New York Times
By Jon Parels
March 19, 2017
AUSTIN, Tex. — All sorts of metrics are applied to digital-era music to measure success: sales, streams, radio plays, tickets. One that’s harder to measure, and therefore often ignored, is audience joy. That’s where the South by Southwest Music Festival comes in. With audiences in which badge-holding music-business professionals are surrounded by more typical listeners, the festival provides instant feedback on what’s really reaching people: via shouts, singalongs, rowdy approval or rapt attention. At a time when the music business and the tech companies that now dominate it are concentrating on a customized experience, SXSW shows how much people still prize a communal one.
First held in 1987 and now an institution and an annual windfall for Austin, Tex., SXSW (which has vastly expanded with overlapping film and interactive festivals) puts performers on stages, small and large, across the city, most of them within walking distance downtown.
The number is overwhelming — more than 1,700 this year — and so is the variety. The festival is full of striving newcomers, and it has grown into a major magnet for hip-hop acts, from chart-toppers on down. It also provides a showcase for performers who are established overseas and now seeking a United States toehold — although this year, some performers were turned back at the last minute, in a shift of immigration enforcement that could have long-term implications for both the festival and bands hoping to reach American audiences. (The festival included a pointed rebuke to the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration: a showcase of performers with roots in countries listed in the travel ban.)
But SXSW also covers other career points, from reunions to memorials: This year, it included tributes to the 1970s Memphis band Big Star, to the mid-20th-century Greenwich Village folk scene and to the Louisiana bayou bandleader Buckwheat Zydeco. And SXSW remains distinctly and proudly a product of its hometown. The Austin band Spoon — which plays pithy, hard-nosed, perpetually inventive rock — played what was billed as SXSW’s first residency with three nights of headlining sets.
There was the joy of familiarity in the festival’s largest event: a lakeside outdoor concert by Garth Brooks, free to Austin residents and SXSW attendees. Mr. Brooks coyly pretended to wonder whether the crowd recalled songs like “The Dance” or “Unanswered Prayers,” only to be answered with end-to-end singalongs. Drawing equal devotion, from an indoor audience in a converted dance hall, was Lana del Rey, cooing through her hymns of vulnerability and obsession, who sent a frisson through her fans whenever she rephrased a melody. Current hip-hop hitmakers like Migos and Rae Sremmurd drew overflow audiences and top-of-the-lungs call-and-response chants.
They were performing at shows presented by streaming companies. Those were among a diminished number of corporate events compared with recent years at SXSW — a calculation, perhaps, that music won’t automatically burnish a brand. But if that encouraged festivalgoers to look beyond the hits, all the better. Because there were other experiences to be had at SXSW, particularly the one the festival was built on: dropping into an uncrowded club, drawn perhaps by a recommendation or a sample track online, and joining a collective sense of joyful discovery.
Here are 12 notable acts from the 2017 SXSW Music Festival.
AT THE DRIVE-IN When this band broke up in 2001, its music was a punk-hardcore whirlwind of frantic virtuosity, torrential verbiage and barely sublimated fury. It still was all that in a packed show that had fans trying to climb the club’s outside wall. The singer, Cedric Bixler-Zavala, was punk enough to stage-dive during the first song, while the guitarist Omar Rodríguez-López led the band through songs from 2001 (and a new one) with whipsawing momentum: wild, precise, aggressive and smart.
LIFT TO EXPERIENCE This post-psychedelic power trio from Denton, Tex., released one double album, “The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads,” in 2001; it was rereleased this year. Playing in a church, with a longhorn skull atop the rotating speakers of a Leslie cabinet at the center of the altar, the reunited Lift To Experience was an ocean of sound: monumental guitar drones, leviathan bass riffs, drums creating titanic surges. The lyrics sketched storms and revelations; the music made the whole church rumble and peal. “I’m not sure if we’re going to get to do this again in our lifetime,” the guitarist and singer Josh T. Pearson observed near the end of the set.
LA DAME BLANCHE A Cuban who lives in Paris, La Dame Blanche is a pan-Caribbean powerhouse. Dressed in white, she sang and rapped, smoked a cigar, sometimes played flute and led a band that mixed electronics with Latin percussion. Her songs dipped into hip-hop, cumbia, reggae and electro, while her voice held the commanding edge of deep Afro-Cuban tradition.
GOGO PENGUIN With the lineup of a standard piano-bass-drums jazz trio, GoGo Penguin made a different kind of music: repetitive and accretive like dance music, richly chorded over ceaseless ostinatos, reveling in permutations. As much as it improvised atop its structures, the group burrowed into them, building tension and momentum from within, turning them into meditations or shaping them into galvanizing crescendos that crested in a standing ovation.
RESIDENTE Resistance through anger and resistance through gleeful survival — fist-pumping and dancing — were the core of a free outdoor concert by Residente (René Pérez Joglar), formerly the frontman of the Puerto Rican hip-hop duo Calle 13. A band that included Omar Rodríguez-López on lead guitar played Calle 13 songs along with some from Residente’s new, self-titled solo album, forging hybrid grooves drawn from the Americas and Europe. Nearly every song became a rallying cry, and between them Residente spoke to declare his opposition to both the Trump administration and the current music business.
JACOB BANKS He promised “depressing songs,” but they were also defiant ones. Although he’s from London, Jacob Banks has soaked up American blues and gospel; he can summon bitter moans and back-to-the-wall growls. Meanwhile, his songs fortify their soul underpinnings with the timbres (though not the clichéd beats) of electronic dance music, exorcising pain with a wallop.
DENZEL CURRY Bare-chested and sweaty, working the entire stage, Denzel Curry, from Florida, took on gangsta-rap topics: battles for power, conspicuous consumption, drug deals, women, omnipresent death. But his raps weren’t mere bragging or simplistic shouts. They juggled rapping and singing; they switched up meter and tempo; and they could shift from slow to fast to breakneck. The thought behind all the action was obvious.
HOLLY MACVE There is a cleareyed intractability in the sustained, haunting songs of Holly Macve, an English singer and songwriter who has absorbed the most eerie strains of country and Appalachia. She sings with the quavers and breaks of mountain music, taking her time and facing abysses: “I gave you everything but my solitary heart/I turned and walked away from you and crawled back into the dark.” Playing solo in one of SXSW’s worst settings — an open patio with a rock band pounding away next door — she quietly picked her guitar, gazed calmly ahead and sang perfectly.
YOUNG M. A. Raspy-voiced, tattooed, ready to party or fight or insult haters, Young M. A. is in some ways a typical young rapper. In other ways, she’s not. She’s a New Yorker who has adopted the trap productions and slow cadence of Southern hip-hop; she’s also openly gay and treats it as a fact of her life, neither hidden nor remarkable, and plenty of women were ready to rap along.
LET’S EAT GRANDMA Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth, the two teenagers who make up Let’s Eat Grandma, play songs that can be tinkly and delicate one moment and brutal the next. Their assorted instruments include mandolin, saxophone, glockenspiel and recorder along with guitar and keyboards; their songs incorporate overlapping pop melodies, giant hollow programmed drumbeats and stretches of rapping. It’s Frankenstein pop, proud that its parts don’t obviously fit together. “I wish you all the best/You’re making me upset,” they sing.
ROLLING BLACKOUTS COASTAL FEVER A three-guitar front line — plucked, sustained and most often busily strummed — gives this Australian band its brisk pacing. Topped with semi-spoken, Dylan-tinged vocals and lyrics that switch between candor and drollery, its music is like folk-rock wrapped around a post-punk armature.
ANNA MEREDITH A classical composer who understands pop dynamics, Anna Meredith brought an unlikely ensemble — tuba, cello, drums, guitar and her own keyboard or clarinet — to play instrumentals and songs that turned Minimalism into the makings of sheer exhilaration. She used elementary mechanisms like crescendos, rising scales, accelerating tempos and rock beats to generate the exhilaration of carnival rides spinning too fast; grins spread unstoppably around the club.
A version of this article appears in print on March 20, 2017, on Page C2 of the New York edition with the headline: Finding Festival Joy, Communally.
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