So, Lady Gaga got someone to puke on her (and delivered a keynote you can read about from us here), Coldplay premiered some new songs, and Jay Z, Kanye and Snoop crashed the party. Those may have been the biggest headlines coming out of this year’s SXSW music festival, but they’re not the whole story.
Of course, there was the horrible hit-and-run incident, which we covered here. There were even worse details that came out after the incident. For example, the driver who killed and injured the festivalgoers already had a criminal record and was wanted in Alaska, had five children and was a rapper who was supposed to perform a show that night in Austin (The Statesman newspaper has details here). The evening after the incident, a nurse who was called into the ER to help with the overflow there told me about people with broken necks and broken backs, but that wasn’t the worst of it. One of the girls who got hit by the car had flown up into the air along with the contents of her purse. Her ID then landed near one of the people who was killed. In a horrible mix-up, the dead person was identified as the injured girl and her family was informed of some very tragic news. It was only when they came to the hospital that they found out about the mistake and realized that their daughter was thankfully still alive.
As for the festival itself, aka the thing that eats Austin every March, the detractors have a point that it’s grown huge. As writer Jim DeRogatis found when he was speaking off the record to one of the original SXSW organizers, at this point, the whole atmosphere around the festival might be getting too big for its own good. However, by now, it’s unstoppable — even if they shortened it or paused it for a year, the unofficial parties and sponsors are already too ingrained into the atmosphere there to change anything. Plus, though they originally planned this fest around spring break to time it for when the University of Texas students went out of town, the U of T crowd not only stays for SXSW, but other spring breakers come out there too from around the country.
I can definitely attest to how the crowds clog up the streets, how lots of underage students try to unsuccessfully stumble into the bars, and how lots of legal kids then try to stumble into the streets with drinks in their hands (also unsuccessfully). That’s why it’s good to have a strategy when you go there — see my previous SXSW survival guide for details.
And though I do like Gaga, Jay Z, Kanye and Snoop (who I caught walking by with a humongous entourage), I don’t like the huge crush of crowds that went to see ‘em. That’s why I like to check out the smaller venues instead and see the acts that don’t get as much attention as they should. It’s good karma to boost them, and if you do your homework by listening to their online sound files or watching some of their concert videos, you can pick out some good ones that will probably put on a memorable show for you.
With that in mind, I wanted to share 25 of the best acts (out of the 60 that I saw in total this year) that I saw, thanks to a bunch of great entertainers who you should support too — even if you don’t buy music anymore, go see ‘em live or at least like ‘em on Facebook for God’s sake!
You know him from Blur and Gorillaz and numerous other projects that this restless Brit popper has done in the last few years, but now he’s finally going solo. For his bigger outdoor gig at Stubb’s, he shared the stage with De La Soul and Snoop, but for this daytime convention center show, he was just there with a small, sit-down band and a string section, previewing his upcoming solo album, “Everyday Robots,” and the personal, low-key songs on it. There was also a bit of a Brit pop invasion theme going on as Jarvis Cocker (see video here) also did a reading a few days before.
With one album out and another on tap, this multiracial hard-core punk band from Brooklyn seemed like the silly, bad-taste joke that their name implied, but live, they channeled the spirit and energy of Black Flag, proving that their anger and rants were for real and maybe should even be taken seriously.
While the fashion/style calendar doesn’t say that it’s time for a glam rock revival, don’t tell these Austinites — the guy on the mic wore a lovely lingerie outfit and stockings that were torn with runs. The band had the right look, energy and fun that you’d hope for, even having a contingent of fans there, yelling along with the lyrics. As a bonus, the singer was actually a good flute-tooter too.
The world probably has too many garage bands as it is, but these Aussies have enough catchy songs and energy to justify their existence — even with the club packed and at capacity, I was glad to stand outside with dozens of others to hear them rock out. Plus, they were exceptional sports to play alongside a big inflatable kangaroo at their showcase gig.
Another band that I happened across was this multi-genre Austin punk band, and I probably wouldn’t have spent more than a minute listening if the singer wasn’t so freakin’ passionate about the songs and the guitarist wasn’t shredding up a storm. But they both did just that. And when you sit down with their music and listen to the lyrics, you learn that they parle francais.
Robin Cook (who wrote the Gaga keynote article and happens to be my boo) turned me on to these West Coast punkers, and they wound up being my last show at SXSW. With their cover of Melanie’s “Brand New Key” (their all-time favorite song) and singer Kelly Ogden saying that their new album is called “Barefoot and Pregnant” because that’s how she spent the last year, how could you NOT love ‘em?
One great thing about SXSW is discovering bands by accident and that’s what happened when I almost walked by this Mexican band at the convention center. Their gimmick is that they’re all dressed as Luchadors (Mexican wrestlers outfitted with masks). I didn’t know their repertoire, but I did recognize their cover of GNR’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by the guitar riff. They knew how to put on a show too — with one guitarist sitting on an audience member’s lap and then later running out into the convention hallway to play wireless. See for yourself how fun they were in the video.
OK, they’re not your typical traditional metal Korean band, but then again how many of those bands are there? With one woman playing a stand-up lap fiddle (haegeum) and another playing geomungo (rectangle-shaped string instrument played on the floor), you wouldn’t expect headbanging, but the gents who provided guitar, bass and drums alongside them pulled it off somehow.
For J-Pop (Japanese Pop) night, these punky girls rocked something fierce. With the singer’s face contortions, the guitarist jumping out front for effect, the bassist and drummer swapping places mid-set and all four singing at some point, there were no weak links there. Plus, how about that great band name?
Not Kool and the Gang, but this Texas quartet mixed ‘70s Isley Brothers with the Neville Brothers for some soul/funk/rock mash-up (with makes sense since K&T themselves recorded during the Me Decade), complete with three ladies to sing along. Even my jaded oldies rock friend I dragged along was impressed with them.
You wouldn’t think that a moody, arty sound would go along with Americana music, but this Austin quintet pulled it off somehow. They brooded, they stomped, they played kazoo and fiddle, and it all worked magnificently.
This Brooklyn duo does layered voices and quiet electronics. Oh, and they have a 12-headed multimedia creature with heads sprouting out of a dozen pod-heads. I know, it’s totally WTF, which is why it needs to be seen up close.
Think of this UK band as a rowdy klezmer/bar mitzvah doing punk music. Two saxes, two drummers, a singer who likes to walk on bar counters and no guitars is what they offer, and they put on a hell of a party while they’re at it.
A Norwegian woman who’s a metal goddess? Believe it. Decked out in a sequined dress, stockings and high heels, she kicked ass, roaring on her guitar alongside another woman who was playing old-school stand-up bass.
Part of the Nerdcore movement (think of them as anti-gangsta), this Canadian rapper is a sci-geek who’s got a new “Doctor Who”-themed EP out now. His style and flow will remind you of the great Del the Funky Homosapien, but MOL has a style all his own, using two mics here to show off his Darth Vader voice (told you he’s a sci-fi geek).
Ah, shoegaze … the UK-originated music where lads and lasses play melodic tunes at ear-splitting volumes — think Ride, My Bloody Valentine, etc. These Canadians have been part of a recent revival and are some of the best practitioners out there now. Not only do they have the volume (which is the easy part), but they have the catchy songs down too (which is much harder).
This St. Louis singer/songwriter/guitarist is becoming the latest buzz in the indie rock world and for good reason. Though you might not get hooked with her folky stuff at first, she brings it out stronger live, especially when she pairs the tunes with her rockier material. She managed to sound great not only in a small, crammed club but also in a large church, which should tell you something.
The Scots have had rockers before, but not many like these. You might remember Big Country, an ’80s band that made their guitars sound like bagpipes, but these guys play actual bagpipes, with kilts on no less, accompanied by only guitar and three drummers who play standing up (like the Boredoms and Butthole Surfers). After a promotional film with Russell Crowe, they proceeded to blast out the audience with their version of metal.
She seems like your average well-meaning, schooled classical pianist until she throws in some hip-hop beats and some rap into her mix and doesn’t sound forced when she’s doing it, which is a real neat trick.
As much as I admired Tinariwen’s desert blues (which you should check out too- see video here), the real Middle Eastern region performer that I got off on was this Israeli singer/guitarist with a name that we Americans will probably chuckle at. The music’s no joke though — with a qanun (Egyptian harp) player, a two-woman string section and a guy playing samples in the background, Tassa rocked and transported you with his drone-influenced melodies.
Every big and small city in America has dozens, maybe hundreds, of bar bands, and if you like that type of music, they’ll cater to you just fine. Once in a while, however, you find someone that not only rises above the pack but just plan kicks all of their asses. This well-connected LA singer has a great, loud band that drives the music way past the speed limit. Previous at SXSW, I saw them do an amazing hair-raising, life-affirming show. This time, it was only just great. And if he ever comes to your town, do yourself a favor and see him.
This is another band that does a weird mash-up of music. This Mexican group was “jazz,” but done in a way that the mosh pit at a punk show would appreciate — in other words, it wasn’t your mom and dad’s kind of jazz. They were funny, fast, furious and fierce.
Easily one of the best bands at SXSW this year and a real find as such. This Scottish quartet has three singers who alternate between rap, soul and gospel with a touch of arty/avant feel to them, backed up by a member who banged on a bass drum positioned on its side. It was one of the few times this year that a group not only showed me something truly original but also took my breath away. When I cornered the drummer afterwards to say how great they were, he disagreed, saying that they were playing “shite.” He couldn’t have been more wrong.
As luck and the alphabet would have it, here was the other band that floored me at SXSW. This LA duo features a cute little blonde, but up close you notice her arm-length tattoos and on stage she screams like a banshee and jumps around like she’s possessed. It was industrial music for sure, the type that Ministry fans would love, and not surprisingly, this crew thanked industrial pioneers Psychic TV for their support. My ears rang through the next morning thanks to them, but I had no complaints about it. I was actually gratified.
Another great thing about SXSW is that it shows off a lot of local talent from Austin, and the place isn’t considered a music city for nothing. Take this techno/prog-rock/punk duo for instance. Along with a light show and projections to give ‘em the ol’ psychedelic effect, their fast-paced keyboard riffs, pounding drums and shouted vocals made you think that you were listening to a much bigger band. As it was, these two filled the stage and the venue sound system just fine for a showcase of local groups featuring fellow prog/punks The Octopus Project (who you should also check out).
Also notable were: Mark Kozelek (beautiful, haunting voice- see video here), Lucinda Williams (legendary singer/songwriter who did a free show at the Miles Davis Party- see video here), Rosie Flores (rockabilly filly), Hamell on Trial (hilarious, brainy folkie- see video here) and Front Bottoms (wise-ass, funny, sing-along indie rockers).
Lastly, I have to mention the wonderful people who helped with my social media panel at SXSW: Lindsey Kronmiller (Merge Records), Nils Bernstein (Matador Records) and Sean Hallarman (Big Hassle Media), in addition to the supportive panel people who work at SXSW itself.
Hopefully I’ll be back at SXSW 2015 and maybe I’ll see you there?