Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

Story & photos by Jim Testa

In the photo above, you'll see two old friends of mine, Ted Leo and Molly Neuman, as well as an artist I've heard and read about but never met (Money Mark) and a singer/songwriter who was new to me (Rebecca Gates.) Never mind what they were talking about; their panel really didn't have much of a focus, as it turned out. But there's the SXSW Music Festival in a nutshell: Some familiar faces, some old pros, some new acts to discover.

Thanks to tips from a few friends and the generosity of pen pal Laura Croteau (of Rabid Cat Records,) I got in on the ground floor at SXSW (originally the South By Southwest Music & Media Festival) back in 1989, then only in its third year, and came back for the next 20. Those first few years proved magical; only a few hundred people knew had heard about SXSW, and most of those were either musicians or music journalists. I not only met but got to hang out and shmooze with many of my heroes, writers I had read and admired for years, including most of the staff from 70's era Creem, and O.G. rock critics like Chris Morris, Ira Robbins, Andy Schwartz, Austin's Michael Corcoran, and many others. Robert Christgau gave the keynote address at my first SXSW (he was filling in for Elvis Costello, a last minute cancellation) and namedropped me (and my essay for that year's Pazz & Jop Poll) in his speech. If the music and the food and the camaraderie didn't get me hooked on SXSW, that certainly did.

Over the years, I've had to miss a few years, either due to other commitments or lack of finances, so I hadn't been back since 2013. By then, and in the years immediately prior, SXSW had seemingly lost its soul. First, music had to compete with the overlapping SXSW film festival and "interactive" convention (for techies;) coupled with UT's Spring break, Austin devolved into a madhouse akin to Mardi Gras on steroids - the streets unpassable, hotel rooms unbookable, taxis impossible to hail, restaurants crowded beyond capacity. Additionally, the music festival had morphed from a showcase for new, unknown bands into a corporately branded destination festival like Lollapalooza or Coachella, with huge concert venues, carved out of empty lots or local parks, presenting superstar headliners. (For many, the ghastly inflatable Frito Lay stage, which hosted Lady Gaga, proved the last straw.)

In 2011, Ben Weasel infamously punched out a female fan at an outdoor concert, rampaging crowds tore down the fences and bum-rushed an outdoor performance by the Strokes, and a lighting stanchion collapsed during a show, nearly killing a fan. Two years later, a drunk driver plowed into a huge crowd waiting in line for access to a club called the Mohawk. Things were clearly out of hand.

So I returned to SXSW this year with some trepidation... which, happily, proved completely unfounded. It's altogether possible that management has simply been distracted by the far more buzzworthy film and interactive festivals, which clearly eclipsed the music festival this year. But the corporate branding, superstar bookings, and insane overcrowding all but disappeared. I saw dozens of bands - some memorable, some not - but I didn't have to stand on line to get into a venue for more than a few minutes anywhere; you could walk into any restaurant and find a seat, and the famous club-lined Sixth Street - while still crowded - didn't come close to the pandemonium of five or six years ago.

Bottom line, I had a great time.

Bat Fangs: They're on Don Giovanni. If you like Screaming Females, check them out!

So let's get to the music. It's ironic that often my favorite bands in Austin happen to be acts that I could easily see at home, but that turned out to be the case again this year. As fun as it is to watch Jersey bands conquer Austin, I saw more than my share of new bands this year as well, and made some fantastic discoveries.

Of course, SXSW functions as a music convention as well as a music festival, and always has; so while fans wander the streets swilling margaritas and checking out free day parties, music professionals hunker down in the Austin Convention Center (and this year, several other locations as well) to attend panels that discuss topics of interest. It struck me (and several friends) that there were several wasted opportunities here; no real involvement with the #MeToo movement, except for one (poorly attended) panel, for instance. While in the past, keynote speakers have included the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Ray Davies, Robert Plant and Little Richard, Pete Townsend and Neil Young, this year the honor went to Lyor Cohen.

"Who?" I hear you ask. Lyor Cohen had a long career in the industry where he helped sign and promote some of the early pioneers of rap; these days, he's the Global Head of Music at YouTube and Google... which certainly sounds impressive (and potentially even interesting,) but Cohen mostly devoted his keynote address to a self-aggrandizing account of how he personally put hip hop on the map. He did provide one good piece of advice:"My mom and dad wanted me to avoid work at all costs," Cohen said. "If I could find my passion, I could support myself and never have to work a day in my life. And I did."

Another panel addressed sexism and misogyny in the music industry, and the four young women on the dais (who ranged from victims of assault to journalists who have covered the topic) did a good job; but ironically, my friend Jim DeRogatis (who broke the story on R. Kelly's sexual degradation of underage girls in Chicago) was there in the room. Mightn't he have had something to say on that panel?

I won't bore you with details of the other panels I attended, since I learned nothing and left griping about moderators who either couldn't focus their panelists on a topic or hogged the mic talking about themselves. And I should point out that the only reason I saw any panels at all stems from the fact that SXSW graciously grants me a press pass. Without it, I would have been out and about seeing bands all day, like Jersey City super-fan Joe Castrianni, who blogged about his experiences on Facebook and saw at least 200 acts in five days.

Unlike the peripatetic Mr. Castrianni, though, I hobbled around Austin on sore feet and achy knees, the result (I suspect) of gluten withdrawal (damn diet!) Whatever the cause (and maybe it's just because I'm getting old,) my nights ended earlier than previous SXSW escapades. But I still got my money's worth.


British bands really stood out for me this year. At the top of my list, South London's Shame impressed me with their unbounding energy, fiercesome stage presence, and compelling songs. Looking like five lads who just tumbled out of the local pub, Shame seemed ubiquitous; I wound up catching them three times, and I am pretty sure they played at least three times that many shows in three days. A trio named Flasher (from Washington DC, but somehow on a bill at The British Music Embassy venue) reminded me of a stripped down Los Campesinos! with their bouncy youth anthems and exuberant energy. Our Girl, a female-fronted trio, played an earthy combination of grunge and shoegaze, recalling Chicago's Liz Phair and Veruca Salt. Older and more heavily tattooed, Idles exploded on stage with a flurry of sweat, spit, and furor, British drinking hall music set to hardcore tempos; or maybe a British Bouncing Souls?

Robot rock - Marshmallow Coast

Thanks to a tip from Michael Turner of Happy Happy Birthday To Me Records, I was introduced to a number of excellent bands from Athens, Georgia. A male/female, White Stripes-y duo, Eureka, CA delivered lots of hooks and crunch with their bare bones vox/guitar/drums lineup, while African-American rapper Lingua Franca (real name: Maria Parker) spit out concise and intelligent politically-pointed rhymes accompanied by a DJ. And I really enjoyed meeting Marshmallow Coast (aka Andy Gonzalez,) an Elephant Six veteran who now plays cheeky indie-pop with a robot keyboardist. His stuff was nerdy, catchy, and fun; how can you resist a song called "I Can't Listen To The Smiths Anymore?" Andy and I talked about mutual friend Julian Kastner as well as his experiences in Neutral Milk Hotel and other Elephant Six projects (talk about a resume'!)

As far as bands from back home, I didn't get to see nearly as many as I would have liked, but I did catch Brooklyn's The Britanys, who brought their rock-star elan with them to Austin's Sixth Street; Asbury Park's Dentist, who delivered a captivating set of their trademark indie-rock (good enough to earn a pick on NPR's Sound Opinions!); and a vastly improved Acid Dad, who were in Austin celebrating the release of their debut album. Acid Dad were regulars at Aviv when I worked there, but I hadn't seen them in nearly a year and wow! They were always good, but now they're verging on great. Guitarists Vaughn Hunt and Sean Fahey trade off on lead vocals, new bassist JP Basileo adds melodic depth, and the songwriting manages to borrow from (but not imitate) some of my NYC favorite music, from the Velvets to the Feelies to early Strokes. These guys are going to be a force to be reckoned with, mark my words.

Acid Dad



Sometimes you discover the coolest bands completely by accident. I arrived to see Dentist a bit early and caught most of a set by Sea Moya, long-haired Germans whose combination of analog guitars and electronics mimic the krautrock sound and rhythms of Can and Kraftwerk while incorporating surrising classic-rock samples. Many Austin venues have both indoor and outdoor stages, and at one of those, while coming inside, I stumbled on Bat Fangs, a shredding pop-metal trio fronted by Betsy Wright (also of Mary Timony's Ex Hex.) DeRogatis, Greg Kot, and I argued about their set-ending cover of "Talk Dirty To Me." DeRo insisted there was no reason to cover Poison, ever, while Kot and I agreed that Bat Fangs' tongue-in-cheek Runaways-styled version rocked.

Unfortunately, I only had three full days in Austin and for various reasons, and it feels like I missed more bands than I actually saw (among them, The Frights, Ought, Grim Streaker, Superchunk, Pussy Riot, Speedy Ortiz, Jad Fair, Yonatan Gat, Kitten, Starcrawler, and Pronoun.) I'm pretty sure Joe Castrianni saw all of them, though, so ask him what he thought, and I'll just see y'all next year in Austin.

Want more?

Here are some links to stories or podcasts by friends of mine who also covered SXSW 2018:

Todd Martens, L.A. Times

Todd Martens, L.A. Times

Jim DeRogatis & Greg Kot, Sound Opinions

Tim Stegall, Austin Chronicle

Tim Stegall, Austin Chronicle is an independently published music fanzine covering punk, alternative, ska, techno and garage music, focusing on New Jersey and the Tri-State area. For the past 25 years, the Jersey Beat music fanzine has been the authority on the latest upcoming bands and a resource for all those interested in rock and roll.

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