SXSW 2015 Preview Pt. 1 | The Music

austin sqin the dense and noisy thicket of it all there’s also a moment waiting for each of us that just might be the story we tell the rest of our lives.





As SXSW season arrives in Austin again, it becomes ever clearer what a perfect symbol the festival is for the city itself. In 1987, SXSW and Austin both seemed like scrappy, carefree underdogs that could surprise and confound visitors’ expectations. The festival and the city moved from success to success until one day we all woke up to find that they had metastasized, both blessed and dogged by explosive growth and unbounded hype. Last year’s tragic accident involving a police chase and crash outside a downtown club seemed to bring much of this to a head, and Austinites, organizers, and fans have all had to stop and take stock. SXSW even bluffed a bit this past year that they might choose to move the festival elsewhere, like San Antonio. And it’s true, SXSW today is often bloated, and corporate, and overcrowded, but even at their worst those things can’t quite kill the thrill of trying to ride this particular tiger. Let’s take steps to make it safer, surely, but I wouldn’t wish the chaos away so quickly. SXSW organizers still manage to make Austin in March the center of the entertainment world (if not the cultural universe). There are memories to be made here. SXSW lore abounds with tales of Bill Murray as an impromptu bartender or Iggy Pop or Jack White giving pop-up shows on the side of the road. I didn’t witness those, but there was that year that I could have sworn that Luke Wilson was stalking me given how many times our paths converged, or that time at Emo’s when the crowd parted like the Red Sea as a fully-resplendent, glammed-out member of Hanoi Rocks strode through it, or Little Richard (Little Richard!!!) tearing the roof off of the Austin Music Hall to remind us who started this whole rock thing to begin with. Are there hassles? Sure. Could it end up a bacchanalian weekend that you only dimly recall a month later? Possibly. But in the dense and noisy thicket of it all there’s also a moment waiting for each of us that just might be the story we tell the rest of our lives. Let’s go find that.

Some artists to put on the radar before you touch down in Austin:

The Veterans and Rock Gods:

The Zombies: Last year, when we saw the Zombies break into “The Time of the Season” at a day party, my wife pulled on my sleeve and pointed at her arm. Goose bumps. Maybe you think you’re too cool for iconic British Invasion vets, that you’ve heard these songs so many times that they’re just an oldies soundtrack for a superficial slide-show version of the 60s. You’re not. You want to hear this, in person. These opportunities do not come often.

gangoffourGang of Four: This is what I love about SXSW. Every year there’s a name that shows up that stops me dead in my tracks and makes me say, “Wait, what, really?” Lefty British post-punk pioneers Gang of Four (left) win that WWR award this time. The stuff of bucket lists.

Hank Shocklee: Shocklee may well tie Gang of Four at the top of this veterans’ list. He was a key fixture of the Bomb Squad production team behind the densely-layered, hard-hitting Public Enemy aesthetic. And here’s the SXSW twist—in addition to his nighttime showcase, Shocklee will also be performing during the day at an art museum, the Contemporary Austin, utilizing an installation by New Yorker Tom Sachs. Others using Sachs’s boombox sculptures over the day sessions of SXSW include Just Blaze, Young Guru, J. Rocc, Dream Koala, and Peanut Butter Wolf.

The Damned: First-wave British punk legends.

Wynonna Judd: That’s right. I just transitioned from Hank Shocklee to the Damned to Wynonna Judd. That’s what SXSW has to offer. Embrace the uncomfortable juxtapositions. Revel in them. Her performance is billed as Wynonna Judd and the Big Noise: Stories & Song, which leaves the music historian in me hoping that she’ll also be treating us to a kind of narrated career retrospective.

Wu Tang Alums: Some faction of the Wu-Tang Clan shows up every year, and 2015 sees appearances by Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, and Redman. Hip-hop was once something of a SXSW weak spot. This is no longer the case.

Wyclef Jean: Fugees front man. Other 90s names that jump out include Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots and Angelo Moore of Fishbone, both with new projects, as well as the Juliana Hatfield Three.

Texas Veterans: Austin’s history as a musical destination dates back to the 1970s heyday of Willie Nelson and progressive country. A number of these artists still preside over the scene they helped create. One of this year’s signature events will be the Doug Sahm tribute night on Saturday the 21st at the Paramount Theatre, in conjunction with the premiere of a documentary by Joe Nick Patoski celebrating that Texas Music paragon from San Antonio, Doug Sahm. Featured artists will include Steve Earle, Augie Meyers, conjunto legend Flaco Jimenez, Rosie Flores, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, Charlie Sexton, swamp poppers C. C .Adcock and Tommy McClain, Terry Allen, Joe King Carrasco, the West Side Horns, a reunion of Marcia Ball and Bobby Earl Smith’s Freda and the Firedogs, and more. If Americana is your thing, this is absolutely where you need to be Saturday night.

Billy Joe Shaver: I cannot recommend Billy Joe Shaver (right) enough. A country singer-songwriter in the outlaw mode, billyjoeshaverBilly Joe has lived hard, loved hard, and come out triumphant on the other side. Seeing country music veterans often leaves you with a sense of “I wish I could have seen them back then. . .” but Billy Joe Shaver is at the peak of his powers, charisma, and poetry right now. Funny, warm, Texan.

Ray Wylie Hubbard: The other potential pitfall in seeing seasoned singer-songwriters is the feeling that they found a thing that worked and stuck with it. It may well be good, and smart, and fun, but sometimes a veteran artist might just feel a little, well, stuck. Here’s to those artists, like Hubbard, who refused to get stuck after their early successes (namely, “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother”), instead growing into something different, and edgy, and cool. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s gravelly voice, bluesy guitar, and crackling wit often seem like they’re trying to corner the market on those qualities.

Asleep at the Wheel: The question “What is Texas Music?” might deploy western swing band Asleep at the Wheel as its near-definitive answer. Frontman Ray Benson will also perform a set of his solo material during the festival.

Robert Earl Keen: About a generation younger than the above artists, Keen has continued their tradition of ruthlessly poetic songwriting in the Texas vein. His new project, though, consists of classic bluegrass covers, and I would assume that this is the material that he will present in the beautiful setting of St. David’s Church.

Earle Poole Ball: When people talk about Austin as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” they often point to the artists who are young, new, and just moving into the spotlight. What I cherish most about this scene, though, are people like Earle Poole Ball, figures with central roles in American music history who have moved here later in their careers and can now be found making a living in any number of moderately-sized listening rooms. Ball once worked with Johnny Cash’s touring band and can be heard playing piano on the Byrds’ classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Forgo some of the “next big things” on your list to make room for guys like Ball who know the ropes.

Next Big Things and Artists Worth Knowing:

That said, SXSW lives off of buzz. It is the air that it breathes, just as Lone Star tallboys are the blood that pumps through its veins. These aren’t necessarily the buzziest or brand-spanking-new of those acts—we’ll have to wait for the festival itself to see who builds their hype over the week—but they are acts worth your attention now.

Leon Bridges: The last few years have seen an explosion of neo-soul artists bringing back classic cool and horn sections, but few have done so as smoothly as young Leon Bridges of Fort Worth. And SXSW scores points for placing him in one of the church sanctuary showcases that should fit his crooners’ voice perfectly. He’s near the top of my list.

Futurebirds: Early claims that they were the “next Drive-by Truckers” likely issued from the fact that they, too, were based in Athens, Georgia, but the comparison doesn’t hold up much beyond that. There is the twang of Americana here, surely, but also a breezy and confident psych-pop that, if anything, should invite comparisons to fellow Southerners My Morning Jacket.

Run the Jewels: Not exactly newcomers, and they’ve been on the festival circuit collecting their laurels for the past year, but this collaboration of El-P and Killer Mike still has a triumphant SXSW ahead of them.

Turbo Fruits: A Nashville-based garage rock outfit who plays for keeps. I’ve seen them across a number of SXSW stages over the years, and direct people their way whenever I can. The Turbofruits’ “Shakin’ All Over” cover is an acrobatic show-stopper.

Ryan Bingham: I feel strange putting him here given the fact that he already has an Oscar for his role in the Crazy Heart soundtrack. A former rodeo bullrider with a rugged voice and a poet’s pen, Bingham’s albums have shown an evolution that encompasses West Texas sparseness, Bob Dylan’s songcraft, and roadhouse raucousness.

Vockah Redu: Typically, SXSW has a wide range of New Orleans bounce acts, that rich regional subculture that gave birth to the likes of Lil’ Wayne and, for good or ill, twerking. A few years back, I saw Vockah Redu headline a New Orleans bounce showcase that involved plenty pre-Miley twerking, a marching band with prosthetic monster makeup, incense, Egyptian god masks, and drag queens. Some friends of mine were in a club next door where Mark Cuban was hosting a party with Los Lonely Boys and an open bar. My insistent texts regarding the brilliantly orchestrated insanity they were missing next door could not budge them. Those friends are dead to me, SXSW-wise.

Whitey Morgan: It may seem strange to come to Texas to find that the hard country torch burns brightest in the hands of a band from Flint, Michigan, but that may well be the case in Whitey Morgan. Their rendition of Dale Watson’s “Where Do You Want It?” about the time that Billy Joe Shaver shot a guy in the face outside of a honky-tonk near Waco, hits the nail on the head.

Shamir: Shamir Bradley is a twenty-year-old from the outskirts of Las Vegas who crafts pitch-perfect discopop and sings over it with a commanding, confident, arresting voice. That his appearance at Stubb’s on Wednesday night is headlined by TV on the Radio only sweetens the deal.

Tontons: People don’t always think of Houston as a rock ‘n’ roll hotbed. Austin has worked so hard, after all, to overshadow other Texas scenes, but there are dozens of artists who put our Austin hype to the test. The Tontons of Houston are a case in point. Fronted by dynamic lead singer Asli Omar, the group easily captures any audience it steps in front of.

The Suffers: They call themselves a “Gulf coast soul band,” which just about captures it. Think Daptones down south in a hurricane during Mardi Gras.

Little Simz: This self-produced rapper and actress came out of North London mixtape culture and, judging from the schedule she’s set up this time around, looks to be one of the hardest-working artists at SXSW.

Catfish and the Bottlemen: These dreamy Welsh indie rockers are riding high in Britain. With the U.S. release of their first album The Balcony in January of this year, they look posed to make strides stateside, as well.

International music has been a real growth area for SXSW over the past decade, and definitely something to take advantage of. Latin acts alone have over a dozen distinct showcases under the umbrella of SXAmericas, with artists from Mexico, Spain, Colombia, Chile, Uruguay, and more. Mexico’s electro-rockers Kinky and Colombia’s Bomba Estereo are some of the standouts. Off of the official schedule but still of interest to Latin music fans, Texas Onda Chicana stars Sunny Ozuna and the Street People will be playing for free at the Mexican American Cultural Center during a festival there on March 18th.

Peelander-Z: Punk jokesters Peelander-Z seem to be the godfathers of the Japanese presence at SXSW. Also, be sure to check out Peelander Yellow’s murals all around town at the East Side King restaurants and food trucks, featuring excellent Japanese street food by Top Chef Paul Qui.

There’s a terrifically diverse K-pop night March 19th at the Elysium with a range of South Korean hip-hop, pop, metal, and girl groups including the Barberettes, Hitchhiker, Crayon Pop, Asian Chairshot, and more. Seoul-based singer-songwriter Big Phony and punk artists No Brain will also be in town for the festival, among others.

The 20th anniversary of SXSW’s famed Japan Nite falls on the next evening, March 20th, also at Elysium on Red River. According to SXSW, this will be J-pop duo moumoon’s first American performance, along with a range of punk, folk, and electronic acts. These Elysium evenings are always some of my very favorite of the festival. It’s hard to be surprised by a musical performance in this day and age, but I’ve encountered many here.

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