Festival Review: South By South West, March 16th – 20th 2021

Oliver Gray has attended Austin’s South By South West Festival for the last seventeen years. Now he tackles the online version.

Negotiating the South By Southwest Festival normally entails walking for miles, staying up very late and dealing with blisters, drunkenness and severe confusion as to who is playing where and when. It’s the most wonderful experience and taking SXSW online presented its own quandaries and mysteries.

The first one was working out exactly who was playing and at what time, a challenge for a non-mathematically-minded viewer in the UK. The techies at SXSW had created five channels you could choose from, but I discovered very quickly that the schedule wasn’t that well suited to someone watching from Europe. Generally, shows started around 10 pm, running through to about 4 am. “Hmm, okay,” I thought, “I’ll take up the challenge,” and set myself up in front of my computer for an all night marathon. This went hideously wrong on the very first evening, when I misinterpreted the schedule. Normally at the real SXSW, shows start around 8 pm and go through till about 2 am and are listed as being on the day the shows start, i.e. if the show is at 1 am on Thursday morning it is included in Wednesday’s listings. I do hope you’re following this. My assumption that this would be the case proved to be inaccurate, as tuning in in anticipation of Canada’s Holy Fuck and NYC’s A Place To Bury Strangers revealed itself to be 24 hours after the shows had actually taken place, and I was left staring at a static and inactive screen. Luckily, a few enquiries revealed that it was possible to do a catch-up the next day although again, it was extremely difficult to work out exactly what time the showcases would be happening. Another anomaly was the fact that most of the showcases were presented by various management companies and each show was listed both individually and as part of the showcase. It normally wasn’t possible to work out what order the bands would be appearing in and at exactly what time. This was particularly apparent in the showcase featuring Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, The Wandering Hearts and a few others. Who would be up next was anybody’s guess. Years ago, I got myself into trouble for being rude about The Wandering Hearts so I thought I’d give them another go. My revised opinion, having viewed their front room show, is that they are another of those “pleasant” harmony acoustic trios and quite harmless. But when you put them next to a barnstorming, blockbusting band such as Reverend Peyton, … well, it does, I suppose, all go to prove how all-inclusive the Americana tag can be.

Reverend Peyton SXSW 2021

Giving up on the plan of making a schedule which became even more complicated then actually physically traipsing from venue to venue, I was able to take the opportunity to check out some things I never would have normally, such as some fabulous bands from Spain (Belako and the XTC-ish Alien Tango), a cool bunch from Australia and, of course, Ireland (the fabulously ethereal Aiofe Nessa Frances and the intriguing Pillow Queens). The ability to flip from screen to screen and not have to stand in a queue and produce ID was a definite advantage in these circumstances. It was, however, quite peculiar not to have the normal gig anticipation excitement of watching the crew setting up the gear, testing the mics etc. All you get is a blank screen with some kind of logo as you wait in trepidation to see whether the band you want to see is actually going to appear or whether you have misinterpreted the advance information.

Then, when the band actually is performing, you realise suddenly just what it is that makes the online experience so different from the in-person one, namely the proliferation of camera angles and close-ups. Your normal view is from in front of the stage, where you can see the entire band. In order to replicate the on-screen experience in a live venue, you’d have to climb up onto the ceiling or jump on stage and position yourself inches away from the artist. On balance, I prefer the real thing, but nonetheless would love to give massive credit to the creators of the online festival for the huge effort they put in to try to make it realistic. On some occasions, such as the British Music Embassy, they did get very close indeed to the real experience by filming at tremendous volume in a dingy club environment. This meant that punk acts such as Chubby And The Gang could really come into their own And Penelope Isles could make a really deep impression.

Thursday evening offered the opportunity to toggle between Irish artists (traditionally the Texans’ favourites) and some great Texan artists (normally loved by the Irish) including American Dreamer and Betty Soo. She initially won the “most spectacular mask” prize for five minutes until being upstaged by Como Las Movies, whose face-covering took the form of an octopus, since you ask. With music as good as this, it could get frustrating that most sets were only two or three songs long.

Como Las Movies SXSW 2021

The conference aspect of SXSW proceeded as usual, largely in a Zoom format. I dipped into conversations with Brian Eno, plus the 88-year-old Willie Nelson (he gets everywhere but not even he could stage his annual Luck Reunion this year) and an engrossing chat with the impossibly cool Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks. Sadly, a prevalent theme of many discussions was how to rescue live music.

Americana fans were treated to a fine Saturday. Spiky Texan Carson McHone and her super-cool band including Hammond and neatly distorted guitars delivered one of my personal high points of the week – lovers of Kathleen Edwards should keep a close eye on Carson. A poignant set by The Deer from the stage of the Continental Club, featuring the guitar solo of the week from guitarist Michael McLeod, led up to veteran Austin icon Jon Dee Graham at the same venue with his son William. Nothing can stop these two, inter-generational guitar duelling at its finest. Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears gave way to Aaron Lee Tasjan to provide a quality climax to Sunday and indeed the whole event.

Aaron Lee Tasjan SXSW 2021

For next year (please god it won’t be necessary), I’d like to request virtual Modelos and Margaritas on tap. Apart from that omission, I was surprised and impressed by how successful and comprehensive the whole operation was.

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