The first in-person SXSW in three years was notable in many ways—especially for what it lacked. No Rachael Ray day party at Stubb’s, no garish stages in the shape of vending machines and few acts so big they sucked attention from the hundreds of indie bands who still flock to SXSW for exposure and maybe even a record deal. One notable exception was Dolly Parton, whose capacity performance at Austin City Limits Live at the Moody Theater felt like a massive revival meeting.
Mostly, though, SXSW was smaller. Not even 10 years ago, the number of acts playing over the conference’s six or so days climbed well past 2,000. This year’s iteration was more compact, with roughly 1,400 artists scheduled to play showcases around town. For music lovers, 1,400 bands is still an embarrassment of riches. It’s more than enough to ensure a unique experience, even if you limited your choices to a single genre. If you felt cheated that only 11 bands considered themselves alt country, all you had to do was expand your palate to include Americana and boom, you now had 62 more acts to choose from.
Which makes blanket statements about any SXSW a fool’s errand. Still, one thing stood out musically this year, and that was the primacy of all-female or female-fronted acts. Falling into the latter category, Wet Leg was by far the buzziest band at this year’s conference, even though its debut album was still weeks from release. Fronted by Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers, the five-piece post-punk outfit from England’s Isle Of Wight indulged its inner silliness and found itself with an offbeat hit in “Chaise Longue,” a jittery half-spoken paean to laziness and casual sex. The band’s stage presence is as laconic as its lyrics, with Teasdale and Chambers looking by turns giddy and abashed as they absorbed the enthusiastic response they elicited. A one point in our showcase, someone in the audience yelled, “Happy birthday,” to Teasdale, who appeared surprised and perhaps a little concerned that anyone knew. “Happy birthday to you, too,” she responded with a wry smile.
On a warm and sunny Wednesday afternoon, paddleboarders and kayakers got quite the show when the New Nashville Riverboat set off on Ladybird Lake for a pair of three-hour showcases. Highlights on the top deck included the HawtThorns’ potent husband-and-wife Americana, along with India Ramey, a simmering Music City talent whose old-school country leanings benefit from a healthy dose of personality. Down in the main cabin, Mando Saenz (whose All My Shame was one of MAGNET’s top singer/songwriter albums of 2021) partnered with Szlachetka, tossing around some of their finest originals in two sets.
Pom Pom Squad was scheduled to appear at SXSW 2020 before the event was scrubbed due to the pandemic. Better late than never, as the Brooklyn band made multiple appearances at this year’s conference on the heels of its well-received full-length debut, Death Of A Cheerleader. The quartet is led by Mia Berrin, whose songwriting is an exploration of her own sexual identity and whose onstage persona is meant to subvert the cliché. The band’s grungy, joyfully chaotic pop-punk sound is laced with a hint of wistful nostalgia, and its sparkplug is guitarist Alex Mercuri. With Berrin in a cowboy hat, Dr. Martens and a flouncy square-dancing dress, Pom Pom Squad gamely battled pounding dance music from the nightclub next door, powering through a glorious 1 a.m. set with the energy of musicians who’ve been cooped up way too long.
Invariably, the best moments at SXSW are the unexpected ones. You can always pore over lists of recommendations and carefully draw up your itinerary. Leave room for serendipity, though, and you’ll stumble on someone like Danielle Ponder. We first saw her at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion on Thursday, then caught another appearance a few days later. An unexpected R&B force from Rochester, N.Y., Ponder is a former public defender, the daughter of a pastor and the owner of a stirringly soulful voice that calls to mind Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner and Jill Scott. The song that truly slayed us was “Someone Like You,” an earnest plea for love that alternates between pathos and resolve. Its killer chorus is a showcase for Ponder’s awe-inspiring instrument, which can go from delicate to soaring in a single breath.
It’s a pity the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn of wasn’t at SXSW this year (as far as we could tell). Otherwise, he could’ve met Yard Act’s James Smith, his brother from another mother. The Leeds, England, outfit’s songs are sardonic, satirical and occasionally sanctimonious, with Smith talk-singing his way through a bass-heavy wilderness of rampant gentrification, racism and generational ennui. But Smith wasn’t angry on this day. He seemed intent on reminding his audience to be thankful for the moment, seeing as it wasn’t too long ago that we wondered if we’d ever have such a moment again. As SXSW wound down, Yard Act was named winner of SXSW’s Grulke Prize For Developing Non-U.S. Act. Reflecting on the honor via Twitter, the band was characteristically droll: “We’ve no idea what’s going on, but we are grateful always. Who knew Texas would take so kindly to 4 prats like us?”
If reviews matter to you, then Self Esteem (a.k.a. Rebecca Taylor) was likely on your must-see list for this year’s SXSW. In her U.K. homeland, the music press has been gushing over Self Esteem’s Prioritise Pleasure LP. In Austin, Taylor finessed her way through one set in front of a small crowd at a venue that wasn’t optimal, closing with the single “I Do This All the Time” and its priceless lyrical hook, “It was really rather miserable trying to love you.” With two backup singers choreographing their moves to both accentuate and lend levity to Taylor’s winking Spice Girl aura and a rhythm section that often took to pounding on floor toms in unison, the whole thing came off with an exhilarating air of joyful defiance. Three days later, on a larger, more elevated stage better suited to its energy and histrionics, Self Esteem looked more at home.
SOME OTHER SXSW HIGHLIGHTS …
Balto Thinks Big … Though he played to about 25 people at the showcase we saw, Daniel Sheron is aiming for the stadiums with his latest version of Balto, a hard-driving, slightly camp (think double-neck lead guitar and patch leather pants), ’70s-leaning quartet whose live sound owes as much to Journey as it does to Dawes. There’s no reason not to expect big things from Balto’s next album.
Irish Royalty … We happened catch Dublin’s Pillow Queens when we arrived early for another band’s set—and damned if we can remember who that other act was. The all-female indie-rock quartet’s hard/soft dynamic was really that mesmerizing. It’s no wonder the U.K. press is so in love with this bunch.
Dose Of Texas … No SXSW trip is complete without a visit to the Continental Club to rub shoulders with the locals and sample some native sounds. This time, it was the ageless Rosie Flores and Beaumont’s favorite son, Jesse Dayton. Country, blues, rockabilly, honky tonk, Western swing … This one checked all the boxes in 90 minutes.
Ray Of Hope … He barely made it through his acoustic set, but a few hours later, a disheveled, slightly out-of-it Evan Dando held it together quite nicely for the the Lemonheads’ deafening full-album run-through of It’s A Shame About Ray in honor of its 30th birthday.
Never Gets Old … Wrens co-founder Kevin Whelan’s Aeon Station proved to be the best indie-rock bet at this year’s conference (or at least the best for fans over 50). He and Wrens bandmates Greg Whelan and Jerry MacDonald not so much replicated as refined the controlled chaos that made their previous band’s shows so legendary.
OK, So We Loved The Name … At it for 10 years, London’s Desperate Journalist has enjoyed plenty of positive press overseas but only marginal attention here. And that’s a shame. Post-punk melodrama doesn’t get any lusher or more languid. Fitting that the band’s name comes from a rare Cure track.
We’re Kicking Ourselves For Not Seeing These Guys … By all (secondhand) accounts, Castlewood, Va.’s 49 Winchester has a bright future ahead as an outlaw-country institution. Serious about songwriting, the band never takes itself too seriously, and Isaac Gibson has one of the sweetest high-lonesome voices in a crowded field.
Ultimately, after two years of effective hiatus due to the pandemic, the 2022 edition of SXSW felt glorious. To finally consume live music again in such massive portions felt like jumping into an Alpine lake after an afternoon of hiking in Death Valley. We can’t wait for next year.
—Steve Fennessy and Hobart Rowland