Over the course of South By Southwest 2016, I worked up a hypothesis: When you listen to music, you burn a certain amount of energy, similar to the calorie. Let’s call it a jingle.
Some folks have high jingle counts—your musicians, your sound techs, those dedicated fans who still spin vinyl and talk all about the hidden meaning in Hüsker Dü’s lyrics. And some people have low jingle counts—the folks who are always telling you to turn down that goddamn stereo.
But no matter how high your jingle count may be, SXSW will burn you down to zero by Saturday night.
There’s just so much music—hundreds and hundreds of bands playing rock, blues, metal, punk, country, soul, Latino. And then there are those who somehow mix them together to create a new kind of musical mélange. For every band you see, there are four you wish you’d seen and a lot you miss. This year, I didn’t get a chance to see the Joe Scarborough Band at the Moody Theater, where they shoot Austin City Limits (although I did talk with a band member in an elevator; he assured me that the former congressman and current MSNBC host is a really cool guy who truly loves playing out with his band every Thursday night.) I missed Grupo Fantasmo at the big outdoor amphitheater at Auditorium Shores. And I missed Har Mar Superstar’s show at the SXSW Music Opening Party on Tuesday night, but that wasn’t my fault; some kind of trouble with the soundboard prevented Har Mar from taking the stage. He eventually told the crowd he wasn’t going to be able to play the set he’d prepared, “which sucks some big fat dick.” Then he blazed through one angry number before he stormed off stage.
Hey, when you’re doing something on the scale of SXSW, some things just aren’t going to go as planned. I can live with a few technical difficulties.
Here’s a list of 1- great things from SXSW 2016.
The Austin 100
So you couldn’t make it to Austin for the festival this year? Here’s a lovely gift for you even if you had to stay home. Every year, NPR Music combs through submissions from artists attending SXSW and creates a 100-song playlist. This is a chance to hear some of the country’s best up-and-coming acts. This year’s edition includes artists such as Tacocat, Penny and Sparrow, Chicano Batman and Diet Cig. Head over to apps.npr.org/austin/ to get your free download but don’t wait too long; there’s no telling how long NPR will be giving away this free music.
My favorite new discovery had to be Chicano Batman. Like Tucson’s own Orkesta Mendoza or XIXA, Chicano Batman combines traditional Latino sound with something else to create something entirely fresh and irresistible: Chicano soul music accented with a bit of funk and a rare dash of polka. ¡Que bueno!
Margo Price leans more to the rock side of the country-rock spectrum, bringing a lot of screaming guitar licks to songs about tough times on the farm, tough times with a whiskey bottle, tough times in a jail cell and the usual country-music tropes. Her set at the NPR showcase at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q on Wednesday night was spectacular. Don’t take my word for it—Price’s first album started streaming on NPR music last week, so you can you can check it out yourself if you hurry to npr.org/music.
Diarrhea Planet may have an idiotic name, but these young men are everything rock and roll was, is and should ever be—loud, in-your-face screeching electric guitars and booming drumbeats. Wednesday night’s show sometime past midnight at the Bungalow was so revved up that members of the audience—and the occasional band member—were crowdsurfing atop the dancing masses. The band lives up to its motto: “Shred ‘til you’re dead.”
Charlie Faye and the Fayettes
Charlie Faye started out as a country-honk act, but somewhere along the line, she started incorporating soul music into the act—and it really works. This girl sounds so sweet, she’ll make your blood sugars rise to dangerous levels. A new album ,the self-titled Charley Faye and the Fayettes, is set to drop any time now.
FLOTUS Talks Girl Power
SXSW did not have a lot of big acts this year—no Springsteen, no Prince, not even a John Fogerty—but it did have some big names: President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were the keynote speakers. POTUS was there during the Interactive conference, which focuses on emerging tech, while Michelle came for the music festival for the big release of “This Is For My Girls,” a single featuring Zendaya, Missy Elliott, Kelly Clarkson, Lea Michele, Janelle Monae and other artists. Proceeds from the song go to the Let Girls Learn initiative, which is dedicated to advancing educational opportunities for girl around the world. (“This Is For My Girls” is not really in my musical wheelhouse, but the cause is righteous; an estimated 62 million girls around the world are denied education and are treated like second-class citizens—or worse.)
FLOTUS joined Missy Elliott, Diane Warren, Sophia Bush and Queen Latifah for a conversation about female empowerment, their own experiences growing in a world that seemed determined to dismiss them, and how music shaped their own youth.
FLOTUS told the audience she wouldn’t be seeking the presidency herself: “No, no. Not going to do it. ... Sometimes there’s much more you can do outside the White House without the constraints, the lights and the cameras, and the partisanship. There’s a potential that my voice can be heard by people who can’t hear me now because I’m Michelle Obama, the first lady. I want to be able to impact as many people as possible in an unbiased way to try to keep reaching people. I think I can do that just as well by not being president of the United States.”
Sometimes, your jingle count gets so low you need to turn off the music for a while. SXSW also brings in some of America’s best comedians. I caught a set by Nate Bargatze, who told some hilarious stories about performing shows in front of prison audiences, raising kids and why he quit drinking after last year’s SXSW. That one is easy to relate to—I think I’ve quit drinking after the last four or five SXs I’ve been to, too.
Even after the film-and-tech elements of SXSW comes to an end and music takes center stage, there are plenty of opportunities to see a movie or check out the latest technology. The big thing this year was virtual reality. I strapped on a visor at a few places to see what it’s like to step into another world. My verdict: It’s pretty amazing but has a way to go before all the kinks get worked out. The most fascinating experience for me came at the McDonalds Loft, where—after putting on the goggles—I found myself in a white room with a Happy Meal box in front of me. After stepping into the Happy Meal, I was transported into a strange fantasy world where I was free to use a paint gun to spray the white walls with colorful paint. It was all pretty silly, but there was a sense that I was really there, splashing paint on the virtual walls and trying to hit butterflies with a paint ball. A worthwhile experience? Kind of, I guess.
The Old Timers
SXSW is for the young, or at least the young at heart: Loud music, late nights, lots of free alcohol, and so many kids running around, trying to hit the jackpot. But on Thursday night SXSW also featured sets by living legends: Loretta Lynn opened the BBC Music showcase at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q and showed that at age 83, the coal-miner’s daughter can still sing those hits she’s produced over six decades in the music biz. She just dropped a new album, Full Circle.
One-time teen idol Dion, now 76, took the stage with a smile on his face and a boyish gleam in his eye at the grand old Driskill Hotel. He played a mix of old stuff and new stuff, including—of course—”The Wanderer,” and told stories of the old days of rock and roll. Never settle down, Dion.
Speaking of old timers: The incomparable 67-year-old Charles Bradley is becoming a real regular at SXSW. At the NPR Music Showcase at Stubb’s BBQ, Bradley belted out a set of horn-heavy soul music and told the crowd: “All I want to do on my journey back to my father’s house is show all my brothers and sisters that I am for real. If I can’t sing from the heart, I don’t want to sing at all.”
Amen to that, Mr. Bradley. Amen to that.