For the first time in recent memory--with the exception of media Twitter’s annual complaints about brands or whatever--SXSW week started this year with bad “buzz.”
First, there were the reports that the big brands were pulling out, deciding that their money is better spent elsewhere than sponsoring massive events like Hype Hotel (which disappeared this year without a peep). Fader Fort was smaller, and there was no giant chip machine featuring Doritos and LL Cool J, but the brands were still out in full force; it was possible to enjoy Shake Shack courtesy of Pitchfork, and to get free shoes at House of Vans like always.
And second, there was the discovery, by Felix Walworth of Told Slant, that there’s an insidious clause in the SXSW artist contract that says that international bands could be turned over to ICE and could be deported if they run afoul of the law or play an unauthorized event. SXSW contended they would never try to have anyone deported and that wasn’t the intention of the clause, which wasn’t much to salve the worries of bands who, in some cases, couldn’t even get into SXSW this year because of new border rules under Trump. Some bands pulled out, others signed a letter, and eventually, SXSW promised to remove the clause--though it remained this year.
Which brings us to the matter at hand: trying to cover SXSW for its music. The prevailing line is that “no one cares” about reading what’s happening at SXSW, because the people who are there know what it’s like, and the people who aren’t don’t want to read an article about FOMO, more or less. But the reality is that it’s impossible to accurately depict the feeling of being here for people who have never been, and that’s the real problem of covering SXSW. How can you replicate for someone who’s never experienced it the rush of who’s-playing-what-where texts? The pain and anguish that comes with waiting in line for 90 minutes at an event sponsored by Pandora to be told it’s at capacity? The feeling you get in your feet when you’ve walked eight miles in a day in service of standing in a large room cement-floored room with other sweaty people who have walked eight miles too? The sweet relief that comes from spending 10 minutes pretending you’re pooping in an air conditioned bathroom that is sponsored by the James Franco and Bryan Cranston picture, Why Him? because it’s the only 10 minutes you’ll get to yourself away from a crowd in an 18 hour period? What it’s like to make the decision between not eating anything for 12 hours or seeing Noname at House of Vans?
We’re not sure we can accurately do it either; our feet hurt, we haven’t had enough water, and we’re sunburned to within an inch of our lives. But ultimately, the thing that makes everything worth it, and what ultimately brings so many people to Austin--we don’t know if anyone can articulate how thoroughly SXSW effects Austin’s infrastructure--is the opportunity to see tons of great new and established bands in the same place. We saw a bunch of music in our combined 11 Days at SXSW (7 for Amileah, 4 for Andrew)--and sold a lot of records at our pop-up shop-- and these are the 10 best performances we saw.
PWR BTTM: This is the band I was most excited to see live; I watch their live performances religiously—from shaky iphone concert videos to their NPR Tiny Desk Concert, to their music videos. That’s because while PWR BTTM’s songs are phenomenal, but they thrive most as a SHOW: extra, performative, unapologetic, queer, glittery, hilarious, political. As honest and passionate as ever, Liv and Ben’s SXSW set leaned heavily toward their upcoming May 12 album Pageant. After their opening number “Silly,” Ben broke out into a spoken ode to the importances of public art spaces under Trump that reminded us why we all push through the bullshit to be here: “We’re living in a time where people try to spread misinformation and try and alienate us from each other, but look around—you have so many friends you haven’t even met yet.” Highlights included Liv’s wry song about teaching people to use gender neutral pronouns (“Do you wanna learn a new trick? You’re gonna be so good it...you’ll think it’s so funny that you thought you couldn’t do it!”) and Ben’s emotional finish, “a poem designed to kill fascists” where we all yelled, “One man won’t ever love me like I need him to” together. (AS)
Spoon: Spoon definitely don’t need to play SXSW at this point in their career; they sell out mid-sized theaters across America every 2 fiscal years. But given their history with Austin, and the fact that their great new album, Hot Thoughts came out during SXSW, they took the opportunity to program a three night residency at the former Eno’s with special guests like !!!, the New Pornographers and more. I caught them on the residency’s second night, and was reminded, sort of like with Future Islands, that Spoon are just a really great band that makes great records and plays great shows. The new songs slot in well with the old stuff, and “I Turn My Camera On” still slaps to the high heavens. (AW)
Tinashe: Her set made me think...if you’re not on the Tinashe train by now, literally what are you doing? She’s a star. She is pop to her core and not ever a little sorry about it. With her new single “Flame” dropping the morning after, she brought it all on stage. She gave us a jaw-dropper pop performance which included a line of metallic-pants clad backup dancers, a full set of impeccable choreographer and the consistent powerhouse vocals we all know she’s got inside of her. You could’ve cut the room’s sexual tension from her chair-dancing to “Company” with a knife. (AS)
Future Islands: The only band I saw twice at SXSW, Future Islands continue to be the realest of real deals. There’s something reassuring in knowing that they’re just out here, making really great new music and playing really great shows. They’re almost hard to intellectualize; once you see them you’re fully on board; their charms are self evident and impossible to deny. Sam Herring is the most watchable frontman in music right now; the Letterman dancing was not a put on. Their new album, The Far Field, drops in April, and judging by the songs they played from that, it’s gonna be can’t miss. (AW)
Noname: Noname was the only artist I saw twice as well, but I would’ve seen her every day if I could. That’s not just because I was a huge fan of Noname long before I saw her live for the first time in February—Telefone bumped out of my headphones in 2016 more days than not—but because I don’t think it’s possible to understand how much Fatimah Warner really means it all until you see her live. In “Forever,” she calls her songs “aloe vera sentences to heal the scars,” but she proves that analogy extends beyond her songs and into her presence. Watching her perform is enough to make you want to abandon any cynicism that’s built up inside you and get on her glow. Between her coy scolds to too-cool audience members to get down like she deserves, her perfect pauses filled with her radiant smile, or just the palpable emotion in every word she speaks, Noname’s one of those performers it’s impossible not to be affected by. (AS)
Middle Kids: Currently on their first U.S. tour opening for Cold War Kids, Middle Kids were everywhere at SXSW, playing a bunch of shows, and even had one of their songs on that standard showcase mix that gets played everywhere during SXSW. I saw them play for KCRW at Elysium my first night in town, and even though their debut EP--a VMP Rising selection--rocks, I was utterly unprepared for how hard they’d sound live. The guitarist wielded a bottle slide, and the band was super tight. “Edge of Town” is destined to be soundtracking a bunch of college parties, and Middle Kids are destined for headline tours soon. (AW)
Girlpool: Girlpool has always had a knack for handing out ~the feels~ and their love performance was no exception. Under the midmorning trees, Cleo joked “I feel like we’re all at summer camp.” But in all honesty, they made it feel like that in the best of ways. At just 20 and 21 years of age, they’ve got the kind of insight into humanity that make their lyrics pack a punch and their soft punk sounds heal the wound it exposed. They performed their new single “123” about the too common dichotomy of a toxic relationship with someone you really love, and it quite literally made my knees weak, while also making me eager for a new album. (AS)
Jamila Woods: Jamila Woods had a hell of a 2016; she was featured on Coloring Book and put out her own stellar album, HEAVN. But 2017 seems like the year she steps out in a big way on her own; her set at Pitchfork’s event was loose, fun, and featured the best Destiny’s Child cover I’ve ever heard. And watching her stand sidestage during Noname’s set at the same event and rap every word of every song was maybe my highlight of SXSW. (AW)
Young M.A.: With the exception of another rapper on this list, Young M.A. was arguably the most buzzed about new-ish rapper on any SXSW lineup. She came to Austin hot off being the latest rapper to bring New York back, and with a Fader cover and the hottest rap song of the last year in “OOOUUU.” Her set at Pandora was brief--something like 25 minutes--but she highlighted why she’s earmarked as a Savior; she’s magnetic, was genuinely funny in between songs, and was freestyling at points like she was in a cypher, and for maybe the first time in 15 years, that wasn’t boring. It remains to be seen what the ceiling is for her, but “OOOUUU” rules as hard live as it does at 3 a.m. at the club. (AW)
Anna Wise: Anna Wise’s performance was a warm party. When I walked in, I barely knew Wise and the people around me were strangers, but by the end I’d danced with everyone in eyeshot and Wise had made her way off the stage and into the audience, culminating into to a literal embrace of audience members—the warm ‘n’ fuzzy highlight of my week. With creds on three Kendrick Lamar albums and releasing two of her own albums of straight anthems The Feminine: Act I and Act II, Anna took her skilled looping magic and a vocal range that could knock the eyebrows off your face and proved she’s the real deal live. (AS)