Ryley Walker, Sweet Spirit, Speedy Ortiz and more | WBEZ
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Jim DeRogatis

Ryley Walker, Sweet Spirit, Speedy Ortiz and more

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Ryley Walker (right) at SXSW 2015.

AUSTIN, TX—If South by Southwest 2014 was the saddest in the 28-year history of this cornerstone event for the music industry—as much for the corporate soul-sucking and horrible overcrowding as for the tragic and fatal car accident—2015 promises to be an attempt to scale back a bit and refocus on the independent musical discoveries that were the original goal of the festival, but which have been harder and harder to enjoy as the event has gotten bigger and bigger.

Texas writer Andy Langer does an excellent job in this piece for Cuepoint assessing the state of SXSW today and the “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation that organizers find themselves in, and I find his reasons to be hopeful convincing, even if McDonald’s has replaced Doritos as a big, obnoxious corporate presence. But then I’m always hopeful at the start of the conference, the success of which comes down to this: How much great music I was able to see and how much aggravation I had to endure to see it.

The first act of the first night was by far the biggest revelation for me: Ryley Walker, a Rockford native who performed on finger-picked acoustic guitar and vocals at Mohawk, a venue usually more hospitable to electronic acts. With the Spartan but perfect backing of keys, electric guitar, and standup bass, the now Chicago-based singer and songwriter briefly managed to silence the din at the club by sheer force of will. He’d come recommended by my friend and colleague Doug Reichert-Powell in the English Department at Columbia College Chicago as a purveyor of “Nick Drakey acoustic freak-outs,” and that description is pretty much spot-on, though Walker also branched out from psychedelic folk for a more soulful and spiritual cover of “Fair Play,” the opening track from Van Morrison’s 1974 classic Veedon Fleece. Walker’s debut album Primrose Green will be released at the end of the month by Dead Ocean.

From there I caught most of a set by Sweet Spirit, an Austin sextet fronted by the charismatic Sabrina Ellis that plays a punkie brand of indie-pop. Their 35-minute set was a bouncy good time, but hardly revelatory, which is the same thing I’d say of most of the rest of what I saw on opening night of my 22nd SXSW.

My Sound Opinions colleague Greg Kot highlighted Waxahatchee, the Philadelphia-based indie-pop group led by Katie Crutchfield, on a Buried Treasures episode of the show in 2013. The group seems to have stepped up its act a bit after two releases on Don Giovanni, now that it’s signed to Merge for a forthcoming April release, but the sound was a bit too genteel for the SXSW/St. Patrick’s Day chaos in Austin.

In contrast, Speedy Ortiz, a quartet from Northampton, Massachusetts, hasn’t done much for me on record to date. But the group’s enthusiasm was infectious back at Mohawk, and I intend to give those discs another shot after a strong (though not mind-blowing) set.

Finally, discounting stray bits of noise caught on the run here and there, my evening ended with Sound Opinions favorite Angel Olsen, who performed on the show in 2014 and who garnered a rave review from both Kot and me for her stunning album Burn Your Fire for No Witness. My goal in Texas this year, moreso than ever and in keeping with the renewed focus on up-and-comers, is finding those killer new sounds. But at the end of a long day of travel and re-emersion into the SXSW lunacy, I needed something I knew I could count on, and Olsen delivered as always.

Follow me on Twitter @JimDeRogatis, join me on Facebook, and podcast or stream Sound Opinions.

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