Look, there are simply far too many bands at SXSW for one man to cover but damned if I didn’t try. It’s been said that Austin is uniquely situated to host a festival like SX and it shows – it’s a sprawling sonic smorgasbord of musical delights where every nook and cranny of the town becomes a stage. I’ve seen a lot of bands throughout this week but here are a handful of the standout artists that truly rocked my soul.
I’ve been keeping these daily reviews in chronological order for no other reason than to follow my journey. I only mention this because the hyperbole that I’m about to drop will seem best suited for the end of an article. Flint, Michigan alternative R &B/hip-hop artist Tunde Olaniran was the ABSOLUTE BEST new artist I saw this week at SXSW. Previous to seeing him, I had heard one song that caught my ear and thought I’d check him out if I had the time and thank God I did because WOW.
My notes literally begin: HYPERKINETIC SPIRITUAL BOMBAST. I’m not really sure I can improve upon that. With news reports of the Flint Water Crises blaring, two dancers solemnly came on stage, faces covered in mourning. Tunde arrived shortly after, regally adorned in a flowing dashiki and an immediate, commanding presence. What followed was 40 minutes of powerful preaching and celebratory self-love. Although his music maintained a strong sense of social awareness, it’s really the self-awareness of it all that was so captivating. On either side of the stage, behind the dancers, were two signs dictating that this was a safe space. The lists read: No Homophobia, No Femmephobia, No Racism, etc. etc. When Tunde addressed them, however, it wasn’t to make a big “politically correct” statement (or whatever it is people fear when they hear safe space) – it was simply make sure all felt welcomed to enjoy themselves.
And that right there was the greatest spiritual truth of the show – everyone was invited in. Tunde’s music and message was an outreach made not only to the audience to take care of each other but for everyone to take care of themselves, to be present in themselves. Tunde is an artist that is obviously comfortably in love in his own skin, exploring every creative whim and fancy with complete abandon. It’s an admirable trait – one that produces some of the most eclectic and hectic live shows I’ve ever witnessed – but it’s even more awesome when a performer has the stage presence to make everyone feel welcomed to join in on the fun.
Coming off the electric glow of the previous set, I was blessed with an enrapturing show by New York songstress Julie Byrne – my favorite show of the week that I was actually expecting. A songwriter whose ethereal folk stylings and angelic voice immediately, and favorably, call to mind the work of Nick Drake, her recent record Not Even Happiness is an exercise in spiritual centering. Playing in an outdoor bar on one of the busier streets at SX, the chaos of the night threatened to drown her hushed acoustics outright but her hypnotic hymns were enough to pull the audience completely in. Backed only by the occasional keyboard flourish, the show belonged entirely to Julie’s unassuming presence that lilted disarmingly through the crowd. I will readily admit that her show would be far more suited for a quiet club but I was blown away by her music’s ability to overcome. If you ever find yourself taken by the magic of an evening’s fall or the unnamable undercurrent of wistful longing, do yourself – and your heart – a favor and check out Julie’s work.
Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra
As much as I joke about being forever emo or swear that bluegrass is the music of my soul, deep down I know that I will always be first and foremost a ska-kid. Maybe it’s the over joyous cacophony or maybe just the fact that the only dance I confidently have in my arsenal is the skank, ska is the music moves me with the greatest swiftness and sweetness. Being in a particularly joyous and celebratory mood, making it to the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra set was a true blessing. Hailing from Japan, TSPO (or, as they’re affectionately known, Skapara) is a massive ska collective that do everything in their considerable power to bring every element of historical ska – from Two Tone to 3rd Wave – to boisterous heights. I was excited (and, to be honest, kind of amazed) to see a huge showing of fellow ska fans crowding the stage but I am genuinely surprised that the building was still standing under the weight of the raucous rabble. Luckily, I was able to find room to skank my happy ass off and discover a new favorite ska act in the process. If you have any affinity for the genre – or maybe wonder what it’s even up to these days – Skapara is where it’s at.
New York based bedroom emo artist Pronoun was high on my priority list from the start. From the moment I heard the impossibly infectious “just cuz you can’t,” I was certain they were bound to be an all-time favorite. Sure enough, with the release of their debut EP There’s no one new around you I was in love and couldn’t wait to see where these guys would go. What I didn’t realize, however, is just how little distance they’d yet traveled – turns out, their big SXSW debut was only their 8th live show ever. This modern musical landscape is insane for new artists to emerge out of nowhere – thank goodness, because aside from a few understandable jitters, Pronoun sounded phenomenally well-rehearsed and very promising. Looking like Natasha Lyonne’s clone, singer Alyse Vellturo shyly admitted that she’s not quite used to singing on stage but, other than hitting a surprisingly higher register than on her record, she doesn’t have much in the way to be nervous about. With a few more shows under their belt, Pronoun will be truly ready to leave the bed room behind.
In a lot of ways, SXSW is an exercise in genre exploration. I’m pretty sure literally every genre was represented from minimalist lo-fi to high production alternative hip-hop. Also represented? Thai funk/soul fusion. Hailing from Houston, TX – of all places – this trio of musicians found their sound through the discovery of 60’s and 70’s Thai funk cassettes. Although they bring in funk stylings from across the globe (their name means airplane, after all), that core sound is distinctly Thai and it is gloriously funky. With bassist Laura Lee and guitarist Mark Speer donning their distractingly Mod doos and brilliantly bright 60’s chic, it was pretty clear what sort of set I was in for. Built entirely on spacious soundscapes, spellbinding bass lines and blistering guitar licks, Khruangbin are the sort of band that lives and breathes the platonic ideal of groove. Tailor made for festival vibes and open air late night jams, this trio is an absolute must see from this year.
Personal anecdote: my wife stumbled upon an incredible collection of Thai Funk entitled Luk Thung! and it is one of our favorite records. This is definitely a genre that deserves more attention – in this regard, Khruangbin is doing the music world a great favor.
Lee Baines III & the Glory Fires
There are a lot of aspects of the Southern political attitude that are wrapped up in some truly heinous sins – but what’s not is about as burn-it-all-down liberal as one could get. Alabama rockers Lee Baines III & the Glory Fires are a prime example of this ethos – beer in one hand, Molotov cocktail in the other, Southern heart firmly on sleeve. Sort of like the Drive-By Truckers by way of G.G Allen, these guys have a lot of love for their roots even as they reach deep down to tear them out to plant again. Introducing every song with a visceral, rambling sermon about political corruption, religious hypocrisy, racial tension and all manner of societal ills, it’s clear that these guys are on a mission. Particularly poignant was the moment they rallied behind the Alabama state motto – “We Defend Our Rights” – reminding the crowd, themselves, and if they can help it, their beloved home, that that doesn’t mean the rights of rich, entitled white men. Honestly, it’s been a minute since I’ve been around a punk scene but watching these guys thrash about with as much righteous anger and heart rending love as they do, I was reminded what punk truly is – and how Southern it can be.