Festival Review: SXSW From The Spare Bedroom – Part One

Ok, so this is not how I expected my first SXSW festival experience to be. Gone are the packed Austin streets, the laundromats converted into temporary gig venues, the free booze and industry schmoozing and in is a slick online platform packed with talks, films, comedy and music. However, given that the Joyzine budget doesn’t even cover the fare for the 436 bus to New Cross, nevermind flights to Austin and week’s accomodation, I’ll take it. Besides, the journey is considerably shorter, I’m guaranteed a front row seat for every event and there’s no queue for the toilets, so it’s swings and roundabouts really.

My first task is to navigate the labyrinthine festival programme, which with hundreds of events spread over five days is no mean feat in itself. The days are roughly organised into morning talks (with an incongruous range of speakers from Willie Nelson and Matthew McConaughey to Richard Branson and George W. Bush), afternoon film screenings and music showcases in the evening. However, with everything running on Austin time, everything is shifted along by five hours, so it’s 4am finishes and lots of cups of tea for me.

Before the chaos kicks in though, the festival is opened on a calming note by online Yoga luminary Adriene Mishler, herself a veteran of her hometown festival where she has gone from handing out flyers to passing festival-goers to giving the inaugural speech.

Feeling suitably soothed, I make my way to the next virtual room, where acclaimed writer/director Russell T. Davies, whose recent Channel 4 series It’s a Sin repeatedly moved me to tears of both sorrow and joy, is discussing LGBTQ+ representation in television with father-daughter directorial duo Zelda and Daniel Barnz, whose own show Genera+ion is yet to reach these shores, but sounds well worth a look if it ever does. Having perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic and a 45 year age gap provides a variety of experiences, along with some hope that while there’s still much to do, progress has been made since the 1980s setting of It’s a Sin, with shows such as these providing well-rounded queer characters for whom as Daniel Barnz explains “Their queerness is a part of them but not the only part of them.” But, as Davies puts it, “Revolutions need to keep on happening… We have to keep on doing this over and over again.”

Further early highlights come from the short film competition, with Play It Safe tackling implicit racism with a wonderfully tense final act and mini-documentary The Beauty President telling the story of drag queen Joan Jett Black’s 1992 bid for the White House – we’ll be covering both in more detail in our SXSW short films round-up in the coming days.

The festival’s first musical offering comes from the Korean Traditional Performing Arts Foundation (KoTPA), not perhaps one that you’d expect to see within these pages given their title, but there are plenty of surprises in store from a pair performances that mix traditional forms and instruments with modern techniques. The showcase begins with Dasom Baek, cross-legged under a spotlight as she brings a bamboo flute to her lips to exhale a beautiful, mournful tune – all very much as you might expect so far, but it’s the introduction of a loop pedal, weaving intertwining snakes of melody, a resonant bell bowl and rhythms created by stirring a pot of water, that bring this breath-taking performance into another realm entirely.

What follows is even further from our expectations; Jambinai fuse traditional geomungo (Korean zither) and haegum (two stringed vertical fiddle) with heavy post-rock guitar, bass and drums to simply astonishing affect. Bringing to mind western storm conjurers like Mogwai or Pelican but with the addition to their sonic palette of traditional Korean styles, they’re well worth the time of anyone who likes their music deafening in volume and epic in scale.

The stunning KoTPA showcase is followed by sounds from rather closer to home with the first of several showcases from The British Music Embassy. The BME has selected 35 artists of a range of genres from across the UK to represent the best of the nation’s up and coming talent. In this first broadcast we’re treated to The Mysterines‘ dreamy Liverpudlian gothic desert rock, the energetic new wave – new romantic fusion of Glasgow’s Walt Disco (check out our interview with the band here) and the post-punk preaching of Londoners TV Priest, who set an early high bar for those to follow with shards of jagged guitars and fervent oration from frontman Charlie Drinkwater.

Brand new independent label Dedstrange have chosen to approach the festival’s showcase format from a completely different angle and we wholehearted approve. Rather than attempting to re-create the live gig experience in an empty room, they’ve made their own hour-long channel-hopping absurdist TV show featuring footage of funfairs, retro-futurist glam bands and horror close-ups, fast cut between highly stylised films of their selected artists. The raw fuzz and crackling beats of Data Animal‘s primal electro punk is matched by their grainy black & white strobe-light footage, Pottery drummer Paul Jacobs‘ reverb-tinged psychedelic lo-fi is shot in nostalgic triple-exposed super-eight rainbows against contrasting black and white footage of the drab real-life world that his music is transporting us away from, and Holy Fuck‘s ambient electro drone is coated in both digital and actual snow.

Berlin trio Jealous rank amongst my most favourite new discoveries of the whole festival, a red-gloved bass-slide leading us into a sound comprised of all the things I love about country-fried garage rock, glam, grunge and power pop, all wrapped up in a don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. It’s glorious and I’ll definitely be delving through their back catalogue for more of the same. They’re followed by No Age’s Randy Randall, unwinding a gentle ambient shimmer from a solitary position on a pedestrian overpass as eight lanes of traffic speed past below him – the overhead drone shots are some of the most impressive footage of the festival’s music showcases. The showcase is rounded off in a whirlwind of feedback by A Place To Bury Strangers, whose frontman Oliver Ackermann heads up the label (read our interview with Oliver here). The band act as projection screens as a kaleidoscope of flashing city lights dance across them. The sound is abrasive and overdriven; deep, throbbing psych-bass grooves that break against echoing drums – at one point replaced by a battered trash can – while Ackermann’s guitar soars overhead like the skyscrapers flashing across his instrument. It’s the first performance of the new APTBS line-up, and its certainly piqued my interest to see where they’re heading.

Our night is completed by Theon Cross, playing the Jazz Re:Freshed showcase from the legendary environs of London’s Abbey Road Studios. Mixing high-speed tuba riffs with looping techniques, electronics and a live band of trombone, drums and some fantastic wakka-wakka funk guitar that duels beautifully with the sax, it’s a nicely chilled way to round off an intensive day of festival viewing, soothing my screen-bleary eyes and swimming head and packing me off for the thankfully short stumble to bed ahead of further festivities tomorrow.

Theon Cross

SXSW 2022 has just been announced for 11th-20th March – get all the latest details at sxsw.com

Review by Paul Maps
British Music Embassy photography by Thomas Jackson at Tyne Sight Photographic
Theon Cross photograph by Whole Hog Media
All other performance images provided by the promoter from live footage

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