SXSW 2015 Recap: Russ Borris
Another SXSW is in the books and I have to say, it was the best one in a few years. This past week in Austin wasn't met with the same barrage of corporate sponsorships and big name pop acts that seemed to overtake the last couple of conferences. It was a return to what many love most about SXSW and that's seeing lots and lots of great live music.
Our sessions at Hotel San José were some of our strongest and most compelling to date. Different settings made for some unique, one-of-a-kind performances, led by an incredible a capella version of "River" performed by Ibeyi (FUV's new media director Laura Fedele's SXSW pick) under the covers in a hotel bedroom.
The Public Radio Rocks Day Stage showcase was a rocking success. Twin Shadow chose a stripped-down setup with George Lewis, Jr. on acoustic guitar, just joined by his keyboard player. His choice gave a completely different feel to the new songs, taking them down to their core and letting the lyrics take center stage.
I didn't know what to expect with Gang of Four since Andy Gill is the only original member left, but the crowd was into it and, as expected, loved hearing favorites like "Damaged Goods" and "To Hell With Poverty."
Ryan Bingham is a solid songwriter and he played many songs from his new record, Fear and Saturday Night. When setting up the single, "Radio," he remarked that it was more about the "radio" in your head than actual radio which was interesting to hear from an artist's perspective. His following in Austin is strong so the set was very well received.
Best Coast gave us the biggest Public Radio Rocks crowd so far. I think that as much as fans were anxious to hear some of their new songs, favorites like "Boyfriend" and "The Only Place" went over big. "California Nights" is a big sounding song and Bethany Cosentino, sporting a cut-off Budweiser t-shirt, was in great voice.
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear were a new discovery for many in the crowd. Madisen and Ruth Ward played several songs from their upcoming debut, Skeleton Crew. It was clear that most of the audience hadn't seen them before, but were won over by their charm and authenticity. They also earned the first standing ovation of the day.
It was pretty clear that Courtney Barnett and her band were the most anticipated act of the Day Stage. We had a huge crowd and the band absolutely had them from the start. This was Courtney and her bandmates' eighth show of SXSW, but you wouldn't know it from the energy they put forth. Courtney just keeps getting better and better as a live performer, completely owning this crowd. A perfect ending to the showcase.
I caught a few things late on Friday night, like Tuxedo (one of Rita Houston's SXSW picks) which is the new collaboration with Mayer Hawthorne and Jake One. So retro, so old school in their presentation and just so good. The crowd ate it all up and freaked when Hawthorne busted out a couple lines from Bell Biv Devoe's "Poison." As that song wisely advised, you should never trust a big butt and a smile.
From Boston to Brooklyn, there is some serious shred in Slothrust (our student engineer Caroline Inzucchi's SXSW pick). Lots of great female-fronted bands were somewhat of a running theme at this SXSW, with women who were intense and awesome.
I stumbled upon the Juliana Hatfield Three set after running into Matthew Caws of Nada Surf. It's incredible how little (if, at all) her voice has aged over the years. "My Sister" sounded just great as did the new songs. The buzz on Tobias Jesso Jr. at SXSW has been significant so I made sure to get to his set early. He was seated at a piano, in the perfect setting of the Central Presbyterian Church, playing to a packed room. It's impossible to ignore the Harry Nilsson comparisons that have followed Jesso so far, but there's much more to him. His live set was witty, charming, and self-deprecating at times. Thoroughly enjoyable.
On Saturday, I caught a bit of Kate Tempest's set (one of Kara Manning's SXSW picks). Jaw-dropping might be the best description I can give. An absolute monster of a live performer, Tempest owned the mic and the crowd. Her speed and proficiency of flow is top notch. At one point she delivered an empowered speech about the importance of being yourself that was both moving and motivating. One of the real standouts of SXSW.
I also managed to catch another great set from Only Real (one of my SXSW picks), the return of The Pop Group, the Austin band Otis the Destroyer, Diarrhea Planet, Big Data, some random heavy metal in the rain, a dance outfit called Wrestlers, and...oh, sorry. I just dozed off from exhaustion there.
Good to be back home. Thanks again, Austin. You didn't disappoint.