Today I landed back in the UK after the best part of a week in Austin, Texas for the annual SXSW music festival. For the last five days I’ve been up and out on my feet from morning until the early hours, mostly running from venue to venue to venue watching new bands.
On Wednesday I guested on a Promoters Panel at 9.30am and then stayed out to watch shows, turning in a 19 hour day. On Saturday I didn’t find my bed until 5.00am – I was up and off to the airport by 10.00am. It’s been nonstop.
SXSW was 25 years old this year, and it was at SXSW in 2007 that Huw Stephens and I conceived SWN. I’ve been going for six of the last seven years – and even in that time it has grown enormously.
When I first went there were very few daytime shows – whereas now there are live shows all across town from around midday until the early hours of the morning. This year a few official showcases started on the Tuesday evening too. SXSW is a beast that needs to be fed.
To fully comprehend the size of SXSW takes some doing. On Friday The Strokes played to over 10,000 people on the Auditorium Shows, but along 6th Street, which is the focus of the festival, you wouldn’t have noticed any drop in the number of people. The same happened on Saturday when Kanye West rolled into town. You can walk from a packed 6th Street – where every bar and venue is full and the street is heaving too – and pass under the Interstate 35 to find several tens of thousands more people at parties from Fader Fort all the way East as far as you’d like to wander. Head one block north to 7th Street to find every space packed, as is the whole stretch of the Red River road. Or go downtown, where clubs are full and huge stages pop up on disused land. Estimates are over 100,000 people attend SXSW, with 2,000 bands playing in at least 300 spaces.
Prepping for SXSW consists of me first drawing up lists of all the new bands that I know about but that I’ve not yet seen – either because they’ve not yet come to the UK, or if they have then they’re only played London. Then I dig around for new bands whose tracks excite me, and finally I hope a little good luck will throw up something. Last year I stumbled upon Beach Fossils – attracted by the name and by some tweets from one of their first shows whilst searching the #sxsw hashtag. They were so good I went to see them again the next day. Then I saw them again later that same day. Then again the following day. That’s one of the joys of SXSW – being able to pick up on bands after they’ve played one show to see them again – and for some bands a strong early performance can build momentum so that by the end of the week everybody’s talking about them.
Going in to SXSW 2011 the emerging act that it felt like everybody was talking about was Oddfuture. They came on a wave of hype, a Billboard Magazine cover and on the back of Tyler The Creator’s ‘Yonkers’. Their SXSW performances, of which I saw an early one at Club Deville on Wednesday, attracted more and more excitable audiences, especially as various OFWGKTA members chose to stage dive into the audience from increasing heights. They ended the week making a surprise appearance at the Fader Fort before headlining a Billboard Magazine showcase, storming off after just three songs. Whether they’re really any good or not is debatable – there’s some great beats and rhymes, a couple of awesome tunes, and they create the kind of excitement that hip hop does best. They certainly rinsed SXSW good and proper.
What got me excited were bands like Wiseblood, Jana Hunter’s excellent new outfit Lower Dens (who released one of the best records of last year with Twin Hand Movement), the brilliant Baths and the shockingly good Hooray The Earth, Braids, Cults, Bobby, Austra, Grouplove, Dirty Beaches, High Highs, Weekend, No Joy, Tuneyards, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Alexander and Fang Island. And those are just for starters.
I finally got to see a set by Dan Deacon – who I’ve been a fan of years but he rarely plays the UK – and prior to his set as delighted to see Pains of Being Pure at Heart play off the back of a truck in a car park. I found myself at a packed out J. Cole and B.O.B show where I was blown away by the songs of Marsha Ambrosius. I finally saw Cerebral Ballzy, and then got a tattoo which meant I missed Touche Amore and Trash Talk.
In fact, there was a ridiculous number of bands that I wanted to see but I never got to catch. Suuns, Marques Toliver, Sun Airway, Adventure, EMA, Lia Ices, Foster The People, Oh Land, Young The Giant and Starslinger were all on my hit list and – judging by Twitter and bloggers – all really good. But even across five days, with many of the acts playing half a dozen shows, there’s still only so much time and only so much distance you can cover – even if you skip lunch and grab a pizza slice on the run as I did a few times.
SXSW is a phenomenal music festival – the best in the world. Even though I need to fly across the globe to attend, for me, it’s still one of the best value festivals too. I love the bands, the people, the city and the adventure, and so long as I have the energy, I’ll continue to attend. Right now though, I need some sleep.
[I wrote this blog piece originall for PLASTIK JOURNAL - here's the original post http://journalofplastik.com/highlights-of-sxsw-2011/]