I often question why I travel 5000 miles, on a journey that lasts over 17 hours, right into the middle of a right-wing, christian conservative, gun-toting republican state in the USA every year in March in search of art, music and ideas... And then I say to myself, 'Wake up man, it's South by South West (SXSW) and it's the greatest creative gathering on the planet! This is my 11th year in a row at this staggering event and it utterly overloads all your senses from the moment you land on Texan soil. Around 2000 artists officially play the festival, but far more than that play 'unofficial' parties and barbecues in parking lots, pubs, clubs, schools and cafes over the course of 5 days; alongside the overlapping film and interactive events that now eclipse even the music festival. In other words there are thousands of talented folks crammed into this thoroughly modern, progressive, bohemian, hi-tech city... and I absolutely LOVE it! If you are interested in the creative industries in any way, shape or form you really need to attend SXSW one year. The trouble is, once you've tasted it... you'll want more and more, and come back time after time.
Arriving late on Tuesday night, after my mammoth trip from Edinburgh, I'm very grateful to be picked up by my good friend Pete Reid from www.dearscotland.com and www.petereidlaw.com who kindly houses me in his family home off South Congress every year. Although shattered by the journey and shell-shocked by the Austin heat, I'm soon cajoled into hitting the town and venturing to 'The North Door' on the east side of the city for a formidable bill that features pseudo-psyche, hippy troupe Vietnam, electronica wunderkind Mathew Dear (here in DJ mode) and twisted, electro hip-hop crew Young Fathers. Vietnam are suitably tripped-out and enticing, while Young Fathers pummel the crowd into submission with a charged and intense performance featuring tracks from their 'Tape One' mini-album out now on legendary San Francisco label, Anticon Records. Rappers, singers, songwriters and producers from Edinburgh, the trio of Alloysious, Kayus and G combine elements of Outkast, Marvin Gaye and Lee Perry into their state-of-the-art, tribal rhymes and bangin' grimey, psychedelic, dubstep-tinged production. Rapidly developing into a cutting-edge entity all of their own, it truly is a sight and sound to behold! What's novel is that they live around the corner from me, making it doubly impressive as a debut US show from my point of view - if there's any justice, the wider world will soon appreciate their sizeable talents and huge potential. After a decent chunk of slinky, syncopated house with Mathew Dear's skills and selections on the ones 'n' twos (OK, laptop mostly...) It's beddy-bies for me... Night Night!
Although you may travel to the other side of the world to experience a collection of some of the best LIVE bands on the planet, but being at SXSW also helps consolidate the UK music scene in a way that only being Brits Abroad can do sometimes. Waking on Wednesday, I look ahead at my shedule for the day over a feast of breakfast tacos (the BEST way to start any day!) and realise it mainly incorporates watching Scottish bands!! I'm here at SXSW with many hats on. I'm collecting audio for my weekly 'BBC Radio Scotland' show www.bbc.co.uk/vicgalloway and writing a large piece for the Sunday Herald newspaper www.heraldscotland.com as well as scribbling these daily thoughts for Clash. But over the years I've attending this festival, I've also hosted the 'Showcasing Scotland' events as MC, and once again revive this role for 'Creative Scotland' www.creativescotland.com who help fund and coordinate the Scottish invasion of Texas each year. I relish it actually... Not only do I warm up the crowd between acts, but I can help point them towards each relevant artist's releases, tourdates and brief history. It's part education, information and entertainment. Bring it on!
Before this however, I need to register and get my badge and press kit. Walking into the Austin Convention Centre downtown is always an eye-opener, as you always spot celebrities, musicians, actors, hipsters and business types all milling around. As this is a global event, the melting pot of people is massively diverse and as a result, hugely inspiring... every colour, creed, tribe and culture seems to be represented and frankly it's awesome! After a super-efficient 15 minutes in the centre, I'm tooled-up with the necessary laminates to get me into all the shows I want and I head off for a pre-arranged interview for my BBC show, after stumbling into Brighton's Cave Painting play to a capacity crowd nearby. Dundee's cheeky rock'n'rollers The View are visiting SXSW for the first time and have managed to negotiate previous visa problems, due to criminal convictions, making this their only real visit across the pond since a mini-tour in 2007. They're excited too - I chat briefly to Kieran and Kyle and hear about their forthcoming compilation album and plans for the future. As the sun beats down on our pale, Scottish skins and music booms from every doorway on main-drag of 6th Street, we all remark on what an utterly awe-inspiring place this is... and that Charlotte Church is onstage in 2 minutes! We duly hop inside the custom-built 'British Music Embassy' and watch her set. Who would have thought that this child prodigy of the classical world and someone with such tabloid notoriety would embrace the world of indie-rock in the Texan sunshine... And she pretty much gets away with it too.
On San Jacinto street, just off the notorious 6th Street, stands a venue called 'Latitude 30' which is converted into the aforementioned 'British Music Embassy'. Pulling together the 4 countries of the UK and housing all their individual showcase gigs under one roof is an inspired move, acting as a hub for the UK artists and a focus-point for the fans. The second 'Showcase Scotland' event happens on Friday afternoon and has a distinctly electronic flavour; but this being Wednesday night however, it's the turn of our indie rock'n'roll line-up. Unfortunately one of the current flag-bearers for independent Scottish pop, Camera Obscura have had to pull out at the last minute, due to family illness; so the bill is quickly rearranged to accomodate this sad loss. As Camera Obscura are probably our most prominent US success story on the bill, it's a shame they can't attend but it doesn't dampen anyone's spirits one bit. Clash favourites, and previous session guests of mine, Holy Esque take to the stage and deliver an impassioned display of gritty, heartfelt and epic 1980's-influenced indie-rock bringing to mind Echo & the Bunnymen, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Cure and Modest Mouse. As a group of young guys, they will be serious contenders if they keep improving their songwriting chops at the rate they're currently going. A phenomenal start and certainly a band to watch out for! From here, Highland trio PAWS take to the stage and knock out around 15 songs in just over 30 minutes with a playful ferocity that recalls the best bits of Descendents, Sebadoh, Nirvana and Dinosaur JR... They even play the opening riff to Minor Threat (by Minor Threat!) to huge cheers, and frontman/guitarist Phil ends the set standing on the bar thrashing his guitar within an inch of its life. It's a scene-stealing moment and maybe the highlight of the night... Punk as F*ck! That said, quirky quartet Tango in the Attic are up next and are probably the most inventive and futuristic band of the evening. They serve up an off-kilter mix of skewed electronics, scratchy guitars, rumbling tribal rhythms, prog time signatures and opaque, open-ended vocal melodies. If Animal Collective were straight outta Glenrothes, they might sound like this! Kassidy then bound onstage and, although the crowd has thinned somewhat, they hit the ground running with their debut US show. Country, blues, folk and rock'n'roll are all put through their blender of 3 acoustic and 1 electric guitar, 4 part harmonies and some serious foot-stomping energy. It's a tricky task playing the Americans their own music back to them, but the crowd don't bat an eyelid and lap the set up with flat-out enthusiasm. So far so good... Finally it's time for Dryburgh's finest to whip the audience into a frenzy and send them home happy with a high-octane, non-stop clatter of hits. Smashing their way through the finest moments from 4 albums, you can't help being bowled over by the sheer amount of great singles and uber-catchy hooks the band now possess. Put simply, they know how to pen a pop ditty. With Kyle Falconer's gravelly, soulful howl and a well-drilled touring machine behind him, The View are worthy headliners for what is an undoubted success infront of a packed and seriously appreciative audience. For me, I'm always amazed at how well attended these Scottish shows are each year at SXSW, especially as there are 200 other shows happening across the city simultaneously... We can collectively breathe out!
OK so I've seen mostly UK bands so far, but fear not... this is just the beginning and I'm only 2 nights down out of 5! There's plenty more to see and do, so I best head off to a Thrasher Skateboard Magazine party and tuck into more barbecue, beer and bands in the sun... I know, it's a hard life!
Words by Vic Galloway
Vic Galloway is a freelance radio and TV presenter, journalist and author. He broadcasts on BBC Radio Scotland every Monday at 8.05pm with LIVE session guests, new releases, demos and classic alternative tracks www.bbc.co.uk/vicgalloway and you can follow him on Twitter www.twitter.co.uk His first book 'Songs in the Key of Fife' about The Beta Band, KT Tunstall and the Fence Collective is out in August on Polygon.