Dispatches From a New Decade of SXSW
Our favorite musical moments from the fest
Reviewed by Kevin Curtin, Rachel Rascoe, Julian Towers, Doug Freeman, Abby Johnston, and Thomas Fawcett, Fri., March 25, 2022
The first South by Southwest to transpire this decade felt less like the hectic and celebrity-dominated Fests of the 2010's and more like the accessible Aughts. A strong middle-class of indie acts – loaded with buzzy newcomers, international bands, and cult-status dignitaries – brought out the ideal amount of fans to where the clubs were full, but long lines were scarce. Over six days, our bullpen of adventurous scribes reviewed performances by over 50 acts from roughly a dozen countries. Here are some highlights.
Cifika's Swirling Hydrovox 2.0
I emerged from the pews of Central Presbyterian with a slight dizzy feeling in my stomach, like the kind you get with a pretty good plane landing. Such is the woozy, pleasant impact of watching projected visuals swirl in a large cylindrical tube for 30 minutes.
Ambient vocal experimenter Cifika led the otherworldly deep-sea exhibition, created in collaboration with lighting designer Alex Griff. What began as a shapeshifting jellyfish, alien internal organ, or dragon's spine grew into a churning aquarium of amoebas and sea plankton, then a crystallized dandelion.
Cifika's "Hydrovox 2.0" installation, originally performed at the Arko Museum of Art in the artist's home of Seoul, loosely mimics an industrial water tank with curved translucent plastic panels. After an introductory score of softly howling, windswept industrial rumble, the artist entered her upright tunnel to a control center of electronic musicmaking equipment. What began as a persistent click – akin to unsuccessfully starting a gas burner – grew slowly to entrancing, drone-leaning, loose pop structures, beckoned by reliable and unexpected club beats.
She appeared to control the light show with outstretched arms, as her and Griff's visual tech reacted live to the imputed audio. It all looked quite epic under the church's giant cross, SXSW's most memorable backdrop. After half an hour of passionate gesture, Cifika packed up her things and quietly walked out the back of her former container. – Rachel Rascoe
Wet Leg's Birthday Debut
A thousand butterfly wing-flap moments likely contributed to Wet Leg being the buzziest debut at SXSW, but I'm comfortable stating the main cause was a preternaturally good and fun song called "Chaise Longue." The debut single landed on Domino Recording last June. Since then, the English duo has risen to a level of interest attracting passersby cries of, "What is this huge line for?" and a handful of fans peeking over the fence from the bar next door during their packed first performance in Austin. A prior searing set by Sasami, at a showcase put on by both artists' label, brought Rainey's Half Step to capacity and beyond.
Wet Leg's leading Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers emerged happily with arms around each other's waists to walk-on soundtrack "Concerning Hobbits" before ripping into their own "Too Late Now." Later, an unreleased song impeccably captured their addictive formula: A sugary-sweet melodic portion ended with the saucy lyric "Why don't you just suck my dick?" Then, a shared group scream, and a series of contagiously smiley guitar-toting twirls from the frontpersons. New material, as their debut album isn't out until next month, proved the Wet Leg universe won't all be tightly wound, prickly post-punk. One slow jam harkened to Teasdale's past life as a piano-playing singer-songwriter in the vein of Regina Spektor.
Unfortunately, sound issues persisted throughout the set – especially interruptive for a band built on precision-cut vocal insertions and snappy combinations of bouncy pop and gritty guitar. Feedback appeared to deter Chambers from throwing in more of her singing parts, emphasizing the leading force of Teasdale's vocal charisma between the fuzz. A synth player/third guitarist in the quintet sang too, announcing midway that Wet Leg's Texas debut aligned with Teasdale's birthday, requiring a crowd chorus. (Teasdale joked, "I'm finally 16," in one of only a few words spoken by a surprisingly shy band considering their cheeky lyrics.) Naturally, the largest sing-along came for the finale, a perfect song for hopping along about laying on a chaise longue in your underwear. – R.R.
Thrashable Twee-Pop Band Pom Poko Leaves Critic in Pain
Until I ate a flying elbow while trying to bust a jig at the center of the Pom Poko circle pit, the spiritual affinity between traditional Norwegian folk dancing and traditional American moshing was not something I had considered.
Another fact previously unknown by me: Pom Poko – a technically gifted twee-pop band named after a Studio Ghibli anime on a label run by a Cocteau Twin – make music to thrash your fucking head to. Really! Heard on record, the group's inclination to run sugar-sweet melodies through squawky guitar dissonance and Bizarro World time signatures struck me as primarily aesthetic – a formula for scoring extra indie quirk points. From the sweaty center of a crowd that was going way too hard for Cheer Up Charlies' tiny inside floor, it became stupidly clear that, actually, Pom Poko's stop-start shuffle-punk rhythms are as mapped to incite dummy-rage-storms as any track on my beloved metalcore leg-day playlists.
Yet even as the band kept finding new pockets of twitchy calm to disrupt with bombastic fret breakdowns, never once did the earwormy songs misplace their core danceable thump. Likewise, overalls-clad frontwoman Ola Djupvik's delightfully strange stage presence was crucial in helping her ostentatiously talented bandmates set a breezy, crowd-pleasing tone. Though she'd often begin each song by standing stiff in a pose of stern, meditative focus, it was never long before some goofy dance whim – be it jogging in place or hopping on the amps to cling to the rafters – shattered her stone face. For a few songs she even came down to shove around with us in the pit. – Julian Towers
Los Bitchos Christen First U.S. Show With a Bottle of Tequila
The first thing you feel is the drums. Every one of Nic Crawshaw's snare hits registers loud, cracking, intentional through the packed-out Cedar Street Courtyard – powering Los Bitchos' pulsating, mostly instrumental exotica alongside wrench-tight bassist Josefine Jonsson. The London-based outfit, who's generated enough buzz off recently released LP Let the Festivities Begin! to get shine in Rolling Stone and headline the British Music Embassy showcase, thrives on joyous, approachable stage energy and crafty compositions that have cool part after cool part. Certainly the cumbia aspect of Los Bitchos feels lightweight in a city where you can hear authentic, masterful musicians playing even at a weekend flea market, but the UK quartet, rounded out last night with Ryan Fitzgibbon of erstwhile Austin no-wave act US Weekly, cast a wide stylistic net on Tuesday, March 15, that equally indulged in Turkish psych, funk, and rock – all of it a playground for the basement shredder guitar heroism of Serra Petale. After passing around a fifth of tequila twice during their set, Petale celebrated this being Los Bitchos' "first time playing in the United fuckin' States of America" and local audience members were polite enough not to mention that Texas is its own country. They closed, appropriately, with "Tequila." – K.C.
With an Altar to "Sister Bobbie," Willie Nelson's Luck Reunion Returns
At the last Luck Reunion in 2019, a number of memorials to late songwriters were scattered throughout grounds, but this year only one was placed: an altar outside the tiny Luck chapel in memory of Bobbie Nelson.
The pianist passed away last week, and Thursday night marked Willie Nelson's first public show without his sister, the heart of the Family Band for nearly half a century.
The perennial Luck headliner's stage seemed sparse without Bobbie's piano, her black cowboy hat instead simply set atop a mic stand to the side. The closing set likewise struck more subdued, with Willie and sons Lukas and Micah seated center stage. Yet the entire day felt nonetheless celebratory and affirming, the Luck Reunion living up to its name as it returned following a two-year hiatus to finally mark its 10th anniversary.
Willie and his boys remain the main event, and the new set up served well as almost a song swap between them. "In Loving Memory of Bobbie Nelson 1931-2022" projected on the back of the stage, and the more mellow arrangement fostered a sense of communion and even rejuvenation that extended to the crowd.
As the familiar closing, stage-packed round of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken/I'll Fly Away" swelled, it offered affirmation that Luck was indeed back, and that the Family Band endures. – Doug Freeman
Dolly Parton Brought Her Full Self to SXSW (and the Dollyverse)
The first thing you knew about the Dollyverse – Dolly Parton's much-hyped South by Southwest appearance – was that it was powered by blockchain: It was streamed on blockchain! In-person attendees got a free Dolly Parton-themed NFT! Blockchain Creative Labs promos were broadcast over giant screens!
The second was that Parton's appearance at the Moody Friday evening, March 18, was partly to tease a new novel she wrote with every grandparent's favorite writer James Patterson – Run, Rose, Run – and a companion album of the same name.
All of that sounds like a SXSW Mad Lib, an optimized amalgamation of the buzzy activations that have been crammed down attendees' throats since the Conference started last week. Of course SXSW was going to make hay about its first-ever Dolly appearance ("It never came up," she succinctly explained about why she'd never been on the bill). But Dolly the novelist hawking NFTs? This late in the week it's easy to get cynical that it's pure, sanitized promotion.
Until she walks on stage, that is.
Dolly could sell you a vacuum cleaner. Dolly could sell you a cheaply made set of encyclopedias. Dolly could sell you an NFT version of the album Run, Rose, Run even though – hand to God – you still couldn't explain an NFT if your life depended on it. And she could do it all without so much as a mention of any of those things at all. What made Parton's appearance so special is that, no matter what PR machine got her there, she showed up with her full self, blissfully untethered from anything but being Dolly Parton. Even powered by the blockchain, Parton at the Moody was still pure as the driven snow.
For that next hour, Parton poured it out on stage. The first three songs of the set were dedicated to Run, Rose, Run the album, performed by Parton – stalking the stage in backless rhinestone platform heels – with the same fervor as anything from her canon. But, of course, it was the mega hits that the packed crowd anticipated the most. Parton delivered: She did largely a capella versions of spiritual "Precious Memories" and "Smokey Mountain Memories," her crisp soprano untouched by time, soaring into every corner of the room. Speaking of memories, she peppered storytelling in between songs, tapping into her Appalachian upbringing and early career to lend context to some of her best-known cuts.
And those are the moments the crowd will remember: The roar of recognition from the syncopated keyboard chords that kick off "9 to 5," the stilling rendition of all-time great "I Will Always Love You," the breathless heart of "Coat of Many Colors." Parton embodied the urgency of "Jolene" and the satisfying lift of "Here You Come Again," fresh as the day she wrote them. If we needed the blockchain to take us there, sign me up. – Abby Johnston
The "Secret Password" Is Cymande
In the documentary Getting It Back: The Story of Cymande, Cut Chemist likened the band to a secret password. If you knew them, you were immediately part of a club of music-heads who were down with an almost invisible cornerstone of hip-hop. As the band readied to take the stage Friday night, a trio of young fans jockeyed for position near me, excitedly asking, "Do you know this band?!" "I do," I nodded affirmatively, as if giving a secret handshake.
After the film premiere and playing to a capacity crowd on Rainey Street, it seems the secret is now out. The club may not be quite as exclusive as it once was, but everyone in it should be elated that Cymande is getting some long-overdue love after their trifecta of near-perfect albums from 1972 to 1974 never got the accolades they deserved.
From the unmistakable opening bass line of "Getting It Back," Caribbean-born founding members Patrick Patterson (guitar), Steve Scipio (bass), and Derrick Gibbs (saxophone) led the eightpiece London ensemble in a rare stateside performance, blending funk, reggae, psych, jazz, calypso, and more into their signature "nyah-rock."
"So we're gonna give you more songs than talking, yeah?" Patterson surveyed the crowd before launching into "Do It (This Time With Feeling)" from 2015 comeback LP A Simple Act of Faith. Let's just say that the folks familiar with this one were an even more exclusive club, possibly limited to the musicians onstage. Next came the percussive mellow mysticism of "For Baby Ooh" and the spirited breakbeat bonanza and crowd favorite "Bra."
"For those that didn't know, 'Bra' means brother, so I thought we'd give you a little bit of brotherly love," Patterson mused.
That was followed by the slick funk of "Brothers on the Slide" and set closer "The Message," mashed up with Bob Marley's "Get Up, Stand Up" for good measure.
"Together, fore we go/ Forever, like it was before ..." – Thomas Fawcett
Meet Casual Beck, He's Cool
The announcement of a solo acoustic concert from SXSW keynoter Beck made many of us expect a set of material from the "Sad Beck" canon of Sea Change and Morning Phase. He indicated as much upon his arrival to the stage: "All right, so let's have some fun ... actually, disclaimer on that, I'm going to play some really sad, slow songs." The ensuing performance turned out to be a remarkably loose, playful, and bravely unprepared two hours of Beck in a way we'd never seen him before. Material ranged from extreme rarities ("Canceled Check"), to an unreleased new song, to never-played-before covers (Hank Williams' "Lonesome Whistle"), all interspersed with legitimately hilarious storytelling and thought bubbles. For much of the set, he was backed on pedal steel by Austin's Jesse Ebaugh, who Beck had recruited off Mohawk's indoor stage the previous night at 2am. The Californian's voice sounded incredible throughout the show, which was often lovably shambolic with forgotten lyrics, restarted songs, and impromptu stage gags like deciding to "explore the space" by moving his mic to the other side of the stage, then immediately moving back. "Jesus, I just looked at the clock," he said, returning for a satisfying double encore of "Debra," "One Foot in the Grave," and Daniel Johnston's "True Love Will Find You in the End." "I've been playing for two hours!" Time flies. – K.C.
Ukrainian Pop Star Leads Community Catharsis
ACL Radio's Andy Langer asked the Speakeasy audience, as much as possible on Saturday of SXSW, to quiet down for Ukrainian artist Oleksandra "Sasha" Zaritska to share her harrowing story. Alternatively, the singer emerged onstage at Speakeasy twirling her national flag, prompting the crowd to amplify with an, "I can't hear you." Having overcome so many barriers to get to the Fest, including her two Kazka bandmates being drafted into military service, and spread the word on the tragic killing of Ukrainians by Russia's military – the magnetic, natural performer was eager to do what she does best.
To an excited crowd at the community-assembled "Austin Stands With Ukraine" showcase, Zaritska debuted her room-filling, dynamic vocals with a beautiful rendition of the Ukrainian national anthem in a moving crowd chorus.
Austin musicians Bryan Ray, Ryan Hagler, and Charlie Harper served as Zaritska's backing band, later joined by special guest Charlie Sexton for a finale edition of "Masters of War," before which Zaritska stated: "I have a message to Putin ... It's a song by Bob Dylan." As the only Ukrainian performer at SXSW, Kazka delivered its message, as well as an opportunity for community catharsis. – R.R.
Dig deeper into our SXSW music coverage at austinchronicle.com/sxsw.