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.
Hometown heroes Spoon had a big SX this year, and for good reason. In anticipation for the release of their 9th studio record, Hot Thoughts, the band played several shows all over the city to the delight of their adoring fans and most, quite frankly, I was simply unable to get into. Thank goodness for the massive Radio stage, however, because they are every bit as phenomenal as their reputation led me to believe. With a gracious stage presence that was delightfully humble, Spoon played with an inviting and infectious energy. Playing mostly fuzzed-out psychedelic selections from their recent release, with a couple older tunes thrown in, Spoon was a perfect band to see on my final day of SXSW to remind just how much I love this beautiful city of music.
(I know I should share a song form their newest but I am still too pleased that they played my absolute favorite song)
Memphis country artist Valerie June is a pretty picture. A soft spoken, big hearted story teller, Valerie treated Friday’s crowd to surreal tales of angelic inspirations and the joy of creativity. The thickness of her southern drawl somehow made these tales of hearing voices and stories in her head imminently charming and, with her calls for the universality of love, it was hard not be enamored . With a voice like Iris Dement and mass of hair like an impossible crown, Valerie was an alluring and regal stage presence. Memphis through and through, her set covered everything from pure rock and roll soul to the quiet pickin’ of hushed folk – she is a performer with considerable presence and a pure heart to boot.
SXSW is basically one giant iPod shuffle – one moment you’re in Tennessee listening to country fried soul, the next you’re in Australia listening to the funkiest hip-hop this side of California. Koi Child came out blaring with a blistering horn section and brought a bonafide party to the midday crowd. Starting with the absolute best cover of Prodigy’s “Breathe” I never expected to hear, they blazed forward with track after track of banging beats and funky grooves. Although I was delighted to have stumbled upon them, I have to admit that I’m a little sad we didn’t catch them at a later showcase. This is the sort of band that is tailor made for the late night dance party. I hope they make it back over to the states someday soon.
This was an absolute dream. Portland singer-songwriter M. Ward has been one of my favorite artists for years so the chance to see him play an intimate solo set was an incredible blessing. This was made all the better by the selection of deeper cuts – especially from his 3rd studio album The Transfiguration of Vincent, aka one of the greatest heart break albums ever recorded. Weathering a couple of unfortunate technical issues, M. Ward handled it all with ease, adjusting microphones on the fly, in order to keep building his loops and furiously picking out his melodies. There was a raw and yet meditative energy to the whole affair that perfectly mirrored his considerable discography. To be honest, I’m still processing the whole experience. It felt both deliriously deep and yet disappointingly fleeting – I certainly pray I can get another chance to see him solo one day.
Mastodon never disappoints. These fellow Georgians have been my favorite metal band for years now and literally every show seems better than the last. Known for their incredible technical prowess and overwhelmingly weighty presence, Mastodon are the pinnacle of modern prog-metal and an unstoppable force live. With a new album due out at the end of March, I was certainly expecting a show filled with new cuts but, rather than simply advertise, Mastodon chose to celebrate with their fans by delivering a brutally wonderful retrospective on their career that set the entire audience electric with excitement (including my personal all-time favorite song “Meglodon,” no less). Once they did get around to the new tracks, they fit seamlessly against their back catalogue. Even album single “Show Yourself” – which left some fans a bit weary with its decidedly catchier structure – felt awesomely comfortable next to their blistering back catalogue.
(Side note: I was blessed with the opportunity to interview the band earlier that morning about their new record. Incredibly gracious and kind human beings – be on the lookout for that this week.)
Minus the Bear
Seattle based progressive indie rock outfit Minus the Bear are an interesting beast. Never twee enough to fit the usual indie mold, never meaty enough to feel fully hard rock, they’ve always seemed to me to exist in a strange liminal space in the alternative scene. Their closest kin, in my mind, developed later with the alternative post-punkish bands – like Foals – who found a way to incorporate infectious grooves with heavier hooks. Minus the Bear, however, have always been on the heartier end of the spectrum – like dancing with drunken, dizzy abandon. As the final night show at the end of a long week, their deliriously heavy grooves were the perfect send off for my weary mind. A wave of melodic cacophony, they were honestly far heavier than I was even expecting but just as catchy and cathartic as ever.
Bonus Saturday Artist:
Having been at SX for an entire week, I was exhausted and decided to make Saturday half day to wander around a bit, not planning anything in particular before heading home and getting rest. Taking in the convention center one last time, I wandered up to the Radio stage and saw an artist playing to about 30 people or so in the massive room. Curious, I stepped in and took a listen. Turns out, it was South African rapper Kwesta and, despite the early morning set and the thin crowd, he was giving it his all. As he explained to the crowd, this was his first trip to the states, moving his music past his home country – where he enjoys considerable fame – and spreading his art abroad. He talked with humility, with excitement, with true passion and joy about being able to be there at SXSW. It was, quite honestly, the best way I could’ve ended my time at the festival. Hearing this international artist pour his heart out with gratitude, playing for a handful of people with as much zeal as a sold out stadium, was incredibly life affirming. There are a lot of issues with SXSW, from the city infrastructure to the corporate sponsorship, but one thing is absolute clear from my experience this year: this festival can be an absolutely vital and incredible opportunity for emerging artists. It is a celebration of the world’s music and an experience of the community it can create. Sure, it’s a bit pie-in-the-sky, but listening to the joy in Kwesta’s voice that morning, I know it’s possible.