For many, SXSW’s cancellation last year was where it all started to go wrong. Amid growing concern about Coronavirus’ rapid spread, the biggest new music showcase in the world was the first major domino to fall in the music calendar on March 6; almost every festival would follow suit in the following months. A year later and large gatherings are still off the table, so for the first time in SXSW history the festival went fully virtual for their 2021 edition.
In a normal March, thousands of bands descend on Austin, Texas for a week of gigs with house shows, BBQs and after parties turning a simple new music showcase into an unpredictable experience. This year, there’s little over 200 acts involved via pre-recorded performances. Running at the same time as SXSW’s film and tech festivals, music is restricted to a few hours every night across a handful of different channels. A single errant click and you’re stuck listening to Ray Romano talk about their new show or learning how to Think Like a Marketer or Act Like a TikTok Creator. Valuable skills, one imagines, but not what we’re here for.
With an emphasis on showcases rather than individual bands, you have to tune in for the full hour for a chance to catch the 15-minute set from a must-see act. Times aren’t listed and information about the act playing is seldom displayed. Presumably it’s meant to help expose artists to a new audience at a time where that’s never been harder, but the reality is that it’s a frustratingly passive way to experience an event that’s meant to be driven by discovery.
It’s made worse when a majority of showcases are built around geographical location, rather than a similar sound or ethos and with ticket prices starting at $300 (there’s no way to buy a music-only pass), it will have been hard for some music fans to justify such cost at this time. Given how seamless and egalitarian Eurosonic Noorderslag’s livestream felt in January, this already felt like a regression for the format.
And for a festival obsessed by the future, SXSW’s virtual offering already feels dated after a year of digital gigging innovation; most bands perform from an empty venue, doing little to distract from the glaring omission of fans. But it does mean those who do push forward really shine. Yung Baby Tate‘s three-song set is delivered from a cotton candy dreamland and is one of the most production-heavy sets of the festival.
With questions now being asked about how livestreams will sit alongside the return of conventional concerts – if, at all, they ever do – SXSW appear reluctant to embrace that change. But in spite of format woes, SXSW always excels at bringing together the best and brightest in new music, with many artists upping their game for this once-prestigious showcase. This year was no different…
The singer-songwriter is evolving
Gone are the days where a singer-songwriter would just strap on an acoustic guitar and perform hushed, heartfelt anthems; Britain’s emerging performers are ready, willing and able to up the game.
Connie Constance’s eclectic, conversational pop can switch between the quivering, quiet power of ‘WOAH’ and the swaggering disco-punk belter of ‘Monty Python’ with ease. Constance’s set is a frustratingly brief display of her energetic, personality-driven tunes – but she does a fine job of making the format work for her. Elsewhere, Ruby Red sees Tayo Sound interact with his folky roots – telling stories with nothing but an acoustic guitar – but the stomping cool of ‘Cold Feet’ and the buoyant energy of ‘Hide & Seek’ see him fronting a full band as his sunny indie transforms into a festival-ready beast.
Speaking of big ambition, Phoebe Green has switched from making delicate pop to wielding her electric guitar with a tenacity that St Vincent would be proud of. Backed by a full band, she runs through 2020’s ‘I Can’t Cry For You’ EP with a snarling purpose: ‘A World I Forgot’ is twisted into a rage-addled grunge anthem, ‘Golden Girl’ is a lush burst of dream-pop and the aching ‘80s ambition of ‘Reinvent’.
Despite the acoustic guitars, trumpets and keyboards that surround Katy J. Pearson, it’s her voice that dominates her ‘70s-indebted psychedelic rock while the three-piece band behind Sofia Valdes empowers her soft, soaring pop with a real sense of cinema.
New music festivals have never felt more global
A year on from Parasite director Bong Joon-ho telling the Golden Globes that “once you overcome the one-inch barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films”, acts are continuing to celebrate their heritage and find an inquisitive audience. Persian-Kiwi rapper CHAII provides 15 minutes of pure energy as fiery dance music touches on her Iranian roots but also flirts with drum’n’bass and feel good vibes. Hell, there’s even a keytar for the pulsating close of ‘Lightswitch’. Brilliant stuff.
Bringing her Ghanaian roots to her London based hip-hop, Br3yna only has time for one track but she makes every second of the confident, beat-driven ‘Plenty’ count. Elsewhere NiNE8 member Nayana Iz starts her set with the rapid flow of ‘TNT’ and her confidence only builds as the gig goes on; ‘Growing Pains’ is slower, the emotion dripping of every pointed line, but it shows off another powerful side to the London-based rapper.
Taking part in an impressive showcase put on by music discovery platform Beatbites, South Korean singer Loco performs from a living room, a perfect backdrop for his emo-drenched rap. Flicking between introspective hip-hop and party-starting anthems, he covers a fair amount of ground during his set but his personality ties it all together.
Australia only does feel good music
Sounds Australia’s Close Up showcase covered everything from art pop to garage punk but with a tight brief: each act were to perform two tracks from their backyard (a term interpreted in a variety of different ways). It was a fast, furious and celebratory run through the range of music coming from down under right now.
In particular, Baker Boy’s uptempo dance music is visceral and compelling: ‘In Control’ is a swaggering ode to empowerment while ‘Meditjin’ is a snarling rap track with a big didgeridoo finale. The Lazy Eyes dive into a playful one-two of ‘Cheesy Love Song’ and ‘Where’s My Brain’ as their psych-rock wig outs are delivered with Weezer’s emo rock & roll spirit.
The Chats know a thing or two about keeping the party going, having toured the world and won over fans with their sloppy punk rock. Despite the controlled environments, it still feels like anything could happen – fans dressed as a kangaroo and a koala bear watch on from the sidelines, of course.
The NME 100 was out in full force
Back in January we launched The NME 100 – our essential new artists for 2021 – a list full of, well, the sort of acts that would steal the show at a new music festival like SXSW. Baby Queen’s scrappy pop-rock and Leeds group Yard Act gnashing, stomping post-punk groovers are two such examples, and proof that a pandemic breakout is tricky, but not impossible.
Likewise Drug Store Romeos’ twisted pop bubblers ‘Quotations For Locations’ and ‘Frame Of Reference’ conjure up an otherworldly escape, as The Goa Express’ snarling Britpop-inspired indie showcases a band well on their way to becoming Rock & Roll stars for their generation. Just when you thought the Manchester-based band couldn’t get anymore Oasis, lead singer James Douglas Clarke shakes his tambourine with Gallagherian attitude, but the driving ‘The Day’ is a snappy reminder that they’re much more than a tribute act. PVA’s debut EP ‘Toner’ – full of pulsating electro-rock – truly comes alive onstage: ‘Talks’ feels ominous despite the disco groove while ‘Sleek Form’ could soundtrack a laser-drenched corner of Glastonbury’s South East Corner.
A year away from touring might leave some returning acts a bit rusty, but as the tantalising return of music inches ever closer, you’d be remiss to not get down nice and early for this lot at the next given opportunity.