The TIDAL Guide to South by Southwest
With the City Series, TIDAL investigates the local music scenes of U.S. cities. Enlisting the expertise of a locally-based music writer, we explore the past, present and future of music in each town. In this special edition on Austin, Thomas Fawcett writes a dummy’s guide to SXSW, the biggest music event of the year.
It’s hard to explain the sheer scale of South by Southwest to the uninitiated.
For a week every March seemingly every bar, coffee shop, clothing store, restaurant, record store, church and parking lot in Austin, TX gets cast as a 24/7 music venue as more than 2,000 bands rocking more than 100 stages across the city.
SXSW is a giant fire-breathing octopus that sprays music, booze, and corporate swag all over Austin. It’s best to either dive in head first or run far, far away.
SXSW (or South By, as everyone calls it) is in fact, many festivals in one.
The tech portion draws the most official attendees but music creates the biggest buzz and draws the biggest crowds. The excellent film fest gets sandwiched in the middle, overlapping (and often overshadowed) with both. Twitter may have spawned from the tech festival, but the music portion threatens to break it every year. More and more, the lines between film, tech, and music are blurred. The tech nerds will call that convergence.
Over the past weekend Nas, D’Angelo, Mary J. Blige, Future Islands and Flaming Lips all played exclusive parties in town, and Texas rap legend Bushwick Bill began his annual tradition of stage crashing, joining multiple local funk bands at separate venues. And by the way, the music portion of the festival supposedly doesn’t kick off until Tuesday.
A dark cloud hung over SXSW last year after a drunk driver fleeing police mowed over a police barricade on the music festival’s opening night, plowing through dozens of revelers on Red River Street.
Four people were killed and 20 more were injured. The tragedy sparked a lot of soul searching, both for SXSW and the city, which hope to limit the number of unofficial parties and free booze that turns Austin into the premier hipster Spring Break destination in the country.
The city has cut back on the number of event permits issued this year and already shut down several events that exceeded capacity over the weekend. Time will tell if this year’s annual music orgy is effectively scaled down or not.
Some media have noted a lack of headliners at this year’s event but it seems those folks don’t have an ear for beats and rhymes.
SXSW 2015 may well be remembered as the year hip hop took over.
How’s this for star power?: Kanye West, Wiz Kalifa, 2Chainz, Joey Bada$$, Action Bronson, Earl Sweatshirt, E-40, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Madlib, Wyclef Jean, Big K.R.I.T., J. Cole, Big Sean, Run the Jewels, Freddie Gibbs.
That’s just a fraction of the MCs on the bill and it would almost be more surprising if Kendrick Lamar didn’t play a last-minute show than if he did. Moreover, this marks the first time ever a rapper will deliver the conference keynote when Snoop Dogg takes the stage for a Keynote Conversation. Let’s call it the keynizzle.
For those heading to Austin this week, as well as those curious what the fuss is about, here are a few pro-tips for experiencing SXSW.
Avoid the Big Names (and the Lines)
Oh, you heard a rumor Kanye will be playing a “super secret” show at Stubb’s on Saturday night? So did everyone else. You can stand in line for hours hoping for a “come to Yeezus” meeting, or you can cruise right into countless clubs with tons of under-the-radar talent.SXSW Rule #1: Spoils await those who take the path less traveled.
Go to Church
There are many people who go to church only once or twice a year. For most the occasion is Christmas or Easter, for me it’s SXSW. Downtown is an overwhelming sea of madness during the festival but a couple houses of worship can provide a sanctuary in more ways than one.
St. David’s Sanctuary and Central Presbyterian Church are two of the most unique places to take in a show, particularly the latter with its sky-high ceilings and gorgeous stained-glass windows. So when in doubt, go to church.
Central Presbyterian hosts Ibeyi, a pair of French Cuban twins who craft other worldly soulful harmonies on Friday, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes bring their riotous communal pop to the same spot on Thursday. Both should prove a perfect pairing of artist and venue. I don’t always go to church, but when I do it’s to see kickass music.
Travel the World
More than 500 bands at this year’s festival needed a passport to get to Austin and some of my favorite discoveries over the years were the bands that traveled the furthest.
One year I stumbled across Futomomo Satisfaction, a 10-piece Japanese funk-punk band fronted by a trio of trombonists who began the show wearing kimonos and ended it in nothing but bikinis. There are entire showcases dedicated to the music of Korea, Chile, Japan, Trinidad & Tobago and beyond.
Here are a few recommendations to get you started:
The Barberettes: From K-pop to doo-wop, this Korean female trio plays retro soul with no geographical boundaries.
Buraka Som Sistema: The Portuguese quintet specializes in the skull-rattling beats and swirling sirens of Angolan kuduro, an ass-shaking genre not unlike New Orleans bounce and Brazilian baile funk.
Chancha Via Circuito: One of the most compelling characters to emerge from the Buenos Aires electro-cumbia club scene, Chancha’s adventurous compositions are full of mysticism and low-end thump.
Juce: A London girl group with a ’90s throwback vibe and a touch of TLC.
La Inedita: This Lima six-piece crafts what it likes to call “Chichamuffin,” a fusion of dancehall and chicha, the resurging psychedelic cumbia of 1960s Peru.
Mighty Sparrow: Performing for over half a century, the 79-year-old Mighty Sparrow has rightfully earned the title of “Calypso King of the World.”
Tanya Tagaq: Mixing traditional Inuit throat-singing with experimental industrial soundscapes, the Polaris Prize-winning Canadian vocalist doesn’t so much sing as grunt, growl and groan.
TsuShiMaMiRe: This all-female electro punk trio from Tokyo headlines the always-entertaining Japan night.
Scout the Next Big Thing
Every year there’s an act that arrives in Austin as a virtual unknown and leaves a rising star. This year the smart money is on Fort Worth soul-man Leon Bridges. The 25-year old singer-songwriter keeps earning comparisons to Sam Cooke and a recent sold-out show at a tiny Austin club proved why.
Bridges has a silky smooth voice and writes deceptively simple soul tunes that are equally timeless and beautiful. As his all black-and-white Instagram account attests, it doesn’t hurt that the impeccably-dressed Texan looks the part. Bridges signed to Columbia records in December and is a good bet to be the next big thing.
Explore the Convention Center
As the spot for festival check-in and credential pick-up, the Austin Convention Center serves as unofficial headquarters of SXSW. Most folks with credentials go there to pick up a badge or wristband and never look back.
True, you won’t find many wild parties happening inside but the panels are one of the most underrated parts of the festival. This year the biggest trends in music will be presented, discussed and debated by all kinds of very smart people.
Here are few that caught my eye:
How Sampling Saved Music
Beethoven to Beyonce: The Science Behind a Hot Beat
Streaming is Creating a Better Music Experience
Why Curation Will Save the Music Industry
Fest Forward: The Future of Music Festivals
A Global View of the Next Digital Music Generation
Thomas Fawcett is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas. He has, in fact, listened to Rakim on a rocky mountain top.
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