SXSW 2023 Review

Thee Sacred Souls at SXSW (photo: Patricia Lim/KUTX)

For the first time since 2019, WFUV returned to Austin for the SXSW Music Festival. It goes without saying that we’ve all seen a number of changes in our everyday lives since then, but even with that understanding, a lot about SXSW felt different this year.

On the positive side, there were a number of great bands to see and the schedule of artists felt less daunting and overwhelming than in past years. Even the dreaded stroll down 6th Street was nowhere near the usual chaotic barrage of attendees and locals just trying to absorb the atmosphere of the event. And gone were the high-profile acts that had populated the event five and six years ago.

This year’s focus was on discovery — which is a total win, in my opinion. That being said, it was a bummer to head towards a number of my favorite spots only to find the rooms have gone dark. The billiards place where we saw Lizzo for the first time some years ago? Gone. My go-to spot at Latitude 30 to catch all of the great British Embassy showcases? Shut down. And Rainey Street? There are more skyscrapers, fewer venues.

Shows were more spread out this year, a hard fact I learned after logging some nearly 12 miles of steps on day one, Wednesday, resulting in some of the worst blisters I've ever had. But, enough about that. It’s all about the music!

Wednesday began with an industry showcase featuring a number of familiar and emerging artists like Devon Gilfillian, The Nude Party, Baby Rose, and Abraham Alexander. From there, it was a trek towards more discovery. The Bay Area's Meernaa is an intriguing artist in the Cate Le Bon or Nilüfer Yanya camp. OK Cowgirl from Brooklyn is a serious artist to watch. Their songs are focused and fleshed out, and the band has a clear picture of who they are, even at such an early stage. They are ones to watch.  While the fatigue and discomfort were settling in for me late into the night, I was determined to see the Swedish band Girl Scout, who I’ve been playing on The Alternate Side. Their midnight set was well attended and there was some buzz in the room for it, for sure. Another band on the indie side to watch.

The specter of rain was prominent on day two, Thursday, so things were a bit uncertain as I headed out. The rain started early, but was manageable enough to check out the super fun UK band Sports Team. There’s a punk sensibility to them, but the emphasis is more on hooks. Los Angeles's Blondshell is the project of young Sabrina Teitelbaum, originally born in New York City. It’s not often that you see an artist who knows who they are early in their development, but she is a force. She was one of the most talked about artists going into SXSW and her set was total validation of that hype.

I then trekked over to our old stomping grounds at Hotel San José to catch CIVIC. Their set was 25 minutes of relentless, aggressive, in-your-face punk jams delivered in the most polite way possible. Think Shame, Fontaines D.C., and IDLES, but Australian.

After some much-needed BBQ and some more music, the thunder and lightning rushed in to put a damper (and shutdown!) on all outdoor shows. It was an early end to the evening, unfortunately.

Friday brought the Public Radio Day Stage with Thee Sacred Souls, Hermanos Guitérrez, Aoife Nessa Frances, and Debby Friday.

It is just incredible to see the growth in the star power of Thee Sacred Souls in little over a year's time. They set the stage with a packed house and tremendous performance, led by the flawless voice of Josh Lane. Alejandro and Estevan Gutiérrez of Hermanos Guitérrez hit the stage next and captivated the crowd from the opening note. You could hear a pin drop in the room and after they played their final note of the afternoon, when the brothers were met with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Dublin’s Aoife Nessa Frances played a cool, subdued set with her band, with a subtle wall of sound running through it, winning some new fans in the process. The afternoon capped up with Toronto’s Debby Friday, who let the room know from the first beat that something special was about to happen. Backed only by a DJ, Friday ran through a confident set that commanded attention and notice.

It was a great end to a terrific afternoon of music discovery and community. It was a joy to return to Austin for SXSW, like reconnecting with an old friend who you’ve missed for a few years... an old friend who likes cool music, tacos, and BBQ. Thanks, Austin. See you soon.

Tags: #SXSW 2023

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