SXSW 2017: how to see five bands in 1 hour, or editor Mary’s method to smash SXSW (Thursday night, part 1) – 16th March 2017

By on Monday, 3rd April 2017 at 2:00 pm
 

If your intention during your time at SXSW is to catch as many bands as possible, you’re in luck. Many of SXSW’s venues are close together. Usually the bigger problem is navigating around the people who aren’t as bothered from getting from point A to point B as you are. That’s avoidable if you detour around 6th Street. Is FOMO still a thing? Maybe everyone who is experiencing it just isn’t announcing it on the internet every 5 seconds.

If the terrible feeling does come over you, I have a solution for those I who worry they might be missing out on the Next Big Thing. It’s not for everyone and certainly not for the faint of heart, so put on your big boy/girl pants and buckle up. I’m going to tell you how I saw 5 bands in the span of 1 hour Thursday evening, and I will provide a few ‘rules’ on how to smash SXSW. None of the venues I visit in this summary were on 6th Street proper, so I feel like a bit of a champ rereading my schedule for the night.

Rule #1: Like switching the radio station or cueing up a new song on your favourite streaming service before the previous song finishes, leaving in the middle of a set, at least to old hands at this, is not only expected but to some extent, even encouraged. Be considerate to the performers and depart quietly to minimise blocking of the view of your fellow punters. Watching a pop band and not feeling it? Step outside, go down the street, and poke your head in to the next club and get some better dance or rock into you. You’ll find it, and it won’t be far.

Rule #2: Embrace venues that have one entrance and two stages to maximise your time in a venue while minimising your time in a queue. Barracuda (formerly Red 7 a few years ago), Scratchouse (formerly Holy Mountain), Cheer Up Charlie’s, Empire Control Room and its associated Garage (not to be confused with the Mazda behemoth set up this year) and the Mohawk are great examples of this.

So is Tellers, where I saw my first two bands of the night, clambering up the stairs, thinking that’s where I was supposed to be. This is where I happened upon The Gift from Portugal, and what a unique surprise they were. An astounding supporter of the band and as well as collaborator is Brian Eno: he cowrote and has produced songs from their latest album ‘Altar’. It appears his golden touch has already translated to a lot of positive attention for the group.

The Gift, Planetary Group showcase, Tellers, Thursday 16 March 2017

If you walked into the room not knowing anything about the band like I did, you’d probably think, “Liza Minnelli! Cabaret!” looking at camp frontwoman Sonia Tavares, looking vaguely gypsy-ish and like she stepped out of a ‘20s film. Yes, the keyword here is ‘theatrical’. The music started, with thumping disco beats and shiny synthpop. Evidently, the hype has extended its reach as far as The Great Escape, as the Portuguese band are headed there in May. Pencil them into your schedule, you have been advised.

The Fontaines, Planetary Group showcase, Tellers, Thursday 16 March 2017

Creaking back down the stairs at Tellers, I resumed back on my planned schedule to see brother-sister act The Fontaines on the lower level of the two stages Planetary Group had curated for the evening. The four member, self-described ‘new-wop’ act barely fit on the small squarish stage, but this did nothing to deter singer Charlotte Fontaine, resplendent in red garb, from giving it her all in her performance. Conjuring up the soulfulness of Etta James and looking as sultry as Marilyn Monroe, it was a bit of a (good) head trip. Accompanied with their bass-heavy sound bringing the funk and things back to present day, what’s not to love? Tipped by me and Tidal ahead of them going out to SXSW, I reckon this band has a bright future ahead.

Rule #3: Embrace and accept the stage delays and unexpected performers you come across. See my further thoughts on the Wednesday evening at Elysium, where the KCRW showcase was running behind schedule. Learn the art of chilling out. Scratchouse had taken over for the night by the Kosha Dillz Presents: Oy Vey showcase. Yes, Kosha Dillz is a meshuggeneh who funnily enough worked his way onto this 6 Music programme of Steve Lamacq’s from 2 weeks ago. A DJ was on the indoor stage when I arrived instead of who I was expecting…

Thankfully, there wasn’t too long of a wait for Los Angeles electropop Smoke Season to start. With their soulful tunes and wide smiles, Gabrielle Wortman and Jason Rosen seemed to be oblivious to the fact that people were still shuffling into the venue. They went for it and were soon rewarded for their dynamic show, with keyboardist Wortman putting her voice through its paces.

Smoke Season, Kosha Dillz Presents: Oy Vey, Scratchouse, Thursday 16 March 2017

Let’s be real, there are tons of electropop groups out there right now, so what sets Smoke Season apart? Wortman’s lead vocals – not to mention her firey ginger hair you can see from a mile away – can turn on a dime, from sultry and slow burning when she wants them to be, to delicate and wispy, to emphatic in a take charge kind of way. If you’re a girl and you’ve ever wanted to be a singer, chances are her voice (with all its quirks) is the kind you’ve always wanted. (If you were wondering, my particular alto range makes this impossible, sob!) As a complete package, I find Smoke Season exciting because they’re not a one-trick pony. Equally good at dreamy numbers (‘Emilia’) just as well as more complex, in your face pop tunes (‘Loose’), I found it hard to pull myself away from their set. But as they say, sometimes needs must.

Rule #2 was invoked again when I swung back west on 7th Street to Barracuda, where the Secretly Group showcase was also just coming to life. I’d seen Alex Lahey the day before at the StubHub / Culture Collide showcase at Banger’s, where she played in front of hundreds of people swilling beer and munching sausages at picnic tables. I was convinced her performance be different at an evening show, and I was at least right about the vibe. The slacker silliness and rapid fire lyrics of ‘Weekend’ worked better in full sun than it did at night, but it was still came off as fun. You just got the feeling an open-air festival would be a better venue for her.

Rule #4: Know when to leave – or better yet, not even join – the long queue. SXSW old timers like me know that you can waste a lot of time queuing to get into venues when you could be elsewhere, seeing a band and knocking back a drink. While there are times you’ll want to queue for your most favourite artists, know when you spot a queue that’s around down the street and many people deep (example: Rag ‘n’ Bone Man opening Friday night at the British Music Embassy) and make a quick decision to bolt if you conclude you don’t have a chance in hell of getting in. Related to this: instead of chasing the big names and the crowds, head for a less busy venue you know you’ll be able to get in so you’ll definitely see a band. Result!

Except for James Vincent McMorrow in 2015 there, we’ve never had a problem getting into and around the inside of Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room (not to be confused with the usually more busy Maggie Mae’s proper and Maggie Mae’s Rooftop). London slackers Happyness, who are gearing up to release their second album ‘Write-in’ on Moshi Moshi in the UK, were appearing on their American label Bar/None’s night there.

Happyness, Bar/None Records showcase, Maggie Mae's Gibson Room, Thursday 16 March 2017

I’ve always liked them much better on record, and I’m a little confused with what seems like a new direction to me. While still embracing the lo-fi sensibility from their previous LP ‘Weird Little Birthday’, I’m not following the Brian Wilson-y meets shoegazing style they’ve now embraced. Jonny Allan in a baseball cap further made me think, okay, so they’re chilled out dad rock now? Mind numbing. This was Thursday night, and most everyone in the room was sitting down. I’m not saying I need to headbang or dance every second when at SXSW, but as Simon Raymonde quipped at his talk at the convention center the next day, “I don’t love it.”

Running around Austin to catch as many bands as you can in an hour isn’t for everyone. But given the carnival of crazy SXSW is, I hope I’ve convinced you it is doable.

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