Note: This is in no way, shape or form a comprehensive (or even close to it) overview of this enormous music festival. Instead it is but a snapshot of what one passionate music journalist managed to catch in a day.
By now South By Southwest, or SxSW as it is usually shortened, has become one of the premier media festivals in the world, showcasing upcoming movies, music and technology. For music lovers, it’s a must-see, even if just once. It’s a maddening spectacle of a town being completely transformed into one large music venue. Every street is bustling with massive crowds and it seems like there’s music coming from every bar, street corner and parking lot. No matter what your taste, there’s something for everyone, you just have to find the right location. This can be tricky because in addition to all of the official showcases, there are tons of unofficial events such as the Paste Party, Fader Fort and free big name shows at Auditorium Shores.
Having the unique privilege of a platinum badge this year, it’s been a wild ride since last Friday. Lots of technology demos, companies giving away food, t-shirts, and stickers in the name of promotion, a couple of films and of course, lots of Happy Hours. So while it was easy to treat it like another day in the trenches at this massive over-a-week-long festival, today marked the first official day of the music portion of the festival. It’s easily the most popular and populated part of the festival, causing larger crowds than witnessed at any other point earlier in the week. There was a blister-inducing amount of walking and of course, some amazing music.
Third Man Records Rolling Record Store
Quickly becoming a bright-yellow fixture of SxSW, the Third Man Records Rolling Record Store made their debut at the festival this year at the spacious and beautiful French Ligation Museum on the east side. In their third consecutive appearance, the record store on wheels offered almost the entire catalog of records from the label for sale, as well as exclusive merchandise created specially for the occasion, including a Third Man branding iron. With featured vinyl specialties each day, it’s a music lover’s dream come true. It’s like a taco truck for your ears.
This was live music per se, but it’s definitely worth mentioning for any and all music lovers. The music streaming service rented out a house and painted it bright green. There, music lovers could get there hands on free swag, drinks, and 30 day trials of Spotify Premium. A DJ was set up in the house and requests for the DJ could be made using a computer set up with Spotify. It’s not the intention to be a corporate shill right now, promise. They just have a cool service and unique presence at the festival that’s undeniably worth mentioning.
Alabama Shakes @ Austin Convention Center
Playing for arguably the most official and serious crowd of their tenure at SxSW, this band look past the formalities of the setting and pulled off a passionately short but sweet set. Most of the badge-holding audience chose to sit the entire time, which was respectful but hard to do with such soul-stirring, hip-shaking music. With very few words to the crowd the band tore through a couple of songs from their EP, such as “Hold On” and “You’re Not Alone,” as well as songs from their forthcoming debut LP. Lead singer Brittany Howard has an impressive voice, combining Gospel-flavored wails of conviction with whispery R&B cooing. What’s more, it’s not just the vocals where she’s commanding – she’s also a fantastic guitar player, laying down steady rhythms while stopping people’s hearts with her powerful vocal delivery. Backed by a very talented rock band that is very reminiscent of the 70s yet timeless simultaneously, they are simply electrifying. They will probably be one of the best break-out artists of SxSW if this show is any indication.
Alabama Shakes’ Hold On
Fiona Apple @ Stubb’s NPR Showcase
Once a poster-child of the 90s female rock movement, Fiona Apple has become somewhat of an elusive figure these days. Her first two albums have passed into the annuls of rock history and her third album was shelved, then completely remixed and re-released to her chagrin, and it’s been mostly silence ever since. Hopefully this appearance of the festival is the tip of an iceberg of comeback activities for the singer. Thin as a rail with wild and intense eyes, she tore through a set that consisted of classics like “Fast As You Can,” “Paper Bag,” and “Sleep To Dream.” Several new songs also made their Austin debut, including “Anything We Want,” “Valentine,” and “Every Single Night.” The new songs sounded fresh and vibrant yet blended seamlessly with her older material. On some notes her voice seemed a bit ragged, but the sheer amount of intensity behind the delivery of every syllable more than made up for it. She performs with the conviction of someone who still continues to exercise her demons through her performances. Perhaps tellingly, one of the first things said to the audience was, “oh, there are people? No, you’re not real!” This perhaps explains the on another plane of existence expression she held for the majority of the show. There were brief sound problems during “Extraordinary Machine,” but it never phased the faithful audience, who all kept singing right along during the chorus. The performance penultimate track was an epic rendition of “Carrion” that had the audience in silent awe before bringing the house down with hit single “Criminal” that had everyone singing along and swaying. The angst ridden teenager inside was excited to have finally gotten to witness an integral artist to that period of life, and it’s even more satisfying that it’s something past and present me can both agree on.
Sharon Van Etten @ Stubb’s NPR Showcase
Unfamiliar with this artist prior to the show, there were zero expectations on what to expect from her. Afterwards one had to wonder why she’s not more popular or well-known. She performed solid singer-songwriter alt-rock. It hit all the sweets spots: a nice rock sound that was a middle ground between indie and 90s alternative, emotional yet plainspoken vocals, and of course lyrics that aren’t too confessional but still manage to sting with universal truth of love and loss. She plays it cool on stage, never getting overly animated. She’s not comatose either, but she gets the job done. The music speaks for itself and Sharon cannot come recommended highly enough. Both songs from her 2010 album Epic and her latest endeavor Tramp were featured and worth a listen.
Sharon Van Etten’s A Crime
Lila Downs @ Speakeasy’s World Showcase
Upon recommendation from a fellow passionate music lover, the trek was made through downtown to reach Speakeasy and experience a completely different type of performance and atmosphere. While Stubb’s was a bit subdued with a casual audience soaking in the music, this was a complete 180. Lila plays a unique take on traditional Mexican music. For those unfamiliar, despite the tempo, sad and slow or happy and energetic, the crowd dances and feels the music. Opening with a couple of energetic numbers, from song one she had the enthusiastic crowd eating out of her hand, singing along and dancing, cheering her every gesture. She smiled like a demure Cheshire cat the entire time, dancing and moving to the music. A few songs in she triumphantly produces an almost empty bottle of Mezcal, with only a couple of swallows and the worm left. She pours a little out, drinks some and tells the crowd, “I hear people are here for some Mezcal drinking songs!” With a cheer the band launches into a slow and intoxicating number about heartbreak. Once this song is done she produces a wooden percussive instrument and tells the story of the next song, about a celebration of corn. With a diverse singing style, her voice handles notes with precision and heart, hitting ear-piercing notes and husky low notes all in the same song. No matter the topic or tempo, the music inspires body movement and smiles. This stunning performance left the at-capacity crowd cheering wildly for ‘mas.’
Despite great music happening into the night, it was time to call it a night–after all, it’s only the first night. Pacing is important for a musical endurance test like SxSW. There will be plenty to experience tomorrow.
Written by Jarad Matula. All photos by Jarad Matula except Lila Downs by Mark Smith.