Photo Credit: Mike White
The thing you notice first about Austin’s South by Southwest in its metropolis-spanning current form is the jarring degree to which it is branded. Nearly everything is brought to you by some commercial entity or another. One gets the sense that this is what America will look like under President Trump: entire cities as living billboards, naming rights to public property sold to the highest bidder, every inch of real estate emblazoned with some lifestyle website’s logo.
Logos—and, for that matter, websites—are everywhere at SXSW. The unofficial, invite-only Fader Fort (“please attribute any content captured to ‘The FADER FORT Presented by Converse,’” read the media confirmation) was as star-studded as ever; Canadian megastar and noted dirty dancer Drake closed out the weekend with a surprise performance. The Spotify House, Pandora Discovery Den and House of Vans were similarly in demand both day and night, with entry lines that stretched for city blocks.
I managed to thoroughly enjoy my visit to Mazda and Hype Machine’s notorious Hype Hotel; afternoon performances in the cavernous space from footwork firebrand Jlin and R&B experimenter D∆WN were early festival highlights. (The free drinks didn’t hurt.) Spin’s day party at Stubb’s on Friday, sponsored by both Harley Davidson and Bud Light (more free beers, no free motorcycles) provided another of my favorite SX ’16 moments when NorCal art-metal dudes Deftones mowed through a condensed greatest-hits set in the intimate-ish outdoor area.
If this afternoon's show proved anything it's that Diamond Eyes has stealthily climbed to No. 2 on the Deftones depth chart— Gabe Vodicka (@flagpolemusic) March 18, 2016
(For the record: White Pony, Diamond Eyes, Deftones, Around the Fur, Koi No Yokan, the others.)
While most musicians in the post-“sellout” age are at least able to ignore the absurdity that occurs where creativity and commerce intersect, certain performers thrive on it. After a series of earth-rattling thunderstorms Friday night, I witnessed perpetually dour singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek actively enjoying himself at the Showtime Roadies House, where the show was hosted by two cheery caricatures from the local CW station and a crew of premium-cable employees who handed out free stuff to a small and somewhat confused crowd.
According to the SXSW schedule, Luke Wilson and Carla Gugino, the stars of “Roadies”—coming this summer to your friend’s Showtime Anytime app—were scheduled to make an appearance at the Roadies House, but perhaps they were sequestered in the impromptu “VIP” area, ’cause I never caught a glimpse. In any case, watching Kozelek, in stoned-lounge-singer mode for this particular iteration of Sun Kil Moon, urge the swag-bagged audience to sing softly along to the refrain of the downeriffic SKM/Jesu collab “Exodus” while a keyboardist and drummer kept a funereal pace was one of the most disconcerting and yet delightful moments of my experience in Austin.
In rare instances, the branding was nearly nonexistent and there was room to breathe. Thee Oh Sees thrilled the punks Thursday at the first of their handful of SX shows at East Austin dive bar Hotel Vegas; watching frontman John Dwyer in full-on freakout mode is one of rock and roll’s purest remaining pleasures.
Similarly, and obvious bias aside, the Athens in Austin showcase at The Side Bar is one of SXSW’s best tangents, both for its stripped-down simplicity and the quality of the music. This year’s AIA party was particularly excellent, with sets from Mothers, Muuy Biien, New Madrid, T. Hardy Morris and others reminding the capacity crowd that Athens is home to some of the country’s most vital young bands. (On a quality-to-quantity basis, we’re surely at the top of the list.)
A final shining Sponsored By moment came Saturday at the Avocados From Mexico tent at the Southbites food-truck park. There, Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws, on hand to show off his guacamole recipe (not bad, kinda bland, there was basil involved) and fresh off a solo appearance at Rachael Ray’s Feedback House, decided to strap on an acoustic guitar and play a few songs for the dozen or so folks waiting in line for free guac. It was unexpected—even by the avocado pushers—and sweet; the pop-up performance transcended the setup’s limitations.
These were the unforgettable experiences: mostly small, always simple. After 30 years, SXSW has hit an operational stride. Yet as its scale continues to balloon, the kind of bands it once helped attendees “discover” are increasingly asking whether it’s worth the hassle, as are the fans asked to shell out $700 (!) for a music badge. Still, there is quality to be found amidst the crowds and corporate dollars. The most memorable moments at this festival, the behemoth of the music-industrial complex, continue to be the most unassuming—clear notes ringing out against a backdrop of white noise.