Times Have Changed For SXSW, But You Should Still Go

Photo by Cory Garcia
Pale Waves at SXSW, ahead of their return to Houston next week.
Night falls on Austin and 6th Street is organized chaos. Music seems to pour out of every single building that’s open after the sun is gone, many of them featuring burly dudes standing outside doing their best to hustle the constant stream of people into their establishments. Lights flash, both from inside the buildings and from smartphones as people pose hoping to get a photo of themselves with an interesting background. Yes, Austin is hosting the biggest party in Texas right now: Spring Break 2018.

SXSW is also taking place, but the swirl of noise makes it hard to tell. For every emo puppet band or dude with emotions or interesting band from a country outside our own, there’s a bar blasting out trap music as loud as it can. For every person with a SXSW badge, there are three people without them, ranging from half-dressed college students looking for a good time to couples in their 50s taking a stroll to people watch and everything in between. It’s like Halloween night with fewer costumes.

This isn’t a bad thing. At the very least, it’s good for the local economy. And with so many people from around the world in the city, it does make for some prime people watching. There might have been a time when SXSW dominated the area—or at least felt like it did—but at night it just feels like the festival is, through no fault of its own, there to service the party scene rather than the other way around.
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It's not every day you hear someone curse during a set in a church.
Photo by Cory Garcia
If you’re in Austin this weekend, consider this advice: if you want to find the music, avoid the chaos and hit the side streets. Take in a show some of the more unique venues hosting SXSW showcases. That’s how I discovered Findlay, who was playing a set in Central Presbyterian Church. Within a few songs, she had quickly become one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen, playing with such fury and focus that it made me scared to give her album a spin because I couldn’t see how what she conjures live could be captured in studio. Playing high energy music in front of a crowd sitting is never easy, so you can imagine what it’s like to conjure the fire inside when the crowd is sitting in church pews. Findlay made doing so look easy.

Later I caught a really fun set from pronoun over on the terrace at Malverde. pronoun doesn’t have a ton of songs to her name, but the ones she does have are some of the best at capturing the dysfunction of the modern age in memorable hooks and melodies. She’s got a good stage presence—comparisons to Tegan and Sara don’t feel inaccurate—and a great band backing her right now. The show included some nice samples of what one hopes will, one day, be her debut album.

It’s in the daylight when SXSW feels like it’s most in control of the narrative. The free day shows will likely always be the biggest draw to head to Austin for those not interested in attending the conference proper, and with good reason: companies still keep pulling out all the stops to get people to pay attention to their brand, from free food and drinks to tech demos to baby goats you can snap photos with.

I was only able to make a break for the day fun once, and after the ritual of waiting in line for a band with some buzz, I was lucky enough to catch Pale Waves at The Sidewinder. They’ll be in Houston on Monday, and if you’re not heading out to the big Lorde show at Toyota Center you’d be wise to consider spending your evening with them. They sound crisp live and their live presence is more engaging. They’re at the stage where it feels like they’re just one song away from really breaking out, and I hope they write that song soon.

Yes, it is the final weekend of RodeoHouston here in Houston, which means we’re very close to chicken fried bacon and mutton bustin’ leaving us for another year, but it would be silly to pretend that everyone loves the rodeo (even if they should). But if you want to spend a few days maybe discovering a new favorite band, finding out what the buzz is about others and standing in a few lines or two, head west this weekend. SXSW might not be the kingmaker it used to be—it feels like it would be silly to say anyone “wins” SXSW when there are so many other ways for bands to break these days—but it’s still a damn good time.