It’s currently encroaching on Wednesday evening and I find myself seated at the desk in my hotel room, coming in and out of blank stares out the window and an email inbox count that is slowly eating away at my soul. It’s my first day back in Australia in two weeks and I’m struggling to stay awake, despite the ten hour sleep I managed to snag on the long haul flight over from Los Angeles. I’m back in Sydney awaiting my next flight which will finally take me home to Adelaide tomorrow morning, reflecting on how the past week or so was spent.
You’ll notice, if you’ve had a scroll down our main page of content and across our social channels recently, that the AU made the trip back to Austin, Texas for SXSW. 2016 marked the publication’s seventh year at the festival and my third – a trip I wasn’t entirely sure I’d be taking this time round, but like any thing intoxicating and mildly hedonistic – one taste and you’re likely to be going back for more.
For many members of the Australian music industry, SXSW is as much a staple on their calendar as is BIGSOUND or the other international showcase events like The Great Escape, CMJ or Canadian Music Week. It not only offers an opportunity to be seen and to be heard, but from our perspective especially, such an environment provides ample opportunities to discover new bands, stumble upon musicians on the cusp of international success and find out just how well Americans take to some Australian music that might be all the rage back home.
Previous years have seen the likes of Courtney Barnett, The Griswolds, Dune Rats, Gang of Youths, Hermitude and more impress in Austin and this year’s Australian contingent in particular represented a diverse and talented selection of what our industry has to offer. Akin to the Irish, Canadian and French showcases, Australia stamped its place at SXSW – with both the Aussie BBQ and two Sound Gallery events taking place Thursday through til Saturday, there were strong crowds rolling up to Brush Square Park and B.D Riley’s Irish Pub to get some Straya into them.
The Sounds Australia once again came through strongly, curating an Aussie BBQ full of choice acts; The Gooch Palms, Julia Jacklin, Gold Class and Harts all proved to be favourites, while Methyl Ethel, Tigertown and Pretty City each provided memorable moments of live music I know our team took back to Australia fondly.
I made the conscious decision this year to avoid many of the larger, drawcard showcases at SXSW (with the exception of maybe two) – the ones that would undoubtedly have lines stretching around a block and a half or the ones that required you to buy a certain amount of sponsored merchandise to then gain access to said lines.
One thing you have to come to terms with pretty quickly, with an event such as this, is that you will be waiting in some kind of line, no matter what badge you have, no matter how hard you flirt with a security guy or how much you’re willing to lie your way in. I found that some of the best artists I saw were the ones I happened upon when I simply took a walk up 7th and Red River, visiting venues like The Sidewinder, The Main or Barracuda (even though Barracuda became quite a popular spot by week’s end…).
You could find pop, R&B, punk and garage curated alongside country and folk on some nights and for the most part, the crowd was all there for the same reason – to find their new favourite band or to see an artist everyone was talking about. In the past, where the aim may have been to be in a bar waiting for Springsteen to jump onto the bar and belt out a half hour surprise set (which yes, would be sweet), it seemed that the general consensus at SXSW this year was about just rolling with each night and seeing what happened. Sure, there was some average music to be heard, but the good stuff was mint.
As the wristbands and drink tokens accumulated on one’s arm, so did the notes I was taking each day at each show I’d find myself at. Whether it was DJ Jazzy Jeff giving a Q&A over a day time lunch session, Chicago indie pop group Whitney performing a set that kept surprising on Barracuda’s outdoor stage at 1am or Day Wave completely smashing all expectations I had for him as a live performer, there was just so much to be absorbing.
Rapper Tory Lanez, Cali R&B vocalist Kehlani, British artist Eliot Sumner, vocal pop group Lucius, Toronto’s Dilly Dally, LA badass ladies Bleached and French group Joon Moon were instant highlights of SXSW Music for me – each artist representing some unbridled and raw talent that no doubt is only going to become more and more noticed by many more audiences as the year rolls out.
Australian newcomer Julia Jacklin has only just started gaining in momentum at home and to see how well her music was received in Austin during the week of SXSW was incredible. Artists I was interviewing through the week had her name as well as Harts’ and Methyl Ethel’s in conversation most frequently and made the effort to get to the Aussie BBQ to see the Sydney performer do her thing.
Similarly, Marlon Williams and the Yarra Benders left Austin with more than a few new fans in their wake. The New Zealanders (claiming Gus Agars in here as one too) smashed nine shows over the course of their four day stint at the festival, finding their rhythm quickly. I wound up at a few of their showcases by chance, given some of the other international artists I’d made a note of seeing were on the same bills and managed to see how the band developed in the presence of some people who were coming to them for the first time, some who were converts thanks to SXSW or others, who were there purely by chance.
In bringing together bluegrass, alt-country and blues influences (not to mention a continuously brilliantly executed cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins‘ “Portrait of a Man”), Williams quickly became SXSW visitor who stood out for more than a few reasons. As Sounds Australia’s Glenn Dickie commented at the end of the band’s Sound Gallery set on Saturday, ‘Um – I think we’re going to need a mop for this area in front of the stage’. Go figure.
It was great to see SXSW ‘veterans’ like Demi Louise return to Austin for another year and demonstrate, via a solid live presence, how much showcases such as this (and other international events) have rubbed off on her professionalism on stage, her relationship with a crowd regardless of the venue set up and the delivery of her music. It’s artists like Demi who keep me wanting to come back and see some of the same artists return after a year or so of solid touring – it’s a great way to gauge progression outside of the comfort zone of a hometown crowd, for sure.
I was able to indulge a little too, worming my way front row to finally see artists like Miguel and Anderson .Paak over the course of the festival – honestly two of the best live performers I’ve seen in recent years. The feeling of isolation we Australian music fans often feel wasn’t lost on me during the trip and so I made every effort to suck it up when I felt like I’d had no sleep, couldn’t go on any more and get to another live music opportunity. It’s in those moments I found the likes of Kevin Garrett, Margo Price, XYLO and Kevin Morby – even if I didn’t catch full sets, the snippets of goodness I managed to capture were great.
As the festival wound up for another year; I found myself spending much of my final night in Austin in true SXSW fashion – in line. The Roots were the other major artist I made space to see (as mentioned earlier), because, The Roots. Hosting an all-star jam that included 10 minute guest spots from the likes of Big Boi, Phantogram, Talib Kweli, Naughty By Nature, Too Short and Ashanti, the iconic group drew hundreds upon hundreds out to 4th and Brazos for the event. Unfortunately, not everyone got access to the main venue, with capacity restrictions forcing many upstairs onto the rooftop (where free beer was supplied), to watch the show from TV screens.
With a stupidly early flight out on the Sunday morning, I decided to continue to follow the mantra of going where the night took me (as it’s SXSW, this could be actually anywhere) and wound up bouncing before the end of the show, only to wind up at a karaoke bar (seemingly still celebrating St. Patrick’s Day) until 2am. Because in Austin, even the karaoke bars provide some bonafide gold you can’t tear yourself away from.
And so now I find myself back home (almost), looking through a series of features still to be shared (keep your eyes tuned), proud that I made the trip over once again. The FOMO would’ve eaten away at me and I wouldn’t be able to once more recommend ~beleaguered all the same~ you booking some time off next March to go get amongst it yourself.
Stay tuned for more SXSW Music coverage to come!