SXSW 2019 Recap – Day 1
While Austin, TX is already know as the “live music capital of the world,” it’s the 5 days in mid-March, every year since 1987, that they really wear that title with pride as thousands of bands travel from all over the world to perform and attend the South by Southwest Music Festival.
What started off at the Driskill Hotel back in 1987 featuring a handful of up and coming and regional bands, has grown into an enormous gathering of passionate creators and consumers working in film, technology, gaming, comedy and of course, music. To be asked to showcase is high praise in itself but that’s where the work really starts. With thousands of bands in town performing at hundreds of venues over the course of 5 days it can be hard to get noticed and even harder to leave a mark.
This year we made the trek out to Austin to check out a ton of bands, parties, some BBQ and all the sights in hopes of catching the next big thing.
While SXSW is one big 10 day festival it might be more accurate to think of it as a ton of little festivals, both official and unofficial all centered around downtown Austin and local neighborhoods. There are literally bands playing everywhere all the time.
Something that was different from past years was the pullback from the overtly commercial sponsorship connected with the festival. This change help create more engagement and intimacy at shows providing better exposure for the up-and-coming acts, giving them more opportunities to perform and provided more access to those artists for fans attending the festival.
With music starting as early as 10 am on the first day of the festival it always makes for a challenging travel day, especially if you’re headed west a few days after “springing forward” with the time change. 8am flights, losing a few hours of sleep and shows until 2am does not reward the casual fan, but we’re not here to sleep, so let’s get started.
With most of the official showcases happening in the evening there’s a ton of time to check out great bands at the day parties, most of which are free, so that’s where we started.
First up we headed over to the Cedar Street Courtyard for Flood Fest. Nestled between two buildings in the Warehouse District, the outside space is long a narrow with great bars on each side, and great sound.
Illuminati Hotties from Los Angeles were the one of the first bands to hit the stage on Tuesday morning. Out supporting their brand new single, “I Wanna Keep Yr Dog” the band was tight and fun, ripping through a ton of great indie-pop tunes like “boi” and “Paying Off the Happiness” from last year’s full-length album, Kiss Yr Frenemies.
Next up, Priests, a 4-piece post-punk band from Washington, DC. with an experimental edge. At times they reminded me of a less-aggressive Savages with more of a pop slant. Still punk, but with a bit of neon thrown in. Crowd was loving it.
Hælos is a 4-piece trip-hop band from London out on the road ahead of their upcoming record, Any Random Kindness which comes out on May 10th this year. They had the crowd singing along to the older tunes and digging the new stuff too. It might be a little too on the nose to say fans of Portishead would dig them, but if that’s your thing, this will probably be your thing too. They put on a great live show with a ton of energy.
One of the best things about navigating the SXSW schedule is the random pairing of bands that you’ll see back to back on the same stage. White Denim was a complete 180 from Hælos. From Austin, TX the band laid down the rock. Heavy, jamming guitar, pounding drums and arrangements that loved to stretch out. Fans of The Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers and The Flaming Lips would all find something to dig here and they had a great local crown out to see them.
Closing out the day show at Cedar Street was Broken Social Scene from Canada. Out supporting their new record, Let’s Try the After (Vol. 1), they filled the stage with an ever expanding line up of up to 9 people as they ran through songs from Forgiveness Rock Record to the crowd’s delight, kicking off with “World Sick,” “Chase Scene” and “Texico Bitches.” It was a great way to end the first half of the day and for those people that missed them today they had about 6 more times to see them play again at the festival.
One of the most hyped shows of the first night was NPR’s Tiny Desk Family Hour at the Central Presbyterian Church. There was no posted lineup other than the expectation of “10 bands performing in a once in a lifetime event that you won’t want to miss.” The line to get in the church went around the block so we went to “plan B” which worked out perfectly as we got to see some amazing sets by Lunar Vacation, Locate S,1 and Blushh.
A quick walk a few blocks over from Central Presbyterian Church was a quiet little upscale bar called The Townsend. Upon entering the bar there were only a few people chatting up the bartender and no band in sight. Further investigation revealed some double doors at the very back of the room with a SXSW Official Venue placard on the door. Walking through revealed a great little live performance space with folks crowded in to see one of Atlanta’s finest new indie-pop bands, Lunar Vacation. Sugar-coated melodies, jangly guitar and bouncing steady tunes were on full display and it was hard not to get swept up. Fans of Real Estate and Camera Obscura will find a lot to like here.
Locate S,1 was high on our list of bands to check out this year and we loved their psych-pop grooves. Coming from Athens, GA, Christina Schneider worked with Kevin Barnes on her latest record and while the temptation to make comparisons to Of Montreal are warranted her music and performance never came across as anything but genuine and fun. If you dig the Elephant 6 bands, you’ll dig ‘em.
Next up on our list of bands to check out was L.A. quartet, Blushh fronted by Shab Ferdowsi. A huge crowd packed into the newly whitewashed 720 Cafe just as Blushh was packing their gear onto one of the smallest stages I’ve ever seen. They stacked amps on top of each other to get everything on stage and then proceed to rock out some fantastic 90s inspired slacker grunge with killer melodies. One of the best sets we saw all week.
We finished up the first night of the music festival under a parachute in the courtyard of Cheer Up Charlie’s, and after threatening all day, the rain finally decided it should have a go. The band ran through a fantastic set of shoegaze-inspired dream pop. Fronted by Leslie Sisson’s wonderful melodies and guitar. The band rocked through a fantastic set of songs like “ADD Heart,” “Baby Blues” and their first breakout single “One” from their debut record of the same name. For the song, “In Tune” off of their new record Two, Matthew Caws from Nada Surf, joined the band to sing along to the crowd’s delight. A great first day and a perfect ending to the night.
Photos and Words by John McNicholas