Texas is supposed to be warm in March. That’s what Civic’s Jim McCullough was told anyway, because he packed “only one jumper” for his trip from Melbourne, Australia, to South By Southwest 2023. Held March 10-19, the Austin festival was chilly and rainy for much of the music portion. By the time Civic took the stage for its 12th set over four days, McCullough’s voice was shot and his sweater stunk—by his own admission.
If there were better bands than Civic at SXSW this year, we didn’t hear them. In fact, we couldn’t hear much of anything after 45 minutes trapped in a jet engine with this brash and powerful quintet. They’ve been described as “proto-punk”—whatever that means. For the two Civic shows we saw, the band dug deep. Coming off like a highly focused cross between Henry Rollins and Joe Strummer, McCullough glared from under the brim of his baseball cap, directing the mosh pit in front of him with a swirling finger when he wasn’t bellowing into his microphone. If the band’s set seemed a bit one-dimensional live, Civic’s excellent second LP, the high-anxiety, high-energy Taken By Force, tosses in a little more nuance and melody. Album closer “Blood Rushes” is a grinding epic to be reckoned with.
Civic was an ear-ringing sendoff after a music-packed four days at SXSW. Since resuming in 2022 after a two-year pandemic hold, the music conference has re-emerged as something noticeably different from what it had become pre-COVID. For one thing, it’s smaller now, and attendance appeared to be down from last year. The event also feels less commercial, even if the marketing folks still use phrases like “past the activation tent” far too often when giving directions. Austin itself hasn’t changed, in the sense that every year it becomes more built-out, more expensive and a little less weird.
But there was no shortage of acts making the pilgrimage this year, with 1,400 official SXSW acts and innumerable others playing parties and clubs around town. MAGNET correspondents Steve Fennessy and Hobart Rowland were there for a nice chunk of it—and here’s what they came away with.
Songs About Death
Victoria Canal sings about mortality more than you might expect from a 24-year-old. She’s American, but has lived most of her life outside the country. Her latest EP, Elegy, explores the departure of a close friend. Canal’s quiet set was poignant and lovely, her delicate, expressive voice the perfect instrument for her low-key songs. Though she’s been performing for years, Canal admitted to a shaky start at her showcase. She recovered quickly, nailing tunes like “Swan Song,” with its tearjerker line, “As long as I’m breathing, I know it’s not too late to love.”
Ear-bleedingly loud, dissonant and in your face, Atlanta hardcore outfit Upchuck exuded palpable anger during a chaotic daytime showcase. That’s fitting when you consider the subject matter of songs like “Upchuck,” where vocalist KT (Kaila Thompson) rants about police brutality and the fruitless search for justice.
Here Come The Swedes
In the female-fronted tussle for primacy in the strummy, forlorn wake of Phoebe Bridgers, Girl Scout has an edge by sheer virtue of its great songs. “All The Time And Everywhere,” the obvious single from debut EP Real Life Human Garbage, is every bit as catchy as “Kyoto,” and the Stockholm quartet can rock out when it’s so inclined, bringing to mind the sonic punch of the Cranberries. The band is compelling live, thanks in large part to the jazzy, angular presence of guitarist Viktor Spasov.
The Scratch is the best live band we’ve seen in quite some time. One of us would argue that this Dublin foursome is the best live outfit ever. Starting out as a metal band, the lads went viral when someone posted a video of them busking on acoustic instruments at the Rory Gallagher Festival a few years back in Ballyshannon, Ireland. What makes the Scratch so preposterously great is its equal mix of impeccable musicianship (think Celtic trad with metal influences), frenetic-but-controlled energy and unbridled joy. At the center of it all is percussionist and frequent lead singer Daniel Lang, who sits atop a double-wide cajon that makes such a thunderous noise you never miss the rest of the drum kit. After catching one set, we chased them for two more. Each time, they left exhausted—and left everyone else wanting more. The Scratch is feckin’ magic.
Party Of One
The attendees at both Will Varley showcases could’ve probably fit in your living room. Nonetheless, the English singer/songwriter has steadily gained a passionate U.K. following over the past 20 years. His final gig at SXSW was in the lobby of the Hotel Indigo, where he glanced over at the desk and apologized to guests for the noise. With just a guitar and a plaintive voice that calls to mind David Gray or a young Van Morrison, Varley was masterful.
Transmissions From Casa Nash
Taking a breather from official SXSW business this year, Israel Nash broke away from his Dripping Springs, Texas, compound for a few days and rented a sweet pad in East Austin. Making good use of a recording rig set up in the living room, he laid down some tracks with help from longtime guitarist Eric Swanson and other musician friends. Nash offered a sneak peak of a few tunes from an upcoming Sweetheart Of The Rodeo tribute album, including a reimagined version of “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” He also teased two tracks from his as-yet-unnamed follow-up to 2021’s Topaz, along with a beautiful cover of Tom Petty’s “Room At The Top.”
What Floats The Boat
We got in just under the wire for this year’s Nashville Riverboat showcase, with a Wednesday excursion that beat the crummy weather later in the week. Highlights included a pair of bang-up roof-deck performances by harmony-laced roots rockers Roanoke and Replacements-like indie trio the Prescriptions. Though she was missing her band, feisty Philly native Molly Martin did fine with just an extra guitarist in the cabin down below, earning some converts in the process.
As Luck Would Have It
U.K. buzz band the Heavy Heavy made the most of its SXSW visit with no less than 11 performances, including an early-afternoon sizzler that mowed over a packed tent of revelers at the latest Luck Reunion at Willie Nelson’s Spicewood, Texas, ranch. Led by Will Turner and Georgie Fuller, the Brighton, England, quintet’s reverb-soaked late-’60s sound and rock-solid songs made quite the impression on Willie’s minions. The good vibes couldn’t have come at better time: The band has just released an extended version of its debut EP, Life And Life Only.
The Golden Dregs seemed like an implausible addition to this year’s Luck Reunion lineup. Austere and occasionally dour, the U.K. outfit may be most notable for the voice of songwriter/lyricist Benjamin Woods, whose baritone plumbs the sort of depths that could make the National’s Matt Berninger squirm. Dressed all in white, the remaining Dregs provided a lilting backdrop to Woods’ tales of gentrification and existential displacement.
Another Luck standout, Good Looks gets our vote for best Texas bar band on the planet—even if such an honor may be selling them short. Listen to their 2022 debut, Bummer Year, and decide for yourself.
Cotton Is King
Austin power-pop treasure Cotton Mather returned to SXSW this year, proving yet again why the timeless songwriting of Robert Harrison transcends hype and hubris. At a pair of showcases, the revamped band played a tight set of assorted highlights from Cotton Mather’s fitful 33-year run, include a few gems from the band’s 1997 classic, Kontiki, which is due for a vinyl reissue sometime soon.
Softee (a.k.a. Brooklyn-based Nina Grollman) took the stage at the legendary Continental Club on a stormy night, performing ’80s- and ’90s-inspired pop songs from her upcoming album, Natural. Flanked by two singers and armed with juiced-up backing tracks, the sometime Broadway actress was a little bit Charli XCX and a little bit Destiny’s Child. And she brought balloons!
Next In Line
At an afternoon showcase a day after he sang alongside Willie Nelson at Luck Reunion, William Prince spoke about how much he missed John Prine. Though Prince’s status as a member of Winnipeg, Manitoba’s Peguis First Nation is a bit more exotic than Prine’s Midwestern roots, the comparison is apt. Like Prine, Prince manages to write songs that feel like they were plucked fully formed from thin air.