Dolly P, Austin Samba, Mexican art mural, Dirty Dog brat, bat pedicab
Welcome back to Austin & the New Abnormal
Photos, videos, text & sleep deprivation by Jason Gross
For the first time this decade, SXSW happened again, which is no mean feat considering that back in 2020, it was cancelled with one week to go and it was all-virtual in 2021 thanks to COVID. It was a relief of course to see not just that the festival happened but Austin itself happening again. Of course, saying that everything is "back to normal" is a dodge since COVID is still killing and sickening thousands of people each day and we won't know the long term effects of the millions that have gotten the disease. But just having the chance to be at a fest with throngs of strangers was just so goddamn exhilarating.
After SXSW 2019 ended, no one could have predicted that it would have to be put on ice for two years, along with many other events. I was actually in Austin in March 2020, just after the festival got canned for the first time in its history, watching the downtown area get boarded up for safety reasons. As a club owner told me then, "we're gonna pull through this in a few months... If this lasts longer than that, we're all fucked." Little did he or anyone else know that it would be over a year after that when things would approach anything close to "normal."
Even with some COVID aid from the feds, Austin's clubs struggled, just like venues everywhere else, plus it didn't help that the intended funds didn't reach the intended recipients many times. There were also some inevitable venue changes since the last SXSW. Some clubs had closed and were renamed: Beerland became the Green Jay, Plush became the Chess Club, Barracuda turned into The Creek and The Cave, Russian House renamed itself House Nazdorovye (rebranded no doubt 'cause of Putin's horrifying war). Other clubs were sadly gone -- Barcelona, Palm Door, the Main (formerly Emo's), Buffalo Billiards, The Townsend. And while other venues were not part of SXSW this time (Maggie Mae's, BD Riley's), there were plenty of old favorite venues still around including Antone's, Austin City Limits, Stubb's, Flamingo Cantina, Stephen F's, Hotel Vegas, Lamberts, Mohawk, Cheer Up Charlies, Hideout, Saxon Pub, Swan Dive, Valhalla, Victoria Room and Continental Club. There were even some new places, many of which opened just before the previous SXSW, including Pour Choices, Reina, The Pershing, Parker Jazz and Neon Grotto.
And while some people were worried that Penske Media (owner of Rolling Stone and Billboard among others) taking a 50 percent stake in the fest would change things in favor of its properties, the day/evening show parties were dominated by showcases hosted by smaller, niche publications like Paste, Relix and Consequence of Sound.
A much more notable change this time was the scale of the whole thing. Truth be known, may were wondering if SXSW would happen in 2022, right up until the last minute thanks to worries about any pending COVID outbreaks. The roster was indeed smaller this time, with an estimated one-third fewer acts. Also notable (and unfortunate) was that there were a lot less techno and gospel acts this time (hopefully rectified in 2023 and beyond). On the normally overcrowded Sixth Street, there was actually elbow room during the evenings, but less foot traffic was definitely not a bad thing for anyone there who wanted to go to or get in to shows. And though I was there pretty much for music, there was definitely a lot of tech talk about NFT's and the Metaverse going on at the fest too.
As for COVID concerns, I noticed that there was a lot of devil-may-care attitude, which is understandable after two years of this horror show. For myself, I erred on the side of caution and masked up for any indoor show and stuck to a lot of outside shows otherwise.
And though SX co-founder Ed Ward didn't live to see the fest come back, there were still local stalwarts like Chuck Eddy (who joined me to see some daytime shows) and DJ Jester was around town too.
Of course, Austin itself is something to behold beyond the fest and it didn't disappoint. I finally got to see the Museum of the Weird and the The Mexic-Arte Museum is always worth checking out. Casual strolls down the street put me face to face with the Austin Samba band gloriously marching up Trinity Avenue and a giant pedicab that caught everyone's eye as it was decked out as a bat (a big part of culture there as 100's of them fly out of the Congress Avenue Bridge at dusk each night). Plus the town is famous for its BBQ and Tex-Mex and food trucks--I make it a point to always visit Iron Works and Cooper's BBQ, plus the lovely, loaded-up bratwurst seen at the top of the article is via Dirty Dog and highly recommended. I barely got to see the funky locale of South Austin and immediately regretted it, vowing to make up for it next time.
Speaking of next time, plans were already made for SXSW 2023. Hopefully, saner minds will prevail and most of us will be vax'd and boosted enough for this not to be a concern next time. Just in case, I'm keeping my masks around though.
As for the acts worth talking about, there were plenty. Part of the pleasure of SXSW is discovering great music you didn't know about before and seeing it for yourself (and sometimes seeing acts you've meant to for a while). Here's 30 acts below that I'd recommend, and are definitely worth seeing live, along with links for each so you can hear 'em for yourself.
One I left is out is one you probably already know. The big act this year was Dolly Parton and while I missed Springsteen and Prince there before, for some reason, I had to try to get in to see her and I lucked out. She was, of course, incredible and the consummate performer--very funny, very moving and she had great stories and great songs. Plus, she still sings like an angel. Proving that she's a multi-media marvel, she was there to promote her new book, her new album and her foray into the Metaverse (I'm not making that up). Interview question: "How do you keep looking so great?" DP: "Good lighting, good doctors and good make-up." Fan: "I love you, Dolly!" DP: "I love you too but I told you to go wait in the truck!" Even the other acts listed here would have to admit that they couldn't top that.
A.K.A. 3/4 of the long lost/lamented indie rock band the Wrens. They even did a few Wrens songs (see the video above) but the new band's debut definitely deserves a wider audience. While it was wonderful to see a band play its heart out like that, leader/singer/songwriter Kevin Whelan got a little bit carried away at another SX gig, injuring himself onstage.
A nice surprise as I wandered in to see what the good music was, this Chi-town rapper not only has a good flow but he also does moving R&B, as witnessed by his new ballad (which he performed for us on piano) "Love Is."
First band I saw at the fest time and these Toronto grrls were a good start for sure. Snappy dressers too- saw the singer earlier that day in a cool Dead Kennedies shirt and should have realized that she was in a band.
Maybe comically labeling themselves as 'alternative K-pop,' this Korean group is actually a jokey rap crew, more Pharcyde than Beasties though. And in this clip, they fold in some trad Korean music too and wisely don't get too hauty about it. Did a pretty funny K-pop number too though.
BAND OF BASTARDS
Led by a refugee from Trail of Dead, these hardcore punks recall early Black Flag and their their 24 minute debut album might seem like a bit of a blur at times but they're a wild live act with energy to spare, especially thanks to the former TOD member, singer Jason Reece. Since the Hotel Vegas Patio audience space is in the dirt, the mosh pit literally kicked up a huge cloud of dust around them (see video).
Great grime artist (which I have a weakness for). He's also recorded with reggae legend Barrington Levy. Fellow grimer Dave should consider touring with him. JB's a good free styler too- I only wish I had captured on video/tape one that he broke out near the end of his set.
You might laugh at the idea of an Irish country singer but remember that the Isles were part of the origin of that style. Her recent debut, If My Wife New I'd Be Dead (not a typo), proves that Ciara Mary-Alice Thompson is the real thing. Her sweeping pop sound still manages to respect old-school country and you get the feeling that she and her grand, expressive voice will move on to bigger/better things soon.
A little bit of a cheat since this wasn't a SXSW showcase per se but definitely worth seeing and talking about. A truly super group with Susan Cowsill (Cowsills), Vicki Peterson (Bangles), Peter Holsapple (the dB's) and more. Incredible amount of talent there and great to see that they're still at it; wish they had been at a showcase closer to downtown where more people would have seen them. Their set had a lot of their debut album and the video here is their cover of the Box Tops' "Soul Deep" (RIP LX).
A must for Joy Division and Killing Joke fans, this London quartet is forceful but thankfully not corny with their goth leanings- if you don't get the point, dig their B&W cover art on all their releases and the name of their label- Bad Vibrations.
An LA quartet with a Sonic Youth drone vibe to them for sure but though they're less arty and more melodic. As an old SY fan, I can live with that and hopefully you can too.
These '70's UK funk legends included jazz and African music in their mix and are back now with a new documentary (also premiered at SXSW). Their horn-heavy style is still very satisfying. They shared some good news with me later too- they'll be back to tour the States soon.
Granted that this Cali quintet has been around since the mid-00's but I always wondered if their mix of roots, Southern rock and grander U2-like ambitions would play well live. I'm glad to report that they actually do.
Like other old-time fans, I wondered if this legendary '80's indie act could still kick up dust and guitar noise without Karl Precoda. I'm glad to report that thanks to string-bend Jason Victor, they actually do.
You can stupidly scoff at a Japanese rapper but she's got flow, attiude and multi-lingual skills. Solid dance-pop sound too. Her new single: "No Bra!" She's proud of it too.
Thanks in large part to singer Hannah "Ham" D'Amato, this Oakland quartet is smarter and stronger than most post-punk revival bands out there. She's unhinged, unashamed and in your face and you'll like it.
Great bio including "teenage Midwestern church pianist, a Manhattan piano bar survivor," not to mention a member of Lavender Country, he's gay and he's proud, singing in a Rufus Wainwright style. His theme: "I'm not like the other boys." Plus another Brokeback number called "Ride Me Cowboy." Trad country in sound too, which makes the conceit all the more grand. Plus, he got to us to all give him back a limp wrist salute during the show.
Pink Siifu & Fly Anakin are dynamic West Coast duo that make 'backpack' rap (underground rap) that's as fun and weird as they wanna be. Their live show was a lively sight to see too, with the stage sagging under the weight of the guests there.
I loved Throwing Muses too but that shouldn't obscure what an impressive and commanding solo acoustic act Hersh is. Her voice has some scars on it now but she has the authority to sound like she's earned it and it suits her. Who needs a reunion?
LAURA LEE & THE JETTES
Not the legendary '70's soul artist, this German singer (who shared that she was 5 months pregnant as we cheered for the baby) claims to be a Krautrock fan but her sound is much more catchy indie rock, enhanced by her breathy vocals.
A Glasgow punk duo that gets its rave-like beats from a laptop. They dressed up like a pair of workman but acted like someone spiked their coffee (maybe with some E). As a YouTube commentator noted, Devo is in the mix too.
I admit it- I actually left Dolly a little early just to see this great Canada/New Zealand country/rockabilly singer play across the street. Dare I say that it was worth it? I've been in love with her since her 2020 album Chickaboom! and she's just as fiery and alive on stage as she sounds on her album. Check out her version of James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" in the video above.
KATY J. PEARSON
This UK singer calls herself 'pop' and that's in her mix for sure but there's also a nice country lilt to her music too with lovely songs to match. And her gorgeous voice makes you wanna root for her too. Look out for her new album, Sound of the Morning, this June.
What can you say about a band that bills itself as a "Japanese Action Comic Punk band hailing from the Z area of Planet Peelander." As Band of Bastards said, they're local legends and still entertaining as hell, getting the crowd to do tiger roars and diving into the middle of the audience to play jump rope. Kengo Hioki (Peelander Yellow) also does some nice artwork, which they sell at their mersh table and he'll be happy to sign it too. I'm just wondering when some wise network suit will give them their own cartoon show.
This Berlin artist wears her Radiohead/Bjork fandom on her sleeve but her ethereal, glitchy trip-hop and avant-soul sound is her own, especially enhanced by her video art.
I walked a mile and a half across Austin to see her play and it was worth it. Though this diminutive Nashville singer with a great old-school sound shared touching songs and stories about her supportive husband, who was in attendance and beaming in front, she's also capable of devastating put downs like "Shallow Grave."
Irish punks who veer towards post-punk, their new EP, A Modern Job, is already a highlight of 2022, thanks in no small part to Karla Chubb's demanding, strident vocals which keeps her brogue proudly intact.
Named after a legendary Japanese ghost, I'd seen this large Montreal ensemble before and marveled at their strange mix of psych rock, surf music, Asian music, Morricone and more but here, I really got to appreciate singer Maya Kuroki- her incredible expressive performance was a welcome reminder that great singers are also great actors. Maybe it's not surprising then that she's also a visual artist- you can see some of her art work here.
URAL THOMAS AND THE PAIN
A '60's soul survivor who toured and recorded with many greats, his later day revival is overdue, especially since his voice still emotes in a beautiful way. Good back-up band too, featuring a three piece horn section.
Hardcore punk for real, their new EP has six songs in ten minutes. This Austin crew gets points for pushing social activism too. Even more bonus points for their great geeky band name.
This oddball multi-gender London trio is responsible for off-kilter hits like "1,000 Opera Singers Working In Starbucks." Sometimes dream pop, sometimes dance pop, sometimes Talking Heads fans, they're the kind of band that's hard to pin down and good for them for that.
A great kickass country-rock act with drums/guitar only, they're kind of like White Stripes in reverse with drummer/singer Eleot Reich taking the lead, in a bikini no less.
THE most hyped up act of the fest for sure (meaning it was tough to get in to see 'em) but these two Isle of Wight girls are the real thing, even making Elton John a fan. The Raincoats comparison are BS and as Chuck Eddy noted, the Breeders are a better comparison. Also, when it comes to dry, unaffected vocals, I'll take them over Dry Cleaning. Now about to tour with Courtney Barnett and they've definitely earned it.
Another highly hyped-up act for the fest and like Wet Leg, they lived up to it. Leeds' own James Smith is a great ranter in the tradition of John Cooper Clarke, Craig Finn and the Streets (if not Mark E.), with a nice sardonic sound to his talky vocals and a spare but effective band to match him.
Also see this playlist of all of the SXSW acts above
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