Photography Clare Welsh
Some say “third time’s a charm,” but I always think the fourth time is when you really “get it.” This was my fourth year in a row attending South by Southwest (SXSW), a music, film, and interactive media festival in Austin, Texas.
This multifaceted event encompasses all walks of life, from indie music to virtual reality, safely under one large festival umbrella. Many festivals can only dream to be this inclusive.
I have seen this festival grow over the past four years. Heck, I’ve grown as a lover of the arts in the past four years. As both SXSW and I have grown, we both have changed our styles.
My first few years, I treated the festival as any festival and would bounce around across the town and try to see as many “headliners” as possible. I’m now four years older and would rather not run across downtown Austin. Instead, I began to choose one or two venues and stick with them throughout the night. I learned to love the calmness of this new approach, which in turn led me to experience excellent local acts such as folk duo Dawn and Hawkes and singer-songwriter Molly Burch.
As I’ve changed, so has event. SXSW has grown as an organization, improving their organizing capacities. Simple line management was greatly improved this year. Lines were shorter, posted signs were clearer, and lot of venues were exclusive to SXSW badge or wristband holders. In previous years, I often wondered what was the whole point of having a badge or wristband was when staffers are still letting in people who paid at the door or were simply entering for free. That changed in 2018.
I was shocked to find Pussy Riot headlining a showcase. Hailing from Moscow, Pussy Riot is a feminist punk group comprised of several women opposing Vladimir Putin’s leadership. Their set was a true experience and was more performance art than a traditional musical showcase. As a masked woman shouted lyrics such as “Don’t play stupid, don’t play dumb. Vagina’s where you really from,” a screen behind her filled with 8-bit characters and graphics accompanied her performance. I was in complete awe.
Before Pussy Riot played a midnight set at the Belmont, dynamic duo known as KOLARS took the stage for an 8 p.m. performance. Founded by musicians Rob Kolar and Lauren Brown—both former members of the folk group He’s My Brother She’s My Sister—the Los Angeles-based disco and blues band exploded on stage with a fun, upbeat tempo and colossal stage presence. Brown not only plays percussion, but also tap dances on a large drum, the first artist I have ever seen perform this feat. Kolar jammed out the guitar in true rock fashion, which set the bar for the rest of the evening.
While SXSW offered plenty of fascinating options from across the country, PressureLife Photographer Clare Welsh and I were fortunate enough to experience a Cleveland-based duo at the Saxon Pub during our first night in Austin. Shetler Jones is a very new project between Cleveland-based singer-songwriters Jessica Shetler and Nate Jones. Acclaimed for their energetic vocal harmonies and onstage flair, the duo plan to launch their debut album with a string of gripping and energetic live performances.
The Saxon Pub was the perfect smaller venue for the bluesy, acoustic folk duo, whose harmonies transcended through the small bar and spoke directly to the patrons as they enjoyed their locally-crafted brews. Shetler and Jones are great storytellers, as many of their songs exhibit a clear narrative which draws the audience closer to hear their tales. The Austin audience sat quietly captivated by their performance, which was the duo’s first time at SXSW.
“There’s really no way to compare South by Southwest with anything else because it is such a massive gathering of musicians and consumers,” Jones said. “It’s really unlike anything we’ve really ever done. There’s so much going on everywhere and the level of energy is really unique.”
“Everyone here [at South by Southwest] and Austin are very welcoming and respectful,” Shetler added. “The Cleveland music scene has grown a lot in the past few years, but coming off the plane everyone here is immediately interested in what you’re doing and what you’re playing and they want to share what they are doing as well. I think it is really refreshing to come to another city that is very welcoming when a festival is going on.”
Jones and Shetler use songs pulled from The Nate Jones Band and Top Hat Black, Jones’ and Shetler’s other respective bands, as material for the new duo to explore. Both musicians are used to having a full band, but the challenge of being a duo forces them to fill in for roles held by other bandmates.
The Shetler Jones duo allows both artists to venture in musical exploration in ways they have never encountered. Neither of them have ever been percussion players, but both Shetler and Jones have adapted from being in a band to find new ways to complement each other.
“Being an acoustic duo, almost out of necessity, I know my strengths and my limitations of my guitar playing, but I have to be a percussion player along with a guitar player to get the most out of being one instrument with two voices,” Jones explained.
As the duo continues to collaborate together on material, they find solace in creating new songs. Both Shetler and Jones have a full catalog of original content from their respective bands, but the duo allows them to be creative in new ways. SXSW was an excellent reason to essentially force the duo to put our new material.
Even though it has been a lot of time and work to prepare for SXSW, Shetler acknowledges the joy that comes from starting a new direction.
“The songwriting process has been fun and it’s more organic,” she said. “We both have different styles but we also have similar styles so when we bring them together it is cool to see how they mesh. By performing as a duo over a band, it is a more intimate performance.”
With their other respective bands, Shetler and Jones may have played “at” and audience, but as a duo they’ve found that they’re playing more “to” them by providing a more intimate experience for the listener.
“Because we are duo, you can’t play at a crowd and drown everyone out and blow past them,” Jones explained. “It is like being a comic, you really rely on the audience, especially because we play in a lot of smaller venues.”
Playing to audiences in smaller venues is how many of the artists who provide musical inspiration and influence to the duo got their start. Shetler Jones’ music is grounded in the folks and blues style of yesteryear. I found myself dreaming of Rod Stewart and Bob Dylan as I lost myself in their performance.
“We both are old souls and are influenced by music from the ‘60s and ‘70s,” Shetler added. “Our music is a little darker, but bluesy and rough at the same time.”
While Shetler Jones made Cleveland proud during their stint in Austin, the local music scene also had its moment to shine. Showcasing before Shetler Jones at the Saxon Pub was Buenos Diaz, led by Austin musician Nick Diaz, who exploded onto the set with a ton of energy and stage presence. His music was upbeat and fun and is what I imagined true Austin music to be like. His soft-spoken, yet hard rock was accompanied by fast-paced and strong guitar strumming over meaningful lyrics, which were at times spoken and not sung.
“It felt great to be so involved with the music portion of the conference and to be repping Austin as a local so much during the week,” Diaz stated after his performance. “During South by Southwest, our city is one of the coolest places on the planet where everyone involved in any modern creative medium wants to visit and witness the energy surrounding the event.”
Music wasn’t the only entertainment available in Austin. The Gaming Expo proved to be an excellent diversion from the cacophony of musical talent at SXSW. We checked out the virtual reality game, Manifest 99, by Flight School Studio. Through a virtual reality headset called a Vive, we were into a game where we followed a murder of crows on a train going to the afterlife. As we made eye contact with each crow, we were teleported to that crow’s point-of-view, which further developed the story and unlocked mysteries and tales of the past lives of those on the train. It was a highly innovative and original experience.
With the always-fantastic music and gaming scenes, SXSW proves to be unlike any other festival. In a world dominated by “mainstream” music, it was incredibly refreshing to find one of the largest attended festivals in the world make such an effort to support up-and-coming artists and highlight the local, Austin talent in all areas of entertainment. After a fourth trip to Austin, I am more eager to return next year to SXSW than ever before.