Perfect Sound Forever

SXSW 2024


Softee, Viji, Natalie Price and Nono

Protests, drag, comedy, films, 30 bands & foot blisters
Text/photos/videos by Jason Gross


For my 22nd SXSW visit and this year seeing 70 bands, 2 drag shows, 2 protests, 3 film premieres, 6 comedy shows (not to mention 5 scary electric scooter rides & walking about 70 miles), the one main story that was unavoidable in the 2024 edition was about who was partially paying the bills this time.

The whole issue of sponsorship was unavoidable this year and not because some some conglomerate did some over the top branding (i.e. Lady Gaga and the 'Doritos stage' ten years ago) but instead thanks to a political issue. After the horrific, undefendable Hamas attack last October, Benjamin Netanyahu's Israeli government response went from attacking back at Hamas (which is justified) to creating a humanitarian crisis in Gaza (which isn't). The timing of having the U.S. Army as a 'super sponsor' for SXSW and especially RTX, aka Raytheon the bomb makers, as another sponsor didn't sit well with a lot of bands. Cancellations happened slowly at first with a handful before the festival started but by the time it was underway, dozens of bands had canceled or refused to do official SXSW showcases. Think about it- how would the many punk, alternative and indie bands booked for the festival react? Even for many of the groups that did play, many of them were openly vocal about their anger regarding their issue at the shows: Library Card handed out QR codes to support Gaza charities, Perennial ended their set loudly with "f-ck Raytheon," Spryes told the crowd that 'we support the bands who canceled,' Razor Braids said 'war has no place in music,' Softee shared 'we do not support warmongering,' Indian Giver proclaimed 'fuck the war machine,' a DJ included 'free Palestine' in between elaborate coding on a back screen and Mary Shelley dedicated the song "Piggies" to Raytheon, not to mention the countless other statements that surely happened there otherwise and the Irish bands' protest (more about that below).Thanks to that, the schedule kept changing and shifting around constantly in a way that was unusual for SXSW, which usually runs like clockwork.

Another ongoing constant that's affected the festival a lot over the years is the booming, (literally) sky-rocketing tech industry there that's unfortunately helped to drive real estate prices sky high, including hotels, whose rates double or triple during SXSW. While East Austin still has its somewhat more funky vibe (which I love), this economic issue has driven some of the arts community to more affordable areas outside the city like Lockhart, which is a great place to visit too (excellent BBQ there). I'd also recommend trips to Hill Country locales like we did this time to Blanco and Gruene (which features the state's oldest, and still active, dance hall).

Bret Graham Band at Gruene Music Hall; me in Blanco getting used to my new cattle skull

Another issue that Austin and SXSW have to contend with is the anti-immigrant, anti-democratic, homophobic dystopian regime of Governor Greg Abbott, who told stupidly the bands that canceled over sponsorship 'go riddance' and not to come back, which SXSW quickly distanced itself from.

Nevertheless, SXSW and Austin still provide a 'blue dot' haven with plenty to see and do- remember, this isn't just a music festival, but also includes film premieres, big name comedy acts, tech innovators (AI and VR were big this year), plus tracts on education and cannabis. Even with the ongoing lawsuits about it, there were still drag shows going on at Hotel Vegas (now a weekly tradition) and at Voodoo Donuts.

Vixens of Volstead; drag show at Voodoo Donut

Much like last year, I didn't see 6th Street as crowded with people, even on the last few days, the way that it was pre-pandemic. On one hand, I'm grateful as a fan that I'm not boxed in just by walking down the block there but I worry about the festival itself if it isn't drawing as many people there.

One appealing thing about SXSW that I always look forward to is meeting up with fellow music nuts, like DJ Jester, who went around with shows with me, educator/author Tim Riley and my old Village Voice editor Chuck Eddy, who I met up with to help cheer on mother/daughter punk duo MotherMold, which also happened to be two family members of his. It's also a good place to make new friends, including Herra the bouncer, who sported a nose ring and ripped jeans jacket, and who I frequently ran into and who had good recommendations, like avoiding a hardcore show where they had to keep breaking up fights and seeing some friends of his in a death metal band that sounded like 'a garbage disposal' (his words).


MotherMold rocks out at Flamingo Cantina

This year, I did miss the keynotes and the big act this time (The Black Keys, who I like and saw 3x before) but even with all the rescheduling and cancellations, there was plenty to see, though I note that I didn't hear anyone in film or comedy cancel, only some of the bands. So here below, you'll read about 3 prime movies and 3 good comedy acts I caught, along with 30 bands I really enjoyed.

And as usual, I'll need the next 11 months to rest up for next year's edition of the fest. Good thing my girlfriend bought me blister cushions for my sore feet.




FILMS:


Any Other Way: The Jackie Shane Story
The heartbreaking story of a trans musician who started out as a blues drummer in Memphis in the '50's and then a soul singer in the '60's before going into self-imposed exile. Just as her work was getting reissued, major publications finally shared her story and she planned some comeback concerts before she died in 2019. It was only then that much of her family found out about her and worked to keep her legacy alive.

How To Build A Truth Engine
Thanks in part to co-producer George Clooney, we hear that story not just of how misinformation has poisoned the news landscape but also how we are psychologically and socially susceptible to it and how it's led to the MAGA movement and the January 6 insurrection. And yes, there are ways to counter it but it's going to take a lot of work to get there.


Songs from the Hole
A documentary done as a visual album, it covers the story of rapper James "JJ'88" Jacobs, a murderer in his early teens, who tries to find a way forward with his life with music while serving out a double life sentence and facing the justice system in search of salvation, and parole.

NOTE: One film I missed that I wish I didn't was How Music Got Free, a doc about the digital music piracy wars, including how they started in the '90's and how they played out later, narrated by Method Man.




COMEDY:


UPRIGHT CITIZENS BRIGADE'S ASSSSCAT
UCB are justifiably known as legends- they're just hilarious and so freakin' creative with their improv. This time, they kicked it up a notch by not just taking audience suggestions but also initially feeding them to hysterical comedienne Dulce Sloan, who would then riff off with a routine based on that, which UCB would then turn into spontaneous sketches. Not easy to pull off but they did it brilliantly.


COMEDY + SCIENCE + PSYCHEDELICS = A BETTER TRIP WITH SHANE MAUSS
A last minute fill-in but a great attraction regardless. Mauss does dope humor like no other- he's a bearded guru who applies a dry logic to the whole topic and describes in detail what he's done and seen with vivid, down-to-earth detail. He ain't Cheech and Chong (who were also at SXSW actually).


RIFFS AND RIFF-RAFF
Nick Thune put together this brainy revue featuring his musings with music the over-the-top highbrow antics of Christina Catherine Martinez. Both are worth seeing again and at length.



MUSIC:


LUNA AURA
She's 'alternative,' she's a 'singer/songwriter' but you'll know more about her hearing that she's done shows with the Killers and Garbage. In other words, she rocks, in a good sleazy way. Olivio Rodrigo should share a stage with her too.



BEATBOX COLLECTIVE
They bill themselves as a comedy act and they are but they're also mad talented too. No instruments here except for their own beat-boxing skills, which are considerable. They also provide good history lessons not just of rap hits but also dance hits (as you'll see in the clip here).



BEE BEE SEA
I was already a fan of the frantic new wave of "Be Bop Palooza" (from 2020) but this Italian trio can easily follow that up with a frantic live show too. Hilarious Anglophile name too, right?



BRITTANY DAVIS
This Seattle singer/keyboard player effortlessly combines soul, funk and rock with a pretty outrageous band, including a drummer who can't stop mugging and metal-decked-out guitarist adding to the live fun.



DEEPER
Post-punk revival done right. On record, they sound like early (good) Cure but live, they're louder, harder, which is an improvement and almost a different sound from their albums. C'mon guys- do a live album.



DUST
The name is actually in lowercase but the music isn't. Easily the highlight of the Aussie music showcase, they're part shoegazers and drone-rock and they're not afraid of hooks. They even throw in some Psychedelic Furs-like sax.



MORITZ SIMON GEIST
This German tinkerer/inventor isn't shy about his handiwork, showing off and demonstrating his latest unnamed creation, a , multi-functional metal box that interacted with his experimental techno/laptop music.



HOTWAX
Already accused of being over-hyped (um, maybe 'cause they're women?), it's all BS 'cause they live up to their rep. They're just a superfine UK punk trio so why not enjoy that? They're a little slick and produced? So was Elastica and they were great and this trio is in that tradition. I've even heard them described as 'riot grrl' and I buy that too.



HYPNOSIS THERAPY
Half the band couldn't make it 'cause of Visa problems but Korean rapper/reality show star JJANGYOU did a hell of a show himself as DJ and attraction, later stripping down and later going prostrate into the crowd. Their records take their name a little too seriously sometimes but live, he was all rave.



INDIAN GIVER
This hardcore Indigenous (of the Mi'kmaq community) Canadian band not only turns a racial slur into a strength, they also provide no-hold-barred pummeling music. Adorned in a hockey mask, between musical rants, the singer advised us, "stop paying taxes, motherf-ckers!" Can't wait to tell that to my accountant in April.



IRISH BANDS PROTEST
After niggling from Irish newspapers and Irish rapper Kneecap dropping out of the festival, the Irish punk band contingent decided en route to Austin that they would do a symbolic protest instead of performing at the festival. So on the night of their would-be showcase, all the bands (Gurriers, NewDad, Cardinals, Enola Gay) came on stage to have a statement read about their solidarity with the victims in Gaza and how they felt a personal bond considering their own country's history, explaining that was was they were there but wouldn't perform for the festival. Similarly, at the planned 'Irish Breakfast' showcase the next day, the groups came on stage again and read their statement instead, later saying "well, you did get to see the bands!" Speaking later to Gurriers drummer Pierce Callaghan (who read the statement both times). he explained to me that not just all the bands but the Music From Ireland promotional group that organized the showcases were all in solidarity about this. "Is this a bad career move? Maybe, but if you don't have your principles, you don't have anything," he insisted.



LAVEDA
Admittedly, I'm a sucker for shoegaze but not all of it is created equal. Ali Genevich's breathless vocals and their sense of melody put this New York duo over the top but they also know how to bring the noise (see video above).



LE SÉCURITÉ
OK, technically this was a non-SXSW showcase happening in the middle of the festival area and admittedly, I was there early to see Pussy Riot but I'm really glad I caught this Montreal 'art punk collective.' They're pretty new wave too but I don't count that as a negative at all. Singer Eliane Viens-Synnott has some attitude to her that goes a long way.



LIBRARY CARD
This Rotterdam band loves not just post-punk but also postmodern as heard on their great brainy recent single "Well, Actually," all about our expectations of them. And sure, they reminded me of Dry Cleaning (who were also at SXSW) but unlike DC, Lot van Teylingen isn't squeamish about yelling.



LIGHT BEAMS
This frenzied DC dance band might remind you of the B-52's, also with contrasting male/female voices but they ride on post-punk broken rhythms. And as you'd expect and hope, they put on a frenzied show too.



MARY SHELLEY
Decked out in hospital patient garb, they're obviously arty jokers but they're actually funny and loud too. They swopped instruments and leader roles and at one point, walked across the bar and come across as more pissed than smart-ass, which is good.



METEOR AIRLINES
This Moroccan band proves that the word needs more desert blues bands, especially when you have three guitar players who rave up into musical orgies. And as you'd guess, the cloaks they wear (Azennar) aren't just a fashion statement but also a statement of unity.



MOGWAI
I passed up on the Black Keys to see some newer bands but I couldn't miss these drone-rock Glaswegian legends who I only caught briefly previously at SXSW. It was definitely worth it. Few other bands can make gloomy sound triumphant as these guys still can and it's small wonder that they're making hay (and money) these days providing TV/fim soundtrack work, which they're perfectly suited for.



NERDCORE SHOWCASE
Always a joy to see at the festival, organized by the grammatically correct MC Frontalot, this gathering also featured SkyBlew, the literary minded MC Lars (who schooled us on Poe and Melville) and LEX the Lexicon Artist, who all threw down together in the video above.



NOBRO
Easily the best new band I saw at the festival- I begged my friends to go see 'em and they weren't sorry. This Montreal punk wonders 'where my girls at' and proclaim 'set your pussy free.' Their yell-along anthems were so awesome to see up close and they ended things off with a take on "Kick Out the Jams" that Brother Wayne would have been proud to hear.



PERENNIAL
Literally, 'art' rock as punk rock, with "Expressionism" and "Impressionism" as song titles. They also like to keep things loud and brief, rarely breaking the two minute mark and mixing Pixies loud/soft and garage rock into the mix. Also helps that they have nice unhinged live show.



PUSSY RIOT
AdHoc Free For All multi-day showcase at Cheer Up Charlie's was an unofficial event and the highlight of course was these glorious Russian trouble-makers. Actually, troublemaker in singular as Nadya Tolokonnikova appeared alone, occasionally breaking out a death metal howl for such 'hits' as "Punk Prayer," "Dance With the Devil," "Bad Trip" and "Hatefuck," alongside two masked erotic dancers and joined briefly by 'rap-cabaret' singer Boyfriend. Nadya, Boyfriend and the dancers occasionally got down and dirty on the stage, not that the crowd minded. Definitely better than the band's rave shows but maybe not quite as transcendent as the incredible Pussy Riot Theater performance art piece they did at SXSW 2017.



PYLON REENACTMENT SOCIETY
When singer Vanessa Briscoe-Hay first put together this group to bring Pylon to the people after the original band was over, she made the bold move to also have them make new music, which paid off, as heard on the impressive arty/funky/minimal recent album Magnet Factory. Thankfully, as you see in the video above, they're not shy about doing old Pylon material either.



RAIN ON FRIDAYS
These San Diego indie rock girls make 'happy sad music' for sure. Listen to the words and they're not having fun but you might either commiserate and/or not let it distract you from their great melodies. And great harmonies. They even know how to rev up into mosh speed sometimes.



RAAGINDER
If you told me that hundreds of people would be crowded around and cheering an Indian violinist via the West Coast who combined classical music, punjabi and R&B, I'd be skeptical too but it was so wonderful to see it happen and see him make it work.



TOYKO SYOKI SYODO
Spawned from the 'hip cultural capital' of the city they're named after and centered around singer/guitarist Seenachan aka Sheena, they call themselves 'pop-punk' but lean much more towards the later and other than Indian Giver (see above), they were the most out-there punk group I caught at the fest this year. Seenachan is a force of nature, dominating not just the stage but also an expert crowd-surfer, as she provded several times. Sheena is a punk rocker indeed.



FRANK TURNER
A trad, roots rocker who isn't corny but actually inspiring, which is not an easy thing to pull off, especially nowadays when that kind of music is old school, if not old hat. This former UK punk gone semi-folkie writes about drying out of booze, bonding with a fellow music nut and fighting off demons, even naming a record Positive Songs For Negative People. Takes a page from the Boss about hyping up a crowd too, which can still be fun.



V10101A
AKA Viola He, this laptop DJ made his way from Shanghai to NYC with his warped, springy dance/EDM grooves that fold in 'algorave' (live coding on a back screen is a part of the live act). Pretty engaging and strange with his mixes, music choices.



VULVA VOLCE
A Manchester quartet that has attitude like the bands of old from there. This female string quartet does to old school classical but also adds in their own music and modern touches like industrial music. They even jammed with Beatbox Collective earlier that day and sounded fine with them.



WILT
I stupidly walked out early (in search of a lesser band) on this really winsome alt-rock band who has country twangs and dramatic flourishes that are just so freakin' winning that you hope they self-fulfill their own prophecy and make '24 their big year. Bits of Alanis and Bettie Serveert in there too, which are both plusses, and singer Chelsea brings character and then some to their songs and stage show.



ZAPP featuring BOOSTY
Admittedly, the deaths of Roger and Larry Troutman derailed Zapp but their other brothers Terry and Lester have carried on the funk tradition proudly, with a dazzling stage act full of energy, great dance moves, costume changes and multiple talk-boxes. As icing on the cake, William Collins himself was there in all his extravagant purple splendor. Not toting a bass anymore (but still with the coolest glasses), he nevertheless led the crowd in P-Funk classics, even when the funk temporarily blew the power out (see this video for proof). He was only on stage for 20 minutes but it seemed like so much longer. With all due respect to Pussy Riot and NOBRO, this was the best show I saw at SXSW 2024.


Silver Lines & Spyres

ALSO... there were a number of other bands I caught there that were good but I need to hear more of. I'd recommend that you try them out too:


Also see this Spotify playlist of the artists above:




 
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