Austin, Texas — Even as the city it helped turn into a hipster mecca continues to grow at an astounding, blundering rate, the South by Southwest Music Conference somehow has turned more sedate, manageable, indie-spirited. And way better.
This year’s installment of what’s still the music industry’s biggest annual get-together came together a lot like it did in the 1990s, when Austin was still a hippie-dippy college town with an inordinate amount of music venues. Today, it’s a flourishing tech hub with sushi places creeping up on Tex-Mex eateries.
As the city made national news with its spat of package bombings — not forgotten, but not omnipresent amid the festivities — SXSW’s 32nd year saw only a few big names like Keith Urban and T.I. crash the five-day party, which is down in numbers but still brings a couple thousand performers and 100,000 or so hanger-ons to town. Some of those visitors spilled over from the trendier SXSW Interactive tech festival.
Once the music fest amped up last week, newer or lesser-known acts got the lion’s share of attention.
Those baby bands still didn’t get paid much, of course; SXSW was the music biz’s most notorious non-payer before digital streaming came along (a hot topic on the daytime industry panels). But the newbies who mixed it up seemed thrilledby the exposure for their live shows, the arena where musicians can still make money these days.
Playing to a smiley, Lone Star Beer-chugging crowd last Friday at the flagship store for Austin’s burgeoning cooler company Yeti, cheeky Vermont pop-rocker Caroline Rose offered a sincere burst of gratitude.
“We may be the most grateful South by Southwest act of all time,” said Rose, whose first album for a label landed last month. “We freaking love playing music. And it feels good to not play to no one.”
Scrappy New York fuzz-punker Mal Blum delivered a similarly heartfelt speech during an official SXSW nighttime showcase Friday — a set that even the non-binary-identifying singer/guitarist admitted was otherwise cranky in tone.
“I got a chip on my shoulder the size of a ravine,” Blum confessed, “but really I am so lucky to get to do things like this.”
Longtime SXSW goers also felt a certain amount of luck. Gone were the long lines and bloated RSVP parties of old. The ultra-cheesy corporate grandstanding from the early-2010s was mostly absent, too.
Instead, SXSW 2018 felt like just another week of hyperactive, low-frills club-hopping. If you drew up a wish list of 25 bands to see in five days, chances are you got to see all 25, plus 25 more worth crossing Austin’s increasingly seedy Sixth Street to see again.
It helped that most of the showcasing acts wound up playing a half-dozen or more gigs while in town — so many that bands like Australia’s Gang of Youths didn’t even blink at a scourge of unwanted feedback during its final set on Saturday afternoon.
“We’ve experienced so many technical difficulties this week, it doesn’t even matter anymore,” frontman Dave Leaupepe said as his band blazed into another song. And he was correct.
Just like in the early days of SXSW, indie-rock ruled the roost along with rootsy/alt-twangy newcomers such as Minnesota’s own golden-voiced tunesmith Caitlyn Smith, whose sentimental coming-of-age song “St. Paul Nights” struck a chord even by daytime in the parking lot of Waterloo Records. London country singer Jade Bird — yep, they like the twang in England, too — delivered on one of the fest’s biggest buzzes for opening night Tuesday with an authentic Dolly-meets-Emmylou sound and wry British wit.
One of the few long lines also came on Night One for the SXSW debut of Russia’s Pussy Riot, part of an impressive roster of international acts. The pro-equality, anti-Putin troupe proved lackluster as a stage act — think: Rachel Maddow gone electro-rap — but grabbed headlines by having controversial WikiLeaks informer Chelsea Manning introduce them.
American politics predictably factored into a lot of the festival’s new music. New York sleaze-punk quartet Surfbort was one of many to reference President Trump without naming him in its Ramones-ian blaster “So Sick of You.”
As younger acts blasted away, some of the cult-loved indie-rock bands who played SXSW in the Clinton era returned with earnest. Duluth mainstays Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker of Low may have delivered the fest’s gutsiest set Tuesday, taking advantage of the fact that even churches are used as music venues during SXSW by playing a riveting set accompanied only by church-organ in St. David’s Episcopal Church.
Conversely, North Carolina pop-punk vets Superchunk relied on refreshing sameness while revisiting the former home of Emo’s nightclub, hitting a high point when Sabrina Ellis of Austin’s wild-eyed buzz band A Giant Dog joined them for the new song “Break the Glass.”
A Giant Dog was among a strong wave of hometown bands to ripple through the fest, despite growing concerns that Austin’s music scene is being priced out amid the city’s boom. Arty psych-rockers the Octopus Project and especially the bayou-boogie big band Shinyribs also well represented the scene.
Playing the free Auditorium Shores outdoor stage Saturday on the kind of gorgeous spring night that helped make SXSW a hit in the first place, Shinyribs frontman Kevin Russell (formerly of the Gourds) joined the chorus of grateful, hopeful-sounding musicians.
“Austin, you still got it,” Russell said, turning his back to the city’s ever-expanding, condo-towering skyline.
8 SXSW acts to see
Caroline Rose: Dressed like she was taking on Billie Jean King in a tennis match, the playful, young Vermont rocker hit the corners between Elvis Costello-ian guitar-pop and a rootsier, NRBQ-like boogie while serving straight-up ace songwriting. (June 6, 7th Street Entry)
Rapsody: The North Carolina rapper, who guested on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” backed up her feminist messaging with meaty beats and provocative wordplay. (May 27, Soundset festival)
Gang of Youths: This Sydney quintet seems capable of playing arenas one day, with its Springsteen-ian roar-rock and its frontman’s exuberant antics, including running through the crowd mid-song. (March 31, 7th Street Entry)
Soccer Mommy: A cutesy moniker belies 20-year-old Sophie Allison’s coolly frazzled, richly melodic kiss-off songs, part Camera Obscura and Morrissey with sometimes stormy climaxes. (March 31, Bryant-Lake Bowl; and June 4, Turf Club with Liz Phair)
Erika Wennerstrom: The Heartless Bastards frontwoman debuted a twangier and poppier batch of songs that still sounded unmistakably akin to her mighty rock band. (April 8, Turf Club)
Lucy Dacus: Brooding, bookish Virginian rocker Dacus has already come to town a couple times as an opener but proved she’s a worthy headliner now with the razor-edgy songs from her sophomore album “Historian.” (April 4, 7th Street Entry)
Acid Dad: A hazy, druggy but punky garage-rock from four barely legal, ragtag Brooklyn fellas, including Minnesota-rooted guitarist/singer Sean Fahey. (March 28, 7th Street Entry)
Low: The religiously rife Duluth trio’s ceremonial church-organ performance — which it also recently offered in Europe — was truly one-of-a-kind, and for now they’re doing that style of set once in their native state. (March 30, Sacred Heart in Duluth.)
7 SXSW acts to hear
Naked Giants: Previewing its debut LP “Sluff,” the Seattle power trio in high-waist pants looked like a young Grand Funk Railroad but played like an early-’60s, “Nuggets”-brand garage-rock band.
Bodega: A punky boy/girl New York dance-rock band formerly known as Bodega Bay, it came off like a cross between LCD Soundsystem and early B-52’s with a fun arsenal of anti-capitalist themes to boot. Debut album due in June.
Jade Bird: Any doubt the young Londonite could come off like an authentic country singer while in Texas was quickly lost as she bellowed her way through the snake-tongued "Good Woman" and songs from her upcoming debut LP for Glassnote.
Deva Mahal: Playing Austin’s reborn blues hub Antone’s, the daughter of blues legend Taj Mahal only offered hints of the blues in her Adele-like power ballads and neo-soulful grooves, from her new album “Run Deep.”
Belle Adair: The Alabama quartet’s elegant layers of Real-Estate-meets-Byrds, 12-string guitar work was hypnotically serene even amid the din of Austin’s Sixth Street, so you can imagine how much lovelier it is listening to their new album “Tuscumbia” on headphones.
Low Cut Connie: The rowdy Philly soul-rock band already has a great live reputation made all the better, livelier and bawdier by the songs from their upcoming record, "Dirty Pictures (Part 2)."
Superchunk: A local date might surface in the fall, but in the meantime don’t sleep on “What a Time to Be Alive,” maybe the finest album in band’s 30-year career.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658