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JEFF LEVEN’S SXSW WRAP-UP:
LESS IS MORE

Now that I’ve had an extra day’s distance and my ears have stopped ringing (kinda), it felt like this year’s SXSW could use the cap of some quick takeaways. For starters, the predictions of a more human-sized festival were mostly true, and aside from the shark jump of the corporate activation scene, some of the change was also due to some subtle good decisions on the festival’s part. Quietly, this has become primarily a Monday-Tuesday to Friday event (at least on the business end), and the venues have crept away from the overwhelming and insane center of “Dirty Sixth” (Street). As a result, the element of pure Spring Break has receded in favor of professionals seeing developing artists, and there was a lot of that this year:

Sundara Karma, Chain of Flowers, PWR BTTM

Two English bands on the tips of several people’s lips where SHAME and Chain of Flowers, while anticipated new arrivals Sundara Karma and The Aces found their shows well attended and much appreciated as well. Good crowds also caught The Shelters, Dear Boy, PWR BTTM and Meatbodies. Moreover, while there were standouts in the country world (Paul Cauthen, whose new album continues the Outlaw lineage most recently evolved by Jamey Johnson and Chris Stapleton), hip hop (everything Quality Control) and metal (Power Trip played a late-added set on Saturday night and damn was it good), the meat of the festival played in the alternative-but-with-guitars lane that bands like Highly Suspect, Royal Blood and acts like Pvris are starting to open up. Major label A&Rs are back at real rock shows, and it may just be that Guitar Spring is here again.

Beyond new artists, this year also felt like an effective platform for established artists with new material. John Silva’s team wonderfully orchestrated a very visible Spoon residency that drew fans, friends and initiates alike across several days, while their other band Jimmy Eat World did a late-cycle lap that was also very, very well-received (proving that I’m not alone in never having quite grown out of Bleed American). Oh, and SAM had M. Ward and Ryan Adams working, too, just to make things interesting. Weezer also took a few high-profile turns, launching a new single along the way, capitalizing on the rock-as-pop content flow that the Crush team has honed to perfection. Real Estate made a strong case for their great new album, as did Minus the Bear. Lana Del Rey and At the Drive-In made surprise appearances ahead of new material, too, proving that there is still enough traffic to stop traffic with an unexpected arrival or two.

For me, there were also a few great moments on the edges–a Saturday afternoon set soaking in the pure energy of Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, who played a set that was loose, urgent and political all at once. And for me the fitting end was coming off a bristling energy Youth Code show and seeing my second Lift to Experience performance–this last time in the Central Presbyterian Church–about as perfect a place as any for their vision of the Word made Rock. Maybe they are the reason why it doesn’t feel quite so sacrilegious for me to invert the Passover “next year in Jerusalem” mantra with “next year in Texas,” as I await the annual pilgrimage…. 

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