AUSTIN, TEXAS—It was fashionable for awhile there to complain that the South by Southwest music festival had grown too big and too far from its roots, but I don’t play that game.
SXSW is still the best place in North America to binge on as much music as humanly possible for seven days each year, and now that the ungainly era when folks like Metallica and Justin Timberlake and Coldplay and Kanye West were regularly turning up to latch onto its “cool” factor is over, it’s actually become a place where humbler heroes of the “underground” variety and Next Big Things are celebrated and discovered again.
There was no surprise Drake set this year, just Bushwick Bill bouncing from show to show. Much more my speed. There was a rumour Bruno Mars was going to turn up in town on Saturday night; I don’t care if he did or didn’t. Bruno Mars doesn’t belong at SXSW.
The ugly realities of present-day America did intrude on the SXSW vacation from reality when a bomb threat forced the cancellation of a hip-hop gig by the Roots and Ludacris at the Fair Market on Saturday night — a threat that had to be taken seriously, given that suspicious packages have been randomly exploding around Austin in recent weeks, one of them killing 39-year-old Anthony House on March 2 and another ending the life of 17-year-old Draylen Mason on March 12, the first day of SXSW Music. Another bomb went off in the southwest end of the city on Sunday night, causing what police say were “significant” injuries to the two unfortunate individuals who tripped across it.
Scary stuff, but I’d be lying if I said it cast a pall on the festival proceedings. The party went on as usual.
I had, in fact, the most fun I think I’ve ever had at South by Southwest in the nearly two decades I’ve been coming to this thing. I wasn’t chasing interviews and filing three stories a day as I have in the past. I was being a music fan again, watching a band an hour from noon until 2 a.m. every day. I couldn’t have asked for a better depression cure. I can’t imagine not being here in Austin for this festival. It’s one of my favourite things. I’m glad it exists.
Here’s all the good stuff I saw. And I saw a lot of good stuff. Including my favourite extant band eight times in four days. If you want the full list, complete with profanity and pictures of cocktails, you can peep my Twitter feed at @IhateBenRayner. I tweeted every show I saw there so I’d remember seeing them.
A Place to Bury Strangers: I joked heading in that I was going to catch all 14 of the New York noisemakers’ SXSW gigs, as the fiendishly loud and aggressive trio is, for my money, the best live band on the planet. I managed eight. I would happily watch eight more if they were still in town. The current lineup of founder/guitarist Oliver Ackermann, bassist Dion Lunadon and superhuman drummer Lia Simone Braswell is the best yet — a force of pure, blackhearted nihilism that somehow made it feel dark outside even when it was playing in the light and heat of the midday sun — and the electronically charged new material from its forthcoming Pinned album is merciless. The band ventured into the crowd to perform at least a couple of tunes a set on a rolling gear kiosk and it was absolute mayhem. Saturday’s Empire Garage set, No. 7 of my 8, was the best if you’re asking, Thursday’s and Saturday’s at the Hotel Vegas complex a close second and third. I love this band more than is sensible.
Bodega: Caustic, co-ed agit-punk from New York City. They owned the stage from the moment they set foot at Sidewinder on Saturday afternoon — they’ve got some wicked tunes in the highly danceable Devo/Talking Heads/Gang of Four vein, but they also put on a show — and I was so smitten I went back for more later that night at Cheer Up Charlie’s. This year’s most prized SXSW discovery. I took a promoter friend to the second gig. Suffice it to say they’ll be in Toronto soon. Go.
Snail Mail: Some people are born rock stars. Eighteen-year-old Maryland native Lindsey Jordan would be one of those people. Great voice, great (angsty) songs, natural guitar chops and an uncommonly cool and “in control” stage presence. They tried to cut her off early during a Tuesday set at Cheer Up Charlie’s — my second Snail Mail gig of the day — and she was having none of it. One withering stare at the sound man later and Snail Mail had another song to play. She’s in it for the long haul.
Starcrawler: Young Arrow de Wilde has a definite talent for making people uncomfortable, and it’s hard to say whether her blood-spattered heroin-chic shtick is accomplished performance art or a worrisome glimpse of personal reality. It had people talking at SXSW, in any case, and was sufficiently entertaining that I went to three shows in the company of friends who were also going back for more. Teenaged guitarist Henri Cash is the real deal and the Los Angeles quartet has got some ace, Stooge-ian, ’90s-tinged punk-rock tunes at its disposal; if Starcrawler’s singer can hold it together they could do some serious damage.
U.S. Girls: Meg Remy and the current eight-piece U.S. Girls lineup set the bar very, very high for all SXSW acts to follow with their effortlessly transporting Wednesday-afternoon set at Cheer Up Charlie’s. I don’t know how we got from Remy’s noise-spattered solo beginnings to the ABBA-esque disco party that the Girls thing has become but this is likely the next thing to explode out of Toronto. Yay to that.
BOYTOY: A co-ed trio on its last trip to the late Silver Dollar in Toronto, New York’s BOYTOY is now an all-female quartet and the best thing to happen to sunny, stoned pop-punk since the GoGos. I shut down SXSW with a third set at Burgermania at Hotel Vegas on Sunday night and it was the perfect high note upon which to exit.
Casper Skulls: Still the best young band from Toronto no one’s really heard of. Tunes to burn amidst the noise. Their Friday-afternoon set at Canada House at Swan Dive was a real head-turner, albeit unfortunately timed to overshadow the much quieter performance by the Weather Station to follow. Points to Melanie St-Pierre for powering through a brutal hangover and delivering one of my fave Skulls sets yet. I’ve seen a lot. I saw three at SXSW alone.
Anemone: A hippie Stereolab from Montreal? I’ll take it. Frontwoman/keyboardist Chloe Soldevila is a magnetic presence and the rest of the band is adept at putting you in a joyous trance. I went back for a second taste.
Thunderpussy: These ladies hail from Seattle and sound very much like Seattle did back in the grunge days — Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready guests on their record — while also being blessed with a frontwoman, Molly Sides, who’s copped a few moves (and glamourous outfits) from the early-P.J. Harvey playbook. Ripping live show. Ruby Dunphy rivals APTBS’s Lia Simone Braswell as the best drummer I saw at SXSW.
Shame: The latest hype act from the UK that’s … well … deserving of the hype. Twenty-year-old singer Charlie Steen is a natural, combative frontman. The band has just right amount of chugging Joy Division darkness. They’ll be around for a while.
Tyler Childers: We need more “outlaw”-country storytellers like this Kentucky-born singer/songwriter. The best lyric heard at SXSW 2018 might have been “And as she burns the Eggos / She looks back on her life…”
Sunflower Bean: These three New Yorkers have upped their live game immensely. Their Thursday-night set at Hotel Vegas was taut and breathless. Points to poor bassist Julia Cumming for powering through a “wardrobe malfunction” that essentially left her performing topless for a song as if nothing untoward had happened, too. Pro.
RVG: Intense Australians who sound like all the Australian guitar bands you love, with the added bonus of a leather-lunged singer, the gravel-voiced Romy Vager, who doesn’t sound like any singer you’ve heard before.
Lucy Dacus: “Emo” in a good way, Virginia-raised Dacus and her band have a knack for long-fused epics that quietly engulf you and then subtly explode into sad-girl goodness.
Bat Fangs: A bit of ’80s-rock swagger with your indie, courtesy of sidelining Ex Hex bassist Betsy Wright and Flesh Wounds drummer Laura King — who would, now that I come to think of it, also be in the running for the best drummer I saw at SXSW 2018.
Superorganism: The gimmicky trans-global “Internet band” origins have resulted in a show that’s also kinda gimmicky — technicolor anoraks, hands-in-the-air chorales, songs about prawns — but there’s a certain goofy charm at work personified by the lovable presence of diminutive (off-key) frontwoman Orono Noguchi. Twenty minutes is enough but you won’t regret those 20 minutes. Like the Go! Team crossed with Broken Social Scene.