I love Austin. It’s a relaxed city with a great love of music. This was my third visit to SXSW and this time it was predominately about music. At some point I’ll blog about SXSW Film and Interactive on my main blog about the films, documentaries and President Obama. But for this visit the majority of time was spent gigging.
With so many bands around, it’s now possible to catch gigs from the first day as some of the corporate parties have bands play and this was the case this time, with the White Denim playing on the first evening. But even before SXSW started it was possible to catch some of the great local Austin music by simply walking into any of the dive bars on 6th street.
2016 was a bit of an odd year. Yes, there were hundreds of great bands around but despite the fact that it was SXSW’s 30th anniversary, there wasn’t the buzz of previous years. There weren’t any massive bands playing secret shows and during the day and there seemed to be less parties. I think part of this is due to Austin trying to reduce the crowds turning up for the free parties. But I’m not sure this really is working, the crowds were still massive and they seemed to be mainly walking around on the streets. It didn’t help that Austin police had decided to introduce some crowd control measures that made it very difficult to move between venues.
One of the reasons why I loved SXSW was that it was so easy to move between dozens of venues and catch bands. If you didn’t like the band, you could then move across the road and see another one. So it’s been a great place to hear lots of different types of music and discover new bands.
This year, the venue density was lower. Last time I was here, quite a few showcases had shifted to Rainey street but there was still a good core set of venues on 6th and Red River. This time, some venues had shifted out east of I35. These tended to be sponsored venues with the bigger bands and I think part of the reason is to encourage people to stick to the venue. If you’ve queued to get into a venue that’s out of the way, you’re going to stay. Unfortunately, the venues that were left on 6th had changed. At my last visits, The Parish and Maggie Mae’s offered five stages that you could loop around in 10 minutes and catch a lot of music. The Parish was now a single venue and Maggie Mae’s split their stages into separate venues so you had to leave one venue to go back in. Maggie Mae’s also seemed to have switched to programming electronic and rap music and this unfortunately was also the case for several other venues.
In all honesty, rap is the biggest problem facing SXSW. The increase in rap programming seemed to encourage massive crowds who were seeking free gigs hoping that big name rappers were going to turn up. This also encouraged ‘rappers’ turning up often with massive crews trying to push their rap albums on the crowds on 6th street. I’m not sure if rap had led to issues at previous SXSW’s but it seemed like they’d concentrated rap programming into single venues often with heavy security. But this mean that whole venues disappeared off my ‘bounce circuit’. At times 6th street was literally at a standstill.
Unfortunately, the thing I really loved about SXSW was the ability to bounce around venues. I go to SXSW to discover new music. I tend to plan lightly with just a few bands I’d like to see and then just bounce up and down 6th and Red. With the increased crowds I just wasn’t getting to see the same level of bands I’d expect to see each day. Don’t get me wrong, during the music part of SXSW, I was still seeing 20-30 bands a day but it took a lot of effort to catch this number and it took a few days to optimise my route to maximise the amount of bands I caught.
It sounds like I didn’t enjoy myself this time. This is far from the truth. I had a brilliant time watching some great bands in venues ranging from churches to dive bars.
There were the usual programming surprises, where you stumble upon a band you hadn’t realised were playing SXSW. For example going to a venue to watch the excellent Ezra Furman and realising that Mercury Rev were on afterwards. So getting the opportunity to see a great band in a relatively tiny venue.
Them there was the opportunity to see music that I’d never otherwise catch, such as the South Korean band Jambinai who mix traditional Korean instruments to create some really good ambient rock music.
It was also an opportunity to catch many British bands that I hadn’t managed to catch at home. Often they were playing the frankly excellently organised and managed British Music Embassy. YAK, a band I’d been unable to catch in London, I caught playing an excellent set at the British Music Embassy.
In total I managed to catch over 130 bands. This isn’t the complete list as I didn’t catch the name of every band but as you can see it’s a pretty diverse range of bands[Alexandros], Abjects, Amber Arcades, Autobahn, Avec Sans, Baby Shakes, Basia Bulat, Big Thief, Big Ups, Black Fast, Blaenavon, The Blind Suns, Bombino, Boy Toy, Burn Out, CallMeKat, Capsula, Castillo, Caveman, Chad Valley, Chocolat, Ciaran Lowery, Clean Cut Kid, The Crookes, Demob Happy, DEXSTRINGs, Diet Cig, Dilly Dally, The Do Aways, Dude York, Elanor Friedberger, Enemies, Ezra Furman, Faith Healer, Fear of Men, FEWS, Fior, Fizzy Blood, Get Inuit, Gold Class, Golden Boys, The Gooch Palms, Guerrilla Toss, Gwenno, GYMNSHORTS, Haelos, Harts, Heaters, The Heavy, Hinds, Hooton Tennis Club, Houndstooth, Jack Garrett, Jane Weaver, Judah and the Lion, Juiceboxxx, Kat Dehlia, Keeps, Khruangbin, Laura Carbone, Lazyeyes, Lushes, Lusts, The Parrots, Petite Noir, PMS and the Mood Swings, Jambinai, Julia Jacklin, Luke Sweeney, Magic Is Real, Mainland, Mercury Rev, _Methyl Ethyl, Modern Sons, MONEY, Mothers, Moustache Prawn, Mr Lewis and the Funeral, Nancy Pants, New Berlin, Night Moves, Obn IIIs, Oh Pep!, The Outfit, TX, PARTYBABY, PHASES, PINS, Phebe Starr, Poliça, Power Trip, Protomartyr, Pure Bathing Culture, Queen Suitcase, Ritual Howls, Rozi Plain, Rubblebucket, Runaway Saints, The San Juan Project, Sara , September Girls, Seratones, Sister Fuzz, Slingshot Dakota, Sorority Noise, Spooklyland, Sons of an Illustrious Father, Spook School, Stealing Sheep, Sunflower Bean, Sweet Talk, Sweet Spirit, Sugarmen, Tacocat, TEEN, Tele Novella, Tiger Town, Thelma and the Sleaze, Trash, Trevor Sensor, Twin Limb, VACATION, Violet Skies, Warprty, Waxahatchee, The Weather Station, Welshly Arms, White Denim, White Lung, The Whistles and the Bells, Wild Belle, Yak, Yonatan Gat
I’ve highlighted bands who stood out. I thought Yak and Yonatan Gat stood put in the best performances of SXSW. But bands such as Sunflower Bean, Ezra Furman and Mercury Rev put in really strong performances. Then there were some great unusual situations that enhanced performances, such as thunderstorms forcing the Barracuda to move their outside stage inside their venue with the bands being playing in a circle in the centre of the room surrounded by the audience. GYMNSHORTS’s performance really was enhanced by this and I’m not sure I would have been as impressed if they’d played outside on a stage.
My only disappointment was missing the Kills. They were playing two venues that according to Twitter, always seemed to have queues so I couldn’t be bothered spending time queuing to see a band I’ve seen numerous times and that I’ll catch again in the UK.
From a photography point of view. Getting a good shot wasn’t a priority. So although I had my Sony A7s with me, as soon as music officially started, I left it in my hotel and just carried a pocket camera and if there wasn’t an opportunity to get to the front, just grabbed a shot simply to document out who I’d seen. I also decided towards the end of SXSW to try and capture some of the atmosphere of SXSW and captured lots of short 20 second clips of video.