Left to right: Be Your Own Pet, Venus Twins, Upchuck, Big Special
Making Merry at a Music Fest in a Post-Post-Pandemic world
Photos, text, videos & fatigue by Jason Gross
"Ah, so that's why their name's all around..." mused William J. Stokes, singer of Voka Gentle, when I told him that Rolling Stone's parent company bought a 50% stake in SXSW in 2021. Sure, it's easy and hip to hate on Stone as it's been a sport for decades now, but they did South By a solid by making the investment and making sure the festival would carry on, especially after being hit by huge financial loses because of COVID, with the fest shutting down only one week before starting in March 2020 and going online-only in 2021. That left last year as the first SXSW of the decade, and while the crowds weren't as big as before, they also didn't have the lavish, easily-mocked promos (i.e. Lady Gaga and the Doritos machine) that marked pre-COVID fests. And for those of us there, the less crowded streets and clubs weren't a bad thing at all. As for the fest though, less crowds means less money. As someone who's made an annual pilgrimage there since '99, (disclose: I've done panel work for them), I want SXSW to survive and thrive so I'm conflicted about having it at a more manageable scale while also worrying if the smaller crowds are enough to sustain it.
Joyelle Johnson and the panel
For anyone going to SXSW, showing up early to the fest had its advantages as you get to the comedy showcases on the first few days. Especially impressive were recent Saturday Night Live alum Aristotle Athari (doing a brilliant conceptual piece with reluctant crowd participation), improv legends Upright Citizens Brigade, Joyelle Johnson riffing on her family and relationships and a panel about women in the comedy field featuring Abbi Jacobson (A League of Their Own, Broad City), Sam Jay (who shared pearls of wisdom like "If art dies, humanity dies with it") and Alison Moore (Comic Relief).
Ladybird performs at Lockhart Arts & Craft; Commerce Gallery; Lockhart BBQ billboard
Another reason to show up early for SXSW is to actually visit the area and not just run around Austin for shows. I recommend taking the time to explore more of Hill Country (which Austin is a part of) where this time we saw Lockhart, which calls itself the "BBQ capital of Texas" (with some serious food to back that up) but also has a thriving arts scene and is hosting many Austin refugees that are being priced out of the increasingly high tech city. Especially worth seeing there is Commerce Gallery and Lockhart Arts & Craft where you can get a drink, see some art and watch some bands, all from the comfort of couches and chaise lounges that aren't from Wet Leg.
Transgender Education Network of Texas, benefit poster, Vixens of Volstead
Texas itself, as anyone who's traveled around there enough knows, isn't just about guns, intolerance and immigrant-bashing that you hear from the governor's office too often. At the Brooklyn Bowl party at South By, the Transgender Education Network of Texas, which protests the state government's ignorance and bullying, had a booth set up where I bought a T-shirt (and got a lollipop). One of the evening showcases was selling silk screen posters of the event to benefit the Trans Texas group too. And even with drag shows being under fire nowadays, at the second night of the fest, the Vixens of Volstead show entertained the assembled at Hotel Vegas, with one of the performers who closed out even getting tip money from the other drag artists.
As a reminder that even the blue-dot-in-a-red-state that is Austin is still in Texas though, there were plenty of signs around town asking everyone to conceal their weapons, though one wonders when even that won't be an issue there anymore. Also, I was kind of dismayed to see that the only club that I went to which insisted on a pat-down for visitors (The Venue ATX) happened to have a predominantly black audience. And though SXSW itself prides itself on being inclusive and tolerant as you'd hope a fest would be, shortly before it started, a trade group and 120 artists demanded better/fairer pay to acts for the festival.
Picctor at Yeast by Sweet Beast
As for what to do and see at and around South By, off-the-grid day parties are worth seeking out as I got to travel a few miles north to the funky little Carousel Lounge to see avant/experimental festival Yeast by Sweet Beast though I missed out on the always-lively outdoor fest South by San Jose, a little south of the downtown area.
Shatner, Swinton, New Order live, Emhoff
And though I'm not always drawn to them, several of the keynote addresses (interviews actually) were worth seeing, though admittedly I showed up for the opening acts mostly and wished that I had seen the one with Margo Price. The wonderfully eccentric Tilda 'Don't Call Me An Actor' Swinton was there to promote her new film Problemista. William Shatner, aka Capt Kirk, is now in his 90's but still very funny and entertaining, speaking about his early years in Canada and promoting a new bio pic. New Order did probably the biggest show of the fest (a great gig at Austin City Limits) and also chatted a few days later about their uncertain transition from Joy Division and how sequencers and synths helped them forge a new identity. There was also the Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff (aka Kamala Harris' husband) speaking about how he still embraces and practices his Jewish faith, even in these increasingly anti-Semitic times and how excited he was to meet Sam Raimi (of Evil Dead fame) at the fest.
Gorilla for ? car company, U-Haul rappers, Irish breakfast
And what would SXSW be without all kinds of wild promo events? Honestly, I can't remember and don't care about the car company that set up a giant robotic gorilla with gleaming greens eyes on South Congress but I did love the gloriously artery-clogging Irish breakfast (including pork sausage, blood sausage, scrambled eggs and ham) the the Irish Music Export office provided at their Music From Ireland daytime showcase and admired the enterprising rap crew who parked a U-Haul truck near the clubs in the Red River area and blasted their music out to the wandering street goers. Still, I was a little creeped out by the promo bags that PIAS records were giving out with small red packets in them- I thought they were fake blood at first until I looked closely at the fine print on them and realized that they were actually little parcels of BBQ sauce.
Even with all the acts that I saw, there was still plenty I missed, chief among them being Hope D ("Brisbane's brightest queer breakout artist") who has a great new album out now (Clash of the Substance). I also really regret not seeing more rap acts at SXSW. First off, there were the known names could have easily made their own touring festival, including Killer Mike (who braved a thunderstorm to do a special small club set), Danny Brown, Nappy Roots, Talib Kweli, Open Eagle Mike and Kosher Dillz. But there were also plenty of newer acts that I could have, and you should, check out otherwise, including Brixx, Vital Powers, Kina Love, Skylar T, Stasseny, Tostao, Snotty Nose Rez Kids, Lola Brooke, Moses Rockwell, LolaBunz, Lifeofthom, sbk, Queen Milz and many others. Plus, I'm an old Doors fan and it would have been kind of cool to see Robbie Krieger jam with movie stars. I don't even wanna think about all the film premieres going on that I didn't get a chance to see, including a Little Richard documentary.
Still, I have nothing really to complain about as I got to gorge on 92 bands (plus 4 repeats) with a third of them worth covering here, not to mention the comedy showcases, drag show and keynotes above, all topping out at around 142,000 steps for the week according to my phone's health app. It was exhausting but exhilarating as always, Hope you find something interesting among the 30 performers below here that you'll want to peruse- photos, band links and videos are all there. As of me, luckily I have 12 months to rest up until next time...
30 STAND-OUT ACTS FROM SXSW 2023
BE YOUR OWN PET
Thankfully back after a long hiatus, this Nashville punk quartet sounded just as nicely unwired as I remembered them from the early 00's. As a bonus, singer Jemina Pearl exuded coolness by rocking an Eno t-shirt. With their last album coming out in 2008, hopefully these shows are a sign that there's another one to come soon.
"They're pretty frantic," a nice Aussie couple remarked about this Italian indie band with a sax and they are, and proud of it. I only wish they could have had more showcases to draw in more fest goers, or at least a US tour. Don't you think that the world needs more frantic Italian bands out there?
I pegged them as a Sleaford Mods type crew and they are though this Birmingham duo have a live drummer who plays like a savage, unlike the Mods nowadays, they sound hungry and angry. Also for British rappers, they don't sound connected much to grime, which is interesting and unusual.
CHAMELEON LIME WHOOPIEPIE
What's not to love about this orange-haired Japanese dance-pop diva with a cool name? A backing band of a pair of giant rabbits seemed just right for her too. The only thing I'm confused about is why she doesn't have a bigger following but hopefully that will be changed soon...
CHICKASAW MUDD PUPPIES
Even though their history goes back to the '80's, this Georgia trio doesn't sound their age thankfully. The singer sat in a giant rocking chair with a skull on it, holding a harmonica and wearing a CBGB's t-shirt, which tells you a lot about the band. Sure they're 'Americana' but the loose, sloppy kind that indie/punk fans can get a line on. Fellow Athens-ite Michael Stipe has given 'em the seal of approval too.
Such a beautiful and haunting voice and so appropriate that this minimalist folkie would perform in a large church. Her new Manzanita album is wonderful too and needs to be heard.
Hilarious, sexy and proudly over-the-top, this diva pulls now punches, including a punk/dance sound and ripping on the fest payment policy (see above). In the video here, we get quite the psychotic take on Irene Cara's "Fame" from someone else who insists they're gonna live forever.
A few years ago, I was impressed by this British alt-rock trio and now they're living up to their potential with a bigger, bolder stage act and a bigger, bolder sound. Hear more about 'em in Robin Cook's interview with them in Rock & Roll Globe.
EL LABERTINO DEL COCO
This glorious Puetro Rican band, featuring a horn section, four singers and two percussionists (including its leader) proudly showed off their heritage and were lively enough even to make me dance with them. Also makes me wish that SXSW consider programming more Latin music in the future.
There were plenty of femme indie rockers but these Swedes (who met up at the Royal College of Music) stood out, in no small part because they were full of not only lithe tunes but also rave ups- see/hear the video above for one of their finales and if you need to see more of 'em in action, check out their YouTube channel.
Are you a loud, obvnoxious, drunk, self-important 20-something who likes to dance and party? Well, here's the band for you! For those who us who aren't in that demographic and don't like to hang with a crowd like that, this duo is still enjoyable as hell. They bill themselves as 'experimental' but I don't hear it- they're just a good dance band and should be proud of it
IGUANA DEATH CULT
Good name, you gotta admit. This Rotterdam crew had their garage band noise down pat and drove the crowd wild with it. The singer even pulled out a trombone for the last number. Their new single has a real Parquet Courts vibe (a good thing IMHO). Only later did I found out that I could the first of 9 shows that they did at SXSW, which shows that they have some serious stamina too.
An Asian Aussie dance diva who's all about fun but is also about women empowement. She was tireless on stage and later did a great guest shot with fellow traveler Haru Nemuri (see below). All that and she covers Nirvana and plays flute, which should set her up nicely to do a record with Lizzo at some point.
KILL ROCK STARS SHOWCASE
OK, I've worked with them and I'm damn proud of of it. The riot grrl central, now 3 decades old, still knows how to put on a hell of a show, even as they expand into the Americana realm. As heart-warming and fun as it was to see the eternally young Jad Fair (Half Japanese) roar this his old songs with his trio, the highlight was definitely trans-and-proud singer/songwriter Mya Byrne teaming up with gay-and-proud country singer Paisley Fields to premiere the new single "Burn the Statehouse Down" (see video above), which asks the eternal question "Do you think a drag queen can't get into heaven?"
Most people saw them only as New Order's opening act but that's not fair. These Brit women soccer (football) fans had a spark and fury to them that puts them way ahead of many post-punk revivalists, who are too slavish or too deferential otherwise. ALso helps that their fashion sense is wonderfully trashy.
LORD FRIDAY THE 13TH
A joke band for sure but a damn good joke. This Austin brother-and-sister act dig glam and metal and make the most of it, though the hilarious costumes definitely do help and the visuals no doubt feed off of their film school background.
One of 2023's best albums (Attachment Sytles) come from these Irish feminisits, who insisted on seeing more females at the front of one of their small club shows. They're not squeamish about their politics or their abrasive, sometimes experimental, music and good for them. Wee bonnie lasses, they ain't, and again, good for 'em.
This Japanese singer is a one-woman musical smorgasbord- she sings, does dance music and raps just for starters. I'll take her punk-like energy ("narashite," "MAKE MORE NOISE OF YOU"), which inspired moshing at her show, over the auto-tune 'stylings' some of her collaborators but Jaguar Jongze (also covered here) sounded great alongside her for a one-song guest shot at a club show.
A nice surprise- these queer Michigan indie punks were even better than I thought they'd be. Maybe it's their crunching grunge riffs but it definitely has something to do with singer Tiff who can do subtle just as well as she can do howls. Be on the lookout for their Home Movies album coming out in May.
This stylish and seductive gay Virginia rapper is a hell of a dancer too, making him a triple threat at least. Don't beleive me? See the video of his entire SXSW showcase here for proof.
I always wanted to like these Irish drone rockers more than I do- they have a great sound and just need some strong songs to get over the top, or so I thought. Seeing them up close and personal helped to show off their power and energy. I'm ready to dig back into their catalog now, and you should too,, starting with the recent Archive Material album.
What's not to love about a queer punk trio from Brooklyn who cover "You Oughta Know" with more anger and righteousness than even Alanis could? The hilariously explicit monologue "I Fucked Your Mom" is their big song but they're more than a novelty. Their new one, a literally screaming single "Hiccup" ('don't say you're sorry/just go fuck yourself!') is even better and almost as explicit. I wound up seeing them three times at the fest and didn't regret any of it.
When you see/hear this Philly bands, Bad Brains will come to mind and not just because they're black punks but also because singer Pierce Jordan can screach like HR. Seeing them in a small packed club was fun 'cause everyone there got swept up in the mosh pit, whether they wanted to or not (that's why the video above shakes around in a few places).
Though she seems like a hot new act, this L.A. deceptively sweet-voiced singer-songwriter folkie has actually been putting out her own albums since 2015. Her new Anarchist Gospel is putting her over the top now and she deserves it. See/hear the irresistable "No Reason" in the video above.
OK, this is a kind of a cheat as they're not exactly new, with a history that stretches back to the late '60's. But the legendary status of this German electronic band was tested with the death of founder Edgar Froese a few years ago. I'm glad to report they still sound spacey as hell and they're not squeamish about coraling in some techno into their sound.
Cologne mainstay Roosevelt (who acetually rocked the house opening for Tangerine Dream) should probably also be listed here too but as far as DJ's went at SX, this San Fran 'algorave' (live coding is a part of the act) artist knows how to garner strange beats and hooks into his dance mix. And he's a computational biologist to boot, though I didn't hear/see that come out as part of the act. Maybe it should.
You could say that this Toronto rocker is a throw-back to big '70's rock sound and honors bluesy shades of Bonnie R too (with some modern country thrown in) but if you leave it at that, you're missing out on a hell of a performer and a killer band who sells it all really well. She could very well blow up big if she stays at it and she'll deserve it.
Singer KT is seen in albums photos for these ATL punks as bloodied but for the small club show, she just sported a spotted bandana. Didn't matter as she still slayed. She insisted, demanded, commanded and moshed with the crowd. What else could you ask from a punk singer? Their set list was scrawled on a copy of Austin Chronicle- I was so inspired that I got it from them after the show as a souvenir.
A wild bass and drum duo that recalls Lightning Bolt and Hella except these Brooklyn-ites (who really are twins) are actually even more unhinged in some ways. 'Songs' aren't really the point which might be why they're better heard live, where you can witness their antics and wild facial expressions.
What better place to see an ambient legend than a big church? The sound, atmosphere, acoustics suited him well, even as he was visually submerged in dark lighting, with his guitar resonating throughout the huge space.
Special mention: Upstate Americana jokesters The Nude Party (who have a good new album out on New West now)- their soundcheck at Mohawk's included Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Rascal Flatts, "Danny Boy," and "Freebird."
Also see this playlist of the SXSW acts above
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