Ghostland Observatory (photo: Ian Young)
I’m about to say something really stupid: This festival is so corporate.
I’m sorry, I know, that’s not helpful information to anyone, nor is it a surprise to anyone who’s been to literally any music festival in the last few decades. A certain level of sponsorship is to be expected at any festival in the modern age, but I really wasn’t prepared for the amount of *branding* going on here. The Patreon house. The Twitter house. The Viceland outdoor roller rink. Day parties presented by shoe brands. I could go on. That doesn’t make the music any less authentic, I suppose, but I don’t know. I’ve only been here two days, but it isn’t quite what I expected.
Did I mention this is, indeed, my first rodeo with SXSW? So far, I haven’t gotten the music-fan summer camp vibe everyone has made it out to me to be for years. It feels like everyone here is press, a vendor, or otherwise here for work purposes. There are super-long lines for acts I would have never guessed would command such clamor from the general public. Lots of people shouting their personal conversations over bands, which is a huge pet peeve of mine. And I’ve seen a couple fine sets, but nothing that has truly blown my mind yet.
I got a really late start yesterday, and didn’t make it out until 7pm. I started with Run River North, a band I interviewed approximately one billion years ago, near the start of my full-time freelance career. I remember not being a huge fan of their music then, but they were a fun chat. We talked about falafels.
They’ve clearly evolved in the years since we spoke, and put on an energetic show that drew a bigger crowd and exuded fiercer energy than the cosmic-country band upstairs at Maggie Mae’s (and true to form, I spotted the three of them later sharing a plate of street food at a food truck outpost).
Locate S,1 played to a sparsely-populated room, which seemed about right. Not because they’re bad, but because nothing quite matches up with them. Disjointed and layered, they aren’t exactly the kind of band that people party to. I sort of went into a dreamworld during their set, and I think that was the point.
I was, however, surprised to see so many people at Topographies, the first set of hometown heroes I was able to get to. They’re pretty new, and pretty local to the Bay Area — or so I thought. Word seems to have gotten out about them, as Barracuda’s patio filled up with listeners. We watched their dreamy set as a storm gathered, shaking the string lights that lined the tent above us.
Washington DC’s post punk band, Priests, along with the UK’s Haelos, kicked off Day 2 of festivities with early sets at Flood Magazine’s Floodfest. As Priests’ lead singer, Katie Alice Greer, delivered an impassioned performance on the main stage the band found themselves competing with the latest virtual-reality technology from event co-sponsor, Magic Leap.
Attendees got their glimpse of cutting-edge escapism off in the the wings while decked out with full head gear and controllers in each hand. Thankfully, Greer and her bandmates managed to pull focus back to the Main Stage by the end of their set, jamming through some fiery tracks from their previous album, Nothing Feels Natural, in short succession. And as I scooted off to the next spot, Haelos had gathered a solid crowd bumping sneak peeks from their upcoming new album that kept the dance party going.
Hidden away in the back patio of a darkened dive bar, the next batch of performances had a decidedly lower key backyard BBQ vibe to it as Bad Bad Hats, Illuminati Hotties, and the Beths all took to the stage. With a small tent at the center and a “Hot Dog King” hustling in the back, the three bands provided a stellar indie rock soundtrack to a friendly neighborly cookout. The overcast skies parted midway through the sweet pop-rock melodies of Minneapolis’ Bad Bad Hats, making way for a sunnier backdrop to accompany the fuzzy guitar-driven indie rock of both Los Angeles’ Illuminati Hotties and Auckland’s the Beths.
Tel Aviv’s ambient dream pop duo, THERE, closed out the night. The two artists, Yael Enosh & Sivan Levy, sat at the center of a darkened stage lit only by a titular neon sign between the two. The hazy, blissed-out sounds provided the perfect cap to a day of some unexpected, yet satisfying pairings of music and space.
There: Sitting on the stage surrounded by wires, LA duo There (good luck Googling that) filled the Parish with synthy dreamscapes.
Fancy tacos at Torchy’s: I braved riding a pedal assist bike and an electric scooter for the first time (now all I need is a Patagonia puffy vest to get my Tech Bro merit badge) to venture to Torchy’s for some excellent tacos off their “secret” menu.
Tacos Part Two: Uber Eats is spending big bucks at SXSW this year with a huge activation featuring celebrity chefs and big name artists. Today’s event featured Kogi’s Roy Choi cooking up carne asada tacos while chatting LA hip-hop with Jeff Weiss. Aaron Franklin of Franklin’s BBQ also showed up with brisket in hand and while we stuffed our faces Dan the Automator provided some beats.
The Lines: Crowds at festivals are the norm, but the lines at some venues here will leave you laugh-crying. Time to find more tacos, I guess.
Ghostland Observatory: Austin’s own cosmic duo brought the party to Mohawk and played a raucous set to a packed crowd. Singer Aaron Behrens swayed, sashayed, and swung around the stage while Thomas Turner, who looked like Count Chocula went shopping at Tiffany’s, messed around with a handful of synthesizers.