I’m two years removed from my last time at South By Southwest. Of course, it’s easy to remark at how things have changed. For better or for worse is still up for debate, but things have changed. The east was where one went to snag cheap beer, now it’s another arm of Austin’s ever-expanding bohemian paradise. Still weird? In spots. Still navigable? Somewhat. It’s not a gripe, just an observation. It’s become “everything” for “everyone,” and in that respect, it’s become a bit too much.
Drifting into the madness, I’ve found it best to go with the flow, no matter how much has changed. For Wednesday, that meant keeping to one place for a longer stint since lines begin to form quickly. At the Mohawk, the day started with Leeds lads Eagulls. It was the perfect antidote to my lingering head cold: brash, shambolic, and teetering on the edge with sharp, stinging riffs and Fall-like repetition. They could have pounded away for hours and I would have been content. Not so fortunate was Casual Sex, a Glasgow outfit that must revel in a “greaser” chic back home. They looked like The Clash, but played the same cheeky punk one might expect should Bloc Party come back in vogue.
Between Kalela and Lydia Loveless, the dichotomy of SXSW in the modern age can be seen plain as day. Loveless, the tough-as-nails singer-songwriter from Columbus, plays a particularly Midwestern cow-punk. It’s traditional and maybe regrettably so, as what her and her band do now feels like the old guard in Austin. One can sense that Loveless is trying to push the limits of her work towards Pat Benatar radio pop, but the rest of her band seemed tethered to a time and place that isn’t 2014. Meanwhile Kelela, one of many divas with wildly divergent beats behind her, was vying to become the next breakthrough. Energetic, soulful, genuine, and her hooks are hooks. It easy to hear the future in what she does. It may not reach Beyonce-like proportions, but it certainly brings this hybrid R&B towards Bjork-esque beguilement. Strangely enough, British phenom Charli XCX is both of these artists—Loveless’ spunk and Kelela’s vision—in one package. Her chirpy pop, replete with backing band, is infectious and enormously inflated in the live setting. Go see her.
Later in the evening, a visit to the Tap Room restored my faith that SXSW does provide magical moments still. A set from Donnie Fritts, an Alabama session player and renowned writer for everyone from Kris Kristofferson to Dusty Springfield, played an intimate set of his storied collection, remembering vital lore about those songs and going on about how he may be weathered but his mind is still sharp.
The all-star of the day, though, would be Tony Molina. The young guitarist has a knack for melding together his loves of Guided By Voices, Queen, and death metal. Sounds too good to be true, but Molina and his recently assembled band did Thin Lizzy twin-ragers in catchy compact 90-second intervals. It was confounding that there were so few there to see him. The same could be said for my final set of the night, from NYC’s Skaters. They have the appeal, the big, buoyant, chorus-driven Strokes motif, but none of the humility that Molina provided. It appears the Skaters may have sold their souls for (almost) rock & roll.
Our night ended mistakenly walking upon the accident on Red River, where an out of control drunk driver plowed through a line of people waiting to get into the Mohawk to see the legendary X. Needless to say this tragedy put the whole chaos of SXSW into perspective and a pall over the week ahead.
Onward to Thursday.