Freestyle: Best of SXSW 2015
BY ELIZABETH KIESZKOWSKI / firstname.lastname@example.org
Aloha and howdy, Hawaii! I’m back on the island, mind blown from the onslaught of experiences I had in Austin, Tex. during the South by Southwest series of conferences and festivals.
There were so many highlights of SXSW 2015, so I’ve put this together as my own personal “Best Of,” as my memories of #SXSW2015 settle:
TGIF Editor Elizabeth Kieszkowski was in Austin, Tex. for the 2015 South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Festival. Read more of her SXSW posts at honolulupulse.com/category/blogs/freestyle-blogs.
FILMS TO WATCH
I caught a couple of documentaries that I can recommend highly.
“All Things Must Pass,” a first-time documentary by actor Colin Hanks (“Fargo”), tells a not-altogether surprising story about Tower Records, a record store chain that grew too big, and collapsed upon itself as the world’s attention shifted to digital downloads. There’s an involving, entertaining story here, with vivid inside stories and insights about the chain’s culture, rise and fall. I spoke with Hanks at the fest, and I’ll have more on the doc when “All Things” passes through Honolulu.
“City of Gold” is a pungent pleasure, as it follows Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold at work in Los Angeles. Gold, son of a probation officer, trained as a musician and played in an eccentric art-punk band in the ’80s, and he brings an eccentric, empathetic view to his food writing, placing as much importance on a food truck or strip-mall Chinese restaurant as a Michelin-starred establishment. What the movie helps us see is that food is a key to understanding the sprawling city as a “beautiful and haphazard” collection of people. Thanks to Gold and this film, I’m now looking at Honolulu’s restaurants in a more curious way.
Twitter got its first big break at SXSW in 2007, and for real-time tips on parties and band slots, it’s still tops. I found my way to a rainy showcase with buzz act Torres thanks to Twitter, and that tip alone would be worth applause.
Let’s not stop talking to each other, OK? Twitter did keep me company on many of my lone ventures, but I also got great information from asking human beings near me what was up. Twitter could not have steered me to the chocolate cake I needed one night as quickly as the SXSW volunteer who also gave me a sympathetic smile.
NOW, back to the music. I’ve been asked what was best about the fest, and there really is no one answer. But here’s a short list.
Amason. This band creates a softly moody wall of sound with five empathetic musicians, often using two keyboards. It doesn’t hurt that singer Amanda Bergman has a lovely, low voice that may remind listeners of Cat Power, though Bergman’s vocals are more subtle and ensemble-oriented.
Gang of Four. “Force feed yourself sentimentality with Golden Age mythology,” Gang of Four deadpans, setting the tone up top with the latest album, “What Happens Next” (2015). The past informs the present with this group, which guitarist (and lone original member) Andy Gill co-founded in the ’80s, but there’s no time for nostalgia. This band’s performance at the Radio Day Stage counts as one of the best I caught this year, and it didn’t hurt that the emotionless Austin Convention Center suits the coldly proficient band quite well.
Most of us who frequent late-night shows will relate when Barnett sings, “I want to go out but I want to stay home” in her “Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party,” expressing the ambivalent feeling that often overwhelms during SXSW.
Here’s Barnett at SXSW, performing “Dead Fox”:
And don’t sleep on Torres, who was on many critics’ discovery lists after her series of SXSW appearances.
Charles Bradley. Bradley is a soul singer in every sense of the word. He emotes, sweats and radiates intense feeling.
BIGGEST HEART ON HIS SLEEVE
Ryan Bingham. Bingham is a fine figure in contemporary country music, walking his own path. The video here is from the performance I caught at SXSW — and it also proves I was there in real life: Look closely in the first few seconds and you’ll see me taking pictures with my iPhone, in the foreground at right. My two seconds of fame!
AND FINALLY, a worshipful end note. I wound up the fest at church — for real. The St. David’s Episcopal Church is a showcase site for some of the more atmospheric bands on the SXSW setlist, and it hosted a Native American Showcase, sponsored by RYOT, an activist news service, on March 21.
Hosting the showcase was Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, a loose band of musicians that gained traction itself at SXSW in past years. The Zeros’ presence helped draw attention to this lineup, and it was winning — with opening band Sihasin and headliner John Trudell, a trail-blazer in setting stunningly revealing words to music.
“Too many singers singing too many sad songs, like a desperate drought in a desert, using tears for rain,” John Trudell speak-sings in “Tears for Rain,” from his 2014 album “Through the Dust”: He’s a poet of human feeling, a survivor of unspeakable loss who uses his time and his art to lift others and to speak of things we need to name.
I hope you’ll take the time to listen to these artists, old and young, and to hear the connections in this music — common feelings and the shared desire to reach you. I’ll leave you with another artist from the Native American showcase: Lakota husband-and-wife artists Scatter Their Own, who make statement music strongly informed by the spirit of rock rebellion and punk rock. Their “Taste the Time” video, below, is a melodic slice of indie rock that echoes Trudell, calling out greed in a time of need.
Until next time, Austin!
Elizabeth Kieszkowski is editor of TGIF, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s weekly arts and entertainment section. Reach her via email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter.