When Snoop Dogg (Lion, Ostrich, whatever) is late announced as keynote speaker to SXSW 2015, you know things have changed. A shark may have been jumped, a joke may have been played or maybe Cordozar Calvin Broadus Jr. is the right emblem of what this industry of ours has become. Maybe it's all three.
The ascendancy of hip-hop and DJs, as with all varieties of "dance music," at SXSW 2015 is as plain as any scan of the lineup could be. "Follow the money," the saying goes. And since Bob Marley isn't touring, you might as well get his self-proclaimed reincarnation. At least Snoop has a sense of humor.
In Austin this spring, the city has redefined pedicab routes and continued its clampdown on outdoor street events, though plenty of those remain. The east side of the city keeps exploding with bars, boutiques, restaurants and rehabs, and many of the main attractions -- Hype Hotel, the Spotify House (where Run the Jewels held court, when not getting assaulted, during the interactive portion of the week) and an expanded Fader Fort, for starters -- have set up shop far from the maddening traffic and ordinances.
Fear not: Hundreds of buzz bands still cometh to SXSW, and the commercial gimmicks are still endearingly absurd. Next door to the convention center you'll find a newly erected Bates Motel -- in honor of the TV series I don't plan to watch -- which might have been useful if the shower were open to weary day-partiers and raccoon-capped hipsters needing to come clean. It wouldn't be SXSW without marketing psychos, without dreams of making it circling the drain.
Courtney Barnett, to pick just one buzz act, doesn't give a shit. And that's what makes her special. The 27-year-old Aussie singer, songwriter and southpaw guitarist doesn't seem to be trying for any of this, and yet on Wednesday night the thousands at Stubb's (there mostly to see TV on the Radio) welcomed her beautifully banal and smart songs. She has no time for the dreams of the buzz-seekers, but buzz has found her all the same. Does she want this? Sure, probably, but her desire happens on her own terms. As does her rock.
At probably her biggest gig to date in the states, Barnett blazed through a set that focused exclusively on her forthcoming album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit, fronting a trio that shifted between wild Crazy Horse noise and churning Lou Reed-esque ballads and rockers. No one expected her to be this confident, this militantly brilliant, in song after song -- even a "stupid song" (her quip) about competing with the swimmer next to you at the pool. Of all the young rock & rollers at SXSW, Barnett is setting the most original pace.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Rewinding to Tuesday, the first official day of the music events at SXSW, the afternoon parties were in somewhat short supply, which made choosing a small but well-crafted event like the Manitoba, Canada, shindig at Majestic with Samantha Savage Smith and Mise en Scene an easy choice. The former proved she had something to say to indie-pop fans and the latter turned out to be louder, stronger and more nimble than on a record that few have heard. Fans of Ume or Best Coast will find a kindred spirit in Mise en Scene.
Tuesday evening found me on the east side in the free-drink lines at the Hype Hotel, much expanded, with a terraced outside patio and a main stage where Stockholm band Amason (named after a Volvo model) fought through abysmal sound with a guitar-free, synthesized form of dream pop that sounded even better sung in Swedish.
A dozen blocks away at Stay Gold, one of east Austin's newest hipster joints, a tight little bar band named Elijah Ford & the Bloom preceded Austin resident and UK expat Nic Armstrong, who took a surreal folk-jazzy turn with a self-powered kick drum and a sax and trumpet complement that gave his spindly songs a welcome alienation effect. Armstrong's voice, like foil against your wisdom teeth, isn't an easy listen, but it's an essential one.
Those who can go five days on four hours of sleep each night won't be impressed with my early arrival at designer Billy Reid and American Songwriter's outdoor party in east Austin, but I took pride in actually catching a snatch of La Luz's opening set on Wednesday morning. I'd seen the all-gal surf's-up rock band last year at SXSW, and it has since gotten better in every way: more relaxed, more tuneful, less primitively novel.
Psych-folk singer and songwriter Steve Gunn followed with stunning finger-plucked guitar parts, suggesting that anybody planning to catch the upcoming Wilco tour should arrive early to see Gunn (especially when the tour comes to the Pageant). He is a songwriting, singing and playing triple threat.
Continue to page two for more.
Nashville's Bully played beneath the canopied stage at Billy Reid's party with a sound far grungier and angrier than the band's initial efforts. Singer Alicia Bognanno leaned into each song, her tangled mass of home-dyed hair nearly catching in her guitar strings, and her band just hammered each tune home. Gill Landry of Old Crow Medicine show worried not about transitioning out of Bully's rock; he just set out his solo acoustic, country & Western and blues ballads, with a voice and lyrical knack that suggests that his solo explorations know where they're bound. The sound he gets from his old, small-body Gibson is both beautiful and oddly muscular, an excellent counterpoint to his tales of buskers of New Orleans and "faithless men drinking gin."
Still on Wednesday morning, I took a break from east Austin to head across town for the annual Guitartown/Conqueroo party at Dogwood, where Ray Wylie Hubbard, son Lucas Hubbard and drummer Kyle Schneider found a groove that you really could hammer nails with (to quote Ray Wylie himself), debuting new songs from the Texas native's forthcoming album The Ruffian's Misfortune, his latest and meanest venture into the blues poetry of rock & roll. Don't miss him when he comes back to St. Louis in May.
Back at the Billy Reid party (you too would have returned if you'd have sipped those deep pours of vodka), BRONCHO got twitchy and Clashy and incoherent-y, at least in the lyric-y department, but who needs to understand a word when you've got a wordless chorus as catchy as that of "Class Historian?"
"Anybody got some gum?" singer Ryan Lindsey requested. Someone in the crowd obliged, and the phrasing got even more twisted.
But I'd come to this Wednesday day party for Natalie Prass, a protege of Matthew E. White and the Richmond-based Spacebomb studio, whose self-titled debut this year is a beautifully skewed take on Dusty in Memphis and who -- now that we've shared a moment (she gave me a rose; I gave it to this assignment's photographer) -- I can say is so much more than a studio confection. Witty, outgoing and tartly soulful, Prass had the crowd right where she wanted them and right where the crowd wanted to be.
For me, the Wednesday evening showcases began at the Central Presbyterian Church, where Chicagoan Ryley Walker filled the nave with gorgeously droning folk-guitar journeys, all punctuated by his tuneful yelp of a voice and a second guitarist and piano player who complemented the Tim Buckley meets Tim Hardin vibe. Walker even ended with "If I Were a Carpenter," a song that he is right in thinking will never die -- especially when covered so well.
After Courtney Barnett's triumphant set at Stubb's, I took a chance on a crosstown gig by Icelandic folk-pop group Kaleo at the SEASAC showcase at Lambert's. There are no take-backs at SXSW, but this was a precious hour of my Austin week that I'd very much like to have back. If I could have gotten past the lead singer's tooly presence, from his gelatinous hair to his ripped jeans, I might have made my peace with what Iceland seems to think Americana ought to be. I couldn't. Scratch Kaleo from the-next-Lumineers hype list.
The end of the night was only redeemed by the Suffers, a ten-piece (or more, I was too buzzed to count) funk band from Houston, with an imposing lead singer in Kam Franklin, and some clever horn lines and a good conga player. Holy Mountain's indoor room had become my kind of dance party.
If the name Kristin Diable doesn't ring any bells, just a wait a few days. She'll be at Off Broadway on March 25. If you're in the mood for blue-eyed soul with well-considered tunes and precise but still loose arrangements -- part Laurel Canyon, part gospel -- you'll want to make a date with her. In the confines of an Episcopal church in downtown Austin, she made for a gorgeous first impression, especially on a final, a cappella trio number.
I closed out Thursday night in just one location: the British Music Embassy at Latitude 30, an institution at SXSW. Black Rivers, featuring two-thirds of the Doves, began with a Doves tune sung by Jez Williams, who handled most of the lead vocals on the short but quite pretty set. The droning, spiraling sound still had enough hooks to hold my attention, as did a fuller set from newly formed Liverpool upstarts Circa Waves, who played well above their haircuts with nonchalantly charismatic frontman Kieran Shudall and tunes that owe as much to the Kinks as the Strokes.
Closing out Thursday's Brit Music event -- the always worth attending parties continue through the week -- were Carl Barât and the Jackals and Public Service Broadcasting, a study in contrasts that worked. Barât, Pete Doherty's sane foil in the Libertines, wailed, "We're not afraid of anyone!" and it sounded less like a boast and more like an invitation to surrender to the band's spirited and relentless punk rock. The drummer ripped off his shirt after the second song, and Barât gave every song everything he thinks rock & roll can be -- in sum, a sweaty hell of a lot and a sweaty great time.
Public Service Broadcasting, if you haven't heard by now, consists of the uber-nerdy London duo of guitarist, loopist J. Wilgoose Esq and drummer Wrigglesworth. Think Primal Scream remixed with an arsenal of surf guitar, banjo and film and voice samples from British propaganda films and other archival footage -- often from WWII, Mount Everest expeditions and the Space Race. If you're having a hard time getting your mind around that, so am I. I'm still reeling from how much wit and history and vision and groove this band, maybe the best I will see at SXSW 2015, conveyed in 45 minutes. Travel any distance to see PSB soon.