South by Southwest: A Concertgoer’s View of SXSW’s 2016 Alt Country/Americana Acts
The last time I attended SXSW I was a teenager, enthralled with the punk beats of the Dirty Rotten Imbeciles and Suicidal Tendencies. In 2016, instead of prepping my body for the rigors of a mosh pit, I traveled to Austin armed with a camera and a 100 row Excel spreadsheet filled with the dates, times, and locations of my favorite alt country/Americana bands.
The spreadsheet proved to be a painful exercise. After sorting the shows by date and time, I discovered, to my horror that many of the neatly stacked Excel rows overlapped with each other; multiple bands playing simultaneously over the three days. Unless I could find a way to clone myself or teleport, I would miss some great acts. Unfortunately I was often forced to flip a coin to avoid feeling guilty when selecting one band over the other. Heads, I see All Dogs; tails, I see Tacocat. Heads, I see The Grahams; tails, I see Blackfoot Gypsies.
To add to my anxiety, I decided to take up concert photography a week prior to the event — hoping to capture great band moments. Turns out that this was not the brightest idea (no pun intended) because I soon discovered that attempting to photograph distant, moving objects in a dark environment is the equivalent of venturing into the Sahara Desert after taking a short introductory survival class.
Before the trip I read commentary about SXSW in order to understand how the event had changed over the last 20 years. Many music industry experts and musicians agreed that SXSW no longer supports and promotes independent artists. Indeed, some musicians have told me that they must “pay to play” for their short sets, and many of them no longer play SXSW for that reason. Long load times add to their frustrations. Critics also highlight that a commercialized SXSW is not appropriately focused on music with its expanded agenda containing conferences, speakers, films, etc. Glitz, badges, and money (and sometimes POTUS and FLOTUS) dominate SXSW headlines. (For the record, I did not possess a badge or wristband. I had a well-used Uber app and cash for cover charges).
From an attendee’s perspective however, SXSW still retains incredible flair. On my first day, I saw three of my favorite artists: Caleb Caudle, Carson McHone, and James McMurtry, all playing in non-6th street venues, with low cover charges and plenty of space. The sets were showcase-short, but this suited my schedule because otherwise I would have missed one of the three acts. The SXSW artists I saw generally played for 30 – 45 minutes, although sometimes the showcases were ridiculously short (Lydia Loveless had a three song set at one venue).
I left Austin after four days; exhausted, with a steep Uber tab, and hundreds of photos. The experience was riveting: Possessed by Paul James at the Continental Club, playing with such talent and emotion that the audience was in a trancelike state. Blackfoot Gypsies playing rock-blues with such flair that not a single person remained still.Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee) played a set after her guitar was just stolen at a prior showcase. Cleary upset, Katie was determined to play the set on a loaner guitar. The result: a powerful and magical show that will be forever emblazoned in the memories of those who attended. The energy of Purple, a three-person punk act from East Texas who overtook Lucky Lounge with their jamming tunes and showmanship.
Below are some of my favorite photos from SXSW. Enjoy! (+words by chris dishman @altcbeyond || @ssktda+)
*all photos compressed to fit screen