Can a music festival have a mid-life crisis? In its 33rd year, over two weeks in Austin, Texas, SXSW made its biggest headlines in the opening interactive phase, hosting a widely reported forum of prospective Democratic candidates for president. The SXSW film festival featured major premieres and director Q&As, like a spring-break Sundance with a Texas drawl. And a new SXSW sideline – gaming – drew huge lines at the Austin Convention Center. The original founding energy of SXSW, the music festival, was spread out over an entire week, but big names were thin on the schedule. Most of the handful were keynote speakers, including T Bone Burnett, David Byrne and the surviving Beastie Boys, Mike Diamond and Adam Horovitz. Joan Jett did perform – at an Interactive party.
But if the heyday of Johnny Cash at Emo’s, Metallica at Stubb’s and the club gigs by Jay-Z and Kanye West has disappeared along with the major-label presence and lavish corporate branding, that meant more breathing room for the strivers and more time for taking chances on unfamiliar names. This was my 28th straight SXSW and I did not leave pining for the old days. Here are 10 reasons why.
Yola (Radio Day Stage, March 13th)
This cavernous conference room in the Convention Center, the panel-and-networking hub of SXSW, is hardly a conducive setting for profound connection. But Yola — a singer-songwriter from Bristol, England, and the latest find in Dan Auerbach’s roots-etc. stable, Easy Eye Sound — was at once plaintive and robust, confessional and embracing, as she covered that space with the folk-soul detail and gospel vocal scale of her full-length debut, Walk Through Fire. Auerbach produced the album and played many of the instruments while leaving space for his favorite Southern-R&B aces: songwriter Dan Penn, who helped out on the title track; Bob Dylan session vet Charlie McCoy; and guest singer Vince Gill. In that company, Yola delivers the forensic, emotional detail of “You’re Still Gone” — a song about persistently haunting memory — and the strident promise in “Walk Through Fire” (“The red hot coals are calling/And I know that’s the only way”) with an earthy modernism as direct and vintage as Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis or a Willie Mitchell session for Ann Peebles. But on this afternoon, Yola came with the bare minimum — her voice, the songs and the spare, instrumental empathy of guitarist Anthony DaCosta — and filled the room.
Moritz Simon Geist (Seven Grand, March 13th)
This composer-programmer from Dresden, Germany, could have done everything in his set — beats, hooks, percussive accents — with a few taps on a laptop. Instead, he designed and built a band to play it all with him: a posse of pocket-sized 3D-printed robots that generated the music according to his digital command and the physical flick of his fingertips. The visual effect of Geist’s portable workshop — a tree of five open pyramids with curious tableaus (a living room of tiny lounging figures with tapping limbs; a cluster of miniature guitar amps with tick-tocking guitar necks; a tone arm dropping onto a bottle-cap-sized turntable) — suggested the eccentric workshop of the toymaker and android designer in Blade Runner. The soundtrack, though, was a long way from Vangelis’ creamy futurism, more like the terse, clattering schematic of Kraftwerk’s “Pocket Calculator” set to the insistent propulsion of Neu. Geist has made an album with his family of enablers, Robotic Electronic Music, but this is that rare electronic dance music that needs to be seen to be believed, as close as possible.
Fontaines D.C. (Swan Dive Patio, March 13th)
My third time with this thrilling Dublin quintet in five months — after a bar in Iceland in November and a week before SXSW at Union Pool in Brooklyn — came with that old-fashioned seal of approval: a moshpit that exploded mid-set in this club’s jam-packed backyard. The band battled murky-sound issues throughout, eventually settling for a blunt-force trauma of hellbent tempos, droning guitars and singer Grian Chatten’s jagged-verse shower of classic-PiL John Lydon, spoken-word Jim Morrison and post-punk Brendan Behan. Packing most of their imminent album, Dogrel (Partisan), into the allotted 35 minutes, Fontaines D.C. opened with the searing, pneumatic minimalism of “Hurricane Laughter,” tightening their grip with the blitzing concision of “Big” and the high-speed hammering of “Too Real,” Chatten’s voice dripping with Mark E. Smith-style challenge (“Is it too real fuh yaaaa?”). I’m not looking forward to the day I have to share this band in bigger rooms. But it is coming soon, and they’re earning it. See Fontaines D.C. in this kind of squeeze and mayhem while you can.
The Ezra Collective (The Main II, March 18th)
This London quintet has a jazz front line — tenor saxophonist James Mollison and trumpeter Dylan Jones — but a steaming Afrobeat engine room, set and maintained at high speed by drummer Femi Koleoso. The Ezra Collective are part of a new, rising jazz-fusion community in Britain, analogous to the West Coast Get Down movement led Stateside by Kamasi Washington; saxophonist “King” Shabaka Hutchings is a counterpart force in the U.K. But there is a lean exuberance to this band that demands a dancing response, even when the Ezras turn to classic repertoire. Here, that meant the hypnotic insistence of Sun Ra’s escapist chant “Space Is the Place,” rewired in the combined images of Fela Kuti and Funkadelic. The brief set largely drew from the Ezra Collective’s 2017 LP Juan Pablo the Philosopher. Their American debut is right around the corner, out in April: You Can’t Steal My Joy.
The Comet Is Coming (Empire Garage, March 14th)
Shabaka Hutchings was on his own tour of SXSW — three shows in as many days — with this electronic-groove trio, another project in a searching ethic that includes his straight-ahead Afrofuturism with Sons of Kemet and Shabaka and the Ancestors. The jazz, in this case, was relative — Hutchings soloed on his tenor sax in quick, frantic deviations from his husky, chugging riffing. The effect on the audience was immediate and sustained: a mounting repetition of keyboards, programming and Hutchings’ raspy firepower over live drumming with house-music inflections. This was EDM with spiritual implications (one piece was simply called “Unity”), distinguished by Hutchings’ hypnotic draw on the funky, circular drive of Fela Kuti’s sax attack and the raw higher-plane peals of Pharaoh Sanders and Albert Ayler with some of Nik Turner’s smearing temper in Hawkwind. The group’s 2016 album, Channel the Spirits, was nominated for Britain’s Mercury Prize; a new one, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, is released in the U.S., appropriately, on Sanders and Ayler’s old label, Impulse!.
The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (Empire Garage, March 14th)
No, that is not a typo. Fifty-one years after he declared himself the God of Hellfire on his freak hit “Fire” (Track Records, 1968), Brown — who turns 77 in June — is an enduring trip of spirited, theatrical eccentricity. Walking on stage to a tape of menacing a cappella chorale (“We need your brain/For further examination”), the leader and his Crazy World were a determined explosion of psychedelic-carnival chic: face paint, rainbow-spectrum threads and druid-party headgear including, at one point, Brown’s German army helmet topped with antler-like vegetation. But Brown — actually back home as the Englishman spent 17 years in the late Seventies and Eighties living in Austin, painting houses — was in remarkably strong vocal form too, extolling the powers of gypsy voodoo in a range that went from meaty, threatening baritone to controlled-hysteria falsetto, accenting the extremes with a surprisingly limber, mantis-like dancing. “Fire” was the inevitable conclusion, Brown giving good heat with authentic support from his band. But the highlight was Brown’s reprise of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” covered to inflammatory effect on the Crazy World’s debut LP and sounding not a day over 1968.
Jambinai (Palm Door on Sabine, March 14th)
The front line of this South Korean phenomenon said it all: two women on traditional stringed instruments —haegeum, a high-pitched upright fiddle; geomungo, a long zither-like beast with arched strings — and a young man switching between a piri, a thin pipe with a reedy, piercing sound, and staccato power chords on an electric guitar. Jambinai’s founding trio — Kim Bo-Mi, Sim Eun-yong and Lee Il-woo, respectively, armed with additional musicians on bass and drums — closed the night at this venue with a dynamic, esoteric thunder at the crossroads of death metal, post-rock and Korea’s classical music. Softer passages suggested an Asian Sigur Rós; everything else came in a succession of jackhammered exclamations, as if Mogwai were performing nothing but volcanic climaxes. The last piece came from Jambinai’s 2009 double-10-inch LP, Différance, which actually won a Best Crossover award in Korea; their latest album, Hermitage, is on Bella Union. One track is called “They Keep Silence.” At Palm Door, Jambinai kept silence to a minimum.
Trupa Trupa (Flatstock Stage, March 15th)
On a day that opened with news of another horrific shooting — the massacre of Muslim worshippers at mosques in New Zealand — this experimental hard-rock quartet from Gdansk, Poland, began its set in requiem: “Never Forget,” a violent exasperation of anger and sorrow expressed in marching rhythm, overheated guitars and the title chant, and coming from much closer to home. In January, Pawel Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdansk and a friend of the band, was stabbed to death onstage at a charity event by an ultra-right fanatic. Singer-guitarist Grzegorz Kwiatkowski, his body shaking with nervous, outraged commitment, dedicated this performance to Adamowicz and the distant prospect of “no more hating.” “Dream About,” a track from Trupa Trupa’s forthcoming U.S. debut on Sub Pop, was another rattling challenge to futility. And when the band finished with “Good Days Are Gone,” it was in an angular, frantic desperation to prove the opposite.
Murray A. Lightburn (Barracuda Backyard, March 15th)
This singer-songwriter and leader of the Canadian band the Dears drew the shortest possible straw when it came to the venue for this performance of songs from his current solo album, Hear Me Out (Dangerbird): a backyard stage on a noisy alley next to a hip-hop club, made even less hospitable by a thick clot of chattering disrespect at the bar. Lightburn deserved to be in one of the churches on SXSW’s circuit, or at least indoors. But he soldiered through with his band for the evening, a string quartet, and the quietly mounting chamber-R&B drama of “Anew,” the album’s title track and the unplugged-Smiths effect of “To the Top.” The album has more of the exquisitely detailed touchstones I mentioned in my recent Rolling Stone review —Curtis Mayfield, Scott Walker, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. But even in this setting, Lightburn brought everything that mattered — the writing and his soulful, committed singing — in full.
Boogarins and Bixiga 70 (Lucille, March 15th)
The first of these two bands, part of a showcase of new music from Brazil, had substantial local history. Boogarins, a quartet from Goiânia in the center of the country, recorded their 2017 album, La Vem a Morte, in Austin (one track was mixed by early R.E.M. associate Mitch Easter) and they frequently play here. But they were a great surprise to me: an exuberant whirl of psychedelia, pop-wise alternative-rock and vintage tropicalía. Flashes of Teenage Fan Club and the 1967-’68 Pink Floyd flew by in the episodic songwriting and power-chord moments; singer-guitarist Fernando Almeida Filho had a headful of Phil Lynott-like curls and sang with the high-tenor sensuality of the young Prince.
Bixiga 70, from Sao Paolo, were a nine-piece rave-up machine: a tightly wound rhythm corps with a brawny front line of horns. Playing mostly instrumental pieces with the occasional shouting chorus, they started at party velocity – and went up from there, like James Brown’s Seventies band the J.B.’s with a samba-school undercurrent. It was the usual SXSW brevity – a 35-minute set and the first song was the soundcheck. But it was the kind of discovery that still makes this festival vital, rewarding and necessary.