I finally finished writing up all my reviews from South by Southwest 2014 yesterday, but I still have a few more things to say, which I have grouped into two vague subjects. And for the sake of reference, or just to list all the bands I saw in one place, here's a collection of the links to the reviews:
Day 1 and Introduction (Mozes and the Firstborn / Mister and Mississippi / Arc Iris)
Day 2 (Sihasin / The Great Wilderness / Mutual Benefit / Sisu / David J)
Day 3 (Kurt Vile / Charli XCX / Gary Numan / Electric Eye / Vertical Scratchers / Saint Rich / Touché Amoré / Robert Ellis / Tijuana Panthers / Boogarins)
Day 4 (The Defibulators / Sister Sparrow & the Dirty Birds / David J / Pure Bathing Culture / Hundred Waters / Dråpe / Imarhan Timbuktu with Sihasin)
Day 5 (The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger / Be/Non / Drop a Grand / Suzanne Vega / Gary Numan)
Scores and Highlights:
The keen observer may have noticed that I did not provide overall scores for each day as I have in the past for other festivals and shared bills. I don't want to say I'll never do it again, but I don't think there is much meaning in such a score – it almost always ends up being a B+ or A-, which says nothing! Especially for something like SXSW, where I only saw a tiny fraction of all the performances, I just don't see the point in sharing how good my day was, since it's even more arbitrary and subjective than my individual artist reviews.
It is worth calling out a few standout performances, though, and making a few observations. I'm sure no one is surprised that I gave high marks to the bands that are long-time personal favorites (i.e. Gary Numan and David J), but it is quite a bit more exciting to examine some of my recent favorites as well as bands that I only learned about when looking for recommendations for what to see at SXSW. In fact, I've noticed two trends in my interests regarding genre or style that have surprised me a little bit.
The first is folk music. I probably shouldn't be surprised, since my last band was basically a folk band, but I've begun to realize that this is a style that interests me greatly. I really like some of the contemporary and sometimes experimental or crossover artists in this realm, including Mutual Benefit, Hundred Waters, and Saint Rich. However, I still dig the older school of folkies like Suzanne Vega, with their acoustic guitars and clever lyrics. I might even stretch the genre enough to include a band like Sihasin, who fused traditional Navajo elements with outspoken socio-political lyrics.
The second is psychedelic music and its not-too-distant cousins, like shoegaze and dream pop. It would be hard for me to hide that I sought out a lot of bands at SXSW in these veins, and while not all of them were amazing, many were. While I've been interested in Kosmische Musik (sometimes known as Krautrock) and bands like My Bloody Valentine for years, I only recently realized the potential of modern psychedelic music when I missed my chance to see Tame Impala at the ACL Festival and subsequently bought a couple of their albums. At SXSW, I was truly blown away by Electric Eye and Boogarins, but I also enjoyed The Great Wilderness, Dråpe, and The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger. There were plenty more that I just couldn't fit into my schedule.
I also want to say a word about the diversity of bands at SXSW. Not only were there innumerable genres of music to be heard, but there were bands from every continent except Antarctica. I made an effort to try to see several international artists that I figured I may not get another chance to see. I've already mentioned several (most of the psych/shoegaze/dream pop bands mentioned above), but I also want to give special attention to Imarhan Timbuktu, a Malian band who probably doesn't get a lot of attention in the USA.
The SXSW Experience:
One of the most notable aspects of SXSW is the sheer number of bands that perform. One of the most notable challenges is that it is rather hard to figure out what to see and how to schedule one's time. My bicycle and wristband certainly helped with getting around and getting in to venues, but the question of how to pick and prioritize artists is still unresolved in my mind. Outside of the bands I already knew, I just looked for recommendations in trusted publications and followed up with visits to bandcamp, YouTube, artist websites, etc. However, I ended up finding more interesting bands than I could actually see! Perhaps there is some other method out there of sifting through the incredible number of bands that were performing.
Or maybe it's best to just pick a venue that you like that has an interesting-looking lineup and call it good. Otherwise, with the difficulty of predicting lines and getting around town from venue to venue, you have to decide on some limits and leave a lot of room for last-minute adjustments. I suspect most people that want to see a lot of music, especially those without a badge or wristband, probably just pick one or maybe two venues during the day and another one or two during the evening. In fact, if I go again next year, I may give that a try myself.
Another thing that surprised me was that what would have been Day 6 (Sunday) was basically event-free. There was a single closing party and a couple other events, and of course a few unofficial events, but that was about it. I didn't do anything myself, because I was so worn out from the preceding five days and none of the miscellanea on Sunday interested me. But originally I had been led to believe that it was to be another full day of music.
Part of my misconception came from the fact that there were several bands announced that never played, so I figured maybe they'd be playing Sunday and the schedule just hadn't been finalized. At some point during the festival I realized my error, but I still don't understand what happened to the bands that never played. For example, James Iha was announced (see here and here) and even scheduled on Sunday according to here! While I think Iha's new album is terrible, I still wanted to see him; that was one of the reasons I bought a wristband! Similarly, several international bands, including Angus and Julia Stone, Oumar Konate, and Capsula, were announced but never heard from again. What happened? Perhaps there were visa problems as with some members of Imarhan Timbuktu? Similarly, the band Temples even still at time of writing have a showcase listed on the official SXSW schedule with "Date TBA" (see here).
Whatever the case, I think one of the takeaways is not to focus too much on any one particular artist. I think the point of a festival like this is to enjoy the variety and the diversity instead of focusing on just a select few. Of course, I'm sure there are those that do see the same band four times during the festival (and even I saw two bands twice), but I'm glad I did some research and sought out some new acts. That was almost certainly the most rewarding part for me.