Photography by: Clare Welsh
Whenever I return from South by Southwest (SXSW) my friends and family always ask, “how was it?” With this being my third time going, they have now gotten the same response three times: “amazing.” But a few friends dug deeper this year and asked, “how is SXSW different than other festivals?”
At first I simply could not answer. SXSW is a different experience than any festival or event I have ever been to. But as I described my experiences of getting up close to Weezer, Jimmy Eat World, Lewis del Mar, San Fermin, and Mastodon, it finally hit me.
SXSW is a series of small festivals within one gigantic one. There were always multiple live performances at various venues across the city of Austin. This allowed for smaller crowd sizes due to the high volume of live shows, leading festival goers to experience intimate performances from the artist.
Here are four takeaways from my experience at this year’s SXSW:
SXSW started as a music festival and will always be a music festival. As an event brought together by local musicians, it is no surprise to see local Austin artists among big, headlining acts in the schedule.
Blues rocker Emily Wolfe played a total of four shows throughout SXSW, including an opening set for Ryan Adams. Wolfe started practicing the guitar at age five and was influenced by her uncle, who had a bluegrass band. She jump started her solo career when she began to play live shows during her college years at St. Edward’s University.
Performing at an intimate stage at Lucille Patio Lounge, Wolfe rocked out to a packed audience of rock aficionados. The sheer power of her music was moving. Grassroots rock ‘n’ roll is unfortunately being drowned out by overproduced music, so it was a great experience to enjoy a true rock artist.
While on tour, Wolfe was scouted by a management company and is now recording
her debut rock LP with Rob Cavallo who produced multiple platinum-selling albums with Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls, and Dave Matthews Band to name a few. Wolfe hopes to bring on a label soon.
Wolfe, who took time in her busy schedule to meet with us, describes her four performances at SXSW as “validation” to all the hard work she’s done. Her success and advancement in the music scene has lead to a “sobriety change” in her life. Wolfe’s advice to any upcoming artist: “Don’t compare yourself to anyone.”
The festival had more musicians from other countries than I noticed in previous years. This added to a vast diversity of music to experience at SXSW. I checked out Echopark at Numero 28, who was a part of an Italian music showcase.
Echopark is an excellent singer/songwriter who seamlessly switched back and forth from Italian to English while performing. I felt like I had teleported to Italy as I nibbled on some Italian snacks courtesy of the owner of Numero 28.
One of my favorite performances was by The Blind Suns from France at the Volstead, a New Orleans-style bar with French overtones. This dream pop band had beautiful visuals to accompany its trance-inducing music. I lost myself in their smooth lyrics and crisp harmony. When they ended their set, I thought they had only played for a short period, but I soon realized a full 45 minutes had passed. Few artists can keep me that hyper-focused when I’m flooded with distractions.
Another international showcase featured artists performing K-Pop as well as artists from Korea. Megan Lee, who stars in the popular Nickelodeon show Make It Pop, led a large band with her powerful voice. Lee constantly thanked her band and the audience, which made her set personal and sincere.
The headliner of the K-Pop set was Big Phony who flew in from Korea. Big Phony’s Bobby Choy shared how he was stuck in customs for over three hours and almost missed his flight to Austin. Between his gentle,honest songs, Choy told deadpan stories about married life, which was a funny change of pace.
Last year was the first year SXSW featured gaming as its own entity and not just a piece of the Interactive festival. Expanding on the groundwork from last year, gaming played a bigger role in this year’s programming. Besides featuring several
speakers in the gaming community and a large trade show, this year SXSW offered the opportunity all gamers want: a chance to play more games.
My inner child was in heaven when I walked into a large auditorium filled with new computer games and their creators. Nintendo Switch occupied a large space and gave eager fans the chance to finally play the new Legend of Zelda game.
We checked out indie game I Can Feel It Coming in the Air Tonight by developer James Earl Cox III of Just404it games, which was easily one of the most original games I have ever played. The game is a simulation of what it is like to be a young boy in the ‘90s who is discovering pornography for the first time online. The game starts with the classic dial-up sound and is complete with loud, spamming pop-ups as you dive deep into the internet.
By the last day of the festival, my friend and photographer Clare Welsh and I were suffering from sensory overload. We needed an escape from the bustling city of Austin, but we were not ready to return home just yet.
A friend recommended we check out the Barton Creek Greenbelt. We were not disappointed. The natural springs and waterfalls were heavenly. We hiked up a large hill along a shiny, limestone path, and could view a beautiful cityscape of Austin.
We were not the only ones with this idea, as several dogs, often accompanied us with their owners. A combination of dogs and young kids were jumping in and out of the creek and we strolled down the path. We could not help but smile as the dogs seemed like they were having the best day ever.
As children jumped off small cliffs into small pools of natural spring water, I reflected on the beauty of not only the city of Austin, but also the behemoth of a festival, SXSW. I can only imagine what exciting new acts or cool technology to try that SXSW will offer eager patrons next year.