Monday, March 30, 2015

South by Southwest Music Festival 2015 Final Thoughts

Like last year, after writing up all my thoughts about the bands I saw at SXSW, I still have a few thoughts left to share about the event as a whole. First, though, for the sake of reference, here is the list of all the bands I saw with links to the reviews:

Day 1: Fotogramas / Marineros / Dead Leaf Echo
Day 2: Talk in Tongues / Mai Dhai / Mother Falcon / TV on the Radio
Day 3 (parts 1 and 2): Hundred Waters / Alvvays / Will Butler / Title Fight / Twerps / DJ Windows 98 / Deerhoof / Think No Think / Golden Dawn Arkestra / Holy Wave / Merchandise / Moon Duo / Songhoy Blues / The Pop Group / Gang of Four
Day 4: The Shivas / The Lemons / Today's Hits / Gap Dream / Courtney Barnett / Run the Jewels / Homeshake / Kate Tempest / The Church / Tanya Tagaq
Day 5: Spencer Mackenzie Brown / Bruiser Queen / Psychic Heat / Something and the Whatevers / CS Luxem / Gateway Drugs / Swervedriver / The Church

Like last year, I made a concerted effort to see international performers and a few things outside of the rock and pop universe (e.g. Mai Dhai and Tanya Tagaq), but I got to see a few old favorites of mine (The Pop Group, Gang of Four, The Church), a couple recent favorites (Hundred Waters, Merchandise), some bands from my Midwestern home turf (see day 5), and a variety of bands that I didn't know well or at all. I again found it difficult to decide what to see, and although some of my choices really paid off, others were not as successful.

Part of the challenge comes in balancing competing interests. Should you see bands you know and love, should you look for bands with high profiles or encouraging recommendations that you think would be good to see, or should you hunt for new discoveries and great bands still under the radar? The bigger-name stuff might have longer lines and more crowded spaces, but sometimes ends up being a great opportunity to see a band in a smaller, more intimate venue than they normally play, and sometimes it's just an opportunity that you wouldn't otherwise bother to take or even get at all.

I went for a mix of things, which came out with equally mixed results. The day party I saw at Beerland on day 4 was a lot of fun, even if only one band (The Shivas) really impressed me. Considering my love of The Church, I had high hopes for the relatively bigger-name bands playing before them at Emo's on day 5, but I ended up sorely disappointed. And with no idea what to expect from the I Heart Local Music day party at Shangri-La earlier that same day, I thoroughly enjoyed the event. I missed my chance to see bands like Spoon, Real Estate, and Viet Cong that I was rather interested in, but I did get to experience TV on the Radio, Courtney Barnett, and several other rising bands.

I think if I did one thing right, it's that I followed my suggestion from last year and tried to focus on finding venues or areas with good lineups and doing less running around all across town. This worked out especially well for me on day 3, where I hung out at Pitchfork's showcase at Mohawk all afternoon and then Levitation's showcase at Hotel Vegas all evening. If nothing else, it's certainly easier to pick one or two places to spend your night instead of trying to decide on six bands to see that happen to all be at different venues.

A complicating factor with SXSW is that most bands only get 30 or 40 minutes to play, and to maximize exposure and compensation, they play several events, both official and unofficial, sometimes even in one day. Some bands really step it up for these short showcases and manage to compress their energy. Some bands seem to need more time and space, be it for proper soundchecking (e.g. The Pop Group, apparently), the widescreen scope of their sound (some bands just sound better in bigger places), or the sprawling, extended nature of the songs (e.g. The Church, apparently). It can be hard for bands to get it right and make a good impression in such a short burst.

The last thing I want to say was that this year's SXSW definitely felt toned down a bit from last year. I'm not the only one who noticed this. It wasn't just the increased barricades and police presence in response to the fatal accident last year, and I also don't think it was just because of the rain that fell on at least three days. There was a little bit less going on in general, not as many mega-high-profile acts, and just barely not as many people in the streets. I think there might be changes afoot, although what I don't know. Are the incredible number of copycat festivals having an effect? Is Austin reaching the limits of its tolerance? Has SXSW just grown too fast? I suspect it's just hard to keep up the intensity year after year, and maybe SXSW needs some rethinking to keep it cutting-edge.

[Sixth Street from the rooftop of Maggie Mae's on day 4.]

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