Here’s our annual report from Austin’s SXSW Festival, written as always by our roving reporter Oliver Gray. This year it’s a photo essay with Oliver’s words accompanied by photographer Paul Dominy’s swell pics.
Musical categories, don’t you just love them? But in order to shoehorn as wide a variety of acts as possible into this SXSW report while maintaining a vague sense of coherence, I’ve invented a few new categories. Here we go.
Heritage act 1
The Zombies dominated the entire week, with three live performances promoting their new album Different Game and the première of their new biopic Hung Up On A Dream. An acoustic duo show at Waterloo Records from Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent melted hearts and minds with the beauty and sincerity of their music, while viewers of the film became quite emotional as unexpected details of the band’s history were revealed.
Heritage act 2
Barely off the plane, we stumbled, without much optimism, into a showcase by 75 year-old Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger. Would this be a shambolic affair from a washed-up old hippie? Far from it. With a series of guest Morrisons including actor Dennis Quaid and Robbie’s son Waylon (looking like a Madchester refugee) they produced a panoramic 90 minute Doors set that was so musically impeccable that it came close to experiencing the original band. The various substitute Manzareks on keys were all brilliant. This sort of thing only happens at SXSW.
Heritage act 3
Surely one of the most unexpected names to be spotted in the copious SXSW listings was that of Dana Gillespie. The vivacious sixties icon had flown in her youthful bunch of virtuosos The London Blues Band, led by pianist Dino Baptiste, to promote her 73rd album (really) at the age of 73. To experience her strutting her blues stuff (including psychedelic spiritual chants) on the stage of the Continental Club was both surreal and endearing.
Hung Up On A Dream
The Zombies were all over SXSW this year, and the plushy confines of the Zach Theater hosted the première of their new feature-length documentary film Hung Up On A Dream. The undisputed star is Colin Blunstone, who comes across as hilariously affable as well as a vocal genius. One of his many anecdotes relates how, when Time Of The Season became a number one US hit after the band had split up, several fake Zombies bands started touring – one of them featuring two members of ZZ Top!
This duo was making its US debut on a bill consisting mainly of Danish acts (these national showcases will become a recurring theme), in this case presented by the Crunchy Frog label. Our disappointment at a food offering dominated by large amounts of meat was tempered by a wildly energetic performance by the Brazilian/Danish duo. I’m a big fan of twosomes like The Kills and the Black Keys that blast out bluesy power pop and throw themselves around cheerfully. I think the States will take to them.
I’m cheating a bit here, because it turns out Jane has played at SXSW before, in 2016, but it definitely had the feel of an attempted US launch. Its success was questionable because the Central Presbyterian Church was barely half full, but her performance was stunning, one of the standout memories of the week. The unfortunate tag “folktronica” doesn’t do her gorgeous melodies, ethereal tones and outstanding backing band enough justice.
Lee Bains III And The Glory Fires
This collection is designed for acts that defy categorisation because they are unique. Just as they do each year, Lee and the (new) band rattled through eight shows in three days. They really have everything – soul, melody and a strong, good-natured political element. Introducing each song with a monologue pleading for justice and inclusivity gives an inspiring context and feels like (loud) poetry of the highest calibre.
Low Cut Connie
Adam Weiner swore in 2019 that he’d never play another SXSW. Yet here he was, declaring, in his inimitable way, undying love for the event he has missed so much. The core of Adam and guitarist Will Donnelly remains solid while the rest of the band fluctuates. The current formation is outrageously – dare I say it – sexy, with the provocative onstage antics even wilder than before. “I love you”, declares Adam after each song in his wife-beater vest from atop his upright piano, and it’s reciprocated in spades.
Austin was full of German bands and this one caught my attention by emailing me direct and citing one of their influences as Sleaford Mods, who also endorse them. It was a classic SXSW scenario with a gaggle of German bands playing to each other (and no one else) on the front porch of a grocery store in the outskirts. I thought I’d seen everything in rock and roll but nothing prepared me for vocalist Patrick Wagner, whose tortured spasms of jerky movement would put Lee Brilleaux to shame. Spattering sweat everywhere and seemingly almost out of control, at one stage he unzipped his flies and reached in, before pulling back from a Morrison moment that would have got him arrested in seconds in Texas. The industrial-style music was so powerful that this is the trio that would, for me, answer the annual question “Which was the best band you saw?”
Sarah Shook And The Disarmers
Psych-style wig-outs are always a rewarding feature of SXSW and the most thrilling this year came from a very unexpected source. After an increasingly rocking country set at a packed C-Boy’s, Sarah Shook warned the audience to expect something different as they launched into a distortion-ridden ten-minute slow instrumental dominated by heavily treated pedal steel. With the dark melody benefiting from increasingly intense repetition, Mogwai or My Bloody Valentine would have been proud of them.
I got this lot wrong! With their reassuringly cosy name conjuring up summery images of warm showers, I had expectations of something maybe Grandaddy-ish. Instead, they won the prize for the shoutiest band around other than Pigs x7, also playing round the corner. The Warmduscher show at Hotel Vegas was enlivened by the despairing bassist’s mic not being switched on for the entire set and then his instrument packing up, forcing him to borrow a bass from Dream Wife. There’s definitely a market for this loud, heavy stuff (much heavier than their album) and they made up for the absence of And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead.
The atmosphere was edgy and the banter from James Patrelli increasingly deranged as we accustomed ourselves to the newest (completely reconfigured) version of White Denim. The duelling guitarists are a crazed amalgam of Wishbone Ash and John McLaughlin as they smack out their jazzy octaves at ridiculous speed. It’s hugely impressive yet somehow baffling as Patrelli confrontationally goads the audience, reminding them that he’s been doing this for 18 years. Yes, one can definitely get too much guitar noodling, but the intensity made for a memorable experience.
The Brits Are Coming 1 (pic 13)
Choosing who to go and see at SXSW is always a challenge, as there are over a thousand bands performing (really). This year I decided to go for names that meant something to me. Top picks were English Teacher (because I used to be one), Their/They’re/There (for a similar reason) and Dream Wife (because I have one). It didn’t go too well, because we failed to find Their/They’re/There and English Teacher were so bland that I can’t remember anything about them. Dream Wife were fabulous though, a completely up-for-it young quartet having the time of their lives with their captivatingly cheerful / angry pop-rock and energetic stage antics.
The Brits Are Coming 2
I’ll be pilloried for saying it, but I find much of the British presence at SXSW embarrassing. There has always been the tradition of scores of UK bands travelling to Texas to play to each other and now they have taken over one of Austin’s finest venues and turned it into Little Britain. Big walls have been built around the entrance to the Cedar Street Courtyard to emphasise the separateness, while inside all the UK musicians and industry types allow themselves to be royally ripped off by the clever Austinites, who charge them ten dollars for a small beer – by far the dearest anywhere in the city. Often sponsored by unsuspecting UK taxpayers (I found myself staring at a LED screen advertising Belfast City Council), it’s true to say that each year one or two bands will achieve a breakthrough here, while many, many more will return home disappointed. We’d never heard of Prima Queen, who are based in London with an American singer from Chicago, but they were pleasingly melodic and characterful enough to give them a solid chance.
The Brits Are Coming 3
The Heavy Heavy
A gritty test for any UK band is to take their music to the heartlands and see how they get on. Thus it was that Brighton’s The Heavy Heavy were taken to the Texans’ hearts at Hotel San Jose and went down a storm with their Fleetwood Mac-ish image and west coast sounds. It’s certainly possible for a UK band to sustain a US career – just look at Skinny Lister. The Heavy Heavy’s chances are better then even.
True Americana 1
At last, true Americana! As the discussions meander on about what Americana is, admit it, we can’t define it but we sure know it when we hear it. And there are plenty of customers who attend SXSW and only listen to Americana-style bands. The mighty Canadian Six Shooter label has come a long way from the wild days of their annual hootenannies and now have huge acts like The Dead South on their books. They have always had a great ear for new artists and the soothingly sincere tones of fast-rising William Prince made for a pleasant start to the day at Swan Dive. The tacos and Margaritas weren’t bad either.
True Americana 2
Stumbling on something brilliant when you least expect it is one of the joys of SXSW. Feeling badly let down by a performance by Nude Party that verged on the amateurish, I headed for the Continental Club to catch Jon Dee Graham, to be confronted by the depressing sight of a static queue and House Full signs. There was nothing for it but to dive into the adjacent Goorin’s hat shop, where the outstanding honky-tonk sounds of Tender Things had inspired a mass outbreak of two-stepping. Describing themselves as a “hippie country” band, they are led by Jesse Ebaugh, formerly of Heartless Bastards. As the loping groove became more and more overpowering, the feeling was “Yes! This is Americana!” An honourable mention also goes to David Wax Museum, whose mutant prog Tex-Mex slayed the Continental Club the following day.
True Americana 3
Daniel Romano’s Outfit
When I look back on SXSW 2023, this is the experience I will remember most clearly. Looking like a young Peter Green in his stylish leather jacket, Daniel exudes effortless cool throughout. Actually, at the C-Boy’s outside show it’s three bands, as the revue-style 90 minute show features three dovetailing sets, first by fast-rising singer Juliana Riolino, then Romano’s wife Carson McHone who, if there’s any justice, will follow Courtney Marie Andrews as the next major break-through Americana artist. By the time the downbeat but charismatic Romano takes centre stage (and later to the drums), Riolino has turned into a dervish-like, stage rolling, beer swilling rocker and the entertainment factor has reached fever pitch. Simply brilliant.
Selected live videos from this year’s SxSW can be found at Paul Dominy’s You Tube channel: https://www.youtube.com/@pauljdominy