Review: SXSW 2015.

Attempting to digest the Austin omnimedia blowout that is SXSW, and regurgitate even vaguely cogent thoughts thereon subsequently, is nigh on impossible, by dint of it being so difficult to stomach to start with. Indeed keeping tabs, or rather keeping down the Texan extravaganza is as tricky a thing to do as a week’s worth of free booze, you may well say. And in this regard, with its omnipresent sponsorship placements and doe-eyed waiters and waitresses traipsing through each and every venue, you’re never more than a metre or two away from someone trying to ply you with your umpteenth Miller Lite of the morning/ noon/ night.

Nonetheless, there are of course downsides to this inescapable commercialism: you can’t move for flyers nor fast food, from $1 Taco Bell burritos at the hyper-polished Hype Hotel outpost to gristly nibbly bits in the Vulcan Gas Company, where The New Pornographers have the particularly unenviable task of attempting to nourish the musically, and seemingly culturally malnourished tech vultures in cargo trousers at one of a seemingly innumerable number of closing parties for the preceding ‘Interactive’ part of SXSW 2015. The show, sponsored by Silicon Valley ‘digital-advertising technology company’ Rocket Fuel, is ostensibly ‘fun’, although the look on A.C. Newman’s face throughout would look to belie their later tweet. Nonetheless, the irrepressible British Columbians put on a typically ebullient performance that fizzes and foams with material lifted from last year’s superlative Brill Bruisers, with Backstairs strutting to the very fore once more. Food for thought for those less conversant with the Canadians perhaps; if only they weren’t so visibly bothered about stuffing another tofu slider down their gullets…

Henceforth, and against each and every forewarning, we messed with Texas and sure enough, soon enough, it began to make a complete mess of us. 6th Street – a place for ‘TOTAL entertainment’, if its rather misrepresentative SEOptimised title tag says so itself – is nicknamed ‘Dirty Sixth’ with great reason, as even on a Monday night it begins to blur, smudging itself into a grim oblivion of slurring bigots and bloody idiots, as down-and-outs fraternise with downright revolting frat boys supping on trademarked red plastic cups. Indeed, by the time a particularly aggro Friday night comes around, it’s become more redolent of the Gaza Strip than Glastonbury. But in amidst the schmoozing that, as previously inferred, is lubricated quite ludicrously efficiently by a nigh on endless supply of (primarily) Miller Lite, we managed to cram in a band or two besides Newman & Co., some of which we’ll now detail below, I suppose…

As per each and every year previous, there are those acts that rest on the tips of tongues as intimately as globules of gruesome booze: the effervescent nonsenses of the no-pop aficionados and nonexistent energy drink enthusiasts of the PC Music collective may not compute, although they’ve considerably more buzz about them than The Wild Honey Pie’s Wednesday showcase on East 7th; Catalan brats Hinds (FKA Deers) and Mississippian scruffs The Districts generate commensurate hype inside the Fair Market. That said, there’s considerably better, more compelling music to be found elsewhere: Viet Cong battle on through a frankly ridiculous number of shows with drummer Mike Wallace reduced to just the one hand, having slammed his left in a van door on Tuesday morning. You really couldn’t make that kind of anecdote up, although the likes of Bunker Buster and a seismic Continental Shelf lack none of their blistering vigour, with the Albertan noiseniks enthralling repeatedly throughout the week.

Waxahatchee, SXSW 2015

Tuesday night at The Mohawk, meanwhile, sees a series of bruised, if never beaten sirens take to what may be Austin’s very best of its myriad stages. Sure, the venue is marred somewhat by some of the most impudent bar staff ever encountered, although its amphitheatrical setup perfectly houses the raspy (im)perfections of Katie Crutchfield, aka Waxahatchee, Sadie Dupuis’ Speedy Ortiz and last, although never least, the forever angelic Angel Olsen.

Angel Olsen, SXSW 2015

Evidently malcontented with its having stood the end-of-year test o’ time and represented one of the incontrovertible records of 2014, the gravitas, and with that gravity to Burn Your Fire For No Witness has yet to diminish or indeed dwindle, with the lullabying, berceuse-like Unfucktheworld a fine antidote to a typically rollicking take on Forgiven/Forgotten. There’s a desperate sparsity to White Fire tonight, whilst Lights Out sees us out in lilting, almost luminous manner as solo, Olsen enamours once more.

As do TV On The Radio on the first of two shows, on consecutive evenings, down in the gravel pit out the back of Stubb’s BBQ, the gangly silhouette of Tunde Adebimpe flailing wildly as it “blows a hole right through the ages.” (Or indeed Golden Age, for that matter.) Reaping the rewards of Seeds first and foremost once more, the record which saw them “exploding into new dimensions” has allowed them to dramatically enhance their live show as well, with the mantric Could You, kinetic Happy Idiot, scuzzy, blizzard-like Winter and an unapologetically climactic Trouble all adding exceptionally tensile strings to an already rather versatile bow. And sure enough, as Adebimpe keeps telling himself, “Don’t worry, be happy”, SXSW 2015 has its first carefree, arms-aloft kinda bona fide ‘festival moment’.

That’s not to suggest that these are few and far between subsequently; more that slowly yet surely, SXSW starts to overwhelm: a week spent traipsing from pillar to post is exhausting in itself; factor in two days of Biblical deluge, and resultant mud baths worthy of a certain Somerset farm come the summer solstice, and it becomes all the more so. Moreover, what with the mtvU Woodie Awards, Jimmy Kimmel’s ephemeral relocating to Texas, the Fader Fort, the Hype Hotel and so on and so forth all inundating Austin concurrently, SXSW is less a ‘festival’ per se and more like a complete season’s worth crammed into a solitary week. Factor in conventions, conferences, talks, tittle and tattle of (no-)shows from Drake, Rihanna, Kanye West, et cetera, and it becomes even more of a clusterfucking, cerebrum-scrambling nightmare. But it’s one that really does have to be endured to be believed…

Natalie Prass, SXSW 2015

Similar sentiments – if ones more commonly associated with enjoyment than endurance – can be voiced when it comes to Richmond, Virginian songbird Natalie Prass, whose shows at The Mohawk may not roar with the raw power renowned of the Godzilla model sat atop her ailing electric piano that’s this week been compelled to play more shows than even she cares to recall, although that’s not to say they pack no punch whatsoever. No; conversely, there is newfound pomp to this particular show, with the sassy Why Don’t You Believe In Me, the woozy Never Over You and the strangely avian Your Fool all impressing. The “Disney princess shit” that It Is You apparently passes for sees Prass waltz around stages both inside and out on consecutive, and commensurately sweltering afternoons, her eight-inch Godzilla cradled in her arms as her irreproachable vocal warbles in the warmth.

As per Olsen before her, it’s against the all-American backdrop which Austin provides that her music seems to make the most sense; and as per on record, it’s the almost impossibly peppy Bird of Prey that proves her pièce de résistance. Its lead melody, once allowed in, buzzes about your brain like an impatient hummingbird unintentionally ensnared in an Upper East Side apartment block. And as Prass can later be seen putting pen to paper on a number of newly drawn contracts, it looks as though she’ll soon be unlocking rather more minds as well.

There are disappointments musical too, mind: San Francisco duo Cathedrals sound not unlike a parody of themselves already, while Lydia Ainsworth’s free-thinking, ethereal fancies fail to set as many hairs on end inside The Mohawk as they may well have done in any number of the other venues she went on to play during the week. Elsewhere, abominable Belgian Stromae proves spectacularly insufferable; Son Lux’ sets are fraught with an unnecessary theatricality loosely reminiscent of that anticipated of, if in no way acceptable from, Paul Van Haver before him; while of Montreal surprisingly lack an apparently requisite flamboyance, not least in the fluffy flamingo-strewn surrounds of the Flamingo Cantina’s back courtyard.

Steve Kilbey’s The Church fail to convince for one reason or another upstairs in Buffalo Billiards, whilst Philadelphian duo Marian Hill bring little enlightenment, and less enjoyment still, to the spare pews of the Central Presbyterian Church. The Residents’ Charles ‘Chuck’ Bobuck plays his last ever live show with the indefatigable vanguardists to a discombobulatingly sedate Paramount Theatre, as the Louisianans put in an uncharacteristically sedative performance themselves. They’re bringing the curtain down on the third instalment of their latest trilogy, with this segment entitled Shadowland, but it’s as the proverbial drape first lifts this evening that SXSW reveals its very finest discovery: Seoul duo [suːm]. Jiha Park and Jungmin Seo “play traditional Korean instruments, [but make] non-traditional Korean music” that sounds quite unlike anything previously heard during this, or many another weekend, and creates a consummate tranquility amid the mania that is SXSW. A most refreshing break from the hip hopperati (most of whom are in absentia, anyway) and grubby, boring guitar bands grittier than the Colorado River that stumbles through Austin then, and the sort of ensemble that suggests the festival still plays a fundamental role in shedding light on the unknown of far and wide…

The other noteworthy discovery, subjectively, was that of Texas’ very own Leon Bridges, who blew Ryn Weaver clear out the water inside YouTube’s Coppertank takeover. Admittedly, Bridges had me from the moment his virtuosic saxophonist was spotted tooting at unsuspecting pissers in the gents’ mere seconds before he was due onstage, although the bluesy stylings of Coming Home suggest the Lone Star State has itself a hometown hero worth the rootin’ therefor henceforth. By contrast, the heroes of SXSW ’14 – namely Future Islands, it goes without caveating – fall a little bit flat tonight, perhaps having played more or less the exact same show however-many times since, while Adam Granduciel looks decidedly nonplussed by the plethora of cocktail-supping thirty-somethings so visibly disinterested in The War on Drugs’ ruminations on withdrawal and disappearance. Which, given the oneiric majesty intrinsic to Lost in the Dream, on top of the potency to its current onstage incarnation, is as preposterous a response as any eye-popping Google takeover bid.

Better then, and by some distance too, is Granduciel’s show the proceeding evening; one which is preceded by Johan Wohlert’s returning to Mew. And his return is not only met with absolute rapture in the vibrant Clive Bar, but is marked by an almost inconceivably memorable set; the sort that not even 24 fl. oz. cans of Modelo Especial x approx. 24 could decay. Jonas Bjerre leads these very greatest of Danes through a truly triumphant eight-song set that takes in both old and new, with Satellites and My Complications – the latter seraphic as his ageless features – leading the charge. Quietly evocative of Taylor Swift’s I Knew You Were Trouble, Water Slides completes their résumé of new(er) material, before we’re treated to a positive masterclass in melodrama that scrapes the sky like the numerous high-rise hotels that besmirch the Austin skyline.

Mew, SXSW 2015

From Mew and the Glass Handed Kites, both Special and The Zookeeper’s Boy bring with them a tacit, almost malignant sense of menace; from Frengers, Am I Wry? No and 156 ought to have seen any potential strangers instantly transformed into friends of Bjerre et al. Because even if it were to have been bereft of the ineffably beautiful Comforting Sounds that brings proceedings to a close, as setlists underfoot suggest it might have been, this absolutely has to go down as the show of the weekend; the kind that, albeit unassumingly, reassures your faith in music quite unreservedly…

There are those moments, though, at which this is severely tested: the impertinence of the industry is at its most transparent here in Austin as somebody from an unnamed band, the moniker of which nearly rhymes with the word ‘deceitful’ and is loosely synonymous with that of CHVRCHES, liaises sordidly with a balding industry bod numerous years her senior beside me. And so as the week wears on, peepers becoming increasingly bleary and limbs weary, that unbridled optimism and unrivalled feeling of enthusiasm that the beginning of each and (nearly) every festival brings inevitably begins to dim. But, whether due to his favouring StubHub over YouTube, or preference for Modelo Especial above pseudo-swanky cocktails, Granduciel is, as previously inferred, on far better form this evening.

The War on Drugs, SXSW 2015

And so, come the witching hour, the bewitching, intrinsically comforting sounds of a perfectly claustrophobic Under the Pressure take hold. Red Eyes, Suffering, Disappearing and so on all follow on, this an incontestably “grand parade” of great Americana conviction. “The background is at night,” and I don’t wanna hesitate to proclaim this a monumental and to reiterate, truly memorable one; the sort that comes around only under moons bluer than that which adds lustre to the drizzle-dappled streets of this phosphorescent, early-morning emptiness.

Elsewhere, Mr. West’s ongoing truancy is redeemed by Timbaland’s guesting on current protégé, Tink’s set up in the appropriately imposing Fader Fort, and by Hudson Mohawke’s unprecedentedly devastating show that eventually shuts the place down. Travis Scott and Twista both feature, making quick, if comparatively unremarkable cameos, so it’s down to Glaswegian Ross Birchard to allay, or at least alleviate the disillusionment so many now vocalise. He does so ever so masterfully, suggesting his forthcoming sophomore full-length, Lantern, may be the breakthrough release he’s been due for the better part of a decade already…

A rather more box-fresh talent, therefore, is Brooklyn’s PATRICIA. who, in spite of those nominal similarities to belie their genuine gender, has absolutely bugger-all to do with SOPHIE’s PC Music assemblage. And, infinitely preferable, the inscrutable producer’s dark and tremendously dirty minimal techno workouts gradually pack an enraptured Elysium. A grotty outpost ‘hosting Austin’s alternative nightlife since 2001’, it makes for a quite complementary expanse to his macabre, corporeal throbs and punitive thumpings, with this one banging in every regard conceivable.

SALES, SXSW 2015

Keeping it locked with the CAPS, Floridian duo SALES delight first amid Pabst Blue Ribbon paraphernalia and pungent crawfish at the Historic Scoot Inn, and later, on top of the rather more upmarket Whole Foods Market that, not unlike SXSW itself seems to Austin, overwhelms so much of the North Lamar Boulevard. Together, Lauren Morgan and Jordan Shih concoct some of the week’s most unassuming and insouciant, yet simultaneously impactful songs, with the muzzy getting it on and the lithe, lo-fi renee bettered only by the beyond enchanting chinese new year. And with London dates scheduled for October, you can bet your bottom dollar we’ll be in for a penny, and with that a pound, then as well…

The latter currency is one with which London trio JUCE are of course rather more conversant, and just as our inexplicably chastised NHS – a service one Mike Wallace would certainly have benefitted from this week – recommends we ‘try [although personally, I invariably fail] to drink no more than one glass (about 150ml) of fruit juice each day’, I try (and again, invariably fail) to get at least one fix of JUCE each day whilst out in Texas. First, at Red 7; then, The Main; onward, to The Mohawk; finally, back at The Main. Again. In short, the irrepressibly soulful pressings that Georgia, Chalin and Cherish furnish us with steal not merely your (or at least my) heart, but so too the (or rather my) entire week, with synchronised dance manoeuvres interspersed with their neat interpolating Amerie’s 1 Thing in their rendition of Tweet’s Oops (Oh My) and nifty interplay that proves fucking infectious throughout. Built about Cherish’s robust bass wrangling and Chalin’s inimitably reverberant vocal (think the bodacious embodiment of the ’90s’ every very best diva; from Shola Ama and Aaliyah, to Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Shaznay Lewis), were it not so hackneyed a cliché, I’d go so far as to say they’re sculpting the sound of the future from their profound knowledge of the past.

JUCE, SXSW 2015

Regardless, The Other One plays like the 2k15 take on Brandy & Monica’s The Boy Is Mine, Chalin asserting: “I don’t mind being one of many, but I’m not the other one” and sure enough, JUCE increasingly seem like one(s) in the several million that seem to be passing through Austin during this particular week. Otherwise, Braindead hears the slinky brilliance of !!! combined with the hefty exhalations of Beth Ditto atop skittering hats and Cherish’s omnipresent, forever-propulsive bass lines, (H)ours sounds positively timeless already, while there really ought to be signs on the doors to every venue they play warning of the very real possibility, if not probability, of Burning Up burning out the soles of your shoes. Fruity as any Haggerston house party punch brimming with Ting, Animal Attraction may yet transpire to prove the perspiration-inducing beauty which sees JUCE rise above and beyond a brooding 6th Floor, before a euphoric Call You Out brings their each and every set to a superbly emancipatory close. But as Chalin sings of sussing out some noxious womaniser or other, it becomes unmistakably apparent that their live show is, and thus they are themselves not so much approaching perfection, as pretty well there already. “I can feel the emotion” alright, and I don’t want it to recede any time soon, either.

As for SXSW, it’s something of a strange one; simultaneously unmissable, and a mission that I’m not yet sure is entirely worth the undertaking. Now renowned for indie and/ or rock and/ or indie-rock bands on the cusp of momentary fame but ultimate nothingness, it’s certainly interesting to witness first-hand the dynamic hip hop counterculture that counterposes the common misconception that this week is all about the scuzzy, cruddy stuff going on in Hotel Vegas and dives similar. So although the likes of Run the Jewels and Wu-Tang confederates Ghostface Killah and Raekwon weren’t necessarily at their very best this week, it’s somewhat reassuring to discover some of the more offbeat, off-the-beaten-track treats that SXSW can, and indeed does have to offer those willing to venture further afield than Valhalla and the like…