South by Southwest, you’ve been gone a long time. It’s been more than two years since I last set foot in Austin’s Red River District—home to such iconic downtown nightclubs such as Stubb’s and Swan Dive. I attended last year’s online festival, and although a good attempt, it just wasn’t the same.
So it’s exciting, yet bittersweet to be back in person this year despite the country and world still being in a pandemic. I’m definitely doing my best to mask up, and thankfully the weather looks to be springtime amazing and the best since I started covering SXSW in 2015.
Austin has changed. Much of the construction on Rainey Street has been completed, so there’s a lot more there. Most, if not all, the venue mainstays like Container Bar and Lucille are still hopping; there was a lot of BBQing going on, so it smelled great over there. The British Music Embassy moved westward into bigger digs. Also, Stubb’s sadly changed owners.
Thankfully, the Downtown Metro Station stop was reconstructed to be further east of the Convention Center. The International Day Stage is now located at Brush Square Park where international bands may hopefully get more listeners. The list goes on.
Since many official SXSW shows didn’t start until 8 p.m., I was on my own to find live music in the early evening. A stroll down Rainey Street revealed a rebranded Midwest House (formerly Michigan House) that spotlights many Michigan artists. I made the most of a few very appetizing Detroit-style pizza slices while listening to singer-songwriter Jacob Sigman, who is very self-aware of his resemblance to comedian and actor Pete Davidson—he even wrote an amusing 30-second song about it (“Why Pete Davidson?”). If you want your significant other to smile, “Good Morning Beauty Queen” is very cute.
If you’re ever in doubt about finding a place to listen to good music, the British Music Embassy will rarely disappoint. Unfortunately, it was previously located in a small venue (i.e., 250 persons max). This year, BME moved over to Cedar St. Courtyard to triple its audience capacity, and folks definitely filled the space.
Scottish punk rock quintet Gallus kicked the DIY Magazine showcase with a raucous set, filled with arm-waving and many fingers pointing to the enthusiastic crowd. Lead singer Barry Dolan even jumped down into the crowd, danced, and invited a couple people to carry him as he continued to belt out words. Highlights were “What Do I Know” and “Looking Like a Mess.” Soloist Nuha Ruby Ra followed with a humbling raw set – complete with singing and dancing in the crowd. It was a jarring juxtaposition of two artists: One never seemed to dip below 130 beats per minute and the other held steady with primal chants (“Run Run”).
I then made my way to see Kishi Bashi (Kaoru Ishibashi). Earlier that evening, Ishibashi premiered his documentary film Omoiyari: A Song Film on the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and performed a follow-up set at Elysium. There were many diehards in the crowd who adored his sounds and strings in such an intimate space. Prior, Austin-based indie singer-songwriter fuvk (Shirley Zhu) wooed the audience with her melancholy lyrics and calm presence. Formerly used as a “personal journal,” Zhu’s related songs took hold and has so far culminated in three albums, including her recently released one, split death.
As beautiful as those sounds were, I needed a bit more oomph to end my night. Los Angeles-based synth-pop duo Magdalena Bay provided it with strong beats and addictive melodies. The sound system periodically cut in and out, and I was not able to fully hear vocalist Mica Tenenbaum very well, but it was a welcome sight to finally see a live set of theirs after last year’s pre-recorded SXSW performance. Poolside pop is the best description I’ve read so far to describe the duo who were inspired by Chairlift and Grimes. If you ever dreamed of being invited to an afternoon Hollywood party, then I think you could imagine walking toward the pool area with Magdalena Bay playing (e.g., “Dawning of the Season”). And I’ve definitely walked into the start of a week-long party here in Austin.
[Photos via Tan The Man]