South By South West Festival 2016

I started sxsw 2016 with a nasty throat infection, which I blamed on the vicious ventilation on the plane. Was that why I found the music less interesting this year? I don’t think so, because it’s a brilliant event and I had a huge amount of fun, but somehow things didn’t click for me musically as much as usual.

First, all the good stuff. There were a couple of unique events that I’ll never forget. One was a “Song And Tell” session with Mercury Rev at the Ginger Man Pub. This took the form of Jonathan Donahue interviewing Bella Union’s Simon Raymonde and the band performing – sublimely – three songs: Holes, All Is Dream and Opus 40. It’s hard to describe how exciting it was to be close up with a band that more usually has to be approached through a mass of smoke and strobes. Indeed, that was the case just 24 hours later, as they performed a panoramic 90 minute greatest hits set at the Hotel San Jose. The bass was so loud that the ground quaked beneath us, which must have frightened off the assembled Texans, because at the end, I turned round to see that two thirds of the audience had left. Lightweights.

The other extraordinary experience came courtesy of Timmy Thomas. At the age of seventy, and having spent the last 20 years teaching music, Timmy’s career has experienced a sudden revival on account of “Why Can’t We Live Together” being sampled by Drake. Things got off to a strange start at Austin’s iconic Saxon Pub with Timmy lecturing us about world peace for ten minutes, not realising his mic hadn’t been switched on. But before long, his sublime band kicked in and hit a groove that had the place in ecstasy for an hour. It was such a privilege to be there.

Anyway, the whole point of sxsw is to check out new music and up and coming bands, so that is what I decided to do. It turned out to be less rewarding than I’d hoped, and I came home wondering whether music is in need of another punk-style shake-up. First, some official showcases. The much touted Hinds were a bit of a laugh, a cross between the Bangles and the Slits but without the chops of either. Talk about ephemeral. On electronica, Poliça was a bit pompous and Chvrches had better jokes than music. It was time to go off-piste.

First I went to Maria’s Taco Express, where the margaritas are cold and the salsa is red hot. Like other such venues in Austin, sxsw is used as an opportunity for band after band to play 30 minute sets with cursory sound checks. Performing here was Brian Whelan from LA, playing very infectious bar room rock, greatly entertaining but not really going anywhere. Following on from him was veteran Canadian Corb Lund and his band. Again, the sardonic country songs were enjoyable but generic and you had the feeling of having heard it all before. Is it unreasonable to want to be thrilled and amazed?

The search continued by way of two sessions at the Ginger Man Pub in central Austin. This is a great venue but it’s marred by a silly layout of extremely hard benches that run at right angles to the band, a sure recipe for a stiff neck. Here also, the format is an endless succession of bands that tune up, smash out six or seven three-minute guitar songs and disappear again. You only actually remember trivial things about them, such as that Blackfoot Gypsies had filthy trousers, Yoko And The Oh-Nos were a cross between ZZ Top and Boy George and that Soul Asylum should not try to perform their stadium anthems with acoustic guitars. You’d never consider buying a record by any of them and you wonder what exactly the point of them is. One band that stuck in the mind were called Dash Rip Rock. They came from Alabama and their songs included “Let’s Go Fuck In My Truck” and “Spank Your Panties”. It was alarming to be told that these weren’t ironic titles. The Bluebonnets stood out on account of being women, but that was really the only difference.

Please don’t get me wrong. None of these bands were bad as such. In fact, they could all play, they could all sing and rock out and they all had catchy songs and riffs. I went so far as to seek out the manager of the Ginger Man and congratulate him on the organisation. We didn’t see a single bad band there, but of real spark, innovation and brilliance there was little sign. A vicious thunderstorm that closed down many outdoor venues didn’t bother the Ginger Man, as, after a brief pause, they simply played on with yet another set of musos, this time some blisteringly loud, middle-aged rockers called The Sidewinders, who had forgotten they weren’t punks any more. I couldn’t bear to stay for the Waco Brothers, for fear it might be more of the same.

A lovely Saturday tradition is the Brooklyn Country Cantina, which showcases at least thirty roots / “Americana” bands over two stages. This is usually a great place to trawl for new talents, but not this year. David Wax Museum presented us with mock Mariachi, The Wild Reeds specialised in Coldplay-style soaring climaxes, Christian Lee Hutson was trying to be Andrew Combs and failing, Banditos were more banjo-thrashing and throaty vocals and as for Sam Outlaw, oh dear. Bland, good-looking young country singers, I’m so fed up with them. Whatever else this may be (and it may be commercially successful), it isn’t “outlaw country”. That I could handle. Things were redeemed a little by Daddy Long Legs and Daniel Romano, but they had both played the year before and so weren’t really “new”.

Well, okay, as I said, I started sxsw with flu but I don’t believe it tainted my experience and turned me into a grump. There definitely were positives to be found in the form of ubiquitous New Zealander Marlon Williams, whose songs actually sounded – phew – “different” and Canada’s Strumbellas, and “unique” is certainly a term you could apply to the brilliant BP Fallon, whose band currently includes Joe King Carrasco. The band to watch out of all this is Saskatchewan’s Kacy And Clayton, whose Fairport fixation permits them to write beautiful tunes, and Kacy Anderson had the voice of the week. In amongst all the rasping growls and yells of the other bands, her sweet, innocent tones stood out a mile.