This year’s SXSW Festival was more low key, humbled coming off a major setback last year with the drunk driving accident in front of the iconic Mohawk venue. After backlash against the city and the festival, major changes were made to regain control over the ten day event that draws close to 150,000 attendees from around the world (plus an equal amount streaming online). Higher police presence, less venue permits, more sober ride options and the absence of mega stages like the Doritos Stage made it a safer event. The Itunes Music Fest which debuted last year at ACL LIve (Keith Urban, Coldplay, Willie Nelson, and Kendrick Lamar) was also absent. Changes on the ever-so-hip Rainey street were dramatic with a much different feel- the demolished Luster Pearl bar (hosted Neighbors celebs and Bill Cosby) now replaced with tall hotel cement foundations. There was still plenty of great music though. Rain helped further subdue the fest as several inches of rain caused street flooding so crowds were smaller and less energetic. A bummer for some of the artists who were hoping for huge crowds.
Festival Highlights and Disappointments
Were the rumors of Prince, Kendrick Lamar, The Decemberists, Built to Spill, Ariel Pink, and FKA Twigs ever really in the works? Was it just buzz to compensate for a less stellar lineup? Both Rachel Ray’s party and Fader Fort’s schedule and ‘special guests’ were anticlimactic. For some, seeing MIley Cyrus was as good as it gets but a far cry from recent years with secret shows with Justin Timberlake, GreenDay, Jack White, Soundgarden and Prince. Last year Soundgarden did a rooftop taping of the Guitar Center Sessions Show for Direct TV -not much can compete with that. Kanye West canceling at the last minute didn’t help. Some were hoping to see George Ezra, Hozier and Modest Mouse. There were still mega corporate sponsors (for example Samsung) who threw small-crowd exclusive parties that kept out the majority of fest goers which hardly seems fair. Locals still express frustration over SXSW and don’t attend due to cost and ridiculously long lines. The presence of the McDonald’s food truck was the low point for disparaging the uniqueness of Austin’s cool vibe and hip food truck scene.
Despite the complaining, this year still had amazing showcases that have been SXSW faves like the Spin Magazine Party at Stubb’s, Rachael Ray’s Feedback Party, the Spotify House, Fader Fort, Hype Hotel, Yahoo Music, House of Vans at the Mohawk, British Embassy, Willie Nelson’s party at the ranch, and the Perez Hilton Party. The Spin Party is the most anticipated, hosting a crossover of genres-acts on the cutting edge at the two- stage all day event and did not disappoint. The most “fun” performance was by Jack Antonoff/Bleachers (who also hosted the MTV Woodies) while Spoon, John Legend, Charles Bradley, J.Cole, Run the Jewels, Wynonna Judd, The Zombies, Iggy Azalea all rounded out the big acts. Most were high energy performances, while Iggy struggled a bit playing to a small audience. Win and Will Butler (Arcade Fire) each performed impressively on their own- Win doing a tribal DJ set with drummers, Will doing a multi-instrumental thing for SPIN’s Showcase. The iconic, free-spirited Wynonna Judd inspired fans at St. David’s Church at 1am. She shared personal stories describing her struggles being an empty-nester, her dysfunctional family, and Faith. Clarifying her recent announcement that she would be “retiring from the music business” amid loud gasps then silence, she stated “I’m now in the business of making music” to the delight of her fans and manager.
The most notable emerging artists were East India Youth, Shamir, Stromae, Elle King, Hey Marseilles, Speedy Ortiz, Courtney Barnett, and Milky Chance. Fest repeats Phantogram, Future Islands, The Mowgli’s, Passion Pit, Chance the Rapper are all worth seeing again. There is also no shortage of amazing Austin musicians including Gary Clark Jr., Shakey Graves, Whiskey Shivers, Max Frost, Willie Nelson, Charlie Belle, Spoon, Gina Chavez, Roxy Roca, Quiet Company, Jeff Lofton, Mother Falcon, Charlie Sexton, The Octopus Project and Delta Spirit- just to name a few.
Notables We Were Bummed We Didn’t See
This list could go for days but briefly: TVOTR, Howard, Fall Out Boy, The War On Drugs, Big Sean, James Bay, Edward Sharpe, Shamir, Thee Oh Sees, everything at the Mohawk, Odezsa, Natalie Prass, Leon Bridges, Twerps, Milo Greene, Girlpool, Torres, Stromae, Brandi Carlile, Clean Bandit, Tove Lo, Hooray for the Riff Raff, Family of the Year, MTV Woodie Awards, and The Austin Music Awards. There will be plenty of reviews of this year’s SXSW but the overall consensus seems to be that fans and locals are happy with the retro vibe and smaller fest. Back to basics and the enjoyment of surprise discoveries of new talent on the verge of their big breakthroughs. Still one of the biggest joys of the fest is people watching and that will never change. We’re still ‘Keeping Austin Weird’.