Photography by: Clare Welsh
South by Southwest (SXSW) is a festival for all types of music lovers. I’ve rocked out with heavy metal fans and sipped cocktails with jazz aficionados. Long lines could lead some away to their “safe” experiences at a local tavern where they can see an Eagles cover band for the countless time, but true SXSW patrons will endure it to get up close to their favorite band at a small venue.
As a two-time SXSW goer I hunger for more each year. With this being the thirtieth anniversary of SXSW, the festival has grown and changed even from last year.
One cannot escape live music during SXSW. The festival has several featured showcases and festivals within the festival, such as our favorite, FLOODfest.
Spotify House, run by the ever-popular streaming service, had a several-day festival throughout SXSW. We were fortunate enough to experience two amazing rock bands, Twin Peaks and The Kills, while we were there.
After returning to Cleveland and giving our eardrums some rest from fantastic music, we have taken some time to reflect on this year’s fest. Here are five takeaways from our experience of this year’s fest.
1. Resurgence of Local Music
When I first glanced at the music lineup I was a bit underwhelmed. The lineup last year had many more notable acts, which challenged me this year to explore many bands who I did not know anything about. To my pleasant surprise, I found a lot of great local, Austin talent.
Anthony Obi, known as Fat Tony, is a Nigerian rap artist who grew up in Houston, but has played at SXSW and other Austin venues for the past eight years. Playing to a small, yet enthusiastic crowd at Shiner’s Saloon, Fat Tony poetically rapped about his life, which including mundane aspects, such as going to local fast-food chain, Whataburger. With the support of his DJ in the background, his lyrics were moving and catchy as I saw people in the streets stop walking and start jamming along with us.
But besides an emphasis on local music, SXSW was keen on featuring smaller bands in smaller and intimate venues. Bambara, from Brooklyn, New York, with roots from Athens, Georgia, played at the local watering hole, The Side Bar, to a packed crowd.
2. Rise of Video Games
SXSW is a three-part festival: interactive, music, and film. But gaming has always lingered in the background and never given a true spotlight until this year.
Though we mainly were covering music, we could not ignore the wealth of “gaming” which was around us. A pop up arcade with vintage games, which were free to play, was always packed with gaming veterans to younglings experiencing Pac-Man for the first time. Twitch, the world’s leading social video platform, was at SXSW and was live streaming gamers completing challenging speed trials in popular games.
Similar to the panel discussions present for interactive, film, and music, gaming also had several panels including one celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Sonic the Hedgehog.
Yuji Naka, original creator of Sonic the Hedgehog, gave some insight into the blue mammal’s inception, with the help of translator and Sega Production Development Director, Austin Keys. Sega was in desperate need of a mascot to rival Nintendo’s hero, Mario, in the early ‘90s. Current mascot, Alex Kidd, was not filling that role too well so Naka created Sonic on a napkin and originally named him “Mr. Needlemouse.” Tails was designed as means to have younger siblings also play and the rest is video game history.
With any music festival, nothing can go completely as planned, and spur-of-the-moment decisions and changes will need to be made. Ray Lamontagne was scheduled to headline the outdoor showcase at Lady Bird Lake on Thursday, March 17, but had to cancel due to illness. SXSW had the option to simply cancel the performance or replace him with a similar “smaller” act.
Instead, SXSW never disappoints music lovers and replaced Lamontage with an even bigger act, Deftones.
Fans, young and old, jammed to the heavy rock sound of this long-standing metal band. On a perfect, temperate spring evening, I couldn’t fathom the possibility of sending all these fans home without a fantastic closer.
4. Austin is Beautiful
With a bombardment of great music and events at SXSW, it is hard to find time to truly experience Austin, Texas. Akin to “younger” cities like Portland, Denver, and Nashville, Austin not only has great music and outdoor-life, but also great art.
The Hope Outdoor Gallery, also simply known as the “Graffiti Park,” was filled with thriving artists expressing themselves through the use of spray paint and concrete. Musicians occupied the top ledge of the park and performed a free set to raise awareness to the water crisis in Michigan.
Austin’s beauty does not end with art and nature, but also applies to simple things, like tacos. Torchy’s Tacos proved to be an excellent Texas chain of artisan tacos. The fried Avocado Taco was out of this world and I wish I could find tacos of that caliber in Cleveland.
5. Live Music in Austin is Not Exclusive to SXSW
There is no denying that SXSW has had a huge influence on the growing music scene in Austin. It is easy to forget that because Austin had such a strong live music presence; SXSW has been able to flourish for 30 years (and hopefully more).
Unfortunately for everyone, Austin suffered from a torrential storm on Friday, March 18, on a night when many of the main musical showcases occur. SXSW staff did the right thing by caring about patron and artist’s safety first and cancelled all outdoor performances and some indoor ones as well.
Due to this powerful act of nature, we sought asylum outside of the downtown area at the Lost Well, which was offering a night of metal bands, headlined by Weedeater. Not familiar with this music genre, which included a lot of men in black shirts with satanic images on them, I not only got a taste of what it was like to be a metal-head, but I realized music is a part of the bloodstream that makes Austin unique.
These music-lovers did not necessarily care or even recognize that SXSW was happening. Though SXSW showcased one of the most famous metal bands, Deftones, metal is not a popular music genre amongst SXSW patrons, or really most music listeners, but there clearly is an unsaid relationship between SXSW and live music in Austin; one where they mutually benefit and help each other.