SXSW 2016: We saw more than 100 bands in 5 days and lived to tell

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PHOTO BY REBECCA ADLER
  • photo by Rebecca Adler
The best SXSW experiences always come about randomly, and this year kicked off for me with that kind of spontaneity when I received an invite to Tracy Morgan’s Funny or Die-sponsored secret show last Monday at the Scoot Inn. Technically part of the SXSW Interactive conference, the guest list-only crowd was gently hip and glued to their phones, but Tracy blew all that tech vanilla-ness up with a raunchy, rowdy, race-skewering routine that used his near-tragic car accident as the catalyst for most material. The best line out of about 500 contenders from the night, including riffs on his 28-year-old fiancé, Caitlyn Jenner, selling crack, Florence Nightingale Syndrome, Kim Kardashian, cell phones, Paula Deen, Louis CK, Mike Tyson and masturbation?

“At the peak of Tiger Woods’ career, he said he wasn’t black. N***a, your father’s name is Earl Woods! The only Earl Woods I know is a hustler. But once Tiger got into trouble, he got darker — the media turned him into a n***a in no time! Even though the blackest thing he ever did in his life was suck at golf.”

It didn’t garner an immediate howl from the crowd, but they slowly built up a slow “aha” kind of laughter, at which Morgan smiled and said, “I’ll wait. I know it’s a million-dollar joke. Ain’t nobody else saying shit like that. Or talking about chlamydia discharge up on stage.” (Catch Tracy’s full Picking up the Pieces set at the Hard rock Live in Hollywood, Florida, on May 21.)

From there, it was only a short hop, skip and a jump to SXSW Music’s official start on Wednesday, which began for me at the She Shreds Magazine showcase at Hotel Vegas. Brooklynites BOYTOY dripped with surf and skate-inspired punk-rock sass, frontwomen Saara Untracht-Oakner and Glenn Van Dyke flashing totally different approaches while drummer Matthew Gregory Aidala provided a pounding backbeat. (See BOYTOY at Will’s Pub on Thursday, March 24.)

Next up was New Paltz, New York’s Diet Cig, a two-piece pop-punk powerhouse that feels like the friendliest band on the planet. That’s mostly because of frontwoman Alex Luciano’s high kicks and impassioned delivery, although drummer Noah Bowman’s provided the sonic and rhythmic foundation for her restless energy.

La Luz might be the surfiest band on the planet, and the Seattle-based crew brings their technical shreddage and superb guitar solos to Florida in early May, although they’re skipping Orlando this time around in favor of dates in Tallahassee (May 3), Miami (May 4) and Jacksonville (May 5).

The Aussie dudes in Methyl Ethyl have been getting tons of press lately, and I dug their super suave, ’70s-influenced slacker sweetness. Unlike most indie rock bands that pound it out 90 percent of the time, their drummer even supplemented his kit with a pad to achieve the proper level of languor. Still, their tunes contain enough slouching minor-key tension to keep things interesting.

I randomly stumbled upon more shows by Philly’s Beach Slang than any other band at SXSW this year, and their shit-kicking, life-affirming punk rock provided a jolt each time. Forty-something frontman James Alex wields his beautiful white Gretsch with fervor, singing about how rock & roll saved his life like he’s still 18 and vowing to pass that on through every single one of his band’s high-octane performances. Hate if you want, but you can’t deny that kind of passion. No Florida dates as of now, but I beg you to go see this band any chance you get.

The energy kept flowing on Wednesday with Guerilla Toss, a fire-breathing hot mess of a dance-rock band whose recent album Eraser Stargazer is an abrasive listen. But translate that to a live setting and you’ve got instant combustion.

DOWNTOWN BOYS: PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Downtown Boys: photo by Nick McGregor
Even more fired up was Providence, Rhode Island’s Downtown Boys, who deliver a message of queer and minority empowerment that resonated with the mostly white crowd at the Ad Hoc Showcase at Cheer Up Charlie’s, Austin’s most inclusive and welcoming bar. Prior to every song, vocalist Victoria Ruiz delivered a passionate stream of consciousness diatribe, summed up perfectly in their song “100% Inheritance Tax,” which is about exactly what you think it is.

Prince Rama, who boast Florida roots — sisters Taraka and Nimai Larson were raised on a Hare Krishna commune outside of Gainesville — delivered possibly the trippiest art-pop performance of the entire week, matching outfits and electronic grooves and thumping beats combining into a swirl of hits from their new album, Xtreme Now.

But when it comes to visceral experience, nobody can top Yonatan Gat, an Israeli psych-rock guitar master who sets up in the middle of the crowd at every venue with his bassist Sergio Sayeg and drummer Gal Lazer. The trio floats through African-influenced polyrhythms, free jazz explorations, Hendrix-style freakouts, and dark surf noir, all while shredding their instruments to within an inch of their life. And such a cathartic setup gives audience members something to laser in on instead of just idly watch. This power trio played 18 shows in six days — pure manic energy.

I had high hopes for country superstar Kacey Musgraves at Spotify House around sunset, the perfect time to see most live bands. I absolutely adore her songs “Follow Your Arrow” and “Somebody to Love” — hey, I’m from DeLand originally — and her tradition-bucking attitude is just what modern country needs. But while I was waiting in line, she covered Bob Marley’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” and, well, you lost me, Kacey.

The best SXSW tip I can give anyone heading out for the festival is go see as many of your favorite bands during the afternoon, because once the sun sets, all you’re gonna be doing is waiting in line — at least if you’re trying to see any bigger showcases. My time in the queue for the Noisey/Jansport party was well spent, though, as I scored a sweet new backpack that had me flashing back to first day of 6th grade all over again.

SHANNON & THE CLAMS: PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Shannon & the Clams: photo by Nick McGregor
I finished my Wednesday night, and my Thursday night, and my Friday afternoon with doo-wop/garage pop/’50s rock revivalists Shannon & The Clams, and all three of the shows were solid in different ways: variegated set lists, different versions of standout hits like “Point of Being Right,” the addition of a keyboardist for extra depth, and adjusted energy for the 1 a.m. closing set at Barracuda for Wichita Recordings’ showcase, the 11 p.m. prime-time slot at Cheer Up Charlie’s, and the 6 p.m. cap-off at Hotel San Jose’s popular #SXSJ outdoor party. Frontwoman Shannon Shaw raved about her love for touring in Florida, both in Orlando and St. Augustine, and said she can’t wait to bring the Clams back later this fall.

The second day of SXSW is always the best — you’ve got 24 hours of experience under your belt, you’re not too hungover, and you’re ready to hit the ground running. I did that at high noon with Athens, Georgia, folk-rockers Mothers, whose excellent debut When You Walk a Long Way You Are Tired provides a master class in orchestral restraint and emotional release. The band turns it up a notch live, though, giving frontwoman Kristine Leschper’s voice room to grow. Check out their lead single “It Hurts Until It Doesn’t” now.

Car Seat Headrest was one of the most buzzed-about bands of SXSW, and although their jangly freak-rock didn’t underperform, they also didn’t drop my jaw… although later in the week I overheard someone say that frontman Will Toledo changed his life.

A similar assessment could be applied to New York pop savants Porches, who played Back Booth mere days before driving to Austin. As Bao Le-Huu wrote of the band’s Orlando performance, Aaron Maine’s five-piece lineup fleshes out his bedroom electronica perfectly, providing extra ethereal air to his sleek modern R&B along with added heft in the low end.

I’ve been a huge fan of Ezra Furman ever since I first stumbled on his 2007 debut Bangin’ Down the Doors. Once a yelping, howling “next Bob Dylan,” Ezra and his most recent band the Boy-Friends now dial up what they call “genre-less, gender-less,” saxophone-anchored pop-rock that feels both positive and heartbreaking. Furman bounces between mania and preternatural calm, sometimes within the same line, as evidenced on “Ordinary Life” and “Lousy Connection.” If you like heightened emotion and high energy, dig into any part of his prolific discography and I guarantee you’ll find something to love.

Queer punk duo PWR BTTM might be even harder to describe than Ezra Furman, but I know one thing: frontman Liv Bruce’s between-songs banter was the best of the fest. Choice quote that I found myself repeating to everyone the rest of the week: “Everyone says SXSW is about art and music, but it’s actually about survival. And parking.” After describing one particularly satisfying parking spot snag, he said, “It’s the only thing in my life I’ve ever been proud of. Except writing this next song.” Amen.

Hartford, Connecticut’s Sorority Noise is gaining steam in the emo-punk world, and after witnessing their enigmatic performance, they might be a good candidate for crossing over into the wider indie rock world. I was introduced to them via their downcast recent EP It Kindly Stopped for Me, but there was nothing morose about Cameron Boucher and company’s performance at the Grackle for the joint Father/Daughter and Topshelf Records showcase. Hell, Stereogum said Sorority Noise and Pinegrove (more on them shortly) are saving white-dude indie rock, which I can see. Find out for yourself at Backbooth on April 10, when Sorority Noise opens for Citizen and Turnover.

I can’t deny that I love energy in my live shows, so seeing indie pop it-girl Frankie Cosmos wasn’t at the top of my list. But after frontwoman Greta Kline and her band played at Urban Outfitters’ beautiful outdoor space near the University of Texas campus, a formidable line formed to meet her and take empowering selfies. Which I’m totally down with.

After that, Chicago-via-Los Angeles-via Portland band Whitney mashed up blue-eyed soul, math rock, Americana, and indie jazz, all tied up with a bow of smooth slide guitar, smooth horns and smooth multipart harmonies. Consider this: Max Kakacek and Julian Ehrlich left indie rocker Smith Westerns to form Whitney, and their new outfit is excellent. The other third of their former band, Cullen Omori, also just released one of the best albums of 2016, New Misery, and put on one hell of a smooth show of his own at Urban Outfitters the next day. In other words, something must have been in that Smith Westerns water because all three of these dudes have moved on to bigger and better things.

Now for Pinegrove, the little emo/indie/alt-country band from Montclair, NJ, that definitely could. Their album Cardinal is at the top of my 2016 list so far, and lead-off single “Old Friends” has been soundtracking my life every day (for real) since it was released on Jan. 5. As nearly every critic has said, Evan Stephens Hall and his band of are delivering the most honest, open-armed, emotionally expressive songs pertaining to the exact kind of shit people in their late 20s and early 30s are going through that it’s almost eerie. Hearing them in a college co-op building’s rec room and later a biker bar on Austin’s Dirty Sixth that was playing pornography throughout the night only heightened the experience that this band is Seriously. On. To. Something. Don’t miss them when they come to Orlando and open for Into It. Over It. and The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die, two more excellent bands working in the same vein to turn emo-punk from a punch line to a major artistic force.

CHARLES BRADLEY: PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Charles Bradley: photo by Nick McGregor
I’m just now realizing that Thursday afternoon was my peak — first Pinegrove, then Charles Bradley, the Screamin’ Eagle of Soul, the most passionate 66-year-old performer on the planet, a man whose message of endless positivity, infinite love and basic human kindness could get him elected president if he tried. Bradley brought down the house as the headliner of the Billy Reid Shindig at Weather Up, a beautiful outdoor venue in East Austin. After a 10-minute rendition of “Changes,” Bradley’s heart-rending cover of the Black Sabbath ballad, followed by a 15-minute session of passing out sweaty hugs to everyone in the audience who wanted one, the audience was treated to a splendid sunset over Austin’s rapidly growing skyline, a moment everyone will remember in a totally non-ironic way (promise).

At that point, I was satisfied, so I’ll hit the rest of the highlights much more quickly:

• Philly’s Low Cut Connie does brash, shit-kicking country rock so well the crowd gathered at local Austin dive C-Boys Heart & Soul probably thought the band was as local as it gets.

Tanlines’ danceable electro-pop is fun and a little freaky, but only in tight quarters, not on StubHub’s massive outdoor stage.

Video + Timmy’s Organism + Wolf Eyes at Third Man Records’ down-and-dirty Beerland showcase provided exactly the kind of greasy, scuzzy, violently disorienting shitshow as the brought to the Social last month on the Audio Social Dissent Tour.

• Another excellent Detroit band, Protomartyr delivered a dark, taut post-punk sermon that, given America’s current political climate and Europe’s terrorism crisis, actually felt right, even it didn’t feel good.

Vaadat Charigim’s glacial, towering stoner rock provided a nice antidote to his Burger Records labelmates’ positive slop-pop.

• Similarly, fast-rising New York hardcore crew Big Ups don’t let anyone in the audience get into a comfort zone, even at 12:30 in the backyard of one of Austin’s finest dive bars, Side Bar. Big ups to frontman Joe Galarraga for still finding some unsuspecting 50-something dudes to wrap his mic cable around, as is his tradition.

• Holy shit — Vancouver’s White Lung might be the fiercest and most urgent of the 5,000 or so other awesome female-fronted punk bands on the planet right now.

• The crowd mostly chuckled at his gay country songs, but we forget that Patrick Haggerty wrote them under the Lavender Country pseudonym in 1972, when being gay in the South — and a country singer to boot — was as close to a death sentence as an otherwise law-abiding white man could get.

Night Beats do spooky, serious psych rock really well.

• And when it comes to smooth, string-laden country rock, nobody is quite on par with Louisiana native Dylan LeBlanc, whose sultry voice goes perfectly with his accompanying cellist and violinist. Catch him opening for Alabama Shakes in Tampa and St. Augustine April 29-30, as well as appearing at Sunfest in West Palm Beach on May 1.

Joseph should be the most popular band on the planet — the multi-part harmonies of Portland sisters Natalie, Allie and Meegan Closner are nothing short of heavenly.

• London electronic artists HÆLOS had the most organized load-in and load-out system I saw all week: 31 containers, a spotless organizational system, and the ability to translate their dual-drum-anchored, crystalline pop to any of the 11 venues they played throughout the week.

• Houston’s Los Skarnales blended ska, cumbia, reggae, punk, and other Latin flavors into a heady brew that had me reminiscing on the ‘90s heyday of third-wave ska and its many permutations. Except that this nine-piece had way more style and way more fun.
PEACHES WITH REBECCA HAVEMEYER: PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • Peaches with Rebecca Havemeyer: photo by Nick McGregor
• Oh, Peaches. The Canadian performance artist extraordinaire brought her sex-positive songs about genital love, gender fluidity and all-around freaky filth to an otherwise family-friendly show at Hotel San Jose — and just as she launched into “Rub,” off her most recent album, the skies opened up and the crowd soon devolved into a sweaty, rain-soaked mess of booty-shaking and champagne-spraying. Event MC and Austin icon Rebecca Havemeyer of CHRISTEENE came out for a crotch-baring cameo on “Can I Get a Close-Up?” and, well, I think even God herself got down for a few minutes.

• Not only did I get to meet Peaches after that performance, but my next stop at Arlyn Studios for the Wreckroom Records Slumber Party earned me a front-row look at New York party-starters the Skins, along with a handshake and a starry-eyed hello from Adrian Grenier of Entourage fame.

• Then it was back down to earth and into the pit for Thee Oh Sees at Hotel Vegas’ Panache Booking showcase. I saw these California psych savants several times during the week, but nothing topped their closing set, during which the 500 or so folks on stage all went bonkers when John Dwyer ordered everyone to “Activate!”

• I did bring it down a notch later that night with Sylvan Esso at Mohawk’s House of Vans party, a four-day bonanza that celebrated the iconic shoe company’s 50th anniversary. I couldn’t tell what kind of shoes she had on, but frontwoman Amelia Meath’s dance moves were still off the chain, and the duo’s icy electro-pop came to life before closing time.
A GIANT DOG: PHOTO BY NICK MCGREGOR
  • A Giant Dog: photo by Nick McGregor
• Two bands at Do512’s The Big One! Party on Saturday — England’s Drowners and New York’s Public Access TV — dispelled the notion that white-dude indie rock is dead. (Big props to PATV for calling out all the Mac DeMarco wannabes wearing Carhartt hats, too.) But it was Austin’s own A Giant Dog that sent the Barracuda crowd into a frenzy with their hyper-driven, drunken hard rock. Frontwoman Sabrina Ellis cut a sexy, empowering figure in her sequined American flag bodysuit, and when she brought a Donald Trump piñata on stage, her co-vocalist and songwriter Andrew Cashen told the crowd they better be angry enough to “tear that motherfucker to pieces.” Which the crowd did, stomping on the Donald, ripping his arms and legs asunder, and then dancing away the afternoon on the popcorn that once filled him up to irresistible jams like “Sex & Drugs” and “All I Wanted.” Stay tuned for this band’s first album on Merge Records out May 6, ’cause it’s a banger.

• I saw Seattle’s Tacocat three times throughout the week, but their best performance came Saturday afternoon at Hotel Vegas, when the irony of their song “I Hate the Weekend” really shone through the jangle they’re so good at. Thirty minutes later, Guantanamo Baywatch delivered a similarly rip-roaring surf tsunami that Florida fans have come to love so much.

• But it was Los Angeles’ Chicano Batman who were the biggest surprise of the Burgermania bill, blending funk, Latino rock, blues and soul into a well-dressed, uptempo mix.

• Since I profiled New York rapper Le1f in advance of this week’s Orlando show that he canceled at the last minute, I thought it only fitting that I wrap up my SXSW with his Stargayzer Showcase at the North Door. His performance was raw but beautiful, with jaw-dropping choreography from his backup dancers and the energy from the LGBTQ-friendly crowd through the roof. Now what do we have to do to get you to bring that to Orlando, Le1f?

Whew – 3,000 words, five days, 100-plus bands, too many beers, even more tacos, a bad sunburn, a busted knee and elbow, and enough good musical memories to last for at least a month until I crawl out of my hole again. (see lots more pics in our SXSW gallery.) Best of all, anyone can do it at SXSW — if you put in the time, I guarantee you’ll have a blast.


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