One piece of received wisdom regarding SXSW, the sprawling music showcase held annually in Austin, is that it has become over-corporate and is no longer worth attending for an Americana fan. This I would refute strongly. It’s true that it was heading that way a few years ago, but the organisers have pulled back and taken the festival back to its roots as a showcase for new and established bands. The “big names” and overcrowding have stopped and the experience is just brilliant. I think that many AUK subscribers would be tempted to head to SXSW. I’m saying, if you can, then you should. Maybe a few details about how it all works will help you decide.
The actual festival features a conference element, plus showcases from almost 2000 acts from all over the world, performing at 91 official venues dotted around the city. For these shows, you’ll need a wristband or badge, but they are affordable if you buy well in advance. They get more expensive the nearer you get to the event. Some people claim that you can do without a badge and just go to fringe events, but I wouldn’t recommend that because you could miss out on important shows. Another hindrance in the past was getting from venue to venue, but the arrival of Uber and the ubiquitous electric scooters have changed all that. Those pesky scooters will eventually need some kind of regulation (there are thousands of them everywhere) but they are dead useful (if slightly anarchic). One thing to remember is that if you miss any acts, you can always see them somewhere else. Acts can play up to twelve times or more over the four days because, as well as the official programme, there are hundreds of fringe events which take place during the daytime (official showcases run from 8 pm to 2 am). If you want, you can also see a band you love several times (we did this with Low Cut Connie).
Examples of great city centre venues include Cooper’s Barbecue, which featured a series of record company showcases, including performances by Erin Rae and Cedric Burnside, as well as the Single Lock label’s owner John Paul White of the Civil Wars. He started well with a hint of Roy Orbison but disappointingly descended into generic country rock. Cooper’s played host to my favourite show this year, a politically-charged and highly emotional rock tour de force from Alabama’s Lee Bains III And The Glory Fires.
There are two big events which are not so much rivals as adjuncts to the main festival. One of these is South by San Jose. This mini-festival in a car park on South Congress was this year celebrating its 20th year with strong performances from the likes of Robert Ellis, resplendent in white tuxedo in his new Texas piano man guise. Hayes Carll presented his new album here but there were disappointing performances from Edie Brickell And The New Bohemians (standard AOR) and E.B. The Younger (bland and dull, quite astonishing considering he used to lead Midlake).
The other unmissable event is the Luck Reunion, a stellar one-day festival held on Willie Nelson’s ranch, thirty miles outside Austin. The sun blazed down on a total of seven stages of varying size, one of them in a saloon and another in a chapel. The country stars were out in force, including Steve Earle, doing his Guy Clark covers, Mavis Staples and sundry members of the Nelson family. The Revival Tent was particularly exciting, with spectacular shows from Low Cut Connie and the inimitable Nude Party, who also curated a great little stage in the beer garden full of chunky garage bands. The Mavis Staples Stage hosted the huge-lunged Courtney Marie Andrews and Bristol newcomer Yola. In the US, either they’ll take to her soul infections or they won’t. It will be interesting to see.
Back in town, there are plenty more iconic venues to visit. The most authentic honky-tonk is the Broken Spoke, which hosts Twangfest, but it’s closely followed by Yard Dog, an art gallery that opens up its yard for shows by Bloodshot Records and others. On the East side of the city, there are rows of great tumbledown venues such as Weather Up and the “historic” Scoot Inn. My favourite is Licha’s Cantina, which every year has the Brooklyn Country Cantina, a non-stop full-day programme of cool alt-country artists on two stages. I use that controversial term advisedly, because straight country it sure isn’t. Also, don’t miss the Continental Club or Lucy’s Fried Chicken. These two, both on South Congress, tend to concentrate on Texas musicians.
Pretty much everywhere you go will be noisy and lively, but there are also a few “listening rooms” where rapt audiences will pay close attention to quiet performers. One such venue is the back room at the Townsend on Congress, where Austinite Will Johnson (of Centro-Matic / South San Gabriel) gave an intense performance with his trio. My favourite spot is Maria’s Taco Express, because there you can imbibe Margaritas for breakfast, while listening to a variety of different acts. This year, we caught London’s hard-working Curse Of Lono and an outstanding, pleasantly noisy band from South Carolina called the Artisanals.
You can also, if the mood takes you, chase the new “buzz” bands. This year the most exciting one was Dublin’s astonishing Fontaines DC. To be sure of getting in, we arrived at BD Riley’s two hours early, which was a good move because it allowed us to catch some great Irish acts such as Whenyoung. As for Fontaines, they are an amalgamation of the Fall and the Blue Aeroplanes, with a chunk of Whipping Boy and a hint of Lee Brilleaux. Sounds good? You bet it was.
One particularly amazing experience was enjoying a spectacular set of bonkers psychedelia from the Crazy World Of Arthur Brown. Not Americana, you say? Au contraire. Arthur lived in Austin for 16 years and his band consists of crack Texas musos, led by the Resentments’ Bruce Hughes.
One final thing: Don’t be worried by perceptions of US politics. Austin is a liberal, friendly and welcoming city with a delightfully laid-back vibe.
All photographs courtesy of Paul Dominy