SXSW is a strange beast. To me, a newcomer to Texas, never mind to the festival, it is a little overwhelming at first. It’s a festival of excess, wrapped around a conference, and that makes it more than a little schizophrenic. Going from conversation panels on the future of digital music, to a free party headlined by the next big thing (with the omnipresent free bar) and back again can be a little disorienting, and a couple of times I found myself wandering in something of a haze, blinded by choice and not quite sure how to make a decision. It’s almost thankful that the one thing more visible than free booze are queues. There are queues everywhere, for everything, and with varying levels of access, along with often unsure gatekeepers, this can make for slow progress in getting to see anything of note (or just about anything, if you hit it wrong). This makes the undoubtedly high ticket price something of a gamble.
My day yesterday started with Henry Rollins, in conversation with Dana Harris of Indiewire. The topic - Rollins’ new film, He Never Died, concerning the terminal boredom of a man who lives forever. It’s an interesting concept, given the wish of so many to live forever. As ever, Rollins’ passion shone through, and his assertion that his acting career is something of a slight on his punk heritage (‘it’s a punk rock fraud’) was refreshingly frank.
It was following this that I stumbled across the other great truth of SXSW - the music fans are seemingly unimportant. Many of us waited for around an hour for an intimate performance by promising Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett. The show was hosted by Austin radio station 101x and was being broadcast live. After a last minute cancellation from The Vaccines, hopes were high of an extended set, but we were treated to a single song, before the stage was cleared for an interview. Barnett is incredibly talented, and it was a great performance, but given the wait, it was more than a little disrespectful, and a few more vocal members of the audience were not afraid to make their feelings known.
My first free beer of the day came courtesy of Spotify, at their fringe venue away from the main festival. It was soundtracked by Ryn Weaver, and then Gorgon City. Both turned in solid performances, and got the young crowd moving in the Texas sun.
The Huw Stephens curated Welsh music event at Latitude 30 was one of the strongest lineups of the day, featuring Kate Tempest, Catfish & The Bottlemen, East India Youth, and The People The Poet. Sadly it was only the latter that I managed to catch, due to leaving to shoot elsewhere in the intermission, and being faced with queues at every turn, including my return to Latitude 30. They were, however, excellent, and a band which I can only see growing in stature.
My final stop of the night, and mercifully queue free due to a queue jump ticket wisely obtained earlier in the day, was Clive Bar. On arrival, Charles Bradley was in the middle of delivering his superb funk-soul act, to an appreciative, and very tightly packed audience. Channeling James Brown without coming across as cliched is no mean feat, and Bradley managed it with aplomb.
The real reason the venue was so tightly packed, though, was for Future Islands, the up-and-coming Baltimore synthpop band who may be the name on everyone’s lips come the end of the week. There’s a real intelligence hiding behind Future Islands, and this is what sets them apart from the swathe of similar bands ploughing this particular furrow this week. Easily the highlight of the day, and a band which may already be too big to fail. I’ll be catching them again before the flight home.
latest on this festival
SXSW (South By South West) 2017 review
festival home page