Coverage from the 28th annual SXSW music festival with The Post’s pop music critic Chris Richards.
From Coachella to Bonnaroo and beyond, American music festival culture continues to bloom and boom. So what makes the 28th annual South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Tex., more dynamic than other mega-fests? Its sloppy egalitarianism.
Sure, thousands of artists still send applications to perform at SXSW’s official showcases, but there are also heaps of unauthorized gigs held across the city in vacant yards, on patios, inside living rooms and across parking lots. Just about anyone can roll into Austin and try their luck. All freaks welcome. A few years back, I saw a guy play a decent set from inside a dumpster.
Unfortunately, cred-thirsty megastars are welcome at this week’s festival, too.
Lady Gaga’s latest album was a colossal flop, so she’s made the sojourn to Austin, grasping for cool points. She’ll deliver one of the festival-slash-conference’s keynote addresses on Friday after giving a concert sponsored by one of America’s gnarliest snack foods on Thursday night. Other big names scheduled to parachute into Texas this week: Kanye West, Jay Z, Coldplay and Soundgarden.
We can’t banish these household names to the dumpster outside the Chevron on East 6th St., but we should make every effort to ignore them.
SXSW shouldn’t be a playground for pop music’s one percent. It’s a place for rising rookies to spread unfamiliar sounds. We’re here to bask in Young Thug’s yelped rhymes, Steve Gunn’s cosmic folk and Kelela’s sci-fi R&B.
So over the next four days I’ll be avoiding the brand names in hopes of tripping over weird, wonderful, mysterious majesties – and I’ll be reporting back. I encourage you to follow along on Twitter, Instagram, Vine, and this very blog page.
The vastness of SXSW could be felt just before noontime, Wednesday on the front lawn of a bar more that 20 blocks from Austin’s nightclub epicenter. There, a few dozen early-risers had gathered to hear a scraggly man in a NASCAR jacket sing songs about bad tattoos, good dogs, free love and expensive pharmaceuticals.
His name was Jonny Fritz, an affable outsider country singer with Virginia roots, lots of charm and a casual vocal delivery that he often threatened to stretch into a yodel.
“This one’s about bein’ real sick on tour,” Fritz announced before one tune, explaining he was feeling “mold sick” after crashing in a buddy’s basement. “I’m gonna send this one out to myself!”
Later in the set, he joked on the hordes of hyper-ambitious artists currently swarming Austin. “So,” he asked the audience, “what do you guys hope to achieve at this South by Southwest?”
Laughs all around. If the goal was to hear something fresh and funny, they’d already achieved it.
And it wasn’t even lunchtime.
That pinprick thrill you feel when a fave rock band line checks with a guitar riff you love is a very specific and special feeling.
Musically, Ex Hex resides in the sweet spot between power pop, punk and glam. But on the physical plane, the group resides in Washington D.C., where after just a few months together the trio has become one of the most exciting rock bands in the District.
Led by former Helium singer-songwriter-guitar-shredder Mary Timony, the band owes its wallop to bassist Betsy Wright and drummer Laura Harris. And that punch has only grown stronger after a mere week on tour –- a trip the band organized in order to “tighten up” before heading into a North Carolina recording studio to cut a debut album it hopes to release in September.
Meanwhile, Ex Hex is one of a handful of Washington acts expected to turn (or bang) heads at this year’s SXSW –- a group that includes indie rock bands Misun and GEMS, and rappers Shy Glizzy and Yung Gleesh.
We spoke with Ex Hex immediately after the band’s first SXSW gig in the parking lot of Waterloo Records on Wednesday afternoon.
In ye olden times, bands would come to South By Southwest to get signed. But you guys already have a record label [Merge Records, home of Arcade Fire, Spoon, She & Him and others]. So what’s the point of being here?
Mary Timony: [Laughs.] That’s a very D.C. question! We’ve had a number of D.C. people ask us that. [Funny annoyed voice:] “Why? Why are you going there?” But our label has a showcase here and we’re on tour, so it all made sense.
You played the Black Cat in Washington last week and there were people from so many great D.C. bands in the audience. It really felt like a community. How is a show like that one different from the one you just played?
Laura Harris: There was awesome energy at that [Black Cat] show. It was the first the show of the tour we’re on, so that was great.
Betsy Wright: But I think we were more nervous for that show. All of our friends were there!
Timony: Oh, I was a mess this morning. I’m not really sure why.
Really? You’re the pro with the resume. Are you the most nervous of the three?
Timony: [Grimaces.] Yeah.
Wright: We did some positive visualization before [SXSW].
That’s funny though, because one thing about your band that’s so great is that you guys all seem to be having so much fun on stage. How did you arrive at that chemistry so quickly?
Wright: We all love rock-and-roll. We live and die for it.
Timony: And the songs are short and catchy. We’re really just going for playing music that we enjoy, music that makes us want to dance. We’re going for this thing, like, songs that could be on Casey Kasem’s Top 40.
Like back in the day?
Timony: Right! We’re trying to get on the radio, but in 1982.
Is this line moving or are we just smooshing closer together? = metaphor for life at #SXSW
This London Grammar set sounds like watery Tori in my ears, but I just saw a fan take a twirling 360 video selfie so what do I know? #SXSW
I always thought Kelis had a modest voice but she just hit some Rippertonian octaves here at Stubbs. #SXSW
Kelis performing "Milkshake" as a sorta broken Afro-beat jam. Bold and strangely killer. https://t.co/XXsNpJOECA