South by Southwest is insane. Top to bottom, start to finish, this festival is guaranteed to be the most overwhelming and fun week of your life. Bands play everywhere, and constantly. The first day of the SXSW music festival was spent getting my bearings in the city. I ambled through the grid system taking note of coffee shops to hide out in between showcases, food trucks to try when a random craving hit, and venues that I knew I’d be holed up in during the days to come. Running on two hours of sleep and with few options anyway given the 21+ nature of most venues, I stayed away from music for the day to regain my energy for the amount of live music I would witness for the rest of the week. I hiked out of downtown to see a friend play in East Austin then called it a night, electing to catch up on sleep before the busy week ahead.
My first stop of the day was coffee and breakfast tacos, which would quickly become a morning routine, then I went to Historic Scoot Inn in East Austin to post up at the B+Q BBQ unofficial day party until the evening showcases. Eager to be one of the first twenty to earn a free taco, I caught nearly every act at the showcase that day. Adam Melchor played early on at the indoor stage, bringing his humble charm and acoustic guitar to the otherwise generally hard rock showcase. NPR named him one of the Austin 100 at this year’s festival, and their praise is well-deserved. Adam does not need a full band to fill the room with his sound and energy, making him stand out as a solo performer.
Next on the outdoor stage was Illiterate Light, a duo from Virginia made up only of a drummer, a guitarist, and a hell of a lot of headbanging. The crowd outside began to grow as the names on the main stage got bigger, peaking for Canadian-born, Austin-based Black Pistol Fire at 5:15. Before them, though, I would discover my favorite act of the festival, Pottery. A young five piece from Montreal, the band hit the stage with an energy and danceability impressive for a performance at two in the afternoon.
After hours of anticipation, Black Pistol Fire finally hit the stage outside, another two piece that filled the space both sonically and physically. Vocalist-guitarist Kevin McKeown’s energy was palpable as he ran and jumped across the stage during solos, finally jumping into the crowd with his guitar during one of the final songs. Even during slower songs the energy was bubbling under the surface, to be unleashed either during a heavy guitar solo or the following song.
Riding the high of Black Pistol Fire’s set, I made the trek back downtown for the highly anticipated, first annual Tiny Desk Showcase, on the same day that the Tiny Desk Contest opened for submissions. The lineup was secret, but would be all Tiny Desk alumni. When I arrived at Central Presbyterian Church, the line was already around the corner. Fortunately I made it in, and the acts did not disappoint. Highlights included Cautious Clay, Wyclef Jean, and the closer, Leikeli47. The intimacy of the church, despite its spaciousness, was the perfect vibe for the Tiny Desk Showcase, allowing the audience to have a personal experience with the performers in a laid-back, stripped down environment.
Wednesday marked the first Fontaines D.C. showcase I was able to go to, day two of Stereogum Range Life. I staked out at Cheer Up Charlie’s early to ensure a spot by the front of the inside stage. Leading up to Fontaines were Control Top and Empath, two young Philadelphia-based punk and noise bands. Both blew the growing crowd away and built up significant buzz for Fontaines. By the time Empath left, the inside of Cheer Up Charlie’s was packed to the point where spectators gathered by the windows of the stage to watch from outside. Finally, Fontaines D.C. took the stage. Audience members both familiar with and new to their music were immediately captured by the band’s energy and singular stage presence, but this spell was soon broken after only three songs, when the bass amp blew out. After attempting the third song again using the backline amp and facing the same issue, the band called it and walked off stage. With half a dozen more performances to go in the week, no one was at too heavy of a loss except the few stragglers who had trekked to Austin for just the one day.
Later on the outdoor stage was Black Midi, young enough to be sporting black X’s on their hands but catching the eye of KEXP and Pitchfork with what the latter aptly dubbed “polyrhythmic post-punk.” They lived up to the hype with their intense, focused energy, and with that I left the showcase to catch Sam Eagle at Austin Taco Project. With no late night showcases catching my eye, I elected to walk down the notorious 6th Street at night for the first time, to discover pure and constant sensory overload. Music blasts out of every open door and window, from every bar, club, cafe, and shop. The smells of food trucks, cigarettes, weed, beer, and sweat soak in the air. For some South By goers, this street is illustrative of the experience. One could spend the whole week hopping between clubs, bars, and food trucks on just these few closed off blocks. But I found the real gems of the festival to be the showcases off the beaten path, whether they were all the way in East Austin or unofficial, set up in a backyard or featuring bands you’ve never heard of.
The festival was nearly halfway over, but some of my most anticipated showcases were yet to come. On Thursday I headed back to Cheer Up Charlie’s during the day for day one of the AdHoc Free For All. A few highlights were the quiet indie of Bane’s World, the Congolese collective KOKOKO, and energetic punks Surfbort. Additionally, indie DIY artist Sidney Gish played on the indoor stage, armed with only a guitar and a loop pedal but capturing the hearts of the packed bar.
The Music From Ireland showcase at the Velveeta Room was later that night, with Fontaines D.C. on last. This showcase had one of my favorite lineups of the festival so I went over early to secure a spot in line. The venue was small for the names on the bill, and it crowded quickly. First on was Roe, a singer-songwriter from Derry in Northern Ireland whose irresistible charm and emotional music was the perfect start to a brilliant showcase. Next on was David Keenan, a folk artist whose powerful voice filled the room and brought the crowd gradually closer to the stage as he sang. Next, Cork’s Talos brought an intense energy to the room as the excitement grew for the later acts.
Whenyoung, a band originally from Limerick with quite a bit of buzz at SXSW, took the stage to a full house, the first guitar band of the night to do so. Their upbeat, indie set was met with an excellent reception, finishing just before midnight. The penultimate act was Kojaque, the first and only hip-hop artist at the showcase. The 23-year-old rapped about identity, life in Ireland and growing up in Dublin. It was a raw performance start to finish that seemed to take the audience by surprise.
Finally, Fontaines D.C. took the stage at 1am, and the crowd went insane. The moshing started immediately, and got so intense that the band needed to tell them to relax a bit, as all the shoving was causing the people at the front to fall onto the band’s gear. Fortunately, however, this set was not cut short, and they played several new songs off their April 12th release Dogrel, which were met with further excitement from the crowd.
On Friday I made my third consecutive walk to Cheer Up Charlie’s for the second day of the AdHoc Free For All. This had not been a showcase I was planning on going to until my discovery of Pottery on Tuesday — they were playing the outdoor stage at 1:30, and I decided I had to see them again. They brought the same chemistry and energy as they did at the start of the week, a feat of stamina that boded well for their post-SXSW tour with Viagra Boys. Puma Blue played next, a jazzy quartet from the UK that got the crowd moving. Next was CHAI, surely one of the highlights of the festival. A four-piece, all-female band from Tokyo, CHAI had some of the best energy and most pure joy on stage of any band at SXSW. The crowd was enamored with them from the moment they took the stage all the way through their Japanese, a cappella cover of “Dancing Queen.” I stayed for a bit of Jerry Paper’s set next, but had to head over to Valhalla for an interview with Sam Eagle.
After my interview I managed to get into the venue for the End of the Trail Creative showcase, another lineup that was sure to be one of the highlights of the festival. Kicking off the night were two relatively calmer artists, Eagle and a two-piece called Pip Hall. From then on the night was pure punk, starting with Glasgow’s Rascalton, who kicked off the crowd surfing and moshing immediately. Next came Avalanche Party, a wildly interactive band with a unique post-punk sound. Finally The Blinders came on, a Doncaster three-piece that just released their debut album, Columbia, to enormous praise. Their gritty lyrics and clean sound made for a wonderful set, topped off by a slight spar with the sound crew at the end. Vocalist Thomas Haywood jumped onto a monitor during the last song of the set, “Brutus,” which led the sound mixer to turn off his mic. Even after he climbed down his mic was not turned on, but the crowd encouraged the band to keep playing until he relented. Unfortunately he never did, and after minutes of vamping the band finished off the song, channeling their anger into the music and making for an intense end to the night.
The last day, and my busiest. I started in East Austin, hanging out at Lazarus Brewing Co. for the Music for Listeners-curated lineup. I only stayed for the first two acts, Jealous of the Birds and Boy Azooga, who were both brilliant, before I had to head down to Hotel Vegas for my interview with Goodbye Honolulu. Unfortunately their set was strictly 21+, but I made my way to the Thrasher Death Match instead, catching some of the best punk acts of the festival, including Fontaines D.C. for a third time and an interview. After chatting with them I caught the second half of Melbourne’s Amyl and the Sniffers. Frontwoman Amy Taylor is a born performer. She bit her tongue early in the set and went on to perform with a bloody mouth, still crowd surfing twice and thrashing around on stage as if nothing was the matter. Her adrenaline was visible and seeped into the crowd, causing the air to cloud with dust being kicked up in the pit. Next was Viagra Boys from Stockholm, Sweden, a slightly bluesier punk band that may have been lower tempo, but was in no way lower energy. After leaving The Weather Up I made my last stop in East Austin of the night, catching Godcaster at Big Easy Bar and Grill.
Intent on not letting the night end too early, I walked over the highway to Beerland, where The Blinders would be playing later. As I stood through a band I didn’t know I remembered The Dunts were playing just across the street in fifteen minutes, at a venue I theoretically could not get into as it was 21+. I decided to try my press pass on the bouncer and lo and behold, it worked. The Dunts brought the same Glasgow spirit as Rascalton the night before, with each band in the audience for the other, and they made quite the impression on the packed 720 Club.
After their set I ran back across the street and ended up finding my next favorite discovery of the festival, DYGL, pronounced “dayglow.” Another Japanese band, the indie rockers had some of the catchiest hooks and most danceable songs of any of the bands I saw during the week. They left the crowd with high spirits, even as the realization took over that the next act would be the last of the festival. The Blinders took the stage again with the same intensity and rawness they had the night before, this time with no scuffle with the sound guy. This set had an added punch compared to the night before, likely because it was the band’s last performance of the week as well as my last set to watch. They were the perfect end to the SXSW music festival for me, and left me with a new burst of energy I would need in order to stay up for my 6am flight back to Boston.
Words and photos by Zoe Salvucci.