Lucire
The global fashion magazine March 1, 2024 
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Crawlers singer Holly Minto at British Music Embassy.

Going with the flow at SXSW

VOLANTE George Rush has highlights from SXSW, journeying back to its roots as a music festival

Photographed by the author
From issue 47 of Lucire

 

 


Above, from top: Musician loading zone. Os Mutantes fans at Hotel Vegas. HighVibe Mushrooms co-founder and ‘Ambassador of Happiness’ S. Stephen Huntsman at Spin Magazine showcase. Cocktails on ‘Dirty 6th’.

 

The South by Southwest music festival is like a casino where, even if your number doesn’t hit, you still win. It’s hard not to witness some indelible performances when you have 1,541 acts hailing from 59 countries, all jammed into five days. Rather than being confined to a festival fairground, you roam in and out of 70 or so venues across the city of Austin, Texas. The offerings span more than 25 genres. Come for the death metal, stay for the gospel.

Take one evening. High on my list of must-sees was Os Mutantes, the Brazilian band that, in 1966, defied their country’s dictatorship with an unprecedented fusillade of psychedelic rock. Its music became so widely admired that, after they disbanded in 1978, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain wrote a letter, begging its members to reunite. Now the reconstituted ‘Mutants’ were back in force, led by original member Sergio Dias. My friends and I trekked across ‘dirty Sixth’—the downtown street famed for its gritty diversions—to Hotel Vegas. There, on a canopied patio, the 72-year-old Dias spoke to a new generation, his whirring guitar churning our brains like the club’s slushy blender.

I was more than satisfied. Looking to escape March’s evening chill, our crew moved inside to a snug lounge. Laurence Giroux-Do, a French-accented brunette wearing something like a cheerleader’s uniform, was at the mic. ‘We’re Le Couleur,’ she said. ‘We’re from Montréal.’ I’d never heard of them and was ready to move on to the next venue. But as we approached the exit, a sinewy four-on-the-floor groove wrapped itself around us. Giroux-Do began skipping through the crowd, pumping her fist, beckoning everyone to get on down. Her re-engineered Euro-disco soon had the stiffest looking dudes bumping. We were powerless to leave.

That’s the kind of happenstance you can depend upon at SXSW. You can do your best to plan your trip. You can spend hours, as I did, clicking through SXSW’s official Spotify playlist, which accords each artist one song. You can build your personal schedule using the excellent SXSW Go app. But once you set out there’s no telling where you’ll end up.

The day begins around 1 p.m. with an assortment of free showcases sponsored by magazines and companies longing for the youthful dollar. Some performers skip the clubs and plug in on a street corner or in a trailer hitched to a van. Indie supergroup Boygenius (officially styled all lowercase)—comprised of Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers—put on an unannounced show at the baggage claim of Austin’s airport. The official showcases begin at 8 p.m. and can run till after 2 a.m. Each act gets 30 to 45 minutes. So giving a listen isn’t much of a time investment. Many venues are clustered together, making it easy to hop from one to another. If you go to a club that has more than one stage, like the venerable Mohawk, you can swiftly move to the next performance without having to wait through a tune-up.

James Minor, musical director of the festival, said attendance improved significantly from 2022, when in-person performances returned after three COVID-plagued years. ‘Attendance was not back to pre-pandemic levels,’ he told me. ‘But it was up in a really positive way.’

You don’t come to SXSW for big names. You come for names that will be big. South by is about discovering artists in intimate settings long before others must buy scalper tickets outside an arena. Among those who’ve gotten an early boost are the Dixie Chicks, Fugees, Sonic Youth, the Black-Eyed Peas, Norah Jones, John Mayer, and James Blunt, to name a few.

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Above, from top: Jack’s Upstairs on ‘Dirty 6th’. Continental Club barroom. Ritz Theater. Texas beer advertisements. The Zombies play Lady Bird Park.

 

SXSW has grown dramatically beyond music. Its full 10-day schedule now includes ‘tracks’ for film, television, comedy, gaming, art, technology, entrepreneurship, marketing, politics, education, and the environment. In the 2010s, superstars like Kanye West and Bruce Springsteen began dropping in, even though the fest’s standard compensation has long been US$250 or a festival wristband. Some criticized the trend toward celebrities and corporate branding. But Minor, who has worked with the festival for 12 years, said his team hasn’t forgotten its mission.

‘We’re not a conventional consumer festival. We’re not like Lollapalooza or Coachella. Our focus is to give up-and-coming artists a springboard that can help them get to the next part of their career.’

Minor recalled that, when SXSW launched in 1987, ‘the musicians were all Americans,’ mostly rockers. ‘As time has gone on, international participation has become such an important thing. That’s what makes SXSW what it is—the ability to come here and see acts from all over the world.

‘Guitar music is still the foundation of the event,’ added Minor. ‘But we’ve seen hip-hop grow so much.’ The festival has six programmers who review thousands of applications. ‘All the programmers have their strengths. My whole team is very open-minded and they’re able to lean on each other. We have a good conversation. We’re all trying to learn as the process goes on. It’s cool.’

Established artists often approach the festival when it fits in with their plans. This year, the City of Manchester arranged for a visit by New Order. The electronica pioneers did a transporting show as well as sitting down for a Keynote interview. ‘All the pieces of the puzzle came together,’ said Minor.

Other legacy acts showed they’re still kicking. The Krautrock innovators of Tangerine Dream and Rock and Roll Hall of Famers the Zombies both mixed their hits with new songs. ‘The Zombies also have a documentary,’ said Minor. ‘They’re an amazing band with an amazing story.’

Rap eminences like Jadakiss, Anderson .Paak, and Killer Mike also turned up. Macklemore, born Benjamin Haggerty, didn’t forget his roots on St Patrick’s Day, strutting around the stage with an Irish flag. The Emerald Isle sent an official contingent of 11 artists. Appearing at an all-day ‘Full Irish Breakfast’, they displayed punk, pop, and house tendencies that would’ve unravelled the Clancy Brothers’ fisherman sweaters.

The SXSW Stands with Ukraine showcase featured a half dozen artists from the beleaguered country. ‘It’s important to remind everybody that the war is still happening,’ said Minor.

UK artists, including the Orielles, Crawlers, Bellah, Obongjayar, Pigsx7, and Panic Shack, presented their musical passports at the British Music Embassy showcase. The Spanish Wave event washed up Iberian acts like Ghouljaboy, Rakky Ripper, Maestro Espada, Caballo Prieto and Noia. Twenty or so artists journeyed from across Asia. Among the standouts: Japan’s Otoboke Beaver and Chameleon Lime Whoopiepie and South Korea’s Beenzino and Balming Tiger. Proving there’s such a thing as zen hip hop, Yogetsu Akasaka, a saffron-robed Buddhist monk, created hypnotic beatbox loops. ‘He builds these linear compositions where he’ll harmonize with himself,’ explained Minor. ‘It sounds gimmicky, but it was amazing. Word about him spread fast.’

Next year’s SXSW will run from March 8 to 16, with the music during the last five days. This year’s music badges, which get you into any show, cost US$995. (Badges for Film and TV ran US$1,595. An all-access Platinum badge cost US$1,995.) More economical is a wristband—priced in 2023 at US$160, which gives you next-in-line entry after badge-holders. You can also buy individual tickets to any show that’s not sold out. There are numerous no-charge ‘day stages’. (Check austin.showlists.net.) RSVPing online for the free shows helps to get you in, but there may be a long line for popular headliners. You can sometimes beat that line by arriving well before the headliner goes on. To gain industry exposure, artists try to play as many showcases as possible. If you don’t catch an act at one event, chances are they’ll play someplace else.

Minor suggests making a list of performers you’re curious about. ‘But don’t be too rigid. If you follow people to other shows, or just randomly check something out, you might be surprised. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone.’ •

 

George Rush has contributed pieces to Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Men’s Journal, Departures, Travel & Leisure, and Spy, among others. He is a guest contributor to Lucire.

 


Above, from top: SXSW Stands with Ukraine showcase. Fuchsia forward at Inn Cahoots hotel.

 

 

 

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