Last week, a scan of a SXSW ad from 1989 (the festival’s third year in existence) popped up on my Facebook timeline. The ad boasted over two dozen venues and more than a hundred bands over three days. SXSW has grown monumentally over the course of the last almost-three decades. Most of the early years I attended the March festival, music began on Wednesday and didn’t really start buzzing until the weekend. Now, music officially begins on Tuesday night, but since the tech companies (who have far more money at their disposal than the music industry) have begun to book huge acts for epic parties beginning as early as the first Friday night of the festival, a spot formerly dominated by the buzz of the opening day of films.
After spending the first few days of the festival out of town in Marfa with Mexican Summer (more on that soon) and with the responsibility of a two-day Pop Press INTL. hosted event later in the week, I knew I had to make the most of SXSW’s first night of music. I told the public that the place to be for the night was Cheer Up Charlies, my favorite venue in town, for the Riot Act Media showcase, replete with some of the best festival acts from Austin and elsewhere, including Abram Shook, Natalie Prass, Moving Panoramas, Jess Williamson, Tom Brosseau, The Lowest Pair, and Shivery Shakes. The evening boasted a diverse lineup of nuanced psych pop, folk, and garage rock. A horde of SXSW attendees agreed, as Cheer Up was packed when I arrived at 8:00.
Even with the night’s alluring lineup, I couldn’t resist the pull to see Future Islands, who currently rank as one of music’s best bands to see live in my estimation (along with Flaming Lips, Nick Cave, Yonatan Gat, and Majical Cloudz). The show was billed as needing an extra credential–a specific wristband you had to show up early to receive after being notified of the distribution location by the SXSW app. I hadn’t been able to do this, but I made the trek down to Clive Bar and hoped for the best. SXSW subjected us wristbandless badgeholders to a considerable holdout that lasted through The Mowgli’s opening set. (I didn’t mind.) Luckily, we were admitted in small batched as others left the bar, and I made it through the door just before Charles Bradley began.
I’ve seen Bradley before, and it’s always a treat. The soul singer didn’t begin a career until about age 50, when he began working as James Brown impersonator and eventually landed a deal releasing an album for soul revivalist label Daptone. Bradley exudes tender affection and sexual expression, hallmarks of 60s and 70s soul. He’s a joy to watch, even if there’s something a bit cheesy about his borderline-caricature persona. Genuine and heartwarming, Bradley is an anomaly in the current age of music and certainly among most of the buzzworthy acts at SXSW; in that regard, he constitutes a welcome respite from all the postured next-big-things. Bradley didn’t do as much crowd-wandering and fan-hugging as he has been known to–a result of the limitations of short sets and SXSW crowds. Still, everyone in attendance seemed sufficiently convinced.
After at least 15 minutes of trying to fix a persistent buzz in one of the sound system’s channels, Future Islands good naturedly decided to forego perfect audio. Without a hint of frustration, frontman Samuel Herring made sure at least that all of the instruments were coming through for the audience, told the sound guy they were just going to go for it, and then launched into their performance. With a background in theater, Herring bolsters Future Islands’ already great songs with charismatic and powerful stage antics and pantomimes. He’s emotive and vulnerable and sincere; every performance is transfixing and transformative. It’s rare that a band is so good live that they demand immediate attention, but Future Islands prove it’s possible. At the end of every set I’ve seen them play, wows and wide eyes abound in newly converted concertgoers previously unaware. Last year, they were one of SXSW’s most talked about bands. This year, they played high profile shows, but the fervor surrounding them seems a little more mellow. I can’t explain why. They remain one of the bands to see perform.
After their set, I bolted at embarrassing SXSW-paced power walking through frustratingly slow drunk amblers back to Cheer Up to catch Natalie Prass. With a slightly restrained but delightful voice, Prass integrates soul and indie pop into her accessible songs. Her tangled mop of dark hair and KISS t-shirt, coupled with her soulful sensibilities evoked the 70s, helped to evoke the 70s sounds at which she’s angling. Cheer Up’s indoor room was so packed I had to watch through the window adjacent to the stage, but it sounded great from there. Prass walked out to the edge of the stage and leaned into the crowd, looking back at her band. I expected her to be more reserved, but onstage she proved comfortable and natural in her own mellow demeanor.
A few minutes before one a.m., I walked next door to a very full but not quite at capacity Mohawk in time to catch Angel Olsen. She soon took the stage alone and began crooning out her haunting, slightly distorted songs. She smiled broadly yet seemed solemn, her Angel gaze fixed on some dimension unseen to us mere mortals. Zoned in? Zoned out? Hard to say. The decision to go solo for a one a.m. slot at an outdoor venue during SXSW takes daring. A good amount of fans paid close attention, watching enrapt. Others began to chatter fairly noisily. Olsen continued, brazenly unaffected. “I know you, SXSW,” she seemed to say. “I know your expectations on this night, the opening evening of the country’s biggest music party, but this isn’t about you.” I can think of no better way to end my first night of this year’s festival than watching an artist eschew the desires of a party-hungry crowd. Olsen’s music is about quality songwriting, and she remained true to that. The night ended without an epic blowout to light the ceremonial torch of SXSW music. Just Angel performing alone, burning her fire for no witness.
All photographs © Bryan C. Parker & Pop Press International. Click any image to open in slideshow viewer.