As March rolls around, the circus that is SXSW rolls into Austin to once again take over the entire city, filling it with the great, the good, the average and the decidedly ropey from the world of Interactive, Film and Music. From the get go, things felt a bit different this year, and not necessarily for the better. The arguments regarding racial profiling of overseas artists at the border cast a dark cloud over the start of the festival, with SXSW fighting fires on several fronts to assure customers and investors that they weren’t in cahoots with the newly installed Trump regime and his aborted travel ban, but other than hurriedly cobbled together press releases, there was a conspicuous absence of political discord emanating from the numerous stages of Austin.
Changes to the pass system, giving all badge holders at least some level of access to the vast majority of events, regardless of badge type, were heralded as groundbreaking in the frothy press releases emanating from SXSW’s Bowie Street offices, but given the increased ticket cost, and increased demand, it did little more than create even more opportunities for queuing, which is one attraction which SXSW has covered in abundance.
The absence of Spotify, Hype Hotel and Fader from the east side of the city this year exposed the lie that SXSW has become too corporate. Without the mega-parties that these behemoths threw in previous years, the daytime events felt just a little less impressive. It’s not just the parties that weren’t there, it was also the calibre of artists who played them. Without a big stage to play on, it felt like many artists just didn’t turn up, creating the knock on effect that the bill across the rest of the festival felt a little sparse at times. More corporate means more money means more value for the paying customer. We’ll have more corporate please.
That’s not to say there weren’t some standout moments. Weezer, playing on an unusually cramped stage at Brazos Hall was, by all accounts, a show to remember, Lana Del Rey proving herself to be the worst kept secret in Austin when she turned up at Apple’s event, and At The Drive In being the best band in the world, all over again, but the big names felt a little thin on the ground this time around, and at one thousand dollars a ticket, this just didn't feel like value, especially given that any given punter’s chance of getting into any of the headline events was unlikely at best.
Of the events which were a little easier to gain access to, the most interesting from a UK perspective was the British Music Embassy at Latitude 30. Arguably the strongest lineup over the course of the week, it hosted standout sets from Rag ’N’ Bone Man, who packed the venue out at the (ungodly by SXSW standards) 7pm; Kate Nash, who thrilled with her newly developed punk stylings, and Idles, who are the band Slaves wish they were. The Brighton five-piece ripped through most of their new album, Brutalism, with fury and humour in equal measure. If Chris Morris created a band, and they were actually fucking fantastic, they’d sound a lot like Idles.
Going back to Slaves, there’s no way to describe their attitude at SXSW without using that most offensive of expletives. Here is a band I simply don’t get. Their practiced snarls and punk by numbers vitriol is entirely transparent and it’s indicative of the state of UK punk right now that they’re even getting airplay, never mind being regarded as the next great hope for the scene. Idles tore them a new one.
Of all the hundreds of bands playing SXSW this year, Muncie Girls must have been one of the hardest working. If you spent any time in any venue, you’d have a hard time missing them, and it has to be hoped it pays off, as they’re a fantastic live unit. The political agit-indie leanings give them a real edge, and to peg them simply as a feminist rock band, as many writers seem to do, is to do them a real disservice.
Special mention must also go to musical polymath Youngr, who surprised venues all over Austin with his high energy, dance tinged set. Defying classification, Youngr is an artist who just has to be seen live to witness just how skilfully he switches between keyboards, percussion and guitars, using loops and feedback to create a wall of sound which is as exhilarating as it is fascinating.
Closing the festival, for me at least, was Life. The best thing to come out of Hull since, well, ever, they are everything a great band should be: Aggressive, in your face and sounding like they’re ready to take on the entire world, and win. It helps that they’ve also got the songs. Popular Music and Rare Boots stood out but in all honesty there wasn’t a weak point. They even got the “Drunk Steve Lamacq going mental down the front” seal of approval, and that’s good enough a recommendation for me.
Depending on what you go for, SXSW Music 2017 could have been the best year yet, or the worst. If you went looking for household names playing in pubs (cf: The Vaccines in 2015) then this year would have been a letdown. However, if great new bands are your thing, there was plenty to go around, but you had to look for it. The question is whether the event can sustain the ticket prices without the headliners to justify it. 2017’s show felt a little bit like it was just left to do it’s own thing, whilst the organisers had their eye on the cash cow that is SXSW Interactive.
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