We all know what SXSW is by now, but long gone are the affordable $10 tickets of yore. I had never even entertained the idea of going but this year a bunch of my friends were playing and my work in media got me a free platinum badge. And so, high off the post-lockdown urge to travel anywhere, I booked my Airbnb and a round trip to Austin, Texas, for my first SXSW experience. Given that I’d only been to and photographed one other festival, which was Gov Ball last year, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I mean, how crazy can a six day music festival spread throughout an entire city really be???
I didn’t sleep that night (insomnia fun!) and when I got to JFK the security line was the worst I’ve ever seen it, the signs approximating over a two hour wait time. I somehow miraculously made it to my gate well after the final boarding call, with about three minutes before the doors closed. Given that I had run the length of Terminal B in cowboy boots, I gave myself permission to keep the rest of the day simple. I took a Lyft straight to the convention center in downtown Austin where I picked up my badge and camera tags, noting that all NYC artists pretty much dress the same: we’re so tough in our leather jackets, lol.
After not hearing back all day, I realized my Airbnb host was ghosting me. I had a consolation taco at Veracruz All Natural to center myself, even though it cost me more than a Brooklyn taco. “SXSW menu,” apparently. I regretted my decision to bring a duffel and not a rolling bag for the next two hours but then thankfully a friend of a friend came through (thank you Sam) and put me up for next two nights. After I finished my claim with Airbnb, I met him at Hotel Vegas where, wielding my shiny new platinum badge, I paid the $10 cover fee because I didn’t care anymore, I just wanted to see some goddamn music.
DAY 1 – Monday, March 13th 2023
Razor Braids had just started playing inside and I felt grateful for familiar faces. A Brooklyn band I’m fond of, we’d crossed paths multiple TV Eye shows. I cracked my first Lone Star and settled into an animated set, all four members dressed head to toe in their signature red. Whenever I see a band like this play live I’m reminded of how much punk and panache can be lost in translation when it comes to having to record it. While guitarist Janie Peacock tore up the edge of the stage, Sid Nichols, on drums, kept the crowd in line with a smile on their face. I lost my phone in the crowd when bassist Hollye Bynum and guitarist Jilly Karande clashed instruments, but retrieved it later from the bartender who said someone turned it in. Not sure that would have happened in NYC. Razor Braids finished out their tour at TV Eye March 31st, with Closeby and Trophy Wife.
Afterwards, we caught back to back Austin bands at the patio outside, Billy Glitter and then Rickshaw Billie’s Burger Patrol—sharing both a name, a city, and a genre. A small but obliging mosh pit had formed at the front of the stage, kicking up dust under the midday sun.
Billy Glitter is a newly formed group of five, brought together by frontman William Grover in 2021. A self-described prog rock band, I could hear the influence of the Stooges in their set, which was already the 2nd of five shows they’d play during SXSW. Gotta say I really dug the keyboardist’s style.
Rickshaw Billie’s Burger Patrol was similar in sound, if not aggressively more metal. They played fast and tight, with a Nirvana-worthy grunginess. The lead singer Leo Lyodon has a Jack White-like strain to his voice, cutting through Sean St. Germain’s shotgun spray drumming while the bassist Aaron Metzdorf deftly threaded through them. Put Turnstile and Wolfmother in a blender and I feel like you’d get Rickshaw Billie’s Burger Patrol. Needless to say the mosh pit was loving them.
I caught the end of Pelvis Wrestley inside, a queer approach to country I can get down with. I realized I’d met the frontman, Benjamin Violet, at a wedding last year in Austin, but we’d never spoken. There is an epic glam to this band that’s hard to put a finger on, which feels all at once nostalgic and futuristic. This was my SXSW “one that got away,” I regret not catching any of their other shows, but I’m looking forward to whatever music they put out next. Pelvis Wrestley’s debut album, Vortexas Vorever was released this month on streaming platforms.
Last band I watched before leaving Hotel Vegas was Iguana Death Cult outside on the patio. I think they played like ten shows at SXSW; I saw them almost everywhere. A Netherlands band, they have a very juicy pop rock quality, reminiscent of early The Hives. I feel like they might not like the comparison but I mean it as a compliment. I would love to know more about their name though. Their forthcoming album Echo Palace is out May 12th via LA label Innovative Leisure.
Nearing almost 48 hours without sleep, I walked all the way to the British Embassy showcase hoping to catch Gen and the Degenerates for my final show of the night, but it wasn’t in the cards for me. I’m not sure what happened but it was no real loss because I caught Panic Shack instead, managing to get pretty close despite the room being at capacity. As I understand it, this group of four young women is blowing up back in the UK, much like Die Spitz is in Austin. They were having fun with their set, chatting amongst themselves and to a very responsive crowd between the thrashing explosion of each song.
They are a Cardiff, Wales based band that came up from the DIY scene in 2018 and you can feel that can-do energy throughout their music. They were especially fun to watch, the endearing charm of their chutzpah was lost on no one. During the finale of one song, all four lined up at the front of the stage and mimed shooting off AK-47’s with their instruments. What’s refreshing is that Panic Shack isn’t trying for “revolutionary all-woman punk band,” they’re just women, but more importantly, friends, having fun playing music together.
DAY 2 – Tuesday, March 14th 2023
After getting some food and coffee in me and feeling (mostly) rested, I headed straight to Cheer Up Charlies for their incredible line up as part of the Women Who Rock showcase. If only all venues made it that easy for me. When I got there, Barrie was playing, or rather, dancing, which is a big part of the set. The band is short for the artist behind it, Barrie Lindsey, who just released a new EP, 5K.
Cafuné was on next, a band I’ve really been looking forward to seeing live. I describe their sound as Japanese café lo fi meets electro-pop. The way Sedona Schat applies autotune selectively and tastefully throughout the set adds that little J-pop vocaloid touch to their music. Noah Yoo shreds so hard it’s incredible his glasses don’t just fly straight off his face (though they did come close several times).
Jaguar Jonze, the musical project of Taiwanese-Australian artist Deena Lynch, drew a large crowd with her defiant lyrics and rock n’ roll stage presence, playing banger after banger. It feels like Velvet Revolver meets Sasami in an eclectic genre mash up of punk pop. This cat screams.
Overcoats closed out the Women That Rock showcase, debuting some new choreography they joked about coming up with at the hotel. The duo is composed of Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell, Brooklynite singer-songwriters with an indie-Americana sensibility. Their gorgeous harmonies and catchy pop hooks are so infectious, they had the whole crowd cheering and swaying as the sun set.
As we moved into the evening showcase, Bailen, a trio of siblings from NYC played a lovely set of alt indie tracks. They were a great follow up to Overcoats, in the same vein of pop-Americana with particular attention to the percussion, manned by fraternal twins Daniel and David Bailen on bass and drums. Their younger sister, Julia, leads with vocals and winding guitar riffs.
Next, I checked out what was happening inside to find Charlotte Rose Benjamin on the stage, my friend Luc Swift opened for her at Brooklyn Made a while ago and I stuck around long enough to hear her hit “Slot Machine” before heading back outside to make sure I caught Model/Actriz.
Before their set, I ran into drummer Ruben Radlauer and congratulated him on their freshly release debut album, Dogsbody, which earned them a mighty 8.2 from Pitchfork (if that sort of thing matters to you). The man is a machine. Really, the whole band is;. Big purveyors of noise, something about the grind and wail of their sound just hits me right where I need to feel something. Model/Actriz is especially fun to watch live due in part to the frontman, Cole Hayden, and his off-stage melodrama. He crawls through the crowd, climbs picnic tables, and stares deep into the souls of strangers. Back in 2019, at the short-lived NYC venue The Dance, he scrambled up an amp in a blue sequin catsuit to hump a disco ball not unlike the one hanging up on the Cheer Up Charlies stage. Even if you aren’t into the genre, Model/Actriz has an intensity that even the most averse have a hard time turning away from.
Next, I headed to The North Door to catch Juice, a genre-bending group consisting of six musicians originally from Boston, now based in Brooklyn. The stage was a little cramped for such a musically expansive band, but they made it work with a smile. Through their soulful harmonies and vibrantly funky R&B riffs, I found myself smiling back.
Nearing 1am, I trudged down to Rainey St., dodging drunk people on my way to Half Step to see Adwaith. They came recommended to me by our EIC Kate Hoos, and for good reason. This indie rock trio comprised of Hollie Singer, Gwenllian Anthony and Heledd Owen champions the Welsh language and its cultural heritage with their music. The crowd and I perked up at the dreamy vocals and power-pop beats, all of us catching a second wind. During the set I found myself trying to make meaning of words that sounded familiar enough it seemed possible to sing along—and I really wanted to. (Check out our recent coverage of Adwaith in NYC at New Colossus Fest.)
DAY 3 – Wednesday, March 15th 2023
I’ll admit it, I started to lose a little steam by the third day but the band I was sharing an Airbnb with was getting into town later in the afternoon so I knew I’d get a breather.
I joined my friends at High Noon for Paste Magazine’s showcase because I’d told them Miss Grit was playing and their EPs had been on my heavy rotation for the past year. I’d just seen them at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn a month before but I’d really been enjoying their debut album that was just released in February called Follow the Cyborg (read our review). Miss Grit is the musical project of artist Margaret Sohn, whose nonbinary, half Korean identity fuels a lot of their work. As someone who is also nonbinary and half Asian, I find myself drawn to their themes around selfhood and liminality. I hear a lot of Mitski and St. Vincent in Miss Grit’s synth pop sound, and it really hits the spot.
The next band was a complete surprise. Somewhere between a gospel choir and an exorcism is where you’d find SUSU. I’ve heard people want to keep Austin weird, but I was really happy to see a band bringing NYC weird to SXSW. Soulful, psychedelic and seductive, the leading duo—Liza Colby and Kia Warren—had range in both a vocal and acrobatic capacity. Their set was a marathon of energy that left me feeling refreshed. Also, the body harnesses they were wearing? DIY’ed from store-bought back braces. Insane.
I met up with Plastic Picnic afterwards at the convention center where snapped a quick photo in front of the official SXSW backdrop.
After grabbing a bite to eat, I rushed off to catch the second half of Ava Vegas at Las Perlas. Elfin and bathed in golden light, her ballads were luxurious and dreamy. The Berlin-based singer was giving German Lana Del Rey and the audience was rapt for it.
I booked it to Stubb’s next so I could see Hermanos Gutiérrez, which was the first SXSW official photo pit for me. The Swiss-Ecuadorian brothers have been enjoying the spotlight recently, and their music has been written about extensively. I felt lucky to catch the set for free, but wished I was more of an audience member than photographer because their music is a soundscape I wanted to be able to close my eyes and enjoy, especially as a live set.
Before I got to SXSW, Kate also recommended I check out M(h)aol, a punk band from Ireland that had just released their first full length album Attachment Styles, in February (read our review). I fell in love at first listen with Róisín Nic Ghearailt’s voice, her anger, and her optimism, especially when singing about the ubiquity of sexual assault on “Asking for It. ”I headed to their set at Mohawk and ended up in the front row, delighted to find that the singer was exactly the same in real life; a bubbly force of nature. In between songs she spoke fervently about abortion and trans rights being taken away, and how it was important not to lose hope because all our struggles were interconnected.
Before “Bisexual Anxiety” she asked everyone who identified to raise their hand and because I was in front, we high fived. She turned down a kiss from me, shouting “I’m monogamous!” “I’m greedy!” I shouted back, quoting a line from the song, and she winked. Later she told me that because of their Visa, they weren’t allowed to sell merch, so she gifted me one of their totes which reads “It’s not personal, it’s just vibes.”