Faster Than Sound: SXSW Online Offered Lots to Look Forward To

Virtual festival forecasts incoming local debuts and tentative fall touring.

Van Mary (Courtesy of SXSW)

In a charming conversation during last week's South by Southwest Online, interviewer Andy Langer inquired whether Willie Nelson missed his tour bus. The pandemic marks the 87-year-old's longest tour gap in decades.

"It's sitting right down there a little ways," responded Nelson, streaming from his Spicewood studio. "And every now and then I go and sit in it, just to pretend I'm going somewhere."

That's how I felt Tuesday through Saturday last week – sitting on my bedroom floor, staring up at the SXSW app on my little TV, bobbing to pre-taped showcases, but with nowhere to go just yet. Chatter at both panels and live chats looped back to yearning for shows. Virtually maintaining the festival's longtime focus on discovery and international acts, SXSW Online offered much to look forward to, whenever bands do get on the road again.

Incoming Local Recordings

While Nine Mile Records and Jon Dee Graham and son William Harries Graham occupied the Continental Club, commentators pined over the South Congress classic, closed since last March. Ditto for the gold-tasseled indoor stage at Hotel Vegas, now used to film fuzzy Hotel Free TV episodes. The latter's locally sourced livestream for SXSW previewed troves of unreleased material from homegrown acts including Van Mary, who teases a catchy reworking of Nineties alt-rock fundamentals in new single "Connie Converse."

After singer Felix Lenz's first of many costume changes, spooky Austin art-punks Lord Friday the 13th killed "Big Mac," one of a few singles scattered online. Beach House met surf pop on Sasha & the Valentines' following set, which offered "Flower" from April 16 debut So You Think You Found Love? On Tuesday, KUTX hip-hop pillar The Breaks reminded Black Pumas fans to check out the solo stylings of band keyboardist JaRon Marshall, recently seen on the Grammys stage.

The producer invited avant-garde rapper Mike Melinoe to accompany his trio's meticulous instrumentals. Addictive Southern voice Deezie Brown followed with clever regional fairy tales off new Jake Lloyd collaboration The Geto Gala, introducing himself with a backing guitarist.

"My name is Deezie Brown, all the way from Bastrop, Texas, country town to be exact."

Filmed at Eastside event space the Pershing, local patrons Black Fret assembled six ATX acts embedding playful psych-pop from Buffalo Hunt (aka actress/songwriter Stephanie Hunt) on forthcoming Spaceflight Records debut Play the Fool. Co-founder Matt Ott chimed in with Black Fret's method for small, masked gatherings, explaining in the chat, "There was an audience of about 30 COVID immune folks. Live music is coming back, soon!"

Heave Blood & Die (Courtesy of SXSW)

Trips Around the World

SXSW thrives on international acts, so a film format allowed artists to show off their home turf. Fifth year showcase Jazz re:freshed set up into London's famed Abbey Road Studios. Across 80 minutes, standout alto saxist Camilla George and electro-soul quartet Noya Rao complemented a set by star tubist Theon Cross, who detailed his project:

"Caribbean, hip-hop, and electronic music. It's a mixture of all those different things from the African diaspora ... It's a real pleasure, even in a virtual space, to perform to an audience as interesting as SXSW. I've had the pleasure of going there in person; that energy is something to behold."

The Chairs (Courtesy of SXSW)

Taiwan Beats matched bands with cultural attractions to stoke vacation dreams. Singer-songwriter Enno Cheng's tranquil indie-pop blended with mountains ranges in Yilan, while pop-punks Fire EX packed power chords into a Taichung mechanical factory, with workers assembling parts in the background. The Chairs' mellow prom-rock matched the quaint regional pastime of indoor shrimp fishing from large pools.

In the week's most memorable showcase, Northern Expo orchestrated an epic one-shot journey around the snowy realm of Tromsø, Norway. Director Carl Christian Lein Størmer's drone descended on traditional Sámi duo Ozas singing in a city street, before rapper Oter strolled by to launch his performance in a taxi. In a see-through gondola, folk threepiece I See Rivers harmonized their way up Mount Storsteinen. Finally, on top, in a stunning rooftop shot, sextet Heave Blood & Die offered immersive stoner metal to the sweeping waterway below.

The Return of Live Music

Between showcases, panels naturally focused on the future of not-prerecorded gigging. In December, venue advocates successfully lobbied Congress to pass the $16 billion Save Our Stages Act, which the Small Business Administration will administer. Following the festival, SBA announced applications will open for independent venues, movie theatres, and other cultural spaces on April 8.

Under the "Shuttered Venue Operators Grant," eligible venues can receive non-repayable grants for 45% of their gross 2019 revenue capped at $10 million. In a Wednesday panel with musician Pat Green, Congressman Roger Williams said his office was "pushing [the SBA] really hard" to finalize details.

"I've told them, and I'll tell you, we should have had it happen earlier," said Williams, a major supporter of the bipartisan SOS legislation. "They've dragged their feet a little bit, but now they're picking it up."

Pressed for details by New York Times moderator Stacy Cowley, he explained: "It's been basically a timing issue with the transition of the two administrations."

The program was funded due to organizing efforts of the National Independent Venue Association, formed last year and counting many Austin venues. A Saturday panel rounded up NIVA members from NYC, L.A., and Minneapolis. As for the viability of a 2021 concert calendar, all venue runners agreed they're looking beyond Labor Day for indoor events.

"We're hanging on for the fall," said NIVA Board President Dayna Frank, CEO of Minneapolis venue First Avenue. "The folks that I talk to, our summer is basically gone. That's okay, because it's going to be the busiest fall any of us have ever seen. We're going to will it into existence."

Haepaary (Courtesy of SXSW)

Stuff to Stream

Multiple presenters told the Chronicle they're free to post content after the festival's radius clause is up in a few weeks. For now, I'll happily stream Black Country, New Road's relentless debut For the First Time, just like everyone else in virtual attendance at SXSW. "Opus" erupted at the British Embassy with its eight-minute integration of post-punk and traditional Jewish klezmer sounds.

Reworking royal shrine music of the 15th century, Seoul drone duo Haepaary's new single "A Sendoff for Ancestor Spirits" also requires a revisit. For hyper-punk catharsis, try Korean trio Drinking Boys & Girls Choir or ratty Australian crew the Chats. For endearing recent bows, I'll continue enjoying Katy J Pearson's Return and Indigo Sparke's Echo.

A bevy of music documentaries head to wider release, since a year without touring inspired ample video creation. All three headlining movies chronicled the troubled artistic process: Demi Lovato's overdose and recovery in Dancing With the Devil, Charli XCX's 40-day quarantine album effort in Alone Together, and 16mm footage from the making of Wildflowers in Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free.

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SXSW Music 2021, South by Southwest Online, Andy Langer, Willie Nelson, Nine Mile Records, Jon Dee Graham, William Harries Graham, Continental Club, Hotel Vegas, Van Mary, Lord Friday the 13th, Sasha & the Valentines, KUTX, The Breaks, Black Pumas, JaRon Marshall, Mike Melinoe, Deezie Brown, Black Fret, Buffalo Hunt

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