Words and photography by Ryan McKeeman (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It's official. The SXSW music hangover is here. It's just not natural to go from listening to live music 12+ hours a day for five days straight back to listening to Spotify through earbuds on the walk to work in the morning. My ears are offended and my body is in full-on revolt at the thought of looking at a computer screen for nine hours today. At least I get to share my experiences with you.
First, a word on my approach. I've been going to shows now for decades (plural) and to SXSW for over 10 years. In a city like Austin, we have about 1,000 live shows to choose from during a normal week. During SXSW that balloons up to like 1,000 an hour (give or take). I've learned over the years that it's not possible to know all the bands and with the venue turnover rate in Austin, it's not even possible to know all the venues. So I simplify.
During SXSW, I watch for musical centers of gravity like SPIN magazine, or local favorite Levitation Fest (formerly Austin Psych Fest). These folks know their stuff - both musically and also experientially (they know how to throw a good party) - and they don't put their name behind something unless it's top notch. That gives me a compass during South By that gets me started in three or four directions instead of 1,000.
All that said, the beauty of SXSW is in the journey, not the destination per se. The sidebars. The in-between space. The happy accidents. That's my favorite thing about SXSW. Even now, as big as it has become, the unexpected rad 40-minute set is always just around the corner or even setting up the keys during sound check right under your nose.
Here are my happy accidents of 2016.
I met Brian at the Under the Radar (indie music magazine) day party at Flamingo Cantina. We were overdue for one of our patented music hangs and as luck would have it, the happy accident of the day for me started early. British band HÆLOS (Matador Records) opened the set at noon and previewed their debut LP release, Full Circle (released Friday March, 18), while the free beer was still flowing. Their brand of smooth electronica reminded me of The xx and had the crowd moving - early in the day, well before drinking turned into drunk-ing. Look for them on the festival circuit this year (Coachella, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands, etc.) promoting the record. They'll probably be in the lineup early in the day...it's worth it.
Thursday morning got a rainy start - not quite like SXSW 2015 - and for once, we were out early with our eyes (and our ears) on the Levitation Day Party at Hotel Vegas. Our eagerness earned us a few extra sets at Weather Up where Texas native Hayes Carll brought the sunshine to the morning while the Third Man Records bus made a pit stop in the alley behind Weather Up. We made it back to Hotel Vegas, got our heads right and settled in for the day.
Every set left me wanting more from each artist but the one that stuck with me from the Levitation Day Party was Texas-born Thai funk / surf soul trio under the moniker Khruangbin. They just released The Universe Smiles Upon You earlier in 2016, every track of which was recorded in an old barn outside the 300-person town of Burton, Texas. The band featured the out-of-this-world bass lines of Laura Lee and no vocals. Perfect for listening at work (I think it may be the soundtrack of the week).
Thursday evening I convinced my brother to meet me at Icenhauer's after he got off work for Brooklyn Basement Records showcase. Many folks are familiar with headlining artist Ron Pope, but the show stealer for me was the slide guitar stylings of New Orleans blues artist Luke Winslow-King. His fifth studio album is set to be released this September by Bloodshot Records. This summer, he's headed to Europe for a tour on the European festival circuit.
Friday evening I managed to get into the Beardbrand shindig at Rattle Inn on West Sixth Street. The third installment of their annual celebration of all things beard during SXSW featured four bands and I was thrilled to find an Austin local band I had not heard before - the Rusty Razors. Their brand of Americana had the crowd boot-scootin' on Friday night and it was intimate enough that it felt like any other week in Austin at the local honky tonk. Self described as a new band with an old soul, they released Fritz Hatchery in 2015, which features some standards and several originals.
I was torn between two solid options on what turned into the most beautiful Spring day of 2016 - the Waterloo Records day party or the SXSanJose day party. I couldn't go wrong and I ended up at Hotel San Jose for the SXSanJose party. I happen to know Matt Hickey (Highroad Touring) who books all the bands every year at what has become quite a fandango. This year, the party had food trucks, merch tents from the local stores on South Congress, beer sponsors, and Steve Wertheimer (owner of Continental Club and C-Boys Heart and Soul) as host. Steve introduced an act that I'll never forget...BP Fallon. As Steve went through Fallon's resume (Led Zeppelin, U2, Jack White...this guy has done it all), I was awestruck to see this little Irish man come out on the stage and give the crowd a heavy dose of David Byrne infused with sparse instrumental stylings. Fallon was there, at 69 years young, doing what he loved and we all loved him for it. The essence of SXSW.