The 2018 edition of the SXSW Music Festival was my 27th straight immersion in that rite of spring. SXSW is now a very different event in size, glamour and commercial urgency from the one I first knew in 1991, when the entire conference fit into one hotel and the biggest – and best – show I saw was a West Texas song-a-thon by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock and Joe Ely.
And Austin is a profoundly changed city, where steel and glass have swept grit and color from the center of town and economic success in the tech sector has not passed on to working musicians. This year, a series of apparently racially motivated bombings had Austin on edge, causing fear and sorrow in this proudly blue refuge in an otherwise fiercely red state. On March 17th, a bomb threat forced the cancellation of a SXSW super-show starring the Roots; another explosion the following night seriously injured two men.
But I keep coming back to Austin and SXSW because this has not changed for me: the former’s determined outlaw character and the latter’s enduring capacity for surprise. I always see and hear something new and enriching, often when I least expect it. What follows are just eight reasons why I plan to be back next year, for number 28.
Gang of Youths: The Sidewinder Patio, March 14th; Empire Control Room, March 15th
The first music I heard after landing in Austin was a cascade of metallic-guitar harmonics, cut into declarative power chords and shot over breakneck hard rock as if Mogwai had taken off at the speed of Blue Öyster Cult. Then singer-guitarist David Le’aupepe took the noise to a higher plane of debate with his earnest, preacher’s cry in “What Can I Do If the Fire Goes Out,” an anthemic knockout from Go Farther in Lightness, Gang of Youths’ second album and an award-winner in their native Australia last year. The band was founded in 2012 in Sydney, where members were attending an evangelical church, and there was an air of the early, brazen U2 in “Atlas Drowned” and “Just Say Yes to Life” – but with more guitar-drums bedlam, razing feedback and sly classic-rock touches like guitarist Joji Milan’s Queen-like skids in the latter song. Gang of Youths played another, longer set the next evening, opening up their songbook and spreading the firepower. But there was a striking sense of hurry and mission to their four-song day-party blitz at Sidewinder, as if their lives and our spiritual fates depended on the connection. Le’aupepe introduced “Just Say Yes to Life,” with a reference to his father, who is ill with cancer. The singer spoke about the fear of impending loss and the inspirational lesson that has come with it. “He lived a life and said yes,” Le’aupepe declared. “So don’t fuck around. Just say yes.” The music followed with affirming force.
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. . . And You Know Us by the Trail of Dead: Swan Dive Patio, March 14th
This was an auspicious hometown gig in surprisingly tight circumstances for this drone-and-thunder institution, marking the 20th year since their explosive self-titled debut album. After a decade and change of being taken for granted – filed under relics of alternative rock’s major-label age – the current Trail of Dead are a thrilling resurrection story, with the co-founding core of singer-guitarist-drummers Conrad Keely and Jason Reece leading a quintet as fierce and elevating as any lineup I’ve seen at multiple SXSWs, going back to the beginning. The first twenty minutes of this show was a non-stop series of hairpin turns through oceanic jangle, spearing-guitar motifs and avalanche momentum. Keely, Reece and drummer-guitarist Jamie Miller swapped kits and axes, hammering the latter with percussive velocity; bassist Autry Fulbright II and third guitarist Zach Blair deepened and broadened the fury respectively. Alternative rock was already an endangered species when Trail of Dead first emerged in this city, whipping the poor dog into howling life. Two decades on, there is still roar and ascension to spare.
Low Cut Connie: The Parish, March 14th
This band from Philadelphia has always sounded like rock & roll purism with a future. With an imminent new album, Dirty Pictures (Part 2) (Contender), Low Cut Connie – led by singer-pianist-songwriter Adam Weiner – are now an act on the verge. Their headlining set at the Parish was a typical whiplash of Fifties rock & roll dynamics and controlled-Replacements vigor. Weiner swept the ivories of his road-beaten keyboard in a short-sleeve gold lamé jacket over a Stanley Kowalski undershirt – budget-Elton John flair meets Jerry Lee Lewis menace. A cover of David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs,” recently cut for a Bowie tribute project curated by Howard Stern, highlighted the Seventies glam that runs through Low Cut Connie’s electric-roadhouse guitars. But the first single from the next LP, “Beverly,” was next-level songwriting. Building on the solid hooks and charge of previous albums – set-list pillars like “Dirty Water” and “Shake It Little Tina” – Weiner has pushed the vintage-Philly soul in his choruses to a rousing elegance at the intersection of Todd Rundgren, Gamble and Huff and Sun Records. Low Cut Connie showed up tonight with their usual party-out-of-bounds. They also brought a bonafide hit, ready for crossover.
Uni: Hotel Vegas Annex, March 15th
For spectacle alone, Uni – a New York trio descended from The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, Charlotte Kemp Muhl’s psychedelic enterprise with Sean Lennon – scored points: Muhl’s silver-plated Hofner bass and matching lipstick; guitarist David Strange’s Mahavishnu-style double-necked Gibson; singer Nico Fuzz’s homemade-pyro effect during “Mushroom Cloud.” But there was invention as well as posture in the music, an earnest, retrospective immersion in Seventies prog-rock exaggeration served with glitter-rock bang. If Procol Harum and Spooky Tooth had chosen to make records like the Sweet, they might have sounded like Uni. But they wouldn’t have looked this good.
Josh T. Pearson: Valhalla, March 15th
Last year, this singer-guitarist from Denton, Texas presided over a reunion of his heavy-transcendence power trio Lift to Experience, celebrating the deluxe reissue of their only album, 2001’s The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, inside the holy echo of Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church. This time, Pearson came as a solo artist with a new album, The Straight Hits (Mute). He performed under more modest circumstances: a grungy bar on Red River Street with a band formed only four days earlier. And before playing a note, Pearson confessed with embarrassment that he “had been a little foolish” the previous night and paid with a few top notes in his voice. In fact, at Valhalla, he hit the high, vocal climax in the album’s garage-party opener “Straight to the Top!” with no error, and the band – which included Lift to Experience’s version of John Bonham, drummer Andy Young – was loose but robust in the great Texan tradition of the 13th Floor Elevators and the Sir Douglas Quintet. Pearson – who also drew from his 2011 album, Last of the Country Gentlemen, for the wracked “Sweetheart, I Ain’t Your Christ” – has been a consistently compelling attraction in my SXSW life since Lift to Experience set their drum kit on fire at another Red River club nearly 20 years back. Tonight, he did not disappoint, regardless of how foolish he was the night before.
Trupa Trupa: B.D. Riley’s, March 16th
This four-piece band from Gdansk, Poland had a hellish 24-hour commute to SXSW – via Amsterdam and Minneapolis. They arrived with sense of humor intact. Singer-guitarist Grzegorz Kwiatowski pointed out that their hometown was both “a city of Solidarity” – referring to the revolutionary Polish-labor union – and where “the Second World War started,” a contrast that explains the seesaw between bleak-Radiohead turmoil and spacious Sigur Ros-like moments on Trupa Trupa’s two albums, 2015’s Headache and 2016’s Jolly New Songs. This venue – an Irish bar with its windows open to the alcoholic midnight din on East 6th Street – did not bode well for a live taste. But Trupa Trupa beat the odds with the throb-and-hammer of the perversely titled “Jolly New Songs” and the staccato surge of “To Me,” the latter laced with molten-fuzz guitar played by Rafal Wojczal on a custom instrument made from a petrol can. “Good days are gone,” Kwiatowski sang with bitter conviction at the end of the set, in the art-rock comet “Good Days.” For the few of us in this pub, it sounded like the start of a rewarding friendship.
Chuck Auerbach: Victorian Room at the Driskill, March 17th
The sons and daughters of music celebrities often work the halls and stages of SXSW. But Chuck Auerbach of Akron, Ohio was a rare sighting: a rock star’s dad. Perched on a stool and consulting a binder of lyric sheets as he sang through a long, gray field of beard, Auerbach – the father of the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach – looked like the late Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler and led his five-piece band through rueful country ballads and earthy R&B in a grizzled voice that suggested Tom Waits with a dash of the singer from Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show (the one without the eye patch). “Desperation” was a dark jewel lashed with throaty-treble guitar; the first two verses of “My Old Man” were a memory lane of plaintive growl and upright bass, before the light rain of bittersweet fiddle and electric piano rolled in. Chuck was performing songs from a new album, Remember Me, produced by Dan. It comes out, appropriately, on Father’s Day.
Xylouris White: The Parish, March 17th
There are plenty of bands at SXSW; they come in varying degrees of competency and commitment. But Xylouris White – George Xylouris, a lute player from Anogeia on the Greek island of Crete, descended from an acclaimed line of folk musicians there; and drummer Jim White, formerly of the Australian, instrumental avant-rock trio the Dirty Three – are master musicians bonded by enduring friendship. They have known each other and worked together in various settings since the early 1990s, formalizing their partnership with the 2014 debut album, Goats. The audience at this woefully attended showcase – my third, live exposure to the duo in five months after dazzling gigs in Iceland and Brooklyn – was barely in the dozens. Still, the dancing broke out right away as Xylouris and White locked into a rolling, modal thunder that I have already compared to the Middle Eastern psychedelia of the American late-Sixties band Kaleidoscope but which also evokes the empathy and elevation of saxophonist John Coltrane’s iconic 1967 duets with drummer Rashied Ali, released in 1974 as Interstellar Space. The difference here: There was plenty of room for audience participation. Xylouris’ brisk, circular riffing and White’s punk-like pulse in “Only Love,” from their third and latest album, Mother (Bella Union), inspired a breakout of hand-clapping to an odd but fitting Greek-Bo Diddley rhythm. There was still plenty of music to go around in the final Saturday hours of SXSW – but nothing like this.