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
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.
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
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.
Here are some links to stories or podcasts by friends of mine
who also covered SXSW 2018:
Martens, L.A. Times
Martens, L.A. Times
DeRogatis & Greg Kot, Sound Opinions
Stegall, Austin Chronicle
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.