"We're fucking great. I promise you."
The Beths at Native Hostel
Such were the words of a member of Colombian rock band Manniax, but he spoke for the universe as I limped into the final weekend of SXSW Music 2019.
I wish I could have seen your band, joven
, but I still have the flyer you gave me, and I promise you I'll listen once this week's tinnitus subsides.
2000 bands and 15,000 scooters
is no way for a city like Austin to live, but who am I kidding? SXSW will bring in over $350 million
to the city, so what's a little traffic, noise pollution and traumatic head injury
between rock & rollers?
So like a lithium iron phosphate-powered killer thrown into Lady Bird Lake
, let's plunge into one last stream of bands.
Friday, March 15
Your Smith at Clive Bar.
Your Smith at Clive Bar
Signed to the Neon Gold label (home to the likes of Charli XCX and St. Lucia), Your Smith did her best before a buzzed bar in the hyper-developed Rainey District, and her best included gliding vocals and easy-going beats. But by the end of the set she stopped singing and just let the crowd indulge in group karaoke to a remixed pop hit, which no one paid to hear and which she wasn't paid to twirl around to. Nothing's really free at SXSW.
Jess Williamson at Hotel Vegas.
Jess Williamson at Hotel Vegas
The East Side of Austin is unrecognizable to most residents and most longtime SXSWers, and that isn't necessarily problematic. Hotel Vegas, one of the neighborhood's pioneering joints, remains the same, with a big backyard with multiple stages and more leather than a cattle ranch. Jess Williamson's set lasted all of fifteen minutes, but it was gorgeously moody and misty with a focused burn beneath the haze. On her best song "I See the White" she sang, "Tell me everything you know about consciousness." Read on, Jess, I will.
Taylor Janzen at Native Hostel.
Taylor Janzen at Native Hostel
The Rolling Stone party featured free drinks and a strong lineup, with opener Taylor Janzen (who may yet reconsider her first name) playing pleasant Tele-twanged folk pop that made no sense in the context of the Phoebe Bridgers comparisons. When she let the band take a break, the songs and her voice deepened, and the comparisons no longer sounded unjust.
The Beths at Native Hostel.
At the same party, the band I'd come to see had hit SXSW harder I suspect than they would have wished. The Beths were tired at the end of all the gigs and after all the bloodshed in their native New Zealand. The set still surged and rang out, deceptively simple as the best indie pop can be; these songs and this singer, Elizabeth Stokes, are as good as the genre gets. You get the feeling the quartet wasn't ready for this level of attention and expectation; on stage they put on no pretense. "It's been a weird day," Stokes said quietly towards the end of its last show. "We're still processing. And then we will go back home." The band's final song was a haunting, thrilling-against-the-ache version of "Little Death."
Angie McMahon at St. David's Historic Sanctuary.
Angie McMahon at St. David's Historic Sanctuary
One of three winners of this year's Grulke Prize (named in honor of SXSW's late creative director, Brent Grulke), Angie McMahon began her church set with quiet whistling and then an apology for "all the noise we're about to make." She and her band flashed in the space like a lightning storm. McMahon's voice has operatic range, which she wields nimbly and brilliantly. Don't miss any chance you may get to see her.
Leyla McCalla at the Victorian Room at The Driskill.
Leyla McCalla at the Victorian Room at The Driskill
The one-time member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops maintains her musical collaboration with Rhiannon Giddens (as part of the quartet Our Native Daughters), but she's an extraordinary singer, songwriter and musicologist in her own right. Her set featured folk songs by Ella Jenkins, Dixieland jazz plucked on banjo, and Afro-Caribbean rhythms driven by an expert ensemble. She took a few turns on the cello just to recall her New Orleans busking roots; her set made for a stunning close to my Friday evening in Austin.
Saturday, March 16
Y La Bamba at Barracuda.
Y La Bamba at Barracuda
The Do512 party at the obdurately grungy Red River club should have featured Mike Krol, but he was a last minute scratch-out. I consoled myself with Luz Elena Mendoza, aka Y La Bamba, who I first saw at SXSW some eight years ago, and whose dense but danceable indie folklorica has burnished with time. When she sang in Spanish and the band swelled around her, the crowd responded like Mendoza was the headliner she may yet be.
Broken Social Scene at Scoot Inn.
Broken Social Scene at Scoot Inn
One of the East Side's biggest outdoor venues is the Scoot Inn; it was the ideal place to see the still-deliriously-anarchic-after-all-these-years Canadian collective Broken Social Scene. Austin and SXSW all but broke the band in 2003 (as co-founder Kevin Drew acknowledged warmly from the stage), and they decided to repay the favor with no less than eight shows this week. Hard to imagine any of them being better than its last. Starting where they would end, the instrumental anthem "Meet Me in the Basement" raced through the cool afternoon air, everybody swapped instruments (save criminally underrated drummer Justin Peroff), with hits like "Superconnected" mixed in with excellent new material like "Protest Song," the joy of the moment feeling like it would never end. It did. Still it remains with me.
Courtney Marie Andrews at Auditorium Shores.
Courtney Marie Andrews at Auditorium Shores
Set against the aforementioned Lady Bird Lake, an extraordinary singer, songwriter and guitarist from Seattle by way of Phoenix named Courtney Marie Andrews played her finest songs from her career-defining album May Your Kindness Remain
. She was likely unknown to the lawn-sprawled audience, who had come for Andrew Bird and Patty Griffin, but more than a few were talking about her set as I headed back to the city center.
Jealous of the Birds at Swan Dive.
Jealous of the Birds at Swan Dive
Irish singer-songwriter Naomi Hamilton has played SXSW before, but at the Line of Fit blog showcase she sounded like she was ready to make a point. With a sharp, peppy band, she bounded across the stage with dazzling hooks and joyous, witty delivery. She may not be on your radar, but she's now on mine.
Quivers at Victorian Room at The Driskill.
Quivers at the Victorian Room at The Driskill
Following a quickly departed set at the British Music Embassy by Anteros — whose dance pop struck me as bloodless, despite singer Laura Hayden's heartfelt feminist gesture of inviting the women in the audience on stage — I returned to the Driskill Hotel for a short set by Australian (Tasmanian to be exact) indie-pop quintet Quivers. Any band that counts the Go-Betweens as an influence will not escape my notice, and Quivers surpassed expectations, with clean and bright guitars, exquisitely appointed melodies, and the very definition of the sum exceeding the parts. I don't know if you'll ever hear its name again but cheers to hoping.
Will Varley at Stephen F's Bar.
Will Varley at Stephen F's Bar
The upstairs bar at the Intercontinental Hotel is one of the toughest rooms in a town with PAs set up in every other nook and corner. The mixologists approach drinks with a clatter that makes a statement of pure fuckery, and the bar-side patrons keep pace with the volume. So spare a thought for Will Varley, London-based when he's not embarking on tours with Billy Bragg and Frank Turner, and a serious songwriter who, at his best, surpasses both. I regret only hearing three excellent, finely crated songs before heading out for the final show of the night.
The Chills at Beerland.
The Chills at Beerland
This year's SXSW ended for me with the Chills at a punk club on Red River in downtown Austin. A documentary film about the iconic New Zealand band had its premiere at SXSW this year, and the story of its influence on the culture of the island nation and of singer and songwriter Martin Phillipps' near death and recovery deserves the celebration. As does the band's music, which is not quite psychedelic, not quite pop, not quite jangling, not quite not like anything you know because you know R.E.M. and Pavement. Both (and more) would be lost without the Chills' music. On stage, Phillipps looked and sounded happy to have any kind of audience at all. Everyone in the room hummed along to "Heavenly Pop Hit" and "Kaleidoscope World," even if they hadn't heard the gleaming tunes before.
Like so many other moments this week, it reminded me why SXSW still matters and why you should never miss the chance to see your favorite band — whether they'd traveled 8,000 miles for the gig or play on the street you call home.