South by Southwest (SXSW) has become increasingly polarizing over the years. Austinites, for the most part, loathe its 10-day intrusion into their daily lives; to out-of-towners, it is a weeklong musical vacation. Attendees crave more superstar, arena-level talent, while local artists lament the days when SXSW was still all about them – the little guy. And 2017 saw the festival facing one of the biggest controversies in its existence. With little more than a week until kickoff, an excerpt of their international artist contract guidelines was published online, leading to a call for a full artist boycott of the ten-day festival.
The controversy-inducing paragraph has been a part of the standard artist contract for years. Broken down, it is essentially a blanket warning to international artists that mass murder or citywide destruction will lead to the loss of their SXSW sponsorship and, by proxy, their legal right to play music in this country. Every other year this clause has been all but overlooked, but in the garish, orange-tinted glare of our current political state, it came right to the forefront of a festival who prides itself on being known for its dedication to diversity, inclusivity, and discovery of the unknown.
A screenshot of the clause in question quickly went viral, ensuing in a media and artist frenzy just a few days before the festival was set to start. SXSW went to great pains to explain the charged statement’s inclusion in their contract, and to clarify its necessity as a “worst case scenario” guideline, but the damage was already done. Organizers and promoters braced for the worst, while artists had to make a tough decision. Should they join in the call for a boycott, disregarding fan disappointment? Or forge ahead as planned, letting their music serve as a force to heal and unite?
In the end, only a handful of bands were unable to enter the country; all of which were the result of new U.S. immigration policies. As I write this, to my knowledge, not a single artist has been deported by SXSW for bad behavior. Nonetheless, my heart breaks for each band that was denied a ticket to the big show, and SXSW took the news hard as well. In their daily mid-fest message to attendees and artists, they reiterated that “it is not the same with each of you.”
In the end, music did exactly what it has done for thousands of years – it brought us all together. If you couldn’t make it down for the annual extravaganza, here are the SXSW 2017 music highlights.
Each year, organizers scout the best up-and-comers in the music industry to showcase their burgeoning talent on a SXSW stage. In order to get attendees out to the sets of these little-knowns, though, booking agents stack bigger stars as headliners to draw a decent crowd and increase the possibility of exposure. 2017 had no lack of starpower.
Local heroes Spoon headlined a three-day residency at the old Emo’s location at 6th and Red River, dubbed “Eno’s” for the week in honor of drummer Jim Eno. Their latest album Hot Thoughts was just released to rave critical reviews, and crowds lined up around the block hours before their 1 a.m. set time every night. The hour-long sets themselves were amazing, as expected, but what really blew me away is how the band is using their own fame for such a good cause.
Spoon was given the extremely rare privilege of hand-selecting their openers each night of the residency – an honor the folks over at SXSW do not give away easily. Rather than stacking the lineups with big names with mass appeal (which they’re totally big enough and within their rights to do now), they opted to showcase a handful of their favorite local acts and indie underdogs each night. Rather than flaunt their own newfound stardom, they extended a helping hand to the next wave of hopefuls. It is exactly the kind of spirit this city was founded on, and one of the most heartwarming good musical deeds of the week.
Other notable all-stars creating capacity havoc around the city included Ryan Adams and Weezer, who delivered rockin’ sets to crowds that were some of the most diverse I saw all week. Pop-punk favorites Jimmy Eat World served up nostalgia everywhere they went, while the surprise return of At The Drive In nearly caused a mosh pit in the middle of Red River. Wu-Tang Clan played one of the most buzzed about sets of the week over at ACL Live at the Moody Theater (and still “ain’t nuthing ta f wit”), while Garth Brooks nearly broke the internet when he announced a surprise show at Auditorium Shores – for locals only. And of course, no festival would be complete without Austin’s own Gary Clark Jr. laying blazing guitar licks down for the Rolling Stone closing party.
New, Now, Next
The superstars may get people in the door, but for those of us in the constant pursuit of undiscovered excellence, the opening acts are where it’s at.
2017 saw a lot of little-known bands making a name for themselves by playing, in some cases, three or more sets a day, all week long. When it comes to exposure, saturation is key – just ask The Lumineers, who skyrocketed to stardom by doing exactly this at SXSW just a few years ago. One band who employed this strategy well this year was the Lemon Twigs, who must have been on ten different line-ups throughout the week, including SXSW’s Opening Music Party. The folks over at the booking office obviously knew what they were doing, because the little duo from Long Island went on to win this year’s Grulke Prize for Developing U. S. Act.
It pleases me to no end to be able to say that the ladies of the fest absolutely slayed this year. Minnesota-based soul-funk powerhouse Lizzo delivered some of the hands-down best sets of the fest, everywhere from the Pandora House to Stubb’s, and then closing out at the massive FADER Fort. Her high-energy shows were unmatchably dance-filled , and her ballsy approach to showmanship is part Diana Ross, part James Brown. Local rocker Emily Wolfe has paid her dues, and now seems just at the precipice of making the world her own rock platform. And my personal favorite trio of vocal badasses, The Wild Reeds, continue to lay down perfectly effortless, swirling harmonies, captivating and winning over their crowd one new fan at a time.
With over 2,000 acts to choose from, whittling down a list to just a few favorite new discoveries brought me about as much joy as a root canal. But in the end, two acts managed to shine just a little brighter in my mind’s eye for one reason or another, and so they are who I will leave you with – the two bands that brought me the most surprise joy over the 10-day extravaganza.
LVL UP exceeded my every expectation with their melodic, accessible approach to punk rock. They deliver hard-hitting songs with relevant, insightful truths woven in about youth, pain, and yearning, but still seem to have the overall intent of simply making people happy. After one exuberant night of worshipping at the temple of bombast, I am a wholeheartedly converted believer.
Like any good mother, I try not to choose a favorite child, but secretly, it is PWR BTTM. They must have played at least ten times over the week, and even opened NPR’s amazing showcase on Wednesday night at Stubb’s. Wearing glittering face makeup, sequined minis, and extravagant silk garb, they delivered some of the most welcome gut-punches of the week, interweaving powerful, memorable messages into each of their fun-loving songs. They tackled serious issues all while laughing at the absurdity of it all, and they were the most fun I had all week, every single time I saw them (which was a lot). They embrace and embody the wildly weird spirit of our fine city, and I can’t wait to see them the next time they come to town.
After all the International controversy, it occurred to me how smart it was of the organizers of SXSW to have been slowly building their foreign roster over the years.
Personally, I love the open-armed embrace of foreign harmonies. The beautiful, converging, co-mingling sounds of unfamiliar instruments and rhythms sets the cilia of my inner ear on full alert. And while outfits like The Canada House and Japan Night have become SXSW staples, the real excitement lies in the discovery of something truly new. Without the appropriate ability to understand what they are saying or where their sound comes from, I will simply recommend checking out a few of the newbies on the scene when you get a chance.
Melbourne has seen a recent surge of bright rock talent, and at the head of that pack is Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever. They recently earned a spot in the ranks of the highly coveted Sub Pop Records for their laid-back, surf-tinged approach to punk melodies, and are sure to be a band you’re about to hear a lot more of. If you’re feeling more adventurous, check out the German band Oum Shatt, who weave old-school Turkish psychedelics with a modern, danceable sound. And for the ultimate crowd pleaser, give French singer-songwriter Jain a listen, whose unique approach to beautiful yet magnetic hooks earned her SXSW’s 2017 Grulke Prize for a Developing Non-U.S. Act.
The unsung heroes of the SXSW Music Festival are the Keynote speakers, conversationalists and panel members that drive the industry forward – their stories, trials, mistakes and missteps are priceless to the next generation of taste-makers.
Krist Novoselic, bass player of the seminal 90’s band Nirvana, hosted a conversation in which he discussed the importance of voter reform, and how we could successfully pull off an overhaul of just that variety here in Texas. And because he’s a great guy, anyone who stuck out the full political hour got to hear his thoughts on music, the power of fame, and of course, Kurt Cobain.
Mick Fleetwood engaged in one of the most exciting conversations of the week when he sat down with David Fricke of Rolling Stone to discuss his new book. Subjects ranged from the sorted history of Fleetwood Mac to the capacity to remember an LSD-fueled night with the Grateful Dead. By the time it was over, they left no doubt that the 60’s and 70’s were a true haven for the unbridled indulgence of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. My love of rock gossip was sated, and he achieved his goal – I now can’t wait to buy the book.
And of course, the most coveted spot of the week belonged to Garth Brooks, who sat down with Amazon’s Steve Boom just hours before his surprise set at Auditorium Shores to discuss the future of music. Notably, he touched on one of the biggest problems currently plaguing Nashville (and the music industry as a whole), wherein in the majority of songs are being written by a small handful of the same people, according to a specific and formulaic method to achieve hits. As a result, labels make tons of money, and fans are spoon-fed mathematically pleasing pop dribble that meets quotas. It begs one extremely important question –is there still a place for real artists in the music business?
The bands, the parties, the speakers, the shows – SXSW is a veritable smorgasbord of things to see and do. Some of the most intriguing and endearing acts of festival kindness lie in the installations, free day parties, and multi-date extravaganzas we’ve come to love and look forward to each year.
Like Rachael Ray’s Feedback party. Holy queso, did she ever outdo herself this year. As has become the norm, a line wound down Red River and around the block from Stubb’s where she hosts the show with her musician husband, and never dissipated, no matter how many people left the venue for the day. Weezer headlined the big shindig, while De La Soul brought one of the sickest dance parties of the week to the stage and the lawn. The food theme was queso, and featured everything from brisket tots drowning in cheese to queso on the cob, cups of delicately layered corn, queso, and seasoning. And because she is the raddest chef out there, the entire thing was free, free, free. Thanks again, Rachael Ray – Austin loves you!
The Pandora House has become one of my favorite break stations, for its super comfy lounge and array of food and fun downtime things to do (think bean bag stations and virtual reality demos). Plus, they always host at least a decent line-up, and this year they outdid themselves. Lizzo during the day, Future Islands by night… no matter when I showed up or what sort of night I was having, it was always exactly where I wanted to be.
Honorable mention goes to the folks over at Brooklyn Vegan and Margin Walker for hosting one of the most consistently solid lineups at their Lost Weekend mini-fest at Cheer Up Charlie’s. In fact, several of my festival favorites were featured in free day sets at their awesome outdoor setup. And of course, just like it does every year, The House of Vans at Mohawk drew never-ending lines every day and one of the best and most well-kept secrets of the festival, the surprise appearance of At The Drive In at their Wednesday night showcase.
And now, to recover. In spite of all the controversy, this year, more so than anything else, left me with a renewed sense of faith in the power of music to heal, and to unite – to inspire love and joy, and maybe, just maybe, a little magic. “Music as a medium, it’s a miracle – just a magic human phenomenon.” If after nearly forty years in the business Krist Novoselic can still see the unicorns, then surely I can, too.