SXSW Music 2016 From D∆WN and Xander Harris to Seth Graham and Downtown Boys

Photo: Jesse DeFlorio/Hype Machine's Hype Hotel

While the Longhorns skip town to trash another, SXSW registrants fly in to trash Austin. Spring Break. SXSW takes over the best part of the season in Austin. All along the highway, Lady Bird’s wildflowers came out for the badges and the badges only — no wristbands — platinum badges will be honored before gold badges, gold badges before silver, silver before bronze, tin-ear or not…

Really, at over a week long, SXSW is its own season — a well-orchestrated season, a Biodome of sorts, but one whose climate contaminates the surrounding areas. A little bit down the road, in San Antonio, the merely weeklong Imagine Festival claimed “SXSW has nothing on us.” Logistically speaking, what the creators of the 29-year-old ecosystem pull off year-after-year is incredible, beyond large-scale. However, no amount of logistics can ever prepare for chaos, the variable. Where people congregate, the dice roll.

Some locals gripe when the circus is in town, countering the conference’s commercialism with anti-commercialism commercialism. “DON’T MOVE HERE” “Don’t California My Texas” “Keep Austin Country”: these slogans, and more, are for sale, because, in the end, business is business. Dusty Rhodes would agree. And in Austin, in 2016, at SXSW, business is art. Every fringe venue and fringe artist is more than happy, attitude or no attitude, to be a piece of the never-ending interactive multimedia jigsaw. These doors are to remain unlocked during business hours. Fire with fire.

Each performer has paid their dues ($33-45 application fee + travel + food + lodging expenses) for a shot at becoming visible. But is a conference tamped with thousands of performers the best shot at visibility? At the circus, see one clown, have a laugh. See five million fucking clowns at once, have a panic attack, run for your life. Here, at this circus, talent is a given, but gimmicks make a memory: dress like a Pharaoh; wear a giant wig; glue on a moustache; match T-shirts. A pair of Spectifieds in the river. Bones on the astroturf. CD-R fertilizer. Multimedia detonations.

Gunshots. At the very least: unconfirmed gunshots on Friday night, the one I heard on Saturday evening, and the two confirmed gunshots early Sunday morning. SXSW was one step away from Woodstock ‘99. Thankfully, holiday shopping and TSA has trained us to behave, to keep calm. One wrong move and the bomb goes off. The tension, the feeling that violence and chaos on a massive scale could break out, any moment now, is probably why SXSW plays host to orthodox and antiseptic bands, uncontroversial, nonpolitical.

Orthodox or not, the whole thing’s so loaded — overloaded — to the gills with good that it’s a powder keg of good. I turn my head and cock my ears in any direction and I hear good. So much good that the glut becomes joyless and random. So much I couldn’t catch it all in a lifetime. Here, deep listening is near impossible. Everyone knows their chords, holds a note, writes a decent song. All those decent songs mix together and become volatile. It’s not so much a conference as it is an assault.

I must be the crazy one, the noise must be getting to me, because most folks, tens of thousands of ‘em, seem to be having a pleasant time parading all-week-long-and-then-some in the powder keg. And the city at large doesn’t seem under siege, just inconvenienced. What festival is in town this week? Bat Fest? Art Fest? Film Fest? Music Fest? What’s the difference?

Money is money. Music is music.

Steve Arceri

Steve Arceri’s folk is intimate — like most folk — but not clumsy, and that’s the difference; it is correct, direct, and conscious. He played on the sidelines, at Dozen Street, on a small stage facing a snakeskin bar. This was Tuesday and slow; there was little human traffic, and most of the traffic was congregated on the back patio, away from the speakers. It was an intimate setting, fit for intimate music, but call me Tom Jobim, because a living room would have been an even better setting.

More Eaze

A happy hop onto the stage and More Eaze (former TMT writer M Rubz) was right into building up dark violin scratches. The mood was set, a serious one, but confuddled, within minutes, by silly disparate sounds of alien nature, pointing the way towards familiar constructs — minor synth, an attachable beat, vocoder vocals — almost R&B… almost. If radio is the cow, these are the cutlets. The song breaks apart and scatters, leaving little to hold onto, and the listener stares off. Up from the dirt comes a comical baritone voice, moving around like the Monster, getting a handle on its motor skills. A short set, confusing and accessible, unpredictable.

Randall Holt

Bowing at an electric cello aided by ye olde loop pedal, Randall Holt played tearjerker compositions that made me wonder if this is what Shostakovich’s silent cinema work sounded like, which took me back to the past, to late nights in Philly, listening to Shostakovich’s String Quartet #15 alone on headphones, which took me back to the present, with Randall Holt on stage, bowing away at the weepy strings, while a beered-up group to my right chattered on, unable to control the volume of their voices, telling stories about some questionable klepto they knew from Philly named Jersey Mike, gloating about Jersey Mike, proud to know such a creature as Jersey Mike. Which brought me to the thought, I’m having a hard time paying attention.


A sound check can be more entertaining than a set. And a set can be more entertaining from outside than inside. The treble and harmonies escape through the pub window, the rest of it falling backwards after smacking face first into the brick. The outside adds dimension — apposite commentary as well as visual incongruities like Mr. Catfish in his pixelated wavegarden. That feeling you get when it’s snowing in Haggard’s December and you walk by a house with a candle in the window and an even warmer glow coming from inside, a dining room warm with a smiling family and a steaming turkey: Caveman, from outside looking in.

Evil Triplet

With Evil Triplet, I didn’t have to wait long for the bus. The lyrics were filler, clear-cut, easily understood through the downpour, serving as breathing room between the heat coming off blissful Sun-drenched guitar permeating all the way to the end of the bar rail, kicking against the goads, the highs and lows. There was perfume, aromatic; also, something stale. Maybe the smile that long ago sucked muck will one day melt, or it’ll smoke through the smoking barrel in either direction; caliber. I’ll take my chances.

Rat Bastard, Lisa Cameron, and Gerard Cosloy

The best part of waking up: the cuckoo cluck of free-rock devastation. Alienating and enticing, Volume is both the shield and the invitation. Enter the atmosphere and find an insular trio savaging the back line instruments at top volume start to finish. About a quarter into the thrashing, an amp on an umbilical cable lights up, destroys the mix, and doubles the loudness. Rat Bastard drags it around the room, tilts it towards the ceiling, towards the stage, out the door, into oblivion. Chance is the front man.

Seth Graham

I went to turn away but continued to stare straight into the cover of Pretzel Logic while Seth Graham experienced technical difficulties. The cover had been vandalized with a bic, new branches to new york trees and salty peanuts. Someone owned this, for years, before selling it off to Juiceland, but not before they’d bic’ed their name on the front and back. Anyway, if dynamics and disparates had a home, they’d be shacking up with Seth. The main thing holding these color-coded sounds — choir, string, lyre, gloss, saliva, embouchure, robot, organ stop, reed, clutter, buzz, and anyone’s guess — together is the software. Hands hover over the hard candy, a little bit shaky, ready to push the button. What’s next?

Most Read