SXSW 2018

Here’s the full blow-by-blow. I only do it because my memory is going and I want to be able to look back in years to come.
Paul (photographer in chief), picked me up from Austin Bergstrom airport after the flight landed 30 minutes early and I’d been standing in the stifling heat in my UK winter gear. As usual, the airport was packed with cool-looking people unloading enormous flight cases filled with instruments and gear.
The music festival has been starting earlier each year and now they even list Tuesday in the official booklet, despite the dates actually being Wednesday to Saturday. I picked up my badge from the Convention Center, where it was noticeable that the traditional queues were completely absent. The general “quieter than usual” feel continued throughout the festival. What has happened is that the big names have almost completely disappeared (the biggest stars were Keith Urban and a secret show by ZZ Top). The result is a return to the original ethos of sxsw as a showcase for new talent.
We tried to find a parking space to start checking out the music early but failed, opting instead to pay a first visit to legendary Tex-Mex joint Gueros before having an early night. Planning sxsw in detail is essential and I’d done my homework in advance, ready to leap straight in. Remember that, although the official programme only starts at 8 pm daily, shows actually happen at hundreds of venues across town all day. All bands play multiple shows (I spotted one that played twelve but that is probably by no means a record). You see them pitch up in their vans, lug all their own gear on stage, set everything up, do a cursory sound check, play an energetic set and instantly have to vacate the stage with all their gear as the next band is already setting up. It’s an object lesson in professionalism.
We aimed to start at around 1pm each day, which left time for breakfast in Star Seeds Café. This was normally the only meal of the day, further nutrition being taken in the form of beers and margaritas.
Wednesday was largely spent at South By San Jose, an always reliable line-up in the sweltering car park of the Hotel San Jose on South Congress. An early highlight was Josh T Pearson, about whom I’d read a huge article in Uncut on the way over. Josh was on rollicking form with his new crowd-pleasing image. Despite his popularity in Europe, he’s almost unknown in his home town, with the audience at Hotel San Jose being sparse. I’d last seen him at the Mean Eyed Cat in 2011, when he was in his “meaningful bearded singer-songwriter” phase. The contrast could hardly be greater, as he is totally transformed into a smart, sophisticated white-jacketed all-round entertainer, introducing his “straight hits”. It was great fun and he finished off with a cover of a Neil Halstead song, before complimenting me on my John Murry t-shirt. If you look into their respective life stories, it’s no surprise that these two should like each other.
Straight after Josh came Jesse Dayton. Despite having the aura of a Texas road warrior, Jesse is in fact a sensitive, deep thinking individual as well as a spectacular guitar player with an unimpeachable band. Josh T Pearson was soon two-stepping to Jesse’s music with a very stylish lady. Soon, a circle formed round the golden couple to cheer them on. It was an utterly charming scene.
Next door, Gueros’ garden was overflowing with adoring fans awaiting the arrival of UK troubadour Frank Turner. I’m on record as not being a fan of his “shouty-strummy-preachy” style, but you’ve got to hand it to him. Everyone in the rammed venue knew all the lyrics and sang along enthusiastically, even when he was exhorting them to “Make America Great Again”. He had another eight shows to go, so disappeared quickly afterwards.
Antone’s is a much more intimate venue since its move, but an improved one too, with good sound and sightlines. I was excited because Joshua Hedley, a man who has played in my garden, has been signed to Jack White’s Third Man label and was showcasing here. It was a trifle embarrassing because it was so “straight country” that Paul hated it. Myself, I was in awe of the incredible collection of Nashville musos (in uniforms) that Joshua had brought with him, and loved the smooth professionalism of it all.
I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying that my free tickets are dependant upon doing a number of reviews for different publications – fair enough. But it does mean that I have to check out Hampshire artists, of whom there were several. So off I went to the relaxing confines of the Central Presbyterian Church for Portsmouth singer Jerry Williams, who’d crowdfunded her trip. It’s probably rude to say that I can’t remember any of her songs, but it’s also true. Next up was Winchester’s Flyte, the brother of one of whose members went to school with my daughter (hope you’re following this). They feature CSNY style harmonies and are normally an electric band, but on this occasion they went acoustic with a grand piano and it all sounded impressively ecclesiastical.
Having loved Low Cut Connie at last year’s festival and then at the Borderline in London, it was vital to go and see them at least once. This was a show in the bedlam of 6th Street at a long-established venue called The Parish. The sound was too loud, the lights too flashy and somehow the vibe wasn’t quite right, but nevertheless we were knocked out by a crazy band from Oklahoma called Broncho. More of both these two later. Bed was at 2.30 am.
Thursday started with a visit to the Day Stage in the Convention Centre, a pleasing oasis of calm and comfort. Not many people seem to actually find it, which is surprising in view of the fact that the sound and the sightlines are the best of any sxsw venues. Considering that Courtney Marie Andrews is a very fast-rising star, the number of people there was tiny. The environment suited her, though, and she performed a short but effective set. Some reviews have pointed out that there’s little variation in her strong-lunged approach to each song, and it’s true but it’s fine by me. Still miss Caitlin Rose, though – anyone know what she’s up to?
One of the best places for music at sxsw is the Day Stage at the legendary Waterloo Records, and that’s where the afternoon was spent. A Place To Bury Strangers made the most wonderful racket and finished their set by playing with something like an air hostess’s trolley out in the middle of the crowd – very exciting stuff. Apparently, on other occasions, they start out in the audience before heading to the stage later. Then came the most unlikely ever signing to the country-focused New West label, a feisty pop band led by Caroline Rose. Dressed in sports gear and medical scrubs, they entertained the crowd cheerfully. The Weather Station, who played numerous shows over the weekend, were less memorable, but not as dire as the turgidly dated (although very popular) sub-Coldplay anthems of Dashboard Confessional. Ugh. Time for some much-needed healthy food at the adjacent branch of Whole Foods.
A long walk back downtown took me to an Irish showcase in the tiny Velveeta Room on Sixth Street. Here is a good point to mention something that has been increasingly clear in recent years, namely a sort of involuntary segregation that has been developing. Sixth Street has become the hub for urban and rap music, while the traditional venues featuring more white music have largely dispersed themselves along Rainey Street and East Fourth Street, both endowed with scores of bars with music facilities.
The Irish showcase was extremely enjoyable and a good advert for tolerance, taste and good behaviour in a music venue. First up was a spiky punk trio from Derry with Undertones undertones, called Touts. I could have been their grandfather, and would have been proud to be. One of their songs was called “Go Fuck Yourself”. Next up was the acoustic harmony duo The Lost Brothers. I was fearful they’d die a death but no, the audience listened respectfully and appreciatively to their music. Finally, The Strypes generally laid waste to the place with their attitude-laden Feelgood-ish chunky, melodic two-minuters. They’ve invested in some great threads and look perfect. I was convinced when I first saw them here four years ago that they’d be huge, but they aren’t. Maybe it’s just true that there is no market for guitar bands any more.
A long and bracing walk took me to Rainey Street and a Tulsa showcase at The Bungalow. I feared the worst as a pop act called Branjae was playing and was worried for John Fullbright, who was following and I’d only ever seen solo before. No need to worry though, as he was playing with a bunch of friends and it was a very cheerful gathering. It was noticeable, however, that the momentum dipped whenever a friend came up to play and re-gathered pace whenever Fullbright took the lead, with his vocal and instrumental power. And what’s this? Yes, it’s Broncho again. You could hardly imagine a greater musical contrast. In my search for a way to describe them, I came up with “a mash-up of My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus And Mary Chain and Hawkwind”. Add in a bit of The Cure (singer Ryan Lindsey is a dead ringer for Robert Smith) and you have a potent and very atmospheric cocktail, as Lindsey jiggles as if flea-ridden, sings lyrics which may or may not be actual words and merges each song into the next with no breaks for applause or even a greeting. Anyway, I found them so irresistible that I went to see them three times in total.
Friday saw me wending my way again to Rainey Street for a showcase at Blackheart that I hoped would end up with Ezra Furman. What a pig’s ear the organisers had made of this. There was a spacious yard outside with a stage, yet they had programmed Ezra Furman and Frank Turner in the minuscule and very claustrophobic inside room. Luckily, that meant I was unhindered while watching Aaron Lee Tasjan outside. The previous year, I had been baffled by a low-key and – dare I say it – boring show from Aaron, and confused by the adulation. Then, at the End of The Road Festival in September, he appeared solo acoustic on the Garden Stage and went down a storm with a charming and funny performance. Here at Blackheart, he was in his electric guitar-shredding guise and the performance was thrilling. Clearly a man of many and diverse talents.
Amy Shark and a couple of other forgettable artists played outside but I ventured in to try and get a spot to at least catch a glimpse of Ezra Furman, but it was not to be. His band and crew dutifully set up all the gear but the frantic phone calls gave a clue as to what would happen: He simply didn’t turn up. An announcement gave mixed messages: He’s not well, but do come and see him (in a bigger venue) tomorrow. Who knows the explanation but I’d guess the overcrowding must have been an intimidatory factor. Never mind, normally sxsw throws up many of these situations (indeed, for many, it later did with cancellations relating to security issues).
We had a date with Lee Bains III And The Glory Fires (who played, I think, eleven times over the four days). This was at the Side Bar, next to Stubbs, and turned out to be a classic sxsw occasion. Inside the dingy venue was a set-up for bands that offered neither stage nor lights, so it was only possible to see the silhouettes of Cold Fronts, a great Pavement-esque outfit from Philadelphia. Outside on the sun-drenched patio, Lee Bains was on paint-stripping form. For me, he took the title of Best Band I Saw At SXSW (a rather subjective category, admittedly). Hurling himself round the tiny stage and challenging the audience with incredibly articulate political speeches and lyrics, Lee eventually ended up in the audience being mobbed by the ecstatic crowd. Wonderful in-yer-face stuff that made you feel glad to be alive and able to feel positive in a difficult world.
What a contrast the evening was. A friend of my daughter’s was organising a showcase in St David’s Historic Sanctuary, so of course I attended. The artist I saw was Lucy Rose. Fair play to her. She’s been through the industry mill, having been hyped by a major label to little avail. The current angle is that she’s now independent and succeeding against the odds, but boy, was her performance bland and inconclusive. But pay no attention to me, the audience lapped it up.
Next was a hike all the way to the wonderful Scoot Inn, where the musical quality was outstanding. I’d fallen in love with Austin’s Bright Light Social Hour on the Tropical Heatwave Cruise (see a different “note”) and it was lovely to see them wowing their home town. I feared for Hiss Golden Messenger when I saw that it was an acoustic duo set-up, but no, yet again they were treated with respect and attention by a well-oiled party audience. You don’t get that everywhere. Last on were Okkervill River. Yes, they exist again, nowadays in a completely different and much more quirky (but appealing) five-piece format.
The plan for Saturday was to take things a bit more easy. First up was Lucy’s Fried Chicken, a venue that always has an entertaining line-up. The problem is that it is what it says: If you don’t like fried chicken you’re going to starve. They don’t even do tea or coffee. Also, the sightlines are bad, so it’s not the best place to see a band. But I wanted to be there because of the Rublilators, the new band of Jon Notarthomas, who was Ian McLagan’s musical partner over the last years of Ian’s life. Jon did me the most enormous kindness this time last year and I was glad we made the effort, as the Rubilators are a bunch of enthusiastic Austin veterans who rock out with infectious style. After them came John Doe (of X), who has now made Austin his home and has a new acoustic trio.
Chickengate meant that we did the ultimate in sinfulness, namely having beer and margaritas for breakfast, back in Gueros. Just up the road is the Yard Dog. Normally we’d spend a lot of time in there but the crowds made it impossible even to see local act Li’l Cap’n Travis, although they sounded good. So instead it was off to the other side of town to the traditional Saturday Country Cantina at Licho’s. The line-up was less inspiring than in recent years but we saw Billy Strings, Dead Horses and Australia’s Ruby Boots in quick succession.
Back in town we entered a rather smart bar to see Christopher Rees, who’d been having a trying time on account of a banister-related ankle incident. Nevertheless, he was in fine voice. He’s one of the very few UK Americana artists who sounds really authentic.
The last evening was shaping up to develop into a disappointment. For years we’d been going to showcases organised by Canadian label Six Shooter, but the bigger they’ve become, the less fun the events are. This one contained many irritating factors: A cliquey atmosphere, people annoyingly smoking everywhere, sound leakage from next door, massively over-priced drinks (more than anywhere else in Austin), terrible sound plus a self-consciously quirky and not very good band (The Wet Secrets). Tempting though it was to stay on for Whitney Rose (simply so I could call this article The Wars Of The Roses on account of the many so-named singers), the temptation of another dose of Broncho and Low Cut Connie in the adjacent Clive Bar was too great.
And what a wise decision that proved to be. The vibe, with free St Patrick’s Day light sabres and flashing necklaces, was incredibly convivial and Broncho were even more mind-boggling than before. Low Cut Connie, meanwhile, were back at their sparkling best. The extraordinary Adam Weiner of LCC took the showmanship honours with his piano acrobatics and gradual disrobement, backed by a grittily committed bunch of highly supportive musicians. They all certainly know how to work an audience and the audience succumbs willingly, wreathed in smiles. I saw Rolling Stone’s David Fricke (who really has seen everything) being clearly overcome. In print, he declared the band and their classic new single Beverley to be ready for world domination. I can only agree.
That was it. Bed and the long trek to a snowy home via Amsterdam presented a climate challenge, but that’s another story.