South by Southwest is really unlike any other festival because it encapsulates so many disparate realms and feelings. It's exhilarating and exhausting. The focus may be music, but there's also sections of the festivities focused on film, comedy, tech, and gaming. Some parts are exclusionary, while others are free and open to the public. It's both loved and loathed by locals. It brings in some of music's biggest names (Garth Brooks, Lana Del Rey, the Roots), rising up-and-comers, and obscure acts from around the globe that few will ever know. It's a space of amazing creation and oppressive branding and industry machinations.
So when I return from a week at the Austin, Texas, spectacular, and receive a barrage of the question "How was SXSW?", it's always a struggle to answer in a succinct manner that captures all of the clashing highs and lows. Thankfully, the band Girlpool came up with the perfect summation of the festivities...
sxsw is like fun hell w all ur friends— Girlpool (@girlpoolband) March 17, 2017
Couldn't have said it better myself.
As per usual, Seattle boasted plenty of representation at SXSW. As a Seattleite down in Austin, it's always tough to balance covering the local scene while still making time to check out new music. So apologies to great Seattle acts that I've seen plenty up here but wasn't able to catch during my time down south, including SassyBlack, Porter Ray, Manatee Commune, Naked Giants, etc.
A decent chunk of Seattle's SXSW presence was on display at She Shreds's excellent free femme-themed rock showcase on Tuesday Las Cruxes, as Chastity Belt, Dude York, and Lisa Prank shared the bill with acts like Argentinian postpunk act Las Kellies and Hardly Art's Ian Sweet. America's Band™ Dude York played a typically electric set of tunes from its killer new record Sincerely (bonus points for Claire England appropriately sporting a Friday Night Lights Dillon Panthers jersey in Texas), and it's always a delight to see Lisa Prank emote to a sun-drenched outdoor audience. Chastity Belt drew the biggest crowd of the She Shreds Seattleites as the band tested out new tunes from its upcoming record I Used to Spend So Much Time Alone in front of fresh crowd that seemed to soak in every note.
Touring behind its new album Voids, Minus the Bear showcased the diversity of the SXSW concert model with free sets and showcase peformances. Not wanting to deal with the long line of people trying to get into Cheer Up Charlie's, I was able to comfortably watch the band's Friday afternoon outdoor set from behind a chest-high gate like a wonderfully freeloading degenerate. It's tough to argue with free Minus the Bear, even if it's from a distance. When the band later rocked the nightcap of a showcase at Barracuda, the greatness of the music hadn't changed, but my proximity to the stage had increased due to SXSW badge privilege.
With so many bands around Austin, it's interesting to see the different social circles that exist. While the groups like Dude York are pals with the up-and-coming folks in the youthful alternative scene, bands like Deep Sea Diver fit much more the veterans of the adult-oriented rock scene after receiving an invite to play as part of Spoon's three-night residency at the Main. As opposed to dealing with the SXSW grind, Deep Sea Diver went economical and just played the one Spoon gig as the final stop on a larger tour. Not surprisingly, this meant the band sounded far sharper and less worn down than most of its SXSW peers while firing up the Main's audience with songs from Secrets.
On a more disappointing note, SXSW Film Festival world premiered a new documentary about Seattle's top jazz guitarist, Bill Frisell: A Portrait. While the music throughout the film was superb and it was fun to see faces like Paul Simon and local artist Jim Woodring pop up to be interviewed, the whole thing was terribly slow and uninspiring documentary filmmaking that felt like a go-nowhere tribute to Frisell's work without actually revealing anything about what really makes him tick.
- New York duo Diet Cig is musical caffeine. Guitarist and singer Alex Luciano comes off like a pop punk Tinkerbell bouncing around stage with the enthusiasm of a kid hopped up on Pixy Stix and high kicking in a way that puts David Lee Roth to shame. I may have checked them out three times during SXSW because they provided an instant energy boost whenever I was feeling drained. Don't miss out on Diet Cig the next time they visit Seattle (a full list of SXSW favorites touring through Seattle soon can be found near the bottom of this article).
- I was on board with Sammus even before her set at Cheer Up Charlie’s began. She hooked me during the sound check when she repeatedly asked that her vocals need to be clear above everything else in the mix because the lyrics were the most important part (this may seem crazy, but almost no acts do this). Once the gig started, it became clear why she was so insistent. Over her own beats, the rapper, producer, and PhD student (notably the only artist who implored the crowd to party because she need a distraction before heading back to a dreaded stack of papers she needed to grade) delivered wonderfully composed and nerdy raps about about atypical and empowering topics like being a mutlifacited person ("Mighty Morphing") or telling the story of her space bounty-hunting video game namesake from Nintendo’s Metroid series. Sammus is smart as a whip, direct, and coming from a corner of her own that's worth exploring.
- Maybe it was simply a case of effective branding at a venue plastered with ads for the Twin Peaks reboot, but if you vaguely described Brandon Flowers of the Killers to David Lynch, I'm pretty sure the resulting character he'd dream up would be Alex Cameron. The Aussie singer carries that Lynchian sense of mystery, possessing a haunted distance in his eyes while delivering shimmying on stage and delivering sleek dark poetry about love and toxic masculinity.
- The newest addition to Barsuk Records family, Charly Bliss lives up to its band surname with wonderfully sweet pop rock. One sonic comparison instantly sprung to mind: If Josie and the Pussycats were a real band, it's a mortal lock that they'd tour with Charly Bliss.
- On the hellish end of the spectrum, bless Sad13 for putting up with a rough SXSW. A partial list of the things Sadie Dupuis and her crew dealt with during their stay in Austin: an accident in their rental van, a broken MIDI controller, a broken guitar, losing keyboard stand, losing a dead phone for hours in a room full of swag shoes, playing to a near empty room because their friends showed up at the wrong venue (who could’ve ever guessed it might be confusing to call separate venues Main and Main II?), and even stupid little things like waiting in line at the wrong venues. Despite all of this, the group continued to put on stellar sets of excellent fem-positive pop from its album Slugger that a certain black-cap adorned Seattle Met writer may have head swayed along with all week.
- It’s surreal seeing one of the best solo performing singer-songwriters in the industry play in a frickin’ noise polluted hotel lobby, but that’s SXSW for you. While a Westin Hotel might not have been the ideal place to see Cory Branan, the troubadour's carefree southern swagger and beautiful rough-edged songwriting of songs like "Survivor Blues" and "Prettiest Waitress in Memphis" offered a lift to the few fans and random weary travelers that caught his excellent little set.
- Allow me to turn in any indie cred I have and say the best set I saw at SXSW didn't come from some unknown breakout artist on the rise, it came from Jimmy Eat World. SXSW is a somewhat odd place for an established act like Jimmy Eat World. The group isn't scrapping for attention or hard peddling a new album. But that's ideal for fans. Free of the industry pressures—but still having to deal with shorter SXSW set times—Jimmy Eat World's condensed shows basically just become the band playing all the hits. Everything was seasoned and tight as you'd expect from the rock veterans as the band blitzed through hits like "The Middle" and fan favorite cuts from Bleed American, Clarity, Futures, and Chase This Light. Even at SXSW, sometimes all you need is just to hear a song you know.
- While her sister Katie (aka Waxahatchee) has already established herself as a solo force in indie singer-songwriter field, Allison Crutchfield seems on her way to staking her own claim. Allison's dreamy and light pop tunes from her solo debut Tourist in This Town aren't doused in Waxahatchee's southern melancholy, allowing her to carve out her own voice. When combined with their collaborative efforts in P.S. Eliot, it's getting increasingly hard to argue that the Crutchfield's aren't the current first family of American songwriting.
- The most distinctive voice to emerge from the realm of indie rock so far in 2017 has been Vagabon (aka Lætitia Tamko). Her wonderful new album Infinite Worlds dwells on the challenges of finding community and spaces she can comfortably share as a Cameroon-raised New Yorker. Yet when she performs live, every space feels like home as her music brightens all corners of the room with its soft sincerity.
- If forced to pick one SXSW band that's set to blow up in 2017, I'd go with PWR BTTM. While the group already sells out show pretty much every time it comes to Seattle, there's a next level for the band that should be within its grasp after the release of its upcoming album, Pageant. While playing new tunes at Cheer Up Charlie's, PWR BTTM's queer angst, glory, and glittery beauty shinned through in a captivating way that screams rock stars.
- As stated in our "Top 10 Albums of 2016," Tancred is a straight up tremendous band. Despite missing a chunk of SXSW due to the blizzard that hit the East Coast, Jess Abbott and company made up for lost time with exhilarating pop rock sets at Cheer Up Charlie's and Barracuda.
- Girlpool might currently be music's premiere purveyor of diaristic feelings, and SXSW marked the premiere of the group's new full band setup. While there's a touch of intimacy lost when it's not just Cleo Tucker and Harmony Tividad performing with nothing more than their voices, a bass, and a guitar, the fleshed out sound gives Girlpool's upcoming album Powerplant a chance to become essential listening for emotional teens and post-teens everywhere.
- After years stuck across the pond, Scottish punk trio Paws finally made its stateside return during SXSW. With an utterly pissed off energy, the band tore through songs from its superb 2016 album, No Grace. Even when technical difficulties with the kick drum plagued the band's Barracuda set, it only upped the levels of feral ferocity in each subsequent tune.
- Minneapolis rapper Lizzo somehow managed to blend SXSW's best dance party and its most emotional set into one during her performance at French Legation. Flanked by a crew of full-figured dancers, she ripped through bangers from her EP Coconut Oil, but also proved to be emotionally open and vulnerable when discussing the fact that the day was the anniversary of father's death. It shows her skill as an MC that she was able to transition between the sadness of the moment and vitality of her music in a way that felt genuine and not disjointed or distracting.
- It’s just a fact that concerts at churches are cool (see: Fremont Abbey's Cathedrals series for local evidence). SXSW boasts great showcases at a few of their downtown places of worship, and the Saturday night set by Los Angeles singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers at Central Presbyterian Church delivered the type of hushed, sad musical hymns that perfectly suited the holy surrounds.
- While there was plenty of fun to be had at official SXSW festivities, it was wonderful to escape the main grid on Saturday evening and wind things down by seeing the fantastic and unhealed Austin-based rock band the Heavenly States play a legit Texas backyard pig roast party. Even in the festival chaos, there are still slivers to be found of the real Austin that people down there are so proud of keeping weird.
SXSW Acts Coming to Seattle Soon
Allison Crutchfield and the Fizz and Vagabon – March 27 at Vera Project
Alex Cameron – March 28 at Tractor Tavern
Paws – April 11 at Vera Project
Diet Cig (with Lisa Prank) – April 28 at Barboza
Charly Bliss (with Dude York) – May 17 at Vera Project
Girlpool – May 26 at Neumos
PWR BTTM – July 19 at Neumos
Til we meet again in hell, friends...