After five days of nonstop walking and listening, things start to blur together. What bands did I see? Who was it that had that more electro sound? Which group lost focus and seemed disinterested? It’s moments like these that allow true brilliance to float high above the rest. Something truly exceptional soars effortlessly over the competition. With this year’s South By Southwest Music Festival, the last day had a few performances that were not deserving of even being present. In the many years this fest has grown, the reputation and caliber of bands has grown in parallel. With that comes a gaggle of hanger-ons, groups desperate to prove their importance and others eager to build buzz by association.
Over 10 years, the free event the Fader Fort has always been one of SXSW’s most exciting happenings. Each year a who’s who of stellar stars and popular-talent-to-be perform there. On the final day of the event (after high-profile surprises earlier in the week from Miley Cyrus and T-Pain) a few scheduled surprises either fell flat or flaked. In the mid afternoon Philadelphia artist Alex G played a set that can best be described as boring and unenthusiastic. A casual observer would have thought Alex G didn’t care about the songs he was singing or that he was even there at the Fader Fort by Converse at all. Not long later, Porter Robinson came out as one of the night’s two promised “surprise guests.” Robinson pretty much instantly discredited the surprise stating blithely, “So I’m going to do a DJ set for 25 minutes. I guess it’s like five songs.” Like Alex G, Robinson played his music like he didn’t care if he was there or not. Timbaland showed up as an added surprise afterwards, mostly to boost his new protégé Tink. That part at least was super impressive, as Tink is a star in the making and Timbaland did not nothing but try to hype the crowd up.
The final portion of the show–which people will probably debate about what was really meant to happen for years to come—fell flat on its face. Warp recording artist Hudson Mohawke came out next, perched atop a tall DJ riser. After a couple of songs of futuristic electro beats, rapper Travis Scott came out. At the first moment he seemed ready to put on a good show, throwing a bottle of water at the crowd. However, the rapper performed literally only about two songs with Hudson Mohawke, and worse yet asked the DJ to cut each short. He then stood at the top of the DJ riser bobbing his head back-and-forth for about ten minutes. Finally, he went into the photo pit like he was about do something, only to sit on the back wall of the photo pit bobbing his head in a daze for nearly twenty minutes. The always super helpful Fader Fort security tried to get Scott to return to the stage many times, but he seemed to be ignoring them. At the very end of that stretch, rapper Twista ran out and did one quick song, rushing off the stage as fast as he came on. Travis Scott was finally escorted from the photo pit and Hudson Mohawke ran out the time playing two more songs while everyone on hand wondered if that was it.
A few minutes after Hudson Mohawke concluded an announcer came over the speakers, thanked everyone for attending the event and stated flatly that the event was over. The disappointed crowd booed loudly, clearly expecting something far greater for an ending, or a much larger surprise guest. For a few moments, there was even a chant of “bullshit.” Odds are, several large names canceled, but we may never know for sure who or what was really going to happen. Teasing a special guest—and often having huge ones—can create a predicament in rendering impossible to satiate expectations. The Fader can be forgiven for the way this played out. They have produced years’ worth of incredible events and never charged anyone one red cent for them. Bands cancel. Artists cannot be controlled. Things happen. But for everyone except for Timbaland and Tink listed above, why even show up? Why bother? Why have such disdain for your audience, worse yet, such disdain for yourself and your own position? How many bands or artists would jump out of their own skin at a chance to play at a show of that importance, with several thousand people in attendance and live streamed to the whole world. Bleh. Utter prima donna nonsense and stupidity.
The perfect answer to that was the headlining event at the Gypsy Lounge, the annual Thrasher Death Match. After a super inspired set by New York City hardcore veterans Sick of It All, math metal juggernauts The Dillinger Escape Plan played their one and only show of the festival. Admittedly, the band is not for the faint of heart, as their show is one of pure, unadulterated chaos. But they are brilliant and unpredictable in every way possible. For the first, vocalist Greg Puciato and guitarist/founding member Ben Weinman are the definition of unhinged. Like Achilles in the movie Troy, you don’t need to control them, only unleash them. There was practically no more than thirty seconds at any point in the set where they were stationary. Puciato spent as much time singing in or with the crowd as he did on stage, and climbed lightwalls and speakers jumping into the crowd from every possible vantage point. Weinman did spin kicks off speakers, flung his guitar in circles and at one point even played his parts on top of the crowd with Puciato doing the same.
Their music is an intricate framework, where time changes happen on a dime. It’s a wonder drummer Billy Rymer is so precise and pulse perfect, but he is. Bassist Liam Wilson weaves basslines as complex and menacing as the rest of the music. James Love ably complements Weinman in what would be a nightmare for most average musicians to handle. The set was bookended by a pair of the band’s oldest tracks, “The Mullet Burden” from Under the Running Board and “43% Burnt” near the end of the set from their breakout album Calculating Infinity (both songs from before Puciato joined the band). The majority of the remainder of the set came from their last two exceptional albums Option Paralysis and One of Us Is the Killer. Highlights from other parts of their career included “Panasonic Youth” from Miss Machine and “Milk Lizard” from Ire Works. “Room Full of Eyes” and “Crossburner” scorched with ferocious energy while “One of Us is the Killer,” the title track from the album of the same name, provided the night’s one even-paced number and biggest singalong.
Five songs into the set, the group played perhaps their most jaw-dropping and powerful songs, the appropriately titled, “Farewell, Mona Lisa.” If you haven’t heard this song yet and you’re even mildly interested in heavy music, do yourself a favor and go check this song out on YouTube right now. It is a juggernaut of musical ideas and a wondrous poetic rumination; three interlocking segments combine and build the song’s poignancy and energy until the very last note. Lyrical interpretation we can put aside and allow the listener to draw their own conclusions, but like all truly great art provokes more questions: of both the world at large and the person experiencing it. Suffice to say, it deals with themes of the futility of attempting to render purity in a time beset with mediocrity, avarice and locked doors. Look closer; it’s worth every second of your time. Here, like all of their songs played at this event, the band played this song with the triumphant and cathartic verve that every song everywhere should be done with.
And that’s the rub. There is a through line between Laura Marling, Charles Bradley, Run the Jewels, TV on the Radio, Doomtree, Future Islands and The Dillinger Escape Plan. They have respect for themselves and respect for their audience. Watching TDEP, they were not happy unless every second was put forth with 100% of what they had to offer, and what’s more, the same for the audience. It was leave everything on the table, or do nothing at all. Go big, or go home as the old cliché states. It matters. It really does. Music does not have to suck. Whatever it is that an artist puts forth. If it doesn’t really include this level of commitment and care, why even do it? It’s not lack of options or access that’s hampering the music industry; it’s a lack of self-respect and a lack of respect for the hearts and minds of the music consuming public. Immense talent can help, but it’s something more we all should be reaching for. There’s no price tag you can put on purity.