruments, which occasionally includes two sets of drums and you can’t help but be drawn to Yvonne Lambert with her retro outfits and Theremin theatrics.

Tunde Olaniran

  • Tunde Olaniran (Sidewinder, March 16th)
    • This ‘Afro-futurist’ rapper from Flint started out with a taped newscast about his hometown’s water crisis. Soon, two mysterious dancers appeared, followed by him in African-like garb, performing in front of billboards insisting this was homophobia, transphobia, etc. free zone. All those good intentions weren’t wasted either with a big-hearted, soul-searching, stirring act to go with it.

Orkhestra Kriminal

  • Orkestra Kriminal (Austin Convention Center, March 15th)
    • Except for racist scum, who doesn’t enjoy some wild klezmer (‘yiddish gangster’) music with sousaphone, musical saw and violins? What really makes this Montreal crew go is their engaging, footloose singer Giselle Claudia Webber.

Paws

  • Paws (Sidewinders, March 17th)
    • I was curious to see if this catchy Glasgow indie band still had it after their wonderful Cokefloat! debut from 2012. Glad to see that they did.

Plastic Pinks

  • Plastic Pinks (Hotel Vegas, March 18th)
    • Though they had shows all over the place, these wild-ass Miami rockers had no official SX showcase gig per se. Tracking them down was worth it though- between their Stooges-riffs and hyperactive singer June Summer (who I first thought was over-enthused roadie) who could play cagey and manic in the blink of an eye, they dominated the tiny indoor stage that they were given.

Lisa Prank

  • Lisa Prank (Las Cruxes, March 14th)
    • Sporting an adorable princess outfit, a sweet attitude and a sticker-filled guitar, it was hard not to fall for this lo-fi singer and her invisible, foot-controlled ‘band.’

Priests

  • Priests (Cheer Up Charlie’s, March 16th)
    • After falling in love with their jangly, jagged “JJ” single, I was a little let down by this DC indie band’s debut, wondering if they had anything else substantial going on. After singer Katie Alice Greer shouted and pleaded and sly moaned through their set, it was obvious that there was much more to them than I thought and that she was their not-so-secret weapon.

Prince Panel

  • Prince Panel (Austin Convention Center, March 17th)
    • With his ex-band mates Andre Cymone and Dez Dickerson there and ex-manager Owen Husney (who also signed him to WB), it was a dishing fest but who doesn’t want to hear the inside stories of the Purple legend, including how paranoid he was about being recognized BEFORE he was famous? Not to mention how all his weird interviews were actually carefully planned stunts.  All of which just makes us miss him more. And we even got a sneak peak at the upcoming documentary about the Purple One.

Pussy Riot

  • Pussy Riot (Speakeasy, March 15th)
    • Surprised to see that more people didn’t make it out to see these Russian political dissident legends. Of course they pissed all over Putin and made hay of their legal run-in’s as much as Lenny Bruce once did. But their multi-media theater piece with goth-dance music and translations from Russian was amazing.  As Maria Alyokhina sang occasionally wearing a terrorist mask and singer/saxist Nadezhda Tolokonnikova stood resolutely next to her, there was only certainty and determination in their faces and voices as if they were ready to stare down any opposition.  They were fearless. They were a role model for battling an authoritarian head of state.  Only when the words “Russia will be free again” came on the screen, followed by a roar of approval from the crowd, did a smile creep across Alyokhina’s face.  She believed it and we believed it too, thinking thought that we too would be free someday.

Qawalistan

  • Qawalistan (Palm Door on Sixth, March 17th)
    • Pakistani fusion might sound like a world music nightmare, especially when it comes from a band who loves Deep Purple and Black Sabbath but luckily, this group leans more on local influences than Western ones. Though they had a guitar and drum kit in their ranks, singer and harmonium player Imran Aziz Mian Qawal dominated with his wailing vocals, backed by tabla and dholak drummers that also gave a trad link and grounding to the music.

Qualiatik

  • Qualiatik (Clearport, March 15th)
    • A well planned out schedule can fall apart but still come out OK. Here, I was supposed to see a different act but ’cause the schedule ran late, I saw this one-woman Philly act which she claims as a ‘multi-media act.’  She’s got great surreal videos/visuals, good command of keys/drums/electronics and an expressive voice that makes you think that she could be a star someday.

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever

  • Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (Container, March 15th)
    • Even before Sub Pop snatched them up, I was taken by these dreamy-sounding Aussie rockers- no surprise then to find out that the band is made up of relatives and school chums as the music sounds like it, aided nicely by guitarist Joe White’s airy sound. Just be glad that they’re on a (big) indie so that some A&R guy doesn’t make them change their name to make it ‘simpler.’

Whitney Rose

  • Whitney Rose (Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room, March 14th)
    • If you love old-school country, this honky tonk gal is for you. Her recent EP South Texas Suite is a gem and she’s got a gorgeous voice to carry any song she chooses, which happens to be ones that she writes herself.

Slotface

  • Slotface (Sidewinder, March 15)
    • Originally called Slutface (they still insist on saying it that way), this Oslo band boosts feminism and conservation causes but what comes out in the tunes is their subtle but insistent singer/lyricist Haley Shea (who has shades of Garbage’s Shirley Manson in her) and the songs from a guitarist named Tor-Arne Vikingstad whose catchy music never let on that he was once in a hardcore band.

Slowkiss

  • SlowKiss (Friends, March 14th)
    • Even in Chile, grrls will girls. With energy to burn (L7 fans for sure), they were one of the most impressive SX acts this time around with guitarist Elisa Montes and bassist Victoria Cordero trading vocals and creating an emotional pull to the music.  Drooling boy fans picked up on their leg tattoos but all I noticed was their charging sound.

Spook School

  • Spook School (Sidewinder, March 17th)
    • With so many new acts to see at SX, the temptation is to skip repeats from before but I couldn’t resist with these inedible, yearning Scots who have roots in queer punk (singer Nye Todd is transgender) and comedy. Nice to see their haunting way with a tune hasn’t disappeared and their drummer is still a dry, hilarious MC.

Spoon

  • Spoon (Austin Convention Center, March 17th)
    • These hometown heroes had a three-night curated residency at the Main and still managed to do a morning showcase for KGSR radio and this afternoon show to boot. Smart move though as they were pushing a fine new album, Hot Thoughts. I’m schizzy about these guys ’cause I like ‘like’ their albums and honor the craggy, difficult nature of their music but not sure if I always love it. Live though, Britt Daniels is an effective frontman, just active enough without being too showy. Despite my reservations, they’ve got a great band too, especially with recent-addition Alex Fischel on keys.

SuperGlu

  • SuperGlu (Latitude 30, March 18th)
    • Good news for Brit-pop fans who thought that Oasis was too thick and Blur was too clever- these Coldchester brothers and their bloke chums might provide a happy medium for you.

Sweet Crude

  • Sweet Crude (Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room, March 16th)
    • Another fortunate accident as I meant to see a Korean punk band called No Brain playing next door and instead, I came across this folky NOLA dance-pop outfit who cite ELO, Talking Heads, Lost Bayou Ramblers as influences (also Miami Sound Machine even if they don’t know it). Singers Sam Craft & Alexis Marceaux surround themselves with drums and a festive spirit that would rock the hippest of Bar-Mitzvahs. And they’re real Bayou folks- half their website is in French.

AJ Tracey

  • AJ Tracey (Empire Garage, March 18th)
    • Nowadays as strong, if not as varied, as its American counterpart, UK rap, aka grime, is some of the most cutting edge music coming out of pop culture now. Though slack timing meant that I missed grime star Rude Kid, Tracey showed why he’s got a string of sold out UK shows coming up. His tight, rapid-fire delivery was a pleasure to watch.

Uyarakq x Peand-eL

  • Uyarakq x Peand-eL (Cedar Street Courtyard, March 16th)
    • A Greenlandic rapper sounds like just another novelty but Peter Lyberth aka Peand-eL ain’t no joke, even if he dresses like a dad on holiday. The guy had good flow (rapping in kalaallisut/Greenlandic) and even had some harsh political words for his homeland’s government, including protest rally sounds in his songs via his dance-music partner Uyarakq (who describes his genre as ‘dad-jokes’).  If you’re curious about more, there’s even a Nordic festival in the fall, you can check out.

Weaves

  • Weaves (Maggie Mae’s, March 17th)
    • Jasmyn Burke stands out not just because she’s a black singer leading punky indie band but also because she counts Karen O and Koko Taylor as influences and sounds like it. It definitely helps that she has guitarist/actor/comedian Morgan Waters backing her up with all kinds of wonderful sound effect noises. Where else but in Toronto could this happen?

Zeta

  • Zeta (Speakeasy, March 17th)
    • Venezuela may not be the place you’d think of for great hardcore/art-rock/post-punk music but that’s what this foursome has to offer- think of them as a less monotonous version of Helmut with still plenty of volume. When a rapper came on for a few songs, you didn’t get nightmares about Limp Bizkit either.

Jason Gross is a longtime contributor to Blurt and also is the archivally-minded genius behind that most excellent music site Perfect Sound Forever. Below, view some of the bands he saw in Austin this year.

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