Gigwise's Alex Thomson reports from Austin, Texas on the highs of a music gathering unlike anything else in the world
Alex Thomson
09:50 4th April 2019

By the time we’d touched down in Austin, in the uncharacteristically cool Texan Spring breeze, SXSW was already into its first chaotic headaches and hangovers. Thanks to some Delta Airline mishaps we’d arrived late on Monday night. Very late. In town friends were deep into Deerhunter and Priests, staring down both barrels of the first big music week of the year. Perhaps our delayed entry was for the best as this town takes a toll on you. It’s a music gathering unlike anything else in the world. Literally thousands of bands playing venues, street corners, cinemas, churches, car parks, hallways, swimming pools, river banks and abandoned garages. You have to suck it up and jump in. It’s a weary and wearing adventure. Here’s some important things we learned this year:

SXSW is about music discovery

Back in the day you could cruise the week on near free booze. Huge brands used to throw industrial scale parties with A-list names and open bars. It meant queueing all day for a venue pass, but once you were in you only had to open your wallet to tip the bar staff. The abundance of Jack Daniels and beer tins kept the unofficial bar spends down too, with pints off the beaten track only setting you back a few bucks. Now though the big brands have been sent packing, and along with it the river of buffet boozing. It’s not as cheap as it once was, but without the flocks of RSVP-holders lining the streets, there’s less disheartening faff involved in seeing the bands you really want to. The focus now is on watching new acts play the plethora of venue spaces which have been set up. It’s been a defining moment for SXSW, dialing it all back to what this should be about. Sure, we miss the cheap drinks, but we didn’t get caught in hours of queues which made the whole week feel far more accessible and worthwhile overall. It’s less about “I saw Lady Gaga in a vending machine,” and more “here’s the twenty new bands I’ve just added to my Spotify.”

Tenderpunk should be the soundtrack to summer 2019

So dubbed by The Illuminati Hotties, tenderpunk has all the glitchy, fuzzy guitar sounds and thumpin’ drums you expect from punk, characterised by more relatable lyrics of being a modern kid. It’s less about sticking it to the man, and more about growing up, friends, summer, drinking, and the array of complex emotions that goes along with it all. We caught The Illuminati Hotties a few times across the six days or so days of the festival, each show highlighted with bouncing energy from Sarah Tudzin. The songs were short, snappy indie-pop vignettes seemingly designed for hazy Texan days with a beer and good people.

As well as Bad Band Hats, Cherry Glazerr, and The Beths, it was Charly Bliss who also took our attention on this front. There’s just a playfulness that only Americans can do. Charly Bliss seem to explode in colour on stage in ways that British bands can’t bring themselves to muster. We’re a very serious people. Our indie bands wear black. Charly Bliss though, led by Eva Hendricks, is a dazzling force on stage and on record. The songs have a gutsy mix of 90’s pop and garage rock, assembled around notions of how equally awesome and shit life can be. It’s feathers and broken disco balls, chewing bubblegum and cutting the bullshit. Nostalgia, sure, but never overly sentimental or cliche. They’ll be well at home in the UK on the Lucky Number label alongside Hinds.

Fontaines DC were the most talked about band

British and Irish people tend to gravitate towards each other at SXSW. There’s a great novelty to drinking beers with somebody you live two streets away from, but five thousand miles from home. As we swerve into each other on the street to compare notes, there’s one band that kept coming up amid the foamy diatribes.

Dublin’s Fontaines D.C. are undoubtedly one of the most important names about to break in punk. From the same headspace as Idles, Shame and Heavy Lungs, they seem to have an extra few percent in their show that snaps your attention. There’s unnerving confidence; as though shit is constantly about to kick off. Frontman Grian Chatten death-stares the crowd, leaning in and out of the mic stand with a menace not unlike a young, agitated Liam Gallagher. This isn’t indie-pop though. Fontaines D.C. are not Oasis in sound, they’re far more modern than that. They make 2019 punk for a politically-motivated, geared up generation. Their songs do have a direct line to small town ears though, with lyrics that convey an aspiration to fight for better things. Their live performance is a magnetic riot at every turn. It’s hard to ignore.

SXSW is still a perfect setting for established acts to do something special

Although the mainstream A-listers have been banished to make way for music discovery, that’s not to say the festival has excluded heritage acts entirely. Broken Social Scene seemed to be playing at least once a day somewhere, the nine-strong live set up running through anthems for our time as returning heroes. SXSW played a big part of breaking the band back in the early 00’s, so their attendance feels like it has gravity.

Car Seat Headrest played the Austin institution Stubbs Bar-B-Q, with a short but fan-favourite filled set. Playing to one of the biggest crowds of the festival, the seven song run included the bedroom hymns ‘Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,’ ‘Bodys,’ and ‘Stop Smoking’ as well as a now somewhat expected leftfield cover, this time in the shape of Neil Young’s ‘Powderfinger.’

Along the road around midnight, British pop royalty Graham Coxon gathered an intimate crowd at the Central Presbytarian Church for a cozy and inviting set which spanned Coxon’s career. Including songs from his recent End of the Fucking World soundtrack, ‘Sorrow’s Army,’ an acoustic version of ‘Freakin’ Out’ and even a cover of early-Blur tune ‘You’re So Great.’ It was a charming chat-led performance that felt in absolute harmony with the surroundings of an acoustically-perfect venue.

It’s something only SXSW can do well, but perhaps even more so we were lucky enough to see Lonnie Holley show down by the river. On the banks of the Colorado, just feet away from water lapping against the rocks at sunset, Lonnie’s part-improvised set of modern tales via an experimental take on vintage Alabaman storytelling was just about the most incredibly programmed moment of SXSW. Hats off to this place.

The Beastie Boys are almost impossible to interview

One of the main reasons people travel from all over the world to SXSW is the conference programming, which features talks and panels with leaders in music, tech, film and gaming. This year our highlight was a chat between Amazon Music’s Nathan Bracket and Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock and Mike D. Within thirty seconds the conversation was fixed on a pair of socks, and never really made its way into the meat of the band from there.

For the notoriously difficult to interview band, it’s perhaps what we expected in the best of ways. Allowed to drift between in-jokes and pure fantasy, the conversation spiralled into a madcap retelling of the chaos that surrounded the Beastie Boys at their height. The highly enjoyable chat also mentioned some live events coming up soon in New York and Philadelphia, focused around the band’s Beastie Boys Book which might offer more of the same Q&A carnage.

British music is well represented

From the glitzy Madonna-like pop of Georgia to grime ambassador Novelist, the diverse output of British music was well showcased. From its spiritual home in Austin, the so-dubbed British Embassy at Latitude 30 was a hotspot for Brits to mingle and discuss the ongoing decline of the nation over an eclectic mix of genres that the Isles have pioneered. The Snuts were a particular stand out performance, the self-proclaimed bunch of friends ready to conquer the world had a stadium-ready set of guitar anthems with a sublime vocal centre. Snarling and sweary while wholly, undeniably soulful, the songs from the Scotland band stood out as one of the more poised showcases of the festival.

Actually, so are a lot of countries

Whether it’s the heavy, jarring soundscape from new Subpop signings out of Gdansk, Trupa Trupa, or the Pavement-influenced juggernaut of Japan’s Stereogirl, SXSW brings the cream of international music to one spot unlike any other festival. One band which really took us off guard though is the Democratic Republic of Congo’s KOKOKO!. Their radical sound is highly danceable, fusing Central African ingenuity with European dancefloors with gobsmacking awe.

There’s still plenty of unofficial fun to be had

Although there’s no free bars anymore you can still find so much to do without an official pass at SXSW. Oh Sees have become a personal fixture of the festival for us over the years, sometimes playing in disused shops, or this year cropping up in an outdoor compound called Hotel Vegas. As always though their grit-teeth dream punk is a benchmark in guitar solos, dueling drums and sweaty horseplay. ‘Toe Cutter’ is a bit of an unofficial anthem for the week, and playing a huge show open to anybody happy to pay a few bucks entry, Oh Sees created a genuine atmosphere unlike any others on offer. Sure, you can drop the cash on an official pass - but for locals and non-industry, this is what keeps the spirits of SXSW high.

On the final day of SXSW, there was no letting up either. While some people head off early, the true music fans were still looking round every corner for their new favourite band. That’s what this festival is about. The double-takes. It’s a wonder how some bands still find the energy by day six, but walking into another free show in West Austin around lunch time we can confirm that Avalanche Party were still glowing with fire. Their restless set was a tribal, intense update to the punk lore laid out between Iggy Pop and Mark E Smith, and uncontainable to a stage. There’s a stare from lead singer Jordan which picks out each member of the crowd with uncomfortable allure. It brings you into the front of their show, which builds in intensity as more casual onlookers got hooked in. It crescendoed in all-out rukus. A fine end to this festival.

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Photo: Amanda Fotes