Highlights from Austin: SXSW 2013


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Hello, Austin.

The whirlwind is over for another year.  South by Southwest, Austin’s prolific music festival, drew to a close this past weekend after an onslaught of performances by close to a thousand acts from all over the globe.  AudioFemme was on-hand to witness the spectacle and to attempt to cover as many of these performances as is humanly possible.  For us, SXSW represents a chance to catch bands on the rise, to see what they bring to an audience in a live setting, and to chat with them as well as with others in the industry.  For those who live, breathe, and love music, there’s nowhere else to be come mid-March.

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AudioFemmes on the loose!




But when Zachary Cole Smith, lead singer of Brooklyn band DIIV, drafted a disgruntled tumblr post early in the week about corporate greed running rampant at SXSW, I couldn’t simply dismiss it with a roll of the eyes.  SXSW is a thing that exists largely due to corporate sponsorship, as is made evident by the towering Doritos advertisements, free booze, and brand names attached to most any showcase.  These are all brands that are geared toward a young, music-loving demographic, from Doc Martens to Dolce Vita, from Spotify to Hipstamatic, from Taco Bell to Tito’s Vodka.  There’s no better place to sell wares to a generation that can’t focus on anything for longer than five minutes than to drop a banner behind a stage where Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are jumping around.  And there’s no better way to keep the ads coming, straight to the email inboxes of that hip demographic, than to make everyone RSVP to corporate-sponsored events.

So when Smith denounced SXSW as a “glorified corporate networking party” he wasn’t incorrect.  Diiv has never been afraid of name-dropping, dating models, or posing for fashion photographers, and later admitted to having a blast at SXSW despite the cynical outburst.  Though the post made some waves, there wasn’t a single person who disagreed wholly with the statements therein; if anything, a resounding “DUH” was heard throughout the festival.  And we partied anyway.

Avoiding the corporate goons, as it turns out, isn’t all that hard.  We recommend taking off the badge and trekking (or pedi-cabbing) over to Austin’s Eastside, where entrance to free shows – night and day – don’t require so much as proof of drinking age.  There, the quality of local artisan food trucks is leagues above lukewarm free tacos, and girls sell vintage clothes to help save their dying pit bulls.  It was home to some of the most inspiring performances I had the pleasure of seeing at SXSW this year, including a rambunctious 45-minute set from Thee Oh Sees, Impose Magazine’s expertly curated showcases, and several raucous Burger Records’ shindigs to name a few.

[/fusion_builder_column][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][jwplayer config=”AF01 YT” mediaid=”2419″]Thee Oh Sees “Contraption/Soul Desert”

Burger Records represents a paradigm in stark contrast to Smith’s blithe assertion that “music comes last” at SXSW.  Label founders Sean Bohrman and Lee Rickard have spent the last six years putting out limited run cassettes and vinyl to an adoring audience, breaking artists like King Tuff and Ty Segall. If you want to know what’s next in terms of noise punk or kitschy garage or lo-fi pop, you could do much worse than to spend a few hours perusing Burger’s catalogue.  At SXSW, Bohrman and Rickard made it extra easy, throwing two large showcases and several satellite parties (including one at Trailer Space Records that had to be shut down by the fire department), giving the sunburned masses at SXSW a rare opportunity to absorb as much Burger in one sitting as their damaged ear drums and short attention spans could allow.  Frenzied sets by Audacity, Nobunny, Lovely Bad Things, Useless Eaters and Gap Dream – among many, many others – proved that there’s a lot of diversity and innovation within Burger’s staple sounds, and much to get excited about.

[jwplayer config=”AF01 YT” mediaid=”2420″]Lovely Bad Things

If there’s anyone more genuinely stoked about repping their local scene than Californians it’s probably Canadians.  I finally got to see Young Galaxy perform during Pop Montreal’s day party at The Liberty and my high expectations were met in every way.  This is a band who make songs about loving music wholeheartedly; on the b-side for the lead single from Young Galaxy’s newest album, Ultramarine (out April 23rd on Paper Bag Records) lead vocalist Catherine McCandless sings “I wouldn’t mind dying at all / If it weren’t for the songs I’d miss”.  Though they didn’t play it during the six song set at The Liberty, they closed out with newest single “New Summer”, an anthem to warm-weather flings and driving in cars with the “windows down and the stereo loud”.  Most poignant of all was the band’s affirming rendition of “Pretty Boy” (also on the forthcoming record).  Maybe it’s the fact that the band’s drummer is out as a lesbian, that I have friends struggling with gender identity, or the current political climate toward trans and gender queer folks, but it felt huge to hear McCandless singing “I felt your pain when you changed your name / We were each other’s only family” and then follow that up with “I know you feel isolated / and I hear what you won’t say / Who cares if they disbelieve us, don’t understand / You’re my pretty boy, always”.  That’s some pretty heavy shit to mask with upbeat synths and pop rhythms, but that’s Young Galaxy’s bread and butter.  Tackling those epic sorts of feelings and making people dance to it is what they do best.  And after playing six shows in four days, those emotions still felt authentic.

[jwplayer config=”AF01 YT” mediaid=”2411″]Young Galaxy “New Summer”

Playing zillions of shows in one week has got to be taxing, which probably contributes to the jaded attitudes that some bands have in their approach to SXSW, but there are just as many artists who embrace it.  Captured Tracks wunderkind Mac DeMarco (also from Canada, go figure) claims to have played seventeen shows over the course of the week and that probably wasn’t an exaggeration; his name popped up on more bills than any other.  I caught his last set on Saturday night at The Parish, where he started the evening by watching labelmates Naomi Punk from the side of the stage.  He mentioned several times that he was getting sick, but that didn’t stop him from delivering an energetic performance.  While he wasn’t swinging from the rafters as he had literally done at some shows a few days prior and didn’t put up much of a fight when then sound guy told him he was out of time, he retained the air of bratty whimsy for which he’s known as he mashed up favorites “Freaking Out The Neighborhood” “My Kind Of Woman” and “Rock and Roll Night Club” with the Beatles’ “Blackbird” and Rammstein’s “Du Hast” (no, really).

[jwplayer config=”AF01 YT” mediaid=”2416″]Mac DeMarco “Du Hast/Freaking Out The Neighborhood”

Zac Pennington from Parenthetical Girls is yet another performer who proves that attitude and persona are everything.  Before his band’s set, he got into a bitchy spat with Valhalla’s sound man.  During the set, he paraded around an audience mostly filled with bros in attendance to see Maserati, draping himself over staircases and belting it out from the top of the circular bar like a cabaret version of Coyote Ugly.  Similar bravado appeared elsewhere as well – Mykki Blanco’s ferocious party jams transformed the mermaid grotto behind Easy Tiger into vogue-fest, followed by Angel Haze’s provocative mile-a-minute raps.  During “New York” Angel Haze descended from the stage, moving through an awed audience, and danced with yours truly while Edinburgh-based rappers Young Fathers looked on.  Young Fathers brought slick production, badass style, and sick dance moves to their SXSW performances, and was the one act that hands-down truly blew me away this year when I saw them Tuesday night at The North Door (look for an interview on AudioFemme soon).

[jwplayer config=”AF01 YT” mediaid=”2413″] Parenthetical Girls “Curtains” [jwplayer config=”AF01 YT” mediaid=”2417″] Mykki Blanco

Not that there wasn’t plenty to be blown away by.  Waiting in line to see Phosphorescent, Metz and Youth Lagoon at Red-Eyed Fly, I ran into Ahmed Gallab, better known these days as Sinkane.  Ahmed and I go way back, having known each other from our years in Ohio where we met over a decade ago.  I’ve seen every band he’s ever played in, from the Unwound-esque Sweetheart to Pompeii This Morning (in which he played bedroom-produced dream pop before that was even a thing) and then, after he was asked to stand in for Caribou’s drummer through two tours, in Of Montreal and Yeasayer.  His Sinkane project is different in that it is wholly his endeavor, and his personal signature is always apparent.  He uniquely marries funk and psychedelica and Afrobeat and through consistently stellar live performances is finally starting to get the attention he deserves – even, it seems, from R&B megastar Usher.  Usher invited Ahmed on stage and performed Sinkane’s “Runnin'” to a packed Fader Fort, with Afghan Whigs as the backing band.  Watching this from backstage was one of my favorite moments of SXSW, not just because Ahmed got to play with such heavyweights but because they were singing his song.  And it could only have happened at SXSW, in part because of the corporate sponsorship Diiv railed against.  The fact of the matter is that bigwigs bring in big acts, allowing smaller bands who are trying to make it big the opportunity to meet those that inspired them and, dare I say it, connect, network, and collaborate.

That goes, too, for folks like myself who might easily be lumped into the “industry vampire” designation Zachary Cole Smith’s tumblr post pointed out.  Not only do I get to spend a week basking in the sun (or, you know, burning to a crisp) and drinking free bourbon that tastes like maple-syrup infused cake frosting, it’s an opportunity for me to meet other people who actually really do care about music, to trade notes, recommend bands, invade pedestrian bridges at 2am because Merchandise is playing a show on one.  Sure, it’s disappointing when bands have technical difficulties due to the strain of quick set-ups or shortened sets thanks to lightning-fast turn over, but just as often it’s inspiring to see a band make it work despite those constraints.  It’s also exhilarating to walk down a bustling street and actually hear music coming out of every bar, flowing together, washing over the crowd.  With any huge event like this, there are bound to be positives and negatives.  It would be nice if all this was just a random grouping of DIY efforts and corporations didn’t have any hand in it, but that’s not the case.  Even so, it manages to fulfill many of my music-loving fantasies, and that’s what keeps me going back over and over again.

[jwplayer config=”AF01 YT” mediaid=”2421″]SXSW Vine Compilation. In order of appearance: Avan Lava, Young Fathers, Nicholas Jaar, Radiation City, The Coathangers, Colleen Green, Psychic Twin, Parenthetical Girls, The Soft Moon, Marnie Stern, Palma Violets, Destruction Unit, a breif tour of 6th St., Bleeding Rainbow, Thee Oh Sees, Mykki Blanco, Angel Haze, Bridge Party feat. Merchandise/Parquet Courts, Metz, T.I. / Pharrell / B.O.B. etc., Sinkane / Usher / Afghan Whigs, Usher encore, Young Galaxy, Sam Flax, Lovely Bad Things, Audacity, Nobunny, Chris Cohen, Mac DeMarco, Conner Youngblood, Brooke Candy, and a night ride in a pedi-cab.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]