20 bands, 20 venues, one night: Musical speed-dating on 6th street at SXSW

By: Mar 21, 2015
9 8 y2015m03d21

To compare it to another famous musical city, 6th street in Austin during SXSW is a combination of Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras. There’s an absurd amount of music being performed at all times along the popular downtown strip, but there are also thousands of people just milling about in the street, happy to do nothing more than drink and people watch.

Locals and those averse to crowds tend to avoid it, but the sheer spectacle is novel to out-of-towners like myself. Knowing that 6th street is the epicenter of all the SXSW music mayhem, I decided to try another experiential experiment: To take in at least a couple songs from every band playing an official SXSW showcase on Thursday night along 6th street between Congress avenue and I-35. Moreover, I would map out my route as a loop from one end to the other and back, hitting each venue in succession without regard to who was playing where or when (with one exception; more on that later). With 20 venues, I would have about 15 minutes at each stop keep on schedule.

The plan seemed ambitious but achievable, and with most venues of the small or mid-sized variety, it felt like keeping with the original spirit of SXSW: Discovering new and emerging artists of all genres and styles. My friend Scott and I embarked our mission at 8pm, fully expecting to hear a little bit of everything. Six hours later, “everything” felt like an insufficient word to characterize the breadth of styles we saw over the course of the night.

*Note: click on the artist’s name to hear a sample of their music, or for a full playlist with one song from each of them, click here.

  • Victorian Room at The Driskill
    Artist: Josh SavageSounds like: Broken-hearted singer-songwriterSample lyric: “There’s no end to these beginnings”Venue lo
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Josh Savage
    Sounds like: Broken-hearted singer-songwriter
    Sample lyric: “There’s no end to these beginnings”
    Venue looks like: Elegant conference room

    The British singer-songwriter Josh Savage proved an ideal entry point to our journey, as his strong voice and romantic songs of longing felt like a cup of warm tea ahead of the craziness to come (the crowd was all seated on the floor, which felt appropriate for the music and setting). Between songs, Savage told stories of his first trip to the U.S. and his despite his sensitive music, his demeanor reflected that of someone with the confidence and courage to set out on an international road trip armed with nothing but a guitar and a dream.

  • Friends
    Artist: Jeff Stuart & The HeartsSounds like: Melodic Canadian rockSample lyric: “Ooh Ooh Ooh Ooh”Venue looks like: Sports ta
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Jeff Stuart & The Hearts
    Sounds like: Melodic Canadian rock
    Sample lyric: “Ooh Ooh Ooh Ooh”
    Venue looks like: Sports tavern

    As mandated by law, Canadian bands are not allowed to have fewer than 6 members, so Jeff Stuart & The Hearts are a relatively small group by their country’s standards. We only caught a couple of their songs but the harmonies on the hooks and the sharp suits worn by several members reflected the sensibilities of their fellow countrymen in music.

  • Barcelona
    Artist: L-Vis 1900Sounds like: House musicSample lyircs: No wordsVenue looks like: A dark basement-level clubRunning out of time on our miss
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: L-Vis 1900
    Sounds like: House music
    Sample lyircs: No words
    Venue looks like: A dark basement-level club

    Running out of time on our mission, we weren’t able to really take in the dance music of L-Vis 1900, but the throbbing beats and very low lighting made it seem like the crowded club would be an ideal place to make a late night love connection.

  • Buffalo Billiards
    Artist: Paper AeroplanesSounds like: Indie popSample lyrics: “Can’t we try just a little bit harder?”Venue looks like: The
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Paper Aeroplanes
    Sounds like: Indie pop
    Sample lyrics: “Can’t we try just a little bit harder?”
    Venue looks like: The world’s most spacious pool hall

    With two different floors and a full stage, Buffalo Billiards is the biggest pool hall I’ve ever been in. The charming music of Paper Aeroplanes wasn’t exactly grandiose enough to fill the entire space, but their indie pop sounded invitingly warm, particularly coming toward the end of a long night.

  • Maggie Mae’s
    Artist: Hickman-Dalton GangSounds like: Sarcastic country musicSample lyrics: “Hold my drink while I kiss your ex-girlfriend”Ven
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Hickman-Dalton Gang
    Sounds like: Sarcastic country music
    Sample lyrics: “Hold my drink while I kiss your ex-girlfriend”
    Venue looks like: Massive three story indoor/ outdoor venue

    Maggie Mae’s is considered one of the finest venues on 6th street and it’s easy to see why; the massive space has three stages, including a rooftop patio where we caught Hickman-Dalton Gang. The band is a side project of Johnny Hickman of Cracker and Jim Dalton of Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers and their music is performed with a wicked sense of humor. Although I'm not generally a big fan, it was nice to catch a touch of country music while in Austin.

  • Soho
    Artist: B. DolanSounds like: Live band hip-hopSample lyrics: “Which side are you on?”Venue looks like: A room with red wallsI co
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: B. Dolan
    Sounds like: Live band hip-hop
    Sample lyrics: “Which side are you on?”
    Venue looks like: A room with red walls

    I couldn’t have been more thrilled that our final stop of the night at Soho ended with some hip-hop courtesy of the Rhode Island rapper B. Dolan. Playing with a three-piece band, Dolan displayed some serious technical chops and his lyrics had a decidedly political bent. He brought up the great Wheelchair Sports Camp toward the end of his set and although the crowd was small (they seemed to thin out everywhere we went with the approach of 2am), Dolan performed like he was rocking a stadium.

    In the end, the mission not only proved successful but thrilling, like physically walking through a mixtape filled with every type of music. It’s tempting and understandable to want to see the many bigger artists who perform at the festival, but letting loose for a night of intentionally random music discovery was a refreshing reminder of the oft-forgotten origins of SXSW.

  • Flamingo Cantina
    Artist: Tanya TagaqSounds like: Avant electronic metalSample lyric: [unintelligible growling]Venue looks like: Grimy tiki barTanya Tagaq got
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Tanya Tagaq
    Sounds like: Avant electronic metal
    Sample lyric: [unintelligible growling]
    Venue looks like: Grimy tiki bar

    Tanya Tagaq got her big break last year when the Canadian throat singer pulled off an unexpected upset to win the Polaris Prize, the Great White North’s answer to the Grammys. Seeing her three piece band -- Tagaq, along with a fiddle player and drummer -- it was clear that she has something special going, as her music sounded as undefinable and the rumbling growl of her throat singing. Part metal, part electronic, part...who knows what, Tagaq had the crowd rapt with attention.

  • Dirty Dog
    Artist: Cancer BatsSounds like: MetalSample lyric: [loud screaming]Venue looks like: A  metal barAs someone who almost never listens to
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Cancer Bats
    Sounds like: Metal
    Sample lyric: [loud screaming]
    Venue looks like: A  metal bar

    As someone who almost never listens to metal, I’m not even going to try to pretend I have anything to say about Cancer Bats, other than that they have a totally cool name and as both metal musicians and Canadians, I’m sure they’re really nice people.

  • Sledge Hammer
    Artist: HomeshakeSounds like: Groove-heavy psych rockSample lyric: “She’s making a fool of you”Venue looks like: Texas pri
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Homeshake
    Sounds like: Groove-heavy psych rock
    Sample lyric: “She’s making a fool of you”
    Venue looks like: Texas pride without the obnoxiousness

    There’s a lot of Lone Star pride going on at Sledge Hammer, so it was somewhat ironic the bar was hosting a party for a bunch of Montreal bands. Homeshake had a great groove to their sound and while their debut album In The Shower recalls Ween in both title and sound (as well as a bit of Mac Demarco, whose band their frontman played guitar in), they had a noticeably funky sound live.

  • The Majestic
    Artist: Tiara ThomasSounds like: Powerhouse R&BSample lyric: “I will Run Back To You”Venue looks like: Minimalist clubThe MB
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Tiara Thomas
    Sounds like: Powerhouse R&B
    Sample lyric: “I will Run Back To You”
    Venue looks like: Minimalist club

    The MBK showcase at The Majestic was one of the hardest shows to get into (meaning we waited upwards of 180 seconds before we were let in), probably because the venue was totally packed out. Tiara Thomas sounded amazing, her voice exploding all the way into the far corners of the room. The songs we heard were more traditional R&B, but she’s probably best known for her hook on the Wale song “Bad.”

  • BD Riley’s
    Artist: AutoramasSounds like: Throwback rock n’ rollSample lyric:”Rock! Rock! Rock!”Venue looks like: Traditional Irish pu
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Autoramas
    Sounds like: Throwback rock n’ roll
    Sample lyric:”Rock! Rock! Rock!”
    Venue looks like: Traditional Irish pub

    The Brazilian rock band Autoramas also said it was their first time in the U.S., but their energetic performance had little in common with the hushed whimsy of Savage. The trio played their songs with great aplomb, with their frontman busting out the rockstar moves both for those in the audience and the curious onlookers watching through the open window facing 6th street.

  • Parish
    Artist: Jack Ladder and the DreamlandersSounds like: Indie prog rockSample lyric: “Come on baby”Venue looks like: A small ballro
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Jack Ladder and the Dreamlanders
    Sounds like: Indie prog rock
    Sample lyric: “Come on baby”
    Venue looks like: A small ballroom

    A friend who lives in Austin told me she thought the Parish was the best venue in the city (which is saying something) and it really is a beautiful room. We were only able to catch the final song by Jack Ladder and the Dreamlanders, whose sound struck me as something like The National meets classic Genesis. The band’s new album Playmates features a song with the great Sharon Van Etten.

  • Parish Underground
    Artist: Grape St.Sounds like: Punchy garage rockSample lyric: [Between songs] “Today is not a good day to be a string on my guitar&rdq
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Grape St.
    Sounds like: Punchy garage rock
    Sample lyric: [Between songs] “Today is not a good day to be a string on my guitar”
    Venue looks like: An even smaller ballroom

    Grape St. is a local Austin band and it’s a pity we caught just the final song of their set, as their energetic, no frill garage rock and sweet harmonies on the chorus sounded like something I’d like to hear more of.

  • Trophy Club
    Artist: RashidSounds like: Electronic hip-hop cut with bossa novaSample lyric: I don’t speak Portuguese so ???Venue looks like: Proudl
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Rashid
    Sounds like: Electronic hip-hop cut with bossa nova
    Sample lyric: I don’t speak Portuguese so ???
    Venue looks like: Proudly Texas bar

    The DJ was having some issues with his set up when we got there, so Rashid was running a bit late. forcing us to fall a bit behind schedule. However, had we stayed, there’s little doubt I would have enjoyed his full set, as the Brazilian rapper played a compelling mix of hip-hop, electronic and traditional Brazilian music.

  • Vulcan Gas Company
    Artist: Dream KoalaSounds like: Minimalist, atmospheric bass musicSample lyric: Didn’t catch anyVenue looks like: Modernist metal indu
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Dream Koala
    Sounds like: Minimalist, atmospheric bass music
    Sample lyric: Didn’t catch any
    Venue looks like: Modernist metal industrial factory turned bar

    Vulcan Gas Company is a really cool, two-story venue with a great rooftop patio and the future-forward music performed by Dream Koala seemed an ideal fit. Much of the crowd seemed super-stoned, and who could blame them; Dream Koala’s mellow electronic music overlaid with live guitar got me lifted even without smoking.

  • Gatsby’s
    Artist: Earl SweatshirtSounds like: Hip-hop that's both spacey and aggressiveSample lyric: “I’ll f*ck the freckles off your
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Earl Sweatshirt
    Sounds like: Hip-hop that's both spacey and aggressive
    Sample lyric: “I’ll f*ck the freckles off your face”
    Venue looks like: A large house with the many of the walls ripped out

    Although negotiating the lines wasn’t as big of an issue as I had expected, we had to make our first audible of the night when a friend texted to say Earl Sweatshirt was about to perform at the Pandora Discovery Den at Gatsby’s. Anticipation was high for this one, as Earl’s hotly awaited new album I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside: An Album by Earl Sweatshirt drops next week.

    His new single “Grief” is perversely dark even by his standards and the cynical title of his upcoming album was reflected in his performance. Earl was trolling the crowd by repeatedly criticizing them for being "sleepy." The admonishments did not improve their attitude; after performing “Molasses” and urging the crowd into the chant listed above, the sound of crickets was louder than the cheers.

    Earl didn't seem to realize that part of their reticence had to do with the fact they didn’t know his new music (which at least did sound as crazy as his last album Doris). All things considered, it was the most disappointing set I’ve seen at SXSW.

  • Palm Door
    Artist: The Jones Family SingersSounds like: Bluesy soul choirVenue looks like: A big and open spaceBecause I needed to stay a bit longer fo
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: The Jones Family Singers
    Sounds like: Bluesy soul choir
    Venue looks like: A big and open space

    Because I needed to stay a bit longer for Earl Sweatshirt, I sent my man Scott to check out what was going on at Palm Door. His report on The Jones Family Singers described them as“a kind of soul choir with some blues.” He also said their straightforward name was apt: “They seemed like a big happy family celebrating together on stage.”

  • The Main
    Artist: HoltSounds like: Punk rock hip-hopSample quote: “Nice day for a white wedding” (cover)Venue looks like: A spacious outdo
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Holt
    Sounds like: Punk rock hip-hop
    Sample quote: “Nice day for a white wedding” (cover)
    Venue looks like: A spacious outdoor patio with a stage

    The Chicago rapper Holt -- formerly known as Hollywood Holt -- has a name that’s damn near un-Googleable, but after an exhaustive search, I discovered that he has just been signed to Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. music label. It’s a smart choice, as his blend of hip-hop and punk rock was totally original and hugely entertaining. His bass-heavy hip-hop cover of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” was a highlight of the night.

  • Esther’s Follies
    Artist: Sun ClubSounds like: Melodic art punkSample lyric: “Whoa oh oh!”Venue looks like: A Mexican cantinaTypically, I’m
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: Sun Club
    Sounds like: Melodic art punk
    Sample lyric: “Whoa oh oh!”
    Venue looks like: A Mexican cantina

    Typically, I’m not much of a fan of bands with lots of screaming, but I really liked what I heard from Sun Club. Their songs were very loud and crunchy, but they had a strong sense of melody in their music. Obviously, I’m not really qualified to speak on bands in these genres but Sun Club had a hardcore surf punk sound I definitely enjoyed (at least in a small doses). 

  • Velveeta Room
    Artist: HOLYCHILDSounds like: Energetic dance popSample lyric: “Why can’t you be happy with me?”Venue looks like: A kitsch
    Mark Schiff

    Artist: HOLYCHILD
    Sounds like: Energetic dance pop
    Sample lyric: “Why can’t you be happy with me?”
    Venue looks like: A kitschy pub

    The L.A. dance pop group HOLYCHILD were another unexpected highlight of the night. Their singer had a massive stage presence and they even threw in a few dashes of choreography into their set. One of the best things about SXSW is discovering new bands destined for bigger things and HOLYCHILD certainly seemed like the type of group that could be returning next year to play much bigger stages.

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