Austin, TX—The tenor of SXSW 2017 can be gleaned from the way it’s now described in its official corporate lingo: “The South by Southwest® (SXSW®) Conference & Festivals celebrate the convergence of the interactive, film, and music industries, March 10-19, 2017.”
For at least the last half of its 31 years, the corporations, the crowds, and the hype at SXSW have presented an ever-increasing challenge to diehard music fans attempting to discover the best of the more than 2,000 bands that travel from around the globe to perform at some 90 venues throughout the Texas capital. But in my 26 years as a journalist and critic covering America’s best celebration of independent music, this was the first when music almost seemed like an afterthought for the organizers—and you’ll note that it’s the last thing on that list in the language above.
Make no mistake: I heard plenty of great sounds during my annual spring-break sojourn in Austin; more on those below, and Greg Kot and I will further highlight our discoveries on next week’s episode of Sound Opinions. And, as usual, SXSW managing director Roland Swenson said all the right things in his opening welcome to music attendees on Wednesday: “In an era of pain and turmoil, performing and visual arts are our saving grace… [Music] inspires us to fight for what is right.”
But those sentiments almost seemed perfunctory in light of the pre-festival controversy over boilerplate language in the artists’ contracts that threatened to turn foreign visitors over to immigration authorities if their papers weren’t in order. And numerous bands were denied entry into the U.S. to perform at the festival despite SXSW being pressured to change that language.
Just as troubling was the way the festival has been retooled for brands, marketers, and all manner of digital entrepreneurs as a two-week corporate-funded “convergence” with creators of valuable content—you know, musicians, filmmakers, and game designers—the better for everyone to monetize a consumer lifestyle that encompasses health, food, sports, and interactivity, and for which music is merely an accoutrement.
This, of course, is not new. “Even right now it’s like rock ’n’ roll doesn’t exist,” critic Lester Bangs bemoaned in his last interview, two weeks before his death nearly 35 years ago in April 1982. “It’s very much leisure-time activity right now. It’s just something to consume.”
Mentor or not, I rejected Lester’s pessimism then, and I still do now. But the divide between the many conference attendees who view music as mere entertainment and those for whom it is a reason for living never seemed wider. And that chasm was obvious right from the beginning, in the keynote talk on Wednesday by musician and super-producer Nile Rodgers (David Bowie, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Duran Duran, and many, many others).
On the one hand, Rodgers spoke of the way his life was forever changed at age 15 when he was dosed by Dr. Timothy Leary and spent the next 48 hours lost in the grooves of the first Doors album. His love for the art form to which he’s devoted his life was obvious when he demonstrated the multiple intertwining guitar parts of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” and Chic’s “Freak Out,” and when he told musicians that their goal should always be to reach as many listeners as possible—“to speak to the souls of a million strangers.”
On the other hand, he bragged of the money he’s made from creating music for Nike and luxury auto companies. “Our future is going to be with a lot of brands,” he said without a hint of reservation that that approach could be soul-killing, or any consideration that there might be other alternatives.
Call me old-fashioned or idealistic, but I still believe in an alternative. And as always, I came away with a quite a few playlists and a notebook full of music in opposition to that mindset—true reasons for living. Among them:
Let’s Eat Grandma is a duo comprised of two 17-year-olds from England, Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth, who’ve been friends since age 4. The performance I caught of songs from their debut album I, Gemini at the BBC showcase on Tuesday at Latitude 30 evoked the bare-bones brilliance of Young Marble Giants, with ultra-minimalist art-pop created from little more than vocals, organ, rudimentary percussion, and the burning desire to be heard.
A power trio from Seattle whose love of tuneful but bombastic alternative rock seems to have come not from its hometown’s originators but via Courtney Barnett, Dude York (guitarist-vocalist Peter Richards, bassist-vocalist Claire England, and drummer Andrew Hall) tore into the songs from its debut album Sincerely as if they were playing to 50,000 people, instead of the 50 who turned up in the intimate confines of Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room on Wednesday night. Nevertheless, the threesome built to a climax of multiple fake endings amid a maelstrom of noisy chaos that was pure Nirvana.
Traveling all the way from Lima, Peru, the four twenty-something musicians in Mundaka performed at Trinity Hall later on Wednesday in nothing but colorful swim trunks, complimenting a sound that offers a modern update of rollicking ’60s surf instrumentals with touches of the Feelies (they’re big fans), the Police, and the Smiths. With one album to its credit, Sonata tropical del Artico, the band blew every sol it’s ever earned to travel to Texas for one showcase Wednesday night and one unofficial gig at a party on Thursday. Could it possibly have been worth it, I asked guitarist/vocalist Rodrigo Vera Tudela? He looked at me as if I had two heads. “Of course; we’re playing music and seeing all of the bands we love!” Plus, he got to celebrate his 27th birthday on 6th Street shortly after the band performed. Life doesn’t get much better than that.
Performing in Brush Park across from the convention center at the Spanish music showcase on Thursday afternoon, singer-songwriter Víctor Ramírez, a.k.a. Ramirez Exposure, brought an unexpected intensity and a riveting charisma to the jangly power-pop of his 2015 album Book of Youth and the forthcoming Young is the New Old. Like his musical heroes the Posies and East River Pipe, he elevated sounds that could have been overly genteel or so inward-looking as to be solipsistic into something everyone could celebrate. As if on cue, the sun finally broke through an overcast sky midway through his set.
Kicking off my Thursday night with a real wallop was the Oakland, CA quartet Never Young at Buffalo Billiards. This is another band with roots in ’90s alternative rock, but its approach is much closer to Sonic Youth at its finest—maximum noise plus strong melodies—or dare I say the overwhelming sonic tornado of My Bloody Valentine. This was one of those chance discoveries that came when I was just waiting for the next act, but in half an hour, they turned a disinterested skeptic into a fan.
Although they cite the Buzzcocks and T. Rex as their inspirations, the four Scots who comprise the Spook School struck me as more of a combination of the Vaselines and Pansy Division, which is to say they mix childlike exuberance and nursery-school melodies with pop-punk drive and queer-punk activism. Onstage at Buffalo Billiards later on Thursday, as on their first two albums and a forthcoming third, they were infectious and irresistible.
Thursday ended for me with SORNE, the hard to categorize musician, actor, filmmaker, performance and visual artist raised in Tallahassee, Florida but now based in L.A. There could have been no better setting than the newly renovated sanctuary above the atypical but much-loved SXSW venue of St. David’s Episcopal Church. Surrounded by five white-clad “vestal virgins,” one of them very pregnant, Morgan Sorne looped his extraordinary falsetto voice, created electronic beats with his vocalizations and fed them back through his electronics, then intoned lines such as, “I walked alone through a sea of blood and bone” in his haunting, high-pitched voice. His set set was an entrancing combination of medieval musics and modern electronics, and of black mass and Easter purification ritual, the likes of which I’ve never experienced outside of Diamanda Galas.
My last big discovery came on Friday courtesy of Dream Wife, a trio consisting of English musicians and performance artists Alice Go and Bella Podpadec and Icelandic singer Rakel Mjöll. Named after a 1953 romantic comedy starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, the three met at art school in Brighton, relocated to London, and released their debut EP 1 earlier this year. The group was one of a half-dozen over the preceding days that drew some inspiration from the swirling sounds of the early ’90s shoegazer movement, but it took more a riot-girl approach to its atmospherics, and mixed that level of punk energy with a hook pop sensibility and a love of the disco dance floor for something unique.
Bringing things full-circle to the pre-festival controversy, as well as echoing today’s headlines, earlier Friday I stopped by Palm Door for the ContraBanned Showcase, an evening of performers from the countries whose immigrants President Trump is trying to ban from entering the United States.
As Austin’s 6th Street overflowed with drunken revelers clad in green for St. Patrick’s Day, oblivious to the original meaning of the holiday, I felt the need to show some solidarity with the artists from these potentially banned countries. My own grandparents all were immigrants who once when faced discrimination or vilification in a challenging new world: my maternal grandfather from Ireland, my maternal grandmother from Poland, and my paternal grandparents from Italy. None of them were much different in their search for the American dream than the father of Bassel Almadani, who immigrated from Syria, became an obstetrician, and delivered some 3,000 babies in Ohio.
Bassel is the Bassel of Bassel and the Supernaturals, a nine-piece Chicago soul-funk group that has less to do with the traditional sounds of Syria than it does with an attempt to realize the Rev. Al Green fronting Steely Dan. Earlier on Friday, Garth Brooks announced that he’d play a free show on Saturday that many will no doubt consider the All-American highlight of SXSW 2017. But to the extent that it continues to survive and thrive in the new convergence-obsessed consumer entertainment mega-industry, the real spirit of America, the kind of music I value, and what SXSW can still represent was at ContraBanned.