SXSW 2016 Preview: This Year’s Must-See Bands. A definitive guide for the best acts (large at small) at the 30th annual Austin, TX Music Festival.
By David Dierksen
For those of you attending SXSW this year, we realize it can be an overwhelming task to decide which musical act demands your semi-undivided attention. And luckily for you, guest contributor David Dierksen has done the hard part, with a comprehensive guide of the best bands at Austin, TX’s yearly music festival by respective genre/vibe/approach not merely dependent on hype.
He’s been doing the festival for so many years that he has the selection process down to a science. So enjoy the fruits of his labor below with the must-see (& hear) bands of SXSW 2016.
It’s almost here. SXSW. Finally, thank the fates! It’s grown into an addiction for me after twenty-one years of attendance (give or take a few scheduled absences). Roughly half of the live performances I see in a given year occur over this 6-day stretch, and each year I push myself harder. Can I see 60 performances this year without my body breaking down? Shouldn’t I care less as I get older?
It really comes down to new music, and my obstinate refusal to accept that I’ve already heard the bands I need to hear. No! There is always new music, and it shan’t be dictated to me what’s good by our corporate overlords and hype-blog gatekeepers . They say the traveling music fests of the 90s (your Lollapaloozas, your Lilith Fairs) are dead. I call bullshit.
Every city has a festival (or two… or three…) and while the names and organizers differ, the bands remain the same at each. So disparage SXSW for its corporate sheen! For upping the traffic! For attracting the douchebag elite! But I will defend it as long as they continue to welcome 2000 bands each year of all styles, nationalities, sizes and ages – some known, most not. SXSW is where the thrill of discovery and the joys of nostalgia can co-exist if you plan your schedule right.
And for an addict like me, scheduling is no easy feat. I estimate that this year, I’ve sampled 400 or so artists from the huge list of attendees, finding about 60 or so that, at the very least, I find interesting. I’ve meticulously crafted an ever-evolving schedule for each day that consists of primary destinations, backup plans, backup plans for my backup plans, and backup plans for my backed up backup plans, and so on and so forth. There is no time to see them all.
Tough decisions will be made, and they often won’t be right. Some bands will suck. Some venues I won’t get into. It’s a fucking battle. One day I will write a book and bore you all with it (or did I just do that?).
So with that out-of-the-way, here is a list of SXSW bands that intrigue me. Call them recommendations if you wish, but don’t blame me if they suck because surely some of them will. (NOTE: Some of these recommendations are based on my hearing just one song – there’s only so many hours in a day).
Hard Rockin’ / Punkin’ / Potentially Abrasive:
• The Cult – The epitome of rock and roll.Click here for our review of their new album ‘Hidden City.’
• Diarrhea Planet – For all your face melting needs. Four guitar players! Hooks! Stage diving! Remember when rock was fun? This is a can’t miss, no matter how often they pop up in Austin.
• Iggy Pop – Dude is a beast live. And while I think Iggy will outlive the post-apocalyptic cockroaches, still best not wait for the apocalypse to see a still-living legend.
• Deftones – Survivors for over 20 years. It’s been too long since I’ve seen them.• Yak –I can’t say I like every single one of their songs, but I like most of them. And each one of sounds like it could go off the rails at any moment. I can only hope their live show is just as combustible.
• In the Whale – Heavy ass riffage – kind of bluesy. But loud, like stoner metal on speed.
• Dearly Beloved – Not sure how many are in this band, but the core is a male / female vocal combo. The music is messy and grungy but the vocals are for the most part super catchy, and the male / female voice dynamic is rad.
• Aminals – Heavy as shit. Very thrash-y, very scream-y, very progg-y. And they make me laugh because I sense they have an understanding of their own ridiculousness.
• Plague Vendor – This band is kind of one-note, with a dude just sort of talking / yelling over some punk. But I find them charming. Weird thing to say, but that’s how I feel.
• The Dirty Nil – This is obnoxious, catchy pop-punk filtered through mid-90s grunge. Not for everyone because it’s pretty goofy. But what I’ve heard is a lot of fun.
• Supersuckers – The Continental Club is a little off the beaten path, but it may be the only “Austin” venue left. And these old school country meets punk veterans are hopefully going to tear it to shreds… in a good way!
No Frills / Blue Collar:
The Replacements are kind of the template for this sort of thing. Songs about drinking, fucking up, breaking up, and loving rock and roll. Straightforward and earnest.
• Beach Slang – I want to give these guys a big old hug. The singer is this raspy-voiced guy who you can tell is so passionate about what he does. And he’s kind of an older dude for fronting a new band. I love that. These guys are playing about 1,238 times over the course of SXSW, so if you’re planning on going to the festival, you’ll probably end up seeing them by accident, even if you don’t want to.
• The Kickback – (1) These guys are untested in my book, but I like a lot of what I’ve heard. (2) They have a wonderful song with a wonderful name – “Sting’s Teacher Years.” So yeah, I’ll be checking them out.
• Soul Asylum
I saw these guys at my very first SXSW 21 years ago during a time they were still pretty popular. Spirit brothers of the Replacements, even if they got a little bit too ballad-y over the years. Remember what I said about the joys of nostalgia? This fits that bill.
Electronic / Pop / Electropop / Hip Hop / Hiphoppopoptronica:
I don’t generally see much electronic music during SXSW because too many times, it’s a dude behind a laptop or some such lameness, despite how good the music might be. But here are some acts that have I may end up taking a gamble on.
OK, no gamble here. This is a sure thing. I love Chairlift. A lot of bands have the woman singing over groovy chill electronica, but (1) Caroline Polachek is an amazing live singer with a crazy range (2) she’s got sweet dance moves and (3) Chairlift explores a wide spectrum of music. This is one of my favorite bands right now.
• Aloa Input
Someone finally genetically engineered the perfect sonic hybrid between The Notwist and The Beta Band for which the masses have long been clamoring. Clear as mud? No? They’re German, and they’re awesome. On record anyway. Live show verdict TBD.
• Andy Clockwise – Big gamble here. I have this dude’s record and I really like it. He crosses 80s Bowie with contemporary pop and dance music. He’s got his tongue in cheek like my boys in Electric Six. And he’s pretty diverse in his musical output. Lots of good songs. But having seen clips of his live show, I’m not totally sold. I’m not even sure if it will be just him, him and a drummer, or him and a full band. That and the response from the crowd will be huge factors.
Speaking of… I almost hesitate to recommend CHVRCHES. This is their third appearance in Austin since November and they’re doing multiple shows AND they’ve got two shows at Stubbs in April! Methinks you are overstaying your welcome.
I would be more positive, but I really didn’t enjoy their December show, and that had a lot to do with the sound mix and the crowd more than the band’s individual performance. But still, I’ve seen them three times, and not once did the live show live up to the greatness of the music.
• The Lytics – I’m not a hip hop aficionado. But I like these dudes. They rock it positive and old school.
90s Throwback Female-Fronted Grunge Pop
It may seem dismissive to lump the below bands together under one label, but that’s not my intention (I’m just a little lazy). Truth is, they all bring something different to the table, but they also all bring the pop hooks and loud guitars. And I’m a sucker for it. Every. Time.
• Milk Teeth
• All Dogs
(Mostly) Dude-centric Power Pop / Psych Rock / Garage Rock / Psychedelic Garage Pop Rock:
So all things being equal, let me throw a bunch of disparate dude-heavy bands under one umbrella. Here’s a list of bands that are all unique yet all still play kind of a rough garage pop with occasional forays into psychedelia.
The Gooch Palms, to be fair, are not dude-heavy, as they are a male/female duo – they are probably the most raw. On the other side of the spectrum, Menace Beach is probably the most power poppy of the bunch. The High Strung is the only band from this list I’ve seen, and that was at SXSW 2009. But they were great enough at the time that I bought some of their records.
• Menace Beach
• White Reaper
• The High Strung
• Ron Gallo
• The Gooch Palms
• Death By Unga Bunga
(OK, this is admittedly a terrible band name – a punchline to a joke about ass rape – a joke I first heard eons ago in the fifth grade. But they’re Norwegian, and their EP is pretty good. So I’ll give them some benefit of the doubt).
I had never listened to this band before last week, when I FINALLY checked out a couple of awesome cuts posted to their website. But manymany people have recommended them to me over the years, probably because a dude from Failure is in there. They don’t sound like Failure, but there’s that same intensity and atmosphere, at least from the little I’ve heard.
• Dude York – A very silly name, yes, but this band intrigues me. I could only track down two songs, and they’re both pretty different from one another. One song is a catchy-ass female-fronted grunge pop song. The other song is a dude-sung driver with a new wave bent. Both songs are terrific. Live show, as always, TBD.
• Savoir Adore – File this under “pleasant”. I saw them at SXSW a few years ago and liked them. It’s kind of laid back indie, with both male and female singers. Groovy and amiable. I know that doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but not everything has to light the room on fire.
None of the Above:
• PWR BTTM
First let me describe the music as that is most important. A two-piece guitar and drums combo, playing the aforementioned garage punk with big pop hooks and killer riffs. What makes them fun and unique (IN A GOOD WAY, I SWEAR!) – and I have to tiptoe around my language here as I’m not totally sure on the proper nomenclature to use – is the gender-bending, cross-dressing goings on. I’ll leave it at that. It’s good stuff though.
• Mt. Wolf – This band will likely have the unfortunate distinction of being my annual “the one band I really wanted to see but just couldn’t make it work.” This is pretty mellow stuff but at times it’s intense. There are bits of Sigur Ros here, and some Explosions in the Sky. And then there are more simplistic, pretty folk-sy moments. They are playing Continental Club, which I think could be an interesting place to see something like this.
I could go on, as there are many other bands that have at least sparked my interest. But I just can’t see them all. Hopefully, if you’re reading, you’ll find this list somewhat refreshing as I really do base my research on arbitrarily going through the roster list rather than relying on blog and media recommendations (COGNITIVE DISSONANCE ALERT) that all seem to regurgitate the same buzz bands (some of whom may be great, by the way).
But fuck FOMO is my advice. If you’re having a good time, stay in the moment, and don’t sweat whatever manufactured buzziness might be happening somewhere else.
Big thanks to Dave Dierkesen for putting this herculean list together! To augment his excellent picks, here are a few bands on my radar that are also worth checking out:
• Mercury Rev-NYC veteran alt-rockers that are wonderfully weird and mesmerizing.
• Lust For Youth-Copenhagen based trio in the vein of classic 80’s synth-pop
• Troller-eerie darkwave act (based in Austin)
• The Big Pink
Indie British noise darlings return with their first new music in 5 years.
• Bloc Party
The post-punk revivalists return with ‘Hymns’, their first album since 2012.
For full schedule and band info, click here for the official SXSW 2016 website. The festival runs March 15th-20th in Austin TX.