2016 marks the 10th consecutive year that mxdwn has covered the massive South by Southwest music festival. The festival has over time somewhat impossibly outdone itself. Each successive year became an ever-rising series of explosive displays of talent. The best and brightest showed up each year to prove their worth and the further it went, the more big names seemed desperate to try to steal the spotlight. It was a free-for-all for music lovers that rivaled perhaps anything anywhere else in the world could compete with. Even the biggest of European music festivals after all, are still just one confined location either at a field or a plaza with several makeshift stages. Austin, readymade for something of this magnitude featured everyone you’d ever want to see, mostly at intimate spaces like you’d never see them regularly. Add to that the ever-growing pile of free events, sponsored activations and RSVPs, and you get something that inevitably becomes impossible to outdo. For a while there it just felt like the festival got better and better each year, but yes, even SXSW has seemingly found its peak and now faces the impossible challenge of living up to its past excess and fans’ expectations.
The now infamous car crash of two years ago where a drunk driver accidentally killed several people left a black mark that’s been hard to shake. Last year felt like a rebuilding year as many events scaled back or took a year off. This year, the decline was more obvious as the usual overload of top-notch talent was replaced by—quite frankly—a lot less than that. There’s still more than enough to make for an enjoyable experience for a music obsessive. However, the “holy cow” factor of one can’t miss show after another is not here this year. Many events that have added much-needed depth to the offerings are simply not present. And, many key showcases or parties feature lineups almost entirely comprised of more than under the radar acts, somehow below the fold of what even over-interested music press and tastemakers are keen to discover. In some ways it might have been impossible to avoid, SXSW being a juggernaut of indescribable scale the majority of these last 10 years. We are on the other side of the peak for the moment and while hopefully a correction will happen in years to come, right now we seem stuck in the pit trap of diminishing returns.
The biggest highlights for Wednesday, the first full day of the fest, featured Iggy Pop in his very limited run of dates backed by Josh Home of Queens of the Stone Age playing mostly his new Homme-produced album Post Pop Depression. Even more impressive, the live band also includes QOTSA members Dean Fertita and Troy Van Leeuwen, Arctic Monkeys’ outstanding drummer Matt Helders and Chavez’s Matt Sweeney. Playing The Moody Theatre at ACL Live, mercifully not filled to capacity, the group did the majority of the new album along with a smattering of hits from Iggy Pop’s back catalog. They opened strong on “Lust For Life” and “Sister Midnight” before switching into new cut “American Valhalla.” Pop’s material has gone through many evolutions over the years, so beyond the few cuts they released in the lead-up to the new album it was hard to know precisely what to expect. The good news is that while diverse in tempo, mood and sonic palette, they all manage to be solid rock tunes that never edge towards cliché either of the punk, 70’s rock or metal varieties. Just good songs you might actually want to hear again. Homme’s signature guitar work is present throughout; if you’re familiar with his solos and that similar way he hits scales subtracting notes, you’d recognize the same thing here instantly. The set proper ended with hits “Nightclubbing,” “The Passenger” and “China Girl.” The encore included new cuts “Break Into Your Heart” and “Gardenia” as well as classics “Repo Man” and “Success.”
Earlier in the day Hinds played to a packed crowd at the Under the Radar party at Flamingo Cantina. Hailing from Madrid, Spain, this was the second of 17 shows for the group at SXSW this week. This is a decidedly indie band in terms of sound, and the four girls play in an upbeat fashion not unlike other newcomers Tacocat, Bleached and La Sera. There’s not a hard edge to be found, but the good news is the four girls play with enthusiasm and sincerity. They don’t look like they’re annoyed to have people enjoying their music, or that it’s a struggle for them to be there. They look appropriately excited to have the opportunity to play in front of a large crowd. Technically they play a little on the loose side, aiming for fun-loving spirit more than sonic perfection, but it is a lot of their charm and what makes them so memorable. It’s not this way every year, but this is the hipster band of the year that deserves the hype that they’re getting.
At the very end of the night on the Rainey Street venue Lucille, England’s The Big Pink played an excellent set to end off the night. For what may have been thought of as a hip indie band in their initial emergence on the scene several years back, the group employs a sonic complexity that is most impressive. While lead singer/guitarist Robbie Furze sings and plays intricate chord progressions, co-lead singer Mary Charteris adds in loops, synths and lovely sound effects, adding wonderful color to the mix. Bassist Jesse Russell and drummer Free Hallas bounce off each other keeping a thundering mix on nearly every song. The group plays supremely impressive new songs “Beautiful Criminal” and “Decoy” and then early hit “Dominos” to finish off the night.
Right at the end of the afternoon Austin’s own The Black Angels played to a full crowd at the Scoot Inn. The crowd danced along happily while the band effortlessly churned out their trademark droning, retro sound. First album hit “Young Men Dead” highlighted some of the best of the band’s cohesion, simultaneously menacing, joyous and driving.
Other strong acts on the day included Brighton, England act Fear of Men who played at the Under the Radar party at Flamingo Cantina.