If 2014 was the year that SXSW corporate sponsorship reached its logical endpoint with the Doritos stage and 2016 was the year that the “secret” show reached its zenith with surprise sets from Cage the Elephant and Drake, SXSW 2019 might well go down as the year of peak scooting. This year, downtown Austin was turned into an obstacle course for zippy rental rides to somewhat polarizing response. Pro – more time to cram more music without factoring in lengthy crosstown walks. Con – keeping your head on a swivel to avoid getting taken out some late night drunk who thinks he’s Tony Hawk.
In years past, its been a good opportunity for British artists to get their first real taste of an American crowd. Take sophisti-pop wunderkind Westerman, who overcame sound issues over at Swan Dive, and London’s Puma Blue who wowed with their glassy, noir-ish soundscapes. Ditto the loveable ragtag crew from Cardiff, Boy Azooga. Obvious fans of Teenage Fanclub and other vintage Creation brethren like House of Love, the band flirted with much heavier riffing at their midday gig at Lazarus Brewing. By all outward signs, it was enough to satisfy the headbanger toward the front sporting a “Maiden England” tour t-shirt.
The remarkably well-preserved Andrew W.K., still clad in whites, was an unstoppable force at a packed Clive Bar. By the time he counted down from 100 to detonate his party-jam-for-all-eternity ‘Party Hard’, the crowd was at his full command. Back across town, original shoegazer Creation-ists Swervedriver showed up for a late-night showcase at the Barracuda. Bristling at the thought of being tagged as a nostalgia act, they ripped through several choice cuts from the recently released album ‘Future Ruins’. When they did finally get around to older material, they selected an obscure one-off single “Why Say Yeah?” Respect.
Meanwhile, feral Aussie punk outfit Amyl & The Sniffers continued to stake their claim as one of the planet’s most explosive new bands during their triumphant set. At an electric set at the ATO Records showcase, the band channeled the raunchy swagger of The Dead Boys, lead singer Amy Taylor shimmied and sneered her way through cuts like ‘Monsoon Rock’, ‘Some Mutts (Can’t Be Muzzled)’ and more.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Michelle Zauner, better known as Japanese Breakfast, sent the audience into a rapturous trance with her masterful headline performance at Container Bar. Drawing heavily from 2017’s evocative ‘Soft Sounds From Another Planet’, her band mined the subtleties of the record’s shoegazey melodies to stunning effect while Zauner gamely lightened the mood throughout, introducing one song as a tribute to oral sex (though notably not the one entitled “Road Head”).
At the BBC Music showcase, the Surrey-based Annabel Allum, in full band incarnation, delivered a highly energetic performance, her buzzsaw blasts reminiscent of Elastica in their mid-90s heyday. Toward the end of the set, Allum confessed that playing SXSW was the culmination of a dream she’d had for many years, a dream that she definitely didn’t let go to waste. Washington D.C. art-punks Priests claimed to have played a staggering nine shows leading up to the headlining slot for their Sister Polygon label showcase. But if they intended the admission as an excuse, it was hardly needed. The band bulldozed the assembled throng with a set comprised mostly of songs from their forthcoming second record, ‘The Seduction of Kansas’, which were alternately sleazy and confrontational — and often both at once.
But no single artist loomed larger over SXSW 2019 than rising teenage phenom Billie Eilish. After steadily building a shockingly stacked stockpile of singles over the past several years, Eilish clearly intended this SXSW show as the centerpiece of the promo campaign for her debut album, ‘When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?’. Want proof? they went and booked the same intimate venue that Lana Del Rey selected for her secret show two years prior.
Inside, the assembled industry VIPs and fans were treated to what amounted to a collection of recent singles like ‘Bury A Friend’ and ‘Wish You Were Gay’ and some of early EPs ‘Don’t Smile At Me’s most haunting moments. It was a stark contrast from her usual younger crowd and she gleefully threw the gauntlet to the older industry types in the audience: “I know you all are over 21 but y’all can still jump, right? Prove it to me.”
She needed less than an hour to demonstrate how her deft, seamless blend of styles—from trap to emo to EDM to goth—has placed her in a category unto herself and why she continues to amass fans at a startling clip. It was an undeniably big moment for her — one of her biggest to date, but this will pale in comparison with what comes next…