Last week, over 300,000 people descended upon Austin, Texas for South by Southwest (SXSW), and I had the privilege of being one of them. With hotels at over $825 a night and around $197 million in revenue brought in over the course of the week, this was definitely an extravagent Southern experience I won’t soon forget.
SXSW 2014 featured just over 2,000 registered bands, and that doesn’t even include the artists that played at unofficial showcases! Big time hitters such as Kanye West, Jay Z, Justin Bieber, and Coldplay all played throughout the week, and of course there was the “performance art” act of Millie Brown vomiting all over Lady Gaga.
While one could have gone to Austin with the intention of taking these characters in, I decided that my SXSW experience would be all about discovery. With the entire city turned into a music venue, finding new acts was not difficult in the least, and so with that goal in mind, here are my top 14 moments at SXSW 2014!
This was hands down the best show for me. This British-born trip-hop trio is so unbelievably talented, and their music perfectly sets the backdrop for vocalist Hannah Reid’s hauntingly deep voice. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to them yet, check out these three videos: “Help Me Lose My Mind” (with Disclosure), “Strong“, and finally “Hey Now” (Arty on the remix). Tears were shed, depth was achieved, and I will definitely take the next chance I get to catch them live again.
Classixx has long been a favorite of mine, and when I got to the venue on Cedar Street that they were playing at, I was not surprised that it was packed wall to wall with people. Filter Magazine threw a great showcase with food and beverages flowing; the only bummer was that Classixx wasn’t able to get their equipment working until they only had time for two songs. The tracks they played were fantastic, but it was a shame that the venue had to be cleared out so quickly in order to prepare for the nighttime portion. Still, though, two Classixx songs are always better than none.
In the darkened warehouse known during SXSW as the Hype Hotel, Clifford John Usher and Lindsay Pitts of the Washington DC band GEMS performed a euphoric and soothingly melodic set. Slow, thundering bass accented by Clifford’s piercing guitar riffs and dripping in Lindsay’s falsetto melodies kept listeners bumping and swooning to songs off GEMS’ Medusa EP. These two animated and passionate musicians should not be missed as they set out on their first tour opening for synth duo Classixx!
Hot on the heels of their new album release, Voices, Phantogram kicked off Saturday night’s Guitar Center Sessions atop the Starr rooftop. Frontwoman Sarah Barthel and her partner Josh Carter played passionately and took the entire crowd with them. Everyone was jumping, singing along, and having an amazing time on the rooftop as the event was filmed. The New York-based duo recently added two additional band members to fill out their sound, and the music they make now is definitely much more intense than in years prior. The rooftop was packed as people moved to the music, and with Snoop Dogg performing after Phantogram, the energy kept going.
The true spirit of SXSW is about happening upon an unlikely parking lot-turned-music venue and discovering a new hidden gem of a band. This was precisely the case when I happened upon the G Pen Annex tent Wednesday night to discover rough and gritty British rock trio Band of Skulls. The following night, Russell Marsden (guitar and vocals), Emma Richardson (bass and vocals), and Matt Hayward (drums) would perform for a live TV audience at iTunes Moody Theatre stage, but on this night, the trio’s wonderfully grueling guitar riffs were delivered from the small stage, giving the few that were privileged to attend a taste of the group’s upcoming and highly anticipated album Himalayan, set to drop March 31st.
6. Royal Blood
Formed just last year and backed by fellow UK rock band Arctic Monkeys, Royal Blood is quickly forming a loyal fan base as they performed for the small and crowded Cedar Street venue Saturday afternoon. Armed with only a bass guitar and drum set, Mike Kerr (vocals, bass) and Ben Thatcher (drums) energized fans with their modern yet mature, heavy, garage/crunch rock sound, similar to that of The Black Keys. This simple rock duo from Brighton delivered a huge sound that is destined for the big stage.
7. Mary Lambert
Quantum Collective’s SXSW stage was positioned atop the roof of Whole Foods’ flagship store in Austin. In similar fashion to the city that originally founded this organic grocery superstore, the stage included a fun picnic-like area, with the young, old, and families mingling together in joyous organic bliss. Though the lineup included such acts as G. Love, A Great Big World, Bad Things, Kris Allen, and Wakey!Wakey!, none harnessed the crowd’s attention and emotions quite like Mary Lambert, best known for her collaboration with Seattle cohorts Macklemore and Ryan Lewis on their hit single “Same Love.”
After performing her own rendition of that song, Lambert went on to deliver her impacting spoken word piece “Body Love,” touching the deep issues of body image and self worth. Lambert bared all in a raw fashion that was almost a relief to hear spoken aloud, as she encouraged listeners with the repeated phrase, “You are worth it.” The once distracted and talkative crowd fell silent as Mary delivered her words and songs. Talented at both spoken word and sung performances, Mary Lambert left lucky onlookers with a tear in one eye and the squint of a hopeful smile in the other.
Rainey Street was one of the more interesting areas of town during SXSW. With old houses and backyards that had been converted into gastropubs and bars, it was a great setting to catch some music. For SXSW, the street went under the title of “Dickies Roadhouse presented by Amazon,” but it had a great lineup ranging from Little Dragon to Ludacris. I also was able to indulge in a locally brewed beer and a beet and goat cheese sausage. (for the more carnivorously inclined, there were definitely regular sausage options as well.) Deap Vally was the LA-based rock duo we caught at this stage, and they were fun and high energy. Plus the vocalist rocked it dressed in gold lamé.
9. Sony/Red Showcase Rooftops
The award for “Most Creative Use of Technology” goes to Sony for utilizing two rooftops that were right across the street from each other. For their showcase, they had one band come on at Hanger while live streaming it at Six Lounge across the street. Once that band finished, another one would immediately start at Six Lounge and be streamed over at Hanger. It was fun still being able to see the event right across the street while allowing more space for people to enjoy themselves. The panoramic views of the city weren’t half bad either. The lineup on Friday night included St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Los Lonely Boys, Ingrid Michaelson, Animal Eyes, Judith Hill, The Orwells, Glass Animals, Magic Man, and Itch.
10. Hype Hotel
Hype Machine blew their venue out of the water this year. They hosted fantastic acts like London Grammar, Miike Snow, Youth Lagoon, Gems, and many others, and on top of that, they offered a hosted bar by Tito’s Vodka and enough free hot Taco Bell to feed the armies of crowds that filtered through. With plenty of space to dance, this venue was one we stopped by many times during the fest, both for the music and the atmosphere.
11. #Pi In The Sky
The weather was perfect on Thursday for 5 skywriters to spell out #PI IN THE SKY and then proceed to write out 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716… I kid you not, they went around in a circle for over an hour. Besides being geeky-awesome, the looks of confusion on people’s faces who hadn’t seen the initial description was priceless.
12. Musical Comedy
Hideout Theater hosted a musical comedy event on Thursday, and let me tell you, it was one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen. From a self-deprecating man playing an instrument that I’ve never seen before to the talented Jessica Delfino, good times were had by all despite consistent technical difficulties.
13. Mobile Music
I have to share these two notable occurrences of mobile music. One was the above creative “rapper truck,” who drove around town rapping and throwing out swag to corners of people. If you don’t have a stage to perform on or are trying to build a fan base for when you’re playing later, that’s definitely one way to do it. The other was an incredible musician by the name of Charles Rangel, who goes by the name of The Dime Store Novelist. Check out his video of “Stereo Hearts.” You won’t be disappointed.
14. Cheese at #sxswfromage
Heading into Old School Bar and Grill on 6th Street on Saturday led to a wonderful event put on by The Cheeses of Europe. With more cheese than you could possibly consume, wine samples, and beautiful cheese sculptures, it was such a fun splash of culture to find in Austin. I chatted with one of the cheese representatives, and she had come all the way from France!
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