Lemonade: Festival a ‘week in the knees’ experience
Austin, Texas, has definitely earned the self-appointed title of “the live music capital of the world” with its annual five-day music festival, South by Southwest. In its 21st year, SXSW is the most popular international and national music festival with more than 10,000-plus registered attendees from the music industry and 1,400 bands playing at 60-some venues in a 15-block radius at all hours of the day, bringing more than $38 million into the downtown economy. It’s Mardi Gras, a 10-year high school reunion and spring break all rolled into one irresistible raucous celebration.
This marked my sixth year, and I still get weak in the knees by the sight of 6th and Red River streets lined with vans, trailers and tour buses, crowded with young rock ‘n’ rollers in tight black pants and perfectly coifed haircuts making their way from one club to the next, the clatter of guitars, drums and bass spilling into the street. Founded in 1987, SXSW began as a regional showcase for local and independent musicians performing all genres of music. The festival has grown to include not only up-and-coming artists but also esteemed legends. This year featured informative and inspiring panels and performances by Emmylou Harris, Iggy Pop, Rickie Lee Jones, Booker T. Jones, Vashti Bunyan, the Buzzcocks, Gilberto Gil, Lee Scratch Perry and keynote speaker Pete Townshend, who was spotted throughout the week joining in on impromptu sessions. Even with all the big names and major label presence, most artists at SXSW are still either unsigned or on an independent label, hoping to connect with members of the press, a hot booking agent and publicist, a music film supervisor looking for that perfect track for that perfect part, or all of the above to help launch their career.
SXSW is a marathon that tests even the most road-worn rocker. I saw 40 bands in four days, but that pales in comparison with the many musicians who play a grueling schedule of three or four shows a day that include everything from clubs, parties, warehouses and backyards, to alleyways and street corners. No space is spared, even the historical French Legation Museum, which is where I caught Nevada City’s own songstresses Mariee Sioux and Alela Diane.
Mariee’s compelling performance of her enchanting songs silenced the entire audience at the outdoor day party, while Alela delighted listeners the following day with an unforgettable show with her father, Tom Menig, on mandolin; Rich Stanmeyer on stand-up bass; Matt Bauer on banjo;, and Mariee on back-up vocals.
Hella, another group with players from Nevada City/Grass Valley, took a break from their eight-week national tour to play a couple shows in Austin, as well. I stopped in for their evening showcase and was blown away by their new five-piece line-up that has Spencer Seim (guitar) and Zach Hill (drums) partnering with Josh Hill (guitar), Carson McWhirter (bass) and Aaron Ross (vocals) to fully realize their most fierce and melodic sound to date.
Other highlights included: Joanna Newsom accompanying Austinite Bill Callahan on piano at the Central Presbyterian Church; Bat for Lashes (Brighton, UK) performing a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” that left me covered in goose bumps; the manic dance beats of 120 Days (Kristiansund, Norway) and Architecture in Helsinki (Melbourne, Australia) and the transcendent metal-gaze of Jesu (Birmingham, UK); the grimy garage rock from the Black Lips (Atlanta, Ga.) and The Teeth’s (Philadelphia, Pa.) blistering indie pop. I topped off my final night with a heavy-handed dose of hard rock from Danava (Portland, Ore.), Wooden Shjips (San Francisco), and VietNam (Brooklyn, N.Y.).
Maybe it has something to do with getting older and learning how to pace myself on cheap Mexican beer and Texas BBQ, or that I was traveling with good people, or the sheer quantity of amazing music I heard, but this year was by far my favorite SXSW.
I’m sure I’ll be telling you that again next year.
Lemonade is cool and refreshing, usually sweet and a little bit tart. Jesse Locks is a freelance writer and partner in the Grass Roots Record Company. You can reach her via e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 530-601-2415.
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