Best of SXSW: Best Stage Banter, Best Show, Best Repeats

… and other observations from Kevin Curtin’s notebook

Best of SXSW: Best Stage Banter, Best Show, Best Repeats
Photo by Kevin Curtin

Mental health practitioners have long noted a drastic change in handwriting as evidence of Multiple Personality Disorder. Looking at the back page of my notebook, where I log a semi-complete and oft-misspelled list of bands I see during South by Southwest, it’s clear that nine days of music fundamentally altered my brain.

Reviewing my pocket-sized spiral scratch pad in the wake of the 2019 festival, I’ve compiled the best stage banter I overheard, and added a few other takeaways.

Say What?

“When is your showcase? Everyone just yell it at the same time, because that’s how much it matters when you tell people when your showcase is.” [Audience yells an inaudible jumble of days, venues, and times.] “Cool. I’ll be there.” – Har Mar Superstar, during Heart Bones’ performance at Hotel Vegas on Friday.

“I want to acknowledge that we’re on Tonkawa and Comanche land. As indigenous people, we’re still here even though some of your ancestors tried to wipe us out.” – Black Belt Eagle Scout frontwoman Katherine Paul, performing at Hotel Vegas last Monday afternoon.

“We’re called The Comet is Coming. We want you to think about what you would want to do if you knew a comet was coming and it was your last day on Earth. Guys, don’t use it as an excuse to start sleazing on women. We had a guy do that at a gig. Step your game up, you’re better than that!” – The Comet is Coming keyboardist Dan Leavers, mid-set at Empire Garage on Thursday.

“It’s so nice to be playing here for the ‘failing New York Times!’” – Walker Lukens mocking Donald Trump while performing at the newspaper’s Interactive party at Mohawk.

“I have the flu, but I don’t give a fuck. I threw up, but I’m not gonna let that stop me. I’m here to party with you Fader Fort.” – Omar Apollo, upgrading what earlier in the week he characterized as a “sore throat” last Friday at Fader Fort.

"If you can afford to pay your cell phone bill, put your phone in the air and turn the flash light on.” – Da Baby, before performing his song “Up in the Street” at Stubb’s on Saturday.

No Time to Talk

One of my favorite facets about SXSW is hobnobbing with fellow musicians, venue staff, visiting collogues, and – who am I kidding… I’ll talk to anyone. Alas, there’s not always time to chat, so here are my favorite pass-bys from SXSW 2019:

Riding my bike up Comal Street on March 9, I saw congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez strolling into a beauty shop. Hurrying by in the opposite direction, I yelled, “Thank you for representing the interests of working peopleeeeeee!” She replied, “What up!” Greeting or a question? Exactly – perfect response.

On Thursday morning, as I cruised on my bicycle through Travis Heights, a black band van passed me. “Kevin?” I heard someone say. Kalu James and JT Holt from Kalu & the Electric Joint slowed their roll. We then enjoyed a delightful conversation at 10mph, discussing our week and where they were playing. One person who did not enjoy our visiting was the Lyft driver behind us, who began honking his horn.

Walking down Red River on Wednesday, I passed by Ezra Collective, the young London ensemble that plays hard-jazz Afrobeat, but looks more like grime rappers in their fresh track suits. I said, “Hey, you guys played some really heavy shit last night!” Bassist TJ Koleoso stopped in his tracks, looked me up and down dubiously, then said, “My G” and gave me daps.

Best in Show

Despite the many ways we digest music in 2019, an unforgettable live show remains the calling card of a good band or artist. I caught 50-some acts last week, many of them for the first time. Of the new-to-me segment, here are three whose shows knocked me out.

Amyl & the Sniffers: Everything you want out of an Aussie punk band – tough sound, bad haircuts, nearly indecipherable accents, and a lead singer that causes utter pandemonium. They play pub punk with a chaotic lyrical delivery from bloody-kneed, loogie-hocking frontwoman Amy Taylor.

Kokoko!: Few spectators had seen anything even remotely like the Kinshasa-based group that wears yellow jumpsuits and plays an electronic-accented take on Congolese alternative music with instruments made out of junk. Their two vocalists sang and chanted in Lingala with a high-spirited intensity that made your average trap show feel tame.

Fontaines D.C.: Recordings having already proved Grian Chatten a hell of lyricist, the Dublin lads’ first trip to Texas proved he’s also an intense frontman. In my review of Tuesday’s showcase at the British Embassy, I wrote, “His stage persona employs a series of nervous ticks: anxiously picking his teeth, scratching his short brown hair, and shaking his hands like they just got slammed in a door. Chatten balks at the mic so frequently that you never know when he’s about to drop his next psyche plumbing verse or yield to his bandmates’ brand of drum-heavy post-punk with locomotive energy.”

Pissed I Missed

Regrets? I have a few: Tierra Whack, Haiku Hands, and Lizzo’s much talked about Stubb’s performance.

Good Enough to See Twice

Austin’s White Denim, releasing their new LP Side Effects next week, is so on fire right now that I went to see them twice in one day. Similarly, I never turn down an opportunity to see Japanese girl group Otoboke Beaver, whose bubblegum grindcore remains endlessly entertaining. I also took a second helping of new avant-noise Brits Black Midi and their fierce, force-of-nature drummer Morgan Simpson. Both sets by the latter confirmed that if I don’t like like the vocals, in this case a cartoonish voice from singer Geordie Greep, the band won’t ever be something I jam at home, but live, they’re a prog puzzle well worth entertaining.

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