Where better to start Clash’s exploration of this 31 year old music industry festival than the British Embassy - a showcase of all things Great British in a bar called Latitude 30.
British music royalty Steve Lamac introduces Meilyr Jones, who takes to the stage like a Welsh Morrissey, shirt unbuttoned to the naval, an incredible loafer and those winding, psychedelic pop songs that made last year's ‘2013’ a regular in album of the year polls.
But we didn't come all the way to Austin to hang out with the Brits, so a short walk across town finds us in Bar 96. We've left the teenagers and street hip hop buskers behind to catch a local band - White Denim. Playing an outside stage in 27 degree heat - basically our peak summer sun - and in double denim, singer James Petralli is a tap of sweat as he smiles and grooves his way through punchy psych rock, making a multitude of incredible guitar faces.
This short set in a small bar courtyard is easily one of the best things we see, so full of energy, fuzz, incredible bass lines and riffs and soulful Rhodes with Petralli sitting somewhere between Paul Rogers of Free and Robert Plant. It's been a year since they've played in Austin and they live here so it was a privilege catching their first SX homecoming gig.
Later that night we catch another local band, Spoon, back in the mental heart of downtown. Britt Daniels, ever the frontman, glams up classic Spoon songs from their 20 year history and gives the crowd their first taste of tracks from new album ‘Hot Thoughts’, merging a new keys and synth sound and occasional flutterings of Alice Coltrane, with the guitar-led indie of Spoon’s older repertoire. (Check out our chat with Alex from the band here).
As an extra surprise, we catch The Walkman frontman Hamilton Leithauser, bringing his indie anthems and great face to an adoring crowd.
But the joy of SX isn't the bands, as you may well know. We avoid the queues of Future Islands and Weezer and totally miss a surprise set from Solange and Lana Del Ray to keep it rough and ready.
Best surprise of the whole festival is the late night show from Ukranian folk quartet Dakahbrakah, born from an avant grade theatre group. In traditional outfits, fur hats and with just an accordion, drum, piano and cello, they smash together traditional vocals, the most amazing bird noises and three piece female rap about such sticky issues as trying to find a husband. It's just incredible and probably got the best crowd reaction of anything we saw at the festival.
Over at Swan Dive we hang out at the Canadian showcase to see what delights have come from north of the border. She-Devils from Montreal amaze us with their two piece synth pop, packed full of looped samples and noise with pretty, 60’s inspired, heavy reverbed melodies, like Broadcast meets Nancy Sinatra. (We caught up with the band after the show here).
Getting a break from fowntown, we head to Hotel Vegas in the east of the city, where art shops and cafes are nestled among cool bars. Looking for space and some relative quiet, we stumble head first into metal three-piece American Sharks, who's blistering loud rock smacks us right in the face. The drummer’s kit was so stripped down it was like he found it on the side of the road. While a little samey, it showed us not to expect any kind of break at SX.
Hotel Vegas crams four stages into its space, so a wander to each corner shows us beach rockers Leather Girls with Monkees jangly guitar and a tropicalia twist, and local youngens Swimming With Bears, anthem indie pop with a obvious love of Prince.
On the look out for respite, the obvious place to head is church. We catch UK current-big-thing Rag ‘n’ Bone Man at St David’s Historic Sanctuary, where the Brighton singer brings gorgeous raspy soul accompanied by just guitar and keys. He starts with ‘Human’, gives us a little Bob Marley and ‘the happy one’, ‘Grace’, which he admits he wrote while a little inebriated. We all understand his spliff mime! It's great to see the new Colombia signing in this small, holy venue when he'll soon be selling out much bigger venues at home.
But this venue showcases other greats and one of the festival highlights for us. Agnes Obel brings her haunting meloncholic melodies to a packed room where people were sitting in the aisles to catch a glimpse. Two cellos, clarinet, percussion, keys and four part harmonies, constantly looping and built on, sounds spellbinding and all the better for the setting next to a giant pipe organ. It's just a shame the tacky SX poster obscured the ornate alter. Here, branding overtakes everything. That aside, it was definitely one of the most serene and beautiful shows of the week.
To end our first SXSW, we called it a day on downtown and instead hung about in bars looking for real cowboys. At the White Horse, where the whiskey’s on draft, we two stepped to awesome country bands until closing. You may have forgotten the olden days of British bars closing at 2am, but here, it’s still the realty, which makes that last hour all the more sweet. We obviously won't mention the hidden and illegal speakeasy we may or may not have ended up in until 7am!
Luckily, there's no better way to sooth a sore head than the tenderest of pork ribs from the beautiful dive that is Sam’s BBQ and a dip in Barton Spring - a wonderful natural spring gifted to the city a hundred years ago and home to blind salamanders.
After four days of SXSW, the life of a blind salamander sitting in the sun sounds pretty perfect. So tired!
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Words: Gemma Hampson and Alice Whatley