The final official day of SXSW often has one reflecting on the past week and the event as a whole with the few brain cells left. Before getting into any of the music (there was plenty), here are some thoughts about this year’s SXSW. For starters, compared to the previous few years, 2017 found smaller crowds and specifically fewer spring breakers. This may have been due to a toned down presence of corporate sponsors and a lack of mega-headliners that have dominated press coverage of the festival in years past – sorry Garth, but the teenyboppers could care less. As a result of these factors, day parties and official showcases felt less crowded, lines were smaller, and getting around was easier. To sum it up, there’s a feeling amongst some that the SXSW bubble has finally burst and now the festival is making a slow return to its roots. And if we’re talking about roots, then we’re talking about the eclectic mix of smaller acts who make major sacrifices for the chance to play the festival. On Saturday that spirit was in full swing and bands and fans sought to close out this year’s edition with a bang.
The heat made standing in the sun less than desirable, and one of the spots to be was the shaded Swan Dive patio. The always groovy Mail the Horse brought a quick set of laid back alt-country tunes. The group’s dynamic of having multiple talented singers and soaring harmonies, along with plenty guitar solos, keyboard, and twangy steel brought to mind classic rock acts like The Band. They also unveiled a new song that was more synth-driven and anthemic, leaving us anticipating their next album.
Over at the Side Bar, the Athens in Austin party boasted one of the week’s strongest day party lineups with a handful of bands from the little Georgia college town that produced such names as R.E.M., the Drive-By Truckers, and the B-52s. The town has always produced a hodge-podge of different genres, and the Side Bar party provided a cross-section of the current crop of talent. There was Oak House, a trio whose sound brought to mind early, stripped down Radiohead with a grungier tone, and Muuy Biien, a spunky quartet whose art punk sound harkened back to an Athens of yore when groups like Pylon delighted in freaking people out. Cindy Wilson of the B-52s also made an appearance, and though she didn’t play any of her main band’s songs, her newer material – more oriented towards straight pop and dance music – definitely had the crowd moving to the beats.
Confusion, helplessness, disgust, and of course rage are sentiments that most Americans cannot escape given these dire times, and while some are resorting to taking up arms in revolt, Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires wield electric guitars and amps instead. Hailing from Birmingham, Alabama the four-man militia brandish a lethal combination of political consciousness and unbridled Southern rock, giving new meaning to the term “protest song”. Bains’ hyper-literate lyrics are written from the often overlooked perspective of a working class southerner taking a stand for what he believes and his songs offer insight that can make the listener question previous assumptions while simultaneously rocking their face off. Bains and company took the prize for loudest band of the week and by the time the group finished their blue collar anthem, “Dirt Track”, the stage was soaked with sweat and booze.
While there was hope that Lee Bains sharing a bill with the Dexateens would see the old bandmates playing together at least for this one set, it was not so. That hardly mattered as the gang of country punks played their set just as loud and fast as Bains. The group railed through a wide-range of songs, feeding off the energy of devoted fans and getting rowdy as hell. The Dexateens’ sound is made for dingy barrooms like Side Bar, and the group was in their element as they charged into the crowd, shredding to oblivion and rubbing backs with fans.
Decked out in matching pastel green button down shirts tucked into light pink slacks, Alabama trio The Burning Peppermints resembled more of a 60’s paisley pop act than the gloriously abrasive rock and roll fury they would unleash. In the sweaty confines of Cheer Up Charlies, this unsuspecting baby- faced trio conjured up a pummeling deluge of feedback and nonstop, full-throttle energy. Like a stiff punch to the gut, the crowd’s instinctual reaction could only have been that of a uninhibited moshing mess. Encapsulating the true spirit of rock and roll, the Peppermints’ relentless electricity brought to mind early pioneers like Little Richards and Jerry Lee Lewis while managing to incorporate surf rock and even Black Sabbath-esque sounds.
Bringing the final night of SXSW to it proper conclusion, Antone’s played host to a truly spectacular blowout with a tribute to the late great zydeco master Buckwheat Zydeco. Venerable Louisiana guitar slinger C.C. Adcock brought a taste of the bayou with a fiery set of Cajun-tinged blues-rock. Adcock was a master bandleader, giving each member a chance to step in with solos. The backbone of two face-to-face drummers pounding away meant that the groove never stopped and neither did the dancing. As a guitarist, Adcock is subtle but always on point. Instead of stealing the spotlight and taking one note-heavy solo after another, Adcock eased back, adding flourishes of bluesy goodness to complement the whole band’s sound.
The Legendary Il Sont Partis Band followed with a loving tribute to the late Buckwheat Zydeco, led by Buckwheat’s own son Stanley “BUCKWHEAT” Dural, Jr., the band was in fine spirits as he laid down electrifying and soulful sounds on his beautiful pearl accordion. The addition of a saxophonist and trumpeter added a different spin to the traditional zydeco sound and made for something far funkier. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Guitarist Paul “Lil Buck” Senegal also spiced things up, chiming in with down and dirty blues licks in all the right spots. Once the band finished their initial set, they invited up a series of guests including Marcia Ball and Charlie Sexton, all of whom paid proper tribute to Buckwheat and kept the party going well into the night.
SXSW has always been about the bands, and for those of us that didn’t waste time chasing free drinks and standing in line, 2017 was a reminder that the festival’s original mission is alive and well. One can only hope that we will see more of this approach as the festival begins its third decade.
Additional reporting by Tim O’Neill.
Photos by Arthur VanRooy.
Stay tuned to Glide Magazine for more coverage of SXSW 2017!