Well, my bank account is empty, my shoes are caked in mud, and my knees feel like a dying old man’s. Another South-by in the books.
SXSW ’15 felt very noticeably different to me on several fronts. The first obvious difference was more cops on the streets. After last year’s tragedy in which a driver trying to outrun the police crashed through a barrier and killed several people, the security was definitely heightened this year: not only with more plastic barricades but with more patrol cars parked on the streets acting as barricades.
The other huge difference was the lack of big-name acts. After the past few years of concerts by Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and Jay-Z, this year seemed to be a little more in the classic South-by tradition of having newer and unsigned acts as the main focus.
I got into Austin on Wednesday evening, and as soon as I approached the epicenter of 6th Street, I heard the sounds of Fort Worth’s only Columbia Records signee, Leon Bridges, and his band playing at the YouTube-sponsored showcase at Coppertank on Trinity Street. The line to see him was around the building, so I knew there was no chance of getting in.
After I made my way down Red River Street to get some barbecue, I headed over to my first showcase of the year, which was Catfish & The Bottlemen. This Welsh band has had a huge buzz. Their 2014 debut album, The Balcony, reached the Top 10 in the U.K., and the band has already performed on the Late Show with David Letterman. I discovered them after falling into a YouTube wormhole for about an hour or so, finding a clip of their Letterman performance. They remind me of The Killers but a little punkier, and British, and sans synths. Lead singer Vann McCann has a weathered, Julian Casablancas-kind of howl and croons lyrics like, “I got misled, mistook, discarded / Anything that I said / See, I’m not the type to call you up drunk / But I’ve got some lies to tell.”
McCann seemed genuinely shocked when the packed crowd at The Blackheart was singing along to every word of their biggest hit, “Kathleen.”
The Bottlemen’s show ended around 12:30 a.m., so then I wandered over to The Parish to catch one of my favorites, Delta Spirit, who were scheduled to go on at 1. They ended up not starting until about 1:15, but they played a great, energetic set to an enthusiastic crowd. A lot of their set focused on their latest release, 2014’s Into the Wide, but they also included a few gems from their other releases in the limited time they had before the bar closed down.
Thursday, I got started at the always North Texas-centric showcase put on by Fort Worth talent buyer Blackbox at Doc’s Motorworks on South Congress. I arrived at about 1:30 p.m., just in time to see Dallas buds J Charles & The Trainrobbers rock their set. Filling out the band with J. Charles were the busiest dudes I knew in Austin, Dallas’ Texas Gentlemen. Matt MacDonald, Aaron Haynes, and Daniel Creamer have backed everyone from J. Charles and Jonathan Tyler to Bridges, and at South-by Creamer told me he had “at least” 15 shows to play.
After J. Charles’ set, I made my way to the convention center to catch a favorite from my grunger youth, former Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland with his new band, The Wildabouts. The newest member of The Wildabouts is former Danzig and Queens of the Stone Age drummer Joey Castillo. Castillo was a great fit with the band, and he didn’t let up any of the raw power that we’ve come to see from him in the past.
Weiland, who is known to put on hit-or-miss performances, really shined at this show. He looked good, his voice sounded great, and he seemed to be in really good spirits. The band’s set consisted of classic STP tunes like “Crackerman” and “Unglued” mixed with all-new tunes off the band’s upcoming album, Blaster.
Later that evening I walked across I-35 to the east side to see Bridges’ showcase at The Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel. I didn’t really know what I was in for as I was walking over, but this place was huge. It was a giant warehouse on E. 5th Street that had a backyard area with food trucks and bars. The event itself was quite huge and had big-name sponsors like Taco Bell and Miller providing the food and drinks for the show.
Bridges’ band consists of Fort Worth’s Austin Jenkins (White Denim) on guitar, bassist Andrew Skates, who’s my bandmate in Quaker City Night Hawks, and Kenny Wayne (The Orbans) also on guitar. Along with White Denim’s Joshua Block on drums, two female backup singers, Ele Chupik and Brittney Jessie, and saxophonist Ian Young, Bridges and crew tore down the house in front of a crowd of about 1,000 people.
It was really quite amazing to see Bridges control the audience. I first met him when he would come play solo during our set breaks on Tuesday nights at Magnolia Motor Lounge. He was quiet and a little shy but still captivating enough then on his own. With the full-band sound with him, though, he was larger than life.
The crowd was screaming and singing along to “Coming Home,” his first single, which came out a couple of weeks ago, as if they’d known the song forever. Girls were screaming and taking pictures and dancing to Bridges and his band with such fervor, it was obvious that the majority of the crowd was there to see him. The applause seemed to grow louder after every song.
After a very successful show, Bridges got swarmed by a few ladies, who invited him to a club on Red River where the DJ was spinning old Motown hits. I was talking to Jenkins when Bridges came up and asked, “You guys wanna go to a Motown dance party?”
Of course, we did. It was a solid end to a Thursday night at South-by 2015.
Drummer Matt Mabe is a member and co-founder of Quaker City Night Hawks.