SXSW Soldiers On

Eagulls
Eagulls

As most of the world is already aware, an unspeakable tragedy befell Austin’s 28th annual South by Southwest music festival late Wednesday evening. At about half past midnight around 10th Street and Red River – one of the event’s most popular areas – an intoxicated driver plowed through barricades outside concert venue the Mohawk, killing two pedestrians instantly and injuring 21 more, five of those in critical condition.

It was the sort of disaster that was too close to home for anyone in Austin, or anyone who knew loved ones or friends attending the festival for that matter. After the accident, the Mohawk announced it would close its doors for the remainder of the week, raising questions about where bands scheduled there through Saturday would play, if they play at all.

But a few missing shows in lieu of lives lost feels awfully trivial. Likewise, when the news reached me at Stubb’s where Blur and the Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn was headlining, the British songwriter’s complaints about having his set cut short due to a nearly hour-late start seemed equally inconsequential. That said, he was likely unaware at that point, but for anyone with social media, thoughts and prayers lingered several blocks down, with the victims and their loved ones.

Though it has happened before in extreme circumstances (usually heat stroke or drug use), no one should die at a music festival. Say what you want about the corporate and drunken mainstream fan invasions of the past decade or so sucking the goodness out of the indie act-touting soul SXSW once possessed. But the bottom line remains the same: such an occurrence is the utter opposite of what music festivals in general set out to achieve. This multi-day conference was meant to enrich lives, inspire individuals and better the world through the sharing of the only universal language: music.

In an attempt to look beyond the dark cloud that will inevitably loom over the festival for years to come, it feels pertinent to list a few moments from Day 2 (Wednesday) that upheld that more hopeful sentiment.

Benjamin Booker at the Billy Reid + Weather Up Shindig
Benjamin Booker at the Billy Reid + Weather Up Shindig

At the annual Billy Reid Shindig held at Weather Up:

  • Armed only with an acoustic guitar, Rhett Miller, frontman of Old 97’s, debuted four new songs from his band’s upcoming, as yet unnamed tenth studio album (the Dallas outfit’s first on ATO Records), all of them rollicking and uplifting … and all of them about whiskey and sex. Gotta love Miller for his consistency.
  • Les Claypool’s Duo de Twang – featuring guitarist Bryan Kehoe – performed a slew of country-fied renditions of Primus tunes and Americana classics, all the while providing context via VH1 Storyteller mode (complete with a fake campfire). The highlight, however, was an exception to the roots music rule: a wonderfully funky and twangy cover of the Beegees’ “Stayin’ Alive” – “I wrote this, you know,” Claypool joked.

Drinking In SXSW: Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, Leopold And his Fiction

  • Two words: Benjamin Booker. The 22-year-old New Orleans guitarist/songwriter – joined live by drummer/mandolin player Max Norton – took the stage as an unknown and, after playing a brief mix of chunky-riffed rock tunes and pleasingly pretty ballads – stepped off the stage a conqueror. Mark these words: this kid is gonna get huge within the year.
St. Vincent
St. Vincent

At the NPR showcase at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q:

  • Previous to the February 25 release of her self-titled fourth album, St. Vincent (born Annie Clark) was already regarded as act unlike any other. Her runner up-headliner set this night – which focused heavily on cuts from that new disc – reinforced that opinion tenfold. Wearing an edgy white dress designed to look like a gutted, bloody torso, Clark staged what was essentially a performance art-rock show, never breaking character even to speak to or thank the audience as she mimicked a wind-up robot capable of angelic vocals and wild shred sessions. The word “spellbinding” gets thrown around quite a bit in music criticism, but she was the epitome of that here.
  • Yes, the news of the already infamous SXSW crash reached attendees just minutes before he took the stage, but Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn – who may or may not have been aware of the accident at that point – gave his all during a set that sampled his two main bands plus a healthy, trip-hop-infused batch of songs off upcoming album, Everyday Robots (due April 28). Only problem: his appearance was inexplicably delayed until about 1:20 a.m., which left about 40 minutes before sound ordinance kicked in and ended the show. That meant that his carefully planned set list failed to fully engage, which visibly disappointed Albarn, who typically carefully crafts song rosters to guide fans through set of specific moods. Still, he took it in stride: “Sorry we got a bit messed about,” he said, “ but that’s the spirit of the fest, isn’t it?”

All in all it was a splendid day for new music, though my thoughts and prayers remain fully focused on the crash victims – my heart goes out to their friends and familes. Head here to check out a few more photo highlights from bands we caught during Day 2, including Majestico, Jessica Lea Mayfield, Hurray For the Riff Raff, J. Roddy Walston & the Business, Perfect Pussy, Eagulls and Kelis.

(The SXSW Cares Fund will help people affected by the tragic events of March 13, 2014. The funds will be disbursed to those most affected through a community-based process. Please donate at www.sxswcares.com)
All photos by David Brendan Hall, except iTunes Festival photos. iTunes Festival photos courtesy of iTunes Festival at SXSW