Live Review: South By Southwest Festival 2024, Austin, Texas

Emily Barker

In my twenty years attending South by Southwest, Chuck Prophet and The Mission Express have been there for half of them.  Even when they are not going to be in town during the week of the music festival, Chuck and co. will often play a weekend run of pre-SXSW shows at The Continental Club, and have done so frequently enough for this to have become something of a tradition.  This year, Friday and Saturday evening appearances were followed by a Sunday matinee show.  A flight arrival in Austin at 1:30 PM on Sunday gave me barely enough time to get from airport to hotel, hastily check-in, dump luggage in room and grab a scooter to whizz up South Congress Avenue and join a packed house for the 3:00 PM show.  I was pleased I had pre-purchased a ticket as the place was filled to bursting with adoring fans.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Chuck and the band but it is true to say that they have never disappointed.  Highlights this time were an exceptional version of ‘Nixonland’, a wonderful cover of Chet Atkins’ ‘Kicky’ and the twenty-year-old ‘You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp)’, a song that never seems to age, especially when lit up by Chuck’s searing guitar work.

With two solo acoustic shows, Canada’s Kathleen Edwards reminded us why her decision to end an eight-year foray into coffee shop ownership and return to her musical career proved so popular with all, except maybe Ottawa’s coffee lovers.  In her evening show at Empire Control Room, she returned in acerbic form, singing “Everyone’s a critic, and they can fucking suck it,” before expressing a similar sentiment toward TikTok users, much to the amusement of her audience.  Contrastingly, everyone in the capacity crowd at Waterloo Records the following lunchtime was silenced and visibly touched by a heartfelt song introduction in which she tearfully recalled a recently lost friend.  Edwards attributed her raw emotion, at least in part, to being perimenopausal, with her vulnerability serving to strengthen the already tangible bond between artist and audience.  Among songs taken from her five-album catalogue and some newer compositions, she duetted with Ken Yates on his song ‘The Big One’ and with Lauren Morrow, who provided harmony vocals to a beautifully sensitive version John Prine’s ‘Hello In There’.  Very special experiences indeed.

Kathleen Edwards, picture by Paul Dominy

It was with an almost palpable sense of boyish excitement that ASH made their return to SXSW with three official showcases plus an appearance at Lazarus Brewing Company as part of their five-day festival within a festival, curated by KRTU San Antonio’s Music for Listeners radio show.  With lanky bassist Mark Hamilton contorting through a series of leg stretching exercises, the original three-piece line-up punched out a seven-song set featuring hit singles ‘Girl From Mars’ and ‘Goldfinger’ from their breakthrough album ‘1977′, reminders of the strength of guitarist Tim Wheeler’s songwriting.

Ash, picture by Paul Dominy

When your band is fronted by a female bassist, with a female rhythm guitarist and two guys helping out on lead guitar and drums and you hail from the Isle of Wight, comparisons with fellow islanders Wet Leg must become tiresomely inevitable.  Yet, while there are multiple physical parallels that can be drawn, Coach Party employ a harsher, power punk-pop attitude without the same quirkiness and double entendre humour embraced by their island neighbors.  This didn’t appear to be considered a drawback by enthusiastic audiences for two shows at the British Music Embassy.

Coach Party, picture by Paul Dominy

For SXSW 2024 the British Music Embassy moved to new, much larger digs, taking over the entire, terraced backyard of the Downright Hotel.  This provided the opportunity for a large main stage on the lower level, overlooked by the smaller Alt stage on the upper level.  Although the new venue provided easier access and vastly increased audience space, it’s questionable whether the lower audience density, compared to previous smaller venues Latitude and Cedar Street Courtyard, detracted from the atmosphere that comes with a more tightly packed crowd.  Just sayin’.

Although home town artists are fairly well represented in the official schedule, there are many more Austenites who watch SXSW as spectators or who appear in various smaller fringe shows around town during the festival.  Accepting an invitation to such an event, I headed to the Hi Hat Pub in east Austin to see three local artists sharing the same bill – Lacie Taylor, Matt Melton and Jenifer Jackson.  Lacie and Matt were both new to me, Lacie showcasing some pleasant acoustic tunes and Matt some lyrically clever and amusing numbers accompanied by ukulele.  Jenifer, a friend and a frequent collaborator with Pat Sansone of Wilco and Jon Notarthomas (formerly of Ian McLagan’s Bump Band), I have seen several times before and she presented some new, yet to be recorded songs.  Although a quiet affair to a tiny audience, it was a fun show and a great way to depressurize for a while.

Jenifer Jackson, picture by Paul Dominy

Their shared appreciation of The Smiths is something that is not readily evident in the songs of The Lottery Winners; they are significantly less miserable and appear to come from a place of carefree joy.  Leader and songwriter Thom Rylance refers to the catharsis that he finds in writing songs about his struggles with mental health issues, but that subject matter and the catchy, hook-filled tunes seem a little incongruous.  Personally, I’d settle for a couple of extra songs in the set instead of his extended inter-song chatter, but there’s no doubt that Rylance’s cheeky Mancunian nature makes for a charming and engaging front man, albeit at times a little Robbie Williamsesque.

Lottery Winners, picture by Paul Dominy

St. David’s Bethall Hall provided an ideal evening setting for Emily Barker’s delicate, soothing tunes. Emily’s beautifully crafted songs (such as ‘The Woman Who Planted Trees’) exude an enthralling and mesmerizing thoughtfulness, which was only enhanced by the pastoral surroundings of the church.  It was pleasing to learn that having recently acquired a three-year work visa, Emily is currently planning shows across the US.

Emily Barker, picture by Paul Dominy

Maybe there was an antipodean theme emerging as, earlier in the week, I witnessed the most spectacular soft-porn rock’n’roll you’re likely to see this side of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, delivered by Labretta Suede and the Motel 6, a four-piece outfit from New Zealand. Their performance was suggestive and quite thrilling and, in many ways, epitomized SXSW: a band who has travelled half-way around the globe to play a handful of small venue gigs in Austin as part of a US tour that each night will probably attract few more than the twenty-nine people who saw them at The Hole in the Wall.  At the same time, a great thing and a crying shame.

Bands including members who are partners or siblings are pretty commonplace, parents and offspring, as in Mystery Jets, a little less so.  A new combination for me is aunt and nephew.  That’s who you’ll find in Brisbane-based Girl and Girl where leader and primary songwriter Kai James is joined by his Aunt Liss on drums with friends Jayden Williams on guitar and Fraser Bell on bass.  This was my accidental find of the week, stumbling upon them at the Radio Day Stage during a lull in my schedule.  Jagged garage rock with edgy guitar rhythms and Aunt Liss’ Stray Cats drumming suggested a collision between The Wedding Present, The Violent Femmes, early Talking Heads and Wilko Johnson that had James dancing with erratic twitchiness.  The parent in me was concerned that as he flung himself in a frenzy about the stage, Kai might fall and hurt himself.  He eventually did, but recovered with much coolness and great aplomb.

At Austin Beer Garden Brewing Company, William The Conqueror, although based in Newquay, Cornwall, continued the antipodean theme as Edinburgh-born leader Ruarri Joseph had spent a period of his childhood in New Zealand. The band came highly recommended by several friends although, lamentably, not only had I never seen them before SXSW 2024, I had also never listened to any of their recorded work until shortly before making this trip to Austin.  It quickly became clear that this was definitely my loss.  William The Conqueror are one of those bands who are delightfully difficult to pin down or place into any particular genre pigeonhole and they’re so good that it doesn’t matter anyway.  Previously described as ‘Southern rock with a British twist,’ within their consistently strong material can be found blues, americana, rock, country, pop, soul, whatever you need.  And if you can’t find something you love in there, that’s your loss.  Featuring mainly songs from their last two releases, ‘Maverick Thinker’ and ‘Excuse Me While I Vanish’, the three-piece (Joseph on guitar and vocals, Noami Holmes on bass and Harry Harding on drums) enjoy the effortless, organic chemistry that creates a remarkable yet wonderfully understated groove, most notably in ‘Jesus Died A Young Man’, ‘The Puppet and the Puppeteer’ and ‘The Bruises’.  Why they are not huge I have no idea, but they were definitely my band of SXSW 2024.

William The Conqueror, picture by Paul Dominy

Chuck Prophet and The Mission Express climaxed their Austin visit with a show at C-Boys SoCo Stomp.  For reasons unexplained, the band were without Stephanie Finch on keyboards, but after a few numbers, they were joined by Charlie Sexton, erstwhile guitarist for Bob Dylan and, more recently, Elvis Costello and The Imposters.  There was a slightly rockier edge to this line-up that particularly highlighted the strength of the guitar interplay between Prophet and James DaPrato and the unwavering foundation of bassist Kevin T. White and drummer Vicente Rodriguez.  It’s no wonder that by many, Chuck Prophet And The Mission Express are considered to be the best live band in the world.

Chuck Prophet, picture by Paul Dominy

And finally, we come to the big band show.  At SXSW 2004 in the old Antone’s, The Black Keys were still genuinely a guitar/vocal/drums duo – raw, dirty and simply fantastic.  In the intervening years, with huge worldwide success has come a much smoother live show and lots of other musicians.  Purists may feel this represents a departure from their original qualities and values, others, that this is a natural evolution.  Others still, like me, don’t care.  They are still brilliant and at Stubbs Bar-B-Q, they produced the most superb, seventeen-song greatest hits set that had the capacity crowd in virtual rapture.  It was literally impossible and indeed dangerous to try to push through the dense crowd to anywhere near the stage to shoot a few photos, but listening and watching from a distance up on the hill detracted little from their closing show of SXSW 2024.

Usually our annual report from SXSW is provided by Oliver Gray with Paul Dominy providing the pics. This year, Oliver couldn’t attend so Paul picked up the baton, providing the text along with his pictures. In a shameless plug however, Oliver has asked us to mention his latest book, an overview of his adventures attending SXSW. The book – Austin Healing – Cautionary Tales From 20 Years Of SXSW, is due to be published in July.

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