Pictured above: proud non-stadium fillers at SXSW (L-R) Broken Social Scene, Get Up Kids, Deerhunter – and much more. Our BLURT man on the ground charts the REAL heroes.
TEXT/PHOTOS BY JASON GROSS
You either love or hate SXSW, and having spent my 20th year there, I know which side I’m on. Stll, I’m grateful that 2019 didn’t see any huge, stadium-filling acts (which previously were Prince, Bruce, Gaga, Jay-Z) crowding out the literal and figurative turf in downtown Austin this March. The biggest acts this time were Deerhunter, Get Up Kids, De La Soul and Broken Social Scene- I saw ‘em all except De La (which I regret) and they were great but I gotta say that the crush of the crowds at those shows made me grateful to see the smaller, lesser-known acts. These up-and-coming performers make up the bulk of the fest and provide the real fun and beauty of discovery there.
Let the likes of Coachella and Glastonbury have the stars and crowds, even if Sixth Street in Austin has its own crowds (it was a good thing that spring break didn’t coincide with SXSW this time, keeping many U of T students from cluttering up the area). Plus, it wouldn’t be South By without some kind of incident, this time, a few shootings over the final weekend near the East side and the music proceedings, though seemingly not festival related.
Otherwise, we out-of-towners enjoy Austin’s compact concentration of clubs in the downtown area for easy access, the (usually) warm weather and the feast of BBQ and Tex-Mex food that awaits you there. Even then, the promo events around there meant that you could dine on a budget, getting freebies from Reeperbahn’s burger fest, Uber Eats’ pop-up of rotating food dishes and Wisconsin Cheese’s 3000 lbs. of pressed curds in their Cheeselandia fest to clog up your arteries as quickly as a plate of ribs.
(below: Cheeselandia’s delights)
(As a side note, I gotta say that NYC made me appreciate Austin clubs all the more when I compare their entry ways. ATX clubs still check IDs, what’s in your bag, etc., but they are so much more courteous about that. At a recent Market Hotel show in Brooklyn, the security guys obviously didn’t want to be there and treated you like garbage as a result. I did find it interesting that at the rap showcases at ATX, though, there were extra layers of security, including security wands and pat-downs.)
Even at a wide-ranging music fest, I’m still an indie rock fan at heart but I wish I could have seen more techno (which there was a good amount of), jazz and classical (which there were bits of here and there), at least for some variety. Still, there was plenty of styles to dive into otherwise, in six days, I managed to see about 80 shows (again which is easily when the clubs are mostly in one area). Rap had some impressive gents there with De La, plus the Beastie Boys doing a keynote panel on their new movie. But the most impressive music overall at the fest were really the female MC’s, proving that proving that Cardi and the unfairly maligned Nicki are only the tip of the iceberg. At SX ‘19, there were great sets, plus plenty of variety and quality from Ace Tee, Devmo, Leikeli47, Quanna, Rico Nasty, Tierra Whack, all chronicled below.
(below: a last look at Sixth Street as the fest/confab was ending)
For my SXSW roundup here, I cover three dozen acts that I can gladly vouch for, plus nine more to investigate further (only saw glimpses of ‘em) and on top of that, 17 more acts I couldn’t catch but wish I did (there’s so much to see at SX that you can never see all the good stuff), plus links to hear more music from all of the performers. Maybe it’s interesting that many of the best acts I found at SX ’19 were women, but then again, they’re putting out the best albums recently, so why not? I even found time to see three music documentaries, though even there, I wish I could see more.
Anyone wanna help with a cloning machine so that we all can have our full fill of music at SXSW 2020? And a note to the SX show programmers: things went peachy this year without any huge headliners, so don’t ruin a good thing next time.
BEST BANDS/PERFORMERS SEEN
Ace Tee (March 17th, Main II)- When you think of a German rapper, a sultry black woman probably doesn’t come to mind but it should. “Bist Du Down?” was her international smash and represents her sound well. She doesn’t overwhelm onstage but that’s not the point as she’s got an alluring persona to match the music.
Amyl & the Sniffers (March 14, Hotel Vegas)- These old school style punks from Aussie are signed to Rough Trade, assuring their cool credentials. Amy Taylor looks like a cute little blonde girl on first blush but she’s comfortable diving into a crowd, moshing there and coming out with a bloody knee like nothing happened.
Anteros (March 11, Latitude 30)- Though Brit singer Laura Hayden doesn’t quite command the stage like Garbage’s Shirley Manson, she and the boys have their catchy dance pop down well enough that I was happy to see them twice. Their big glossy sound really does suck you in and grab you.
Black Pumas (March 15, Austin Convention Center)- These Austinites call themselves ‘psychedelic soul’ but it’s more of the later (70’s style) than the former, which is fine, and singer Eric Burton knows how to work up a crowd. Also, how you can not love their large-sized feline mascot/name-sake?
BLXPLTN (March 16, 720 Club)- Black electro-punk with a heavy dose of lefty politics. They’re as loud and rowdy as you’d hope they’d be live. Hopefully coming to an Afropunk stage soon.
Combo Chimbita (March 14, Hotel Vegas)- I’d seen them at Globalfest in NYC in January and was floored then and found that this loud psychedelic Columbian quartet was even louder at an outdoor stage for a day show. Singer Carolina Oliveros is mesmerizing with her outfits, her voice and her stage presence. She really has it all.
The Comet Is Coming (March 13, St. David’s)- With lineage from two other great UK groups (Sons of Kemet, Melt Yourself Down), TCIC is about jazz & rock & prog & techno via sax/keys/drums. Compelling stuff for sure and as another audience member noted, their fiery music really does sound like the band’s name. They’re shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Prize and I’m rooting for them.
Control Top (March 12, Cheer Up Charlie’s)- This Philly punk trio has a nice, sleazy sound to it thanks to their striking yeller Ali Taylor and the slashing guitar riffs of Al Creedon. No wonder they’re touring with Laura Jane Grace.
DEVMO (March 16, Mohawk)- Though she hails from the LA area, she raps more like Eminem in a fast-clipped style than a G-funk Cali style (though Dr. Dre did bring up M from the start). Plus, she could hold her own with a beatboxer that she invited onstage.
Drinking Boys and Girls Choir (March 14, Valhalla)- A Korean skate-punk trio that’s as fast and furious as you’d hope or expect. The sound is more hardcore than your typical mall punk band but slightly sweetened by bassist Meena’s grrl-y vocals. I almost wished I learned Korean so I could pick up on some of the political lyrics.
Ehiorobo (March 16, Scratchouse) After seeing a few acts that tried to push R&B into avant territory but couldn’t quite pull off the trick, it was a relief and revelation to see this wonderful weirdo from the wilds of New Jersey. With his broken, off-kilter beats matched by broken, oft-kilter lyrics, he’s someone you want to watch to see which strange pathways he takes.
eX-Girl (March 16, Elysium)- This trio, which technically comes from Japan but they claim to hail from the planet Kero Kero, has been around since 1997 though they still sound fresh in their bizarre rock/pop style- even when they came out doing a ceremonials dance to Kraftwerk. They’re less punk now but you can still see why Jello Biafra and Mike Patton were boosters. Wish they featured more of their sock-puppet frog (monster?) mascot though.
Gurr (March 12, Cheer Up Charlie’s)- This German girl duo recently did a Xmas song with Eddie Argos (Art Brut) and you can see why- they’re also a scraggly, lovable indie rock ensemble. Hilarious that they also told us ‘good morning’ at 12:30PM for their day show, which probably WAS wake-up time for most of the SXSW crowd.
Haiku Hands (March 16, Barracuda)- This Aussie girl dance trio sounds silly/goofy/fun on record and they translate it well on stage, via masks, streamers, dance move, good cheer. “Dare You Not To Dance” is a well-named statement of principle too.
Hash Redactor (March 14, Beerland)- This Memphis quartet has cast-offs from Ex-Cult & Nots but probably makes better post-punk revival/art-punk music than either of those groups. Plus, singer Alec McIntyre has the best buggy-eyed stare since Richard Hell.
Christy Hays (March 15, Friends)- This country/folk/rock singer boasts no pop pretensions and there’s a wonderful yearning in her voice and lyrics.
Lonnie Holley (March 14, Austin Convention Center)- A unique talent for sure, technically he’s a grisled soul ala Gil-Scott Heron but has a deep spiritual edge to match his political side- see “I Woke Up in a Fucked-Up America” for proof. Nice that he had his fellow Alabaman Lee Bains III to back him up on guitar too.
Durand Jones & the Indications (March 14, Stubbs) Last year at SXSW, this Midwest soul-man appeared as a promising talent. This year, he’s got an impressive new album (American Love Call), a bigger sound and plenty confidence to help move bigger crowds. It doesn’t hurt that he’s got a strong band featuring drummer Aaron Frazer who easily hits those high notes and can take the lead now and then too.
Juiceboxxx (March 15, Barracuda Outside)- This unhinged wild midwesterner (think Jay Reatard) mostly goes for dirty garage rock/punk with some rap thrown in but thankfully he ain’t nu metal. He was just as convincing bouncing around the stage as he was standing on overturned garbage can in the middle of the crowd or rolling on the beer-soaked ground.
Kokoko! (March 12, The Main)- Though their publicist denies it, you have to wonder if this Kinshasa group has any connection to their fellow Congo homies Konono No. 1 who also use pots/pans/bottles and electrified scraps. Either way, they’re two great bands, kinship or no kinship, but live, Kokoko! has the edge with their instrument switching and crowd-revving act.
Kyan (March 13, CU29)- You really have to scratch your head when a wonderful, honey-voiced soul Brit like this isn’t conquering the US yet. Armed only with a keyboard and a violin player, his low-key dreamy vibe sounded big.
Leikeli47 (March 13, Cedar Street Courtyard)- Decked out in her signature robber-mask outfit, this diminutive Brooklyn MC worked the audience better than any other performer I saw at SXSW this year, not only taking her act into the crowd but also bringing some of them on stage to vogue beside her. When I was up front at the stage edge, she was even thoughtful enough to tell me that her raucous “Girl Blunts” didn’t mean that I couldn’t enjoy the fun too. How many other rappers would do that for you?
Madam X (March 15, Scratchouse)- One of the great things about the fest is running across something good that you didn’t even know about before, including this UK DJ and label head. I almost missed the act I was planning to see otherwise because her bumping, jacked rhythms, which covered everything from big beat to techno to dubstep, had our small crowd going for a while.
Megan Thee Stallion (March 14, Cheer Up Charlie’s)- With her self-assurance, stride and moves that would wear out a pole dancer, you wouldn’t know that this Houston rapper has only been putting out music for two years now. Decked out in a Kiss T-shirt, she was only on stage for 15 minutes but she made it seem like so much longer than that.
My Education (March 12, Barracuda)- This seven-man prog outfit leads with a violinist but they know how to get loud and almost sound rowdy at times- think early Mahavishnu Orchestra and Wetton/Bruford-era King Crimson. I almost wished that I stayed around for their Soundmass set where they team up with Utah improv group Theta Naught.
J.S. Ondara (March 14, Austin Convention Center) What bowls you over about this Kenyan artist right away is his beautiful, ethereal voice, highlighted when he performed solo with just a guitar to back him up.
Otoboke Beaver (March 12, The Main)- Don’t let the flowery outfits fool you- these Japanese girls are screaming punks who know how to use their feminine wiles in a fun, ironic way.
The Pinheads (March 14, BD Riley’s)- “Are they always so extroverted?” I asked their manager as this Aussie punk/garage band almost wrecked the stage area and were threatened by the club owner to get tossed out of there. “No, they’re usually wilder in a bigger club,” she said, making me wonder if they flattened the whole East Austin area a few days later when they played Hotel Vegas.
Quanna (March 17, Palm Door on Sixth)- Masterminding a 16-women line-up for a single night, this NY/Georgia rapper sounds more like the latter than former- Dirty South for sure. Generous enough to keep her own set short to let her other performers shine, it made me wish I’d seen more of her showcase for the evening.
Rico Nasty (March 12, The Main)- Yes, this Maryland rapper (like Quanna, she’s another NY transplant) proudly lives up to her name, nasty as she wants to be with plenty of style/fashion sense to boot.
Sego (March 12, Maggie Mae’s) I thought that Spencer Petersen just made funny indie rock at first- their new album is Sego Sucks and on Facebook posts, they address ‘Friends/Foes.’ Now, he’s trying his hand at writing anthems and he’s definitely onto something, gathering momentum while he’s at it.
The Seratones (March 15, Cheer Up Charlie’s)- It wasn’t the pink tutu she sported or the cold that she was valiantly trying to fight off that won me over to singer A.J. Haynes- it was her infectious enthusiasm that she radiated in front of her soul-rock ensemble.
Spacewalker (March 16, Speakeasy Kabaret)- She’s Afro-future, decked out in an outfit that would do Sun Ra proud and her one-woman laptop/drum machine band was all she needed to get her funky, freaky vibe across.
Symphonic Cinema (March 11, Edwin’s)- It was a little disappointing not to see any live music here but mastermind/director Lucas van Woerkum was there to do live film edits (where he’d sometimes slow down or freeze the film) for his video of Ravel “Daphnis et Chloe” featuring a steamy long-term love affair of a ginger-haired lady. He plans/hopes to play with an orchestra on his next trip to the States, which would be quite a sight to see as he’s already made himself the toast of Europe.
Tierra Whack (March 13, Container Bar)- OK, she’s not exactly an unknown quantity and she’s easily one of the most hyped-up recent acts but she still deserves more attention on top of that- she’s inventive, unique and even a little frustrating as many great artists are. Her 2018 debut (Whack World) was a conceptually brilliant album/video/suite copping from the Ramones (and the Residents’ Commercial Album) in the brevity playbook while dodging boasts and F-bombs. Live, she can surf on the wild enthusiasm of the crowd with just her freaky green skull shirt and her DJ but it’ll be fascinating to see where she takes her music in longer form and how she works that out into a more elaborate show, which she’ll definitely have.
Tiggs Da Author (March 12, Scratchouse)- Easily, the best name of any performer at the fest this year, technically, he’s UK rap but not ‘grime’ per se- more on the R&B tip, with 2017’s “Work It Out” an irresistibly, catchy hit and ‘16’s “Georgia” another ear-worm contender.
XXX (March 14, Fader Fort) – Not to be confused with punk legends X or the dreamy UK pop of the XX, this Korean rap duo made up for their delayed show the night before with this day show- rapper Kim Ximya was in good voice but could have had more stage presence though DJ/producer FRNK was on point with his schizzy, off-beat beats and sounds. Makes you wonder what will XXXX be like.
Yola (March 13, Central Presbyterian Church)- Not to be confused with Yo La Tengo, this Brit soul sister has Dan Auerbach producing her and her huge voice and joy make you think that she’s destined to be a name you’ll keep hearing. And her country connections run deeper than the cowboy band she appeared with- it’s definitely part of her sound and spirit. And if YLT was smart, they’d back her up or at least boost her.
DevMo (above). Go to YouTube and watch videos of DevMo, Haiku Hands, eX-Girl, Juiceboxxx, Amyl & the Sniffers, the Pinheads, Kokoko! and Otoboke Beaver playing the fest.
Briefly Saw But Needed To See More Of…
Algobabez– UK techno imagined by tech coders (and sounds like it)
Eden Archer – Country girl from Florida who proudly plucks a dulcimer
Black Belt Eagle Scout– proud Native American with slow-burn indie sound
Blushh– indie grrl with tunes
Yves Jarvis– experimental soul/pop
Denise le Menice– Aussie punk gone pop
John The Martyr– NYC blues/soul combo
Pip Blom– Brooding indie girls from the Netherlands
Tetractys– music series of Austin composers, premiering new pieces
Missed ‘Em and Wish I Hadn’t…
Liana Banks– Queens rapper flirts with R&B/pop
Black Taffy– avant/hip-hop DJ/composer
Borzoi– Aussie indie/post-punk revival
Catastrophe– theatrical pop chanteuse
Cimafunk– Cuban funk
Nick Leng– Floaty pop via South Africa
Lien– Ambient Belgian DJ
Mavi Phoenix– Femme dance pop
Mourning Blkstar– spiritual soul
Nonconnah– ambient/shoegaze duo
Clemm Rishad– Northwest rap with gospel leanings
Shigeto– abstract techno
Trampoline Team– grrl punk from the Big Easy
Stefan Wesolowski– avant/drone composer
Vacationer– R&B/pop with retro flourishes
Yoshi Vintage– Flint femme rapper with a dreamy side
Yung Baby Tate– Sensual Georgia rap
Martin Phillipps & Creem director Scott Crawford
- Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine: For those of us who grew up on the fabled rock mag, this was a such a pleasure to see. Featuring vintage footage plus storied tales of the battles among owner/publisher Barry Kramer, editor Dave Marsh and scribe deity Lester Bangs and a staff that insisted on living a rock star life style themselves, all of which couldn’t last.
- The Chills: The Triumph & Tragedy of Martin Phillipps: The story of a Kiwi legend who crafted beautiful, haunting songs and couldn’t keep a hold of a band for more than a year or two until now, plus his long-term struggle with drugs, drink and hepatitis and a museum exhibit that he scraped together from his home artifacts. Nice that MP himself was there for the screening, along with several SXSW shows for the Chills.
- The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash: Based on mid-90’s interviews with the Man in Black, we hear the warts ’n’ all story of his life with some blanks filled in by his kids and his famous musical fans. It’s funny, touching and eye-opening too, especially when we hear about how the death of his brother and his work in the Army affected the rest of his life and career.
- Carmen Street Guitars and I Am Richard Pryor: Didn’t actually see either of them but I’m kicking myself for that since the film people at the fest were raving about CSG as a great music-geek, NYC-history doc and who wouldn’t wanna see a movie about Pryor? FYI, The Boy Band Con: The Lou Pearlman Story had some buzz to it also but you might need a strong stomach to watch as it seems to be along the lines of the recent R. Kelly and Michael Jackson series.