For a festival that has been growing consistently for years expanding in both size of venues and notoriety of headliners, the size of the crowd expecting big names can be a problem. If there are a dozen big name acts, the crowd is split up amidst the different top-tier choices, thereby giving them more options to pick from and making each event just a little easier to get into. However, when the same number of people come expecting that many high-profile acts, and there’s only about 1/3 what there normally is, everything has an enormous line.
Yes, the word around the city was how bad some of the lines were, and how necessarily stringent fire marshall rules temporarily closed certain venues from letting even elite VIPs in. Even an act like punk stalwarts The Damned had several lines totally what appeared to be 1,000 people craning all over the streets around the House of Vans at The Mohawk.
On the positive side, like every SXSW when the talent shined, they shined brightly. In particular, mxdwn favorite Laura Marling stunned at an afternoon show inside the convention center for LA taste-maker radio station KCRW, Through most of her career thus far, Marling has played a predominantly acoustic singer-songwriter style. On her latest release though, Marling has veered one step closer to rock, donning an electric guitar (though not run through a distortion pedal) and punctuating and playing with a forceful rock edge. “How Strange I Love You,” featured many of these attributes, Marling picking with such authority that the crowd onhand even cheered that. “Master Hunter,” from her previous album Once I Was An Eagle played with her artful poetic lyrics, dancing between delicate and dark purpose.
Later Charles Bradley and his band The Extraordinaires positively brought the house down over at the Lagunitas party at Container Bar. For the uninitiated, Bradley plays old-school-style soul with a funk edge in the vein of latter-day James Brown. The difference is, Bradley sings every song, every show like it’s last moment on earth and he’s throwing some mighty deathblow against an unstoppable force. Resplendent in a bright red jumpsuit and the most elaborate metal belt imaginable, Bradley sang of love and loss, painful unrequited desire and romantic betrayal. He gyrated like you would never believe for a 66-year-old man, playing to the sex-infused nature of R&B and howling for the crowd’s approval. He took several moments to commend the city of Austin and how engaged the crowds this festival have been for him. There was a moment two songs from the close of his set that was truly a wonder to behold. Bradley received an ovation on par with Metallica’s at their surprise Stubb’s show five years back at SXSW, the crowd overjoyed with the sheer quality of Bradley’s performance.
Much later, Future Islands closed out the House of Vans. Lead singer Samuel T. Herring opened the set proudly proclaiming, “I’m a little fucked up.” Apparently quite drunk, Herring’s even on standard terms bizarre and incredible stage antics were dialed up in the Spinal Tap sense, to almost 11. It worked though, as Herring swiveled and swayed like a man without the confines and trappings of a spine, spinning and staring intently at the crowd with a clenched fist constantly throughout the set. Herring’s occasional death metal growl was injected nearly three times a song. By the third number “Walking Through That Door,” the crowd was in full motion, the dance floor a raucous explosion of joyful mirth. Breakout single for the band, “Seasons (Waiting On You)” punctuated the importance of the group’s sole axeman William Cashion, his licks the anchor of the song’s entire driving energy.