» Contact Us
» Advertise With Us
» Newspaper Ads
SXSW 2021: Discovering the music -- virtually
Along with so many other things in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's South By Southwest conferences and festivals were like none other before them.
The gathering, which usually brings thousands from around the world to Austin, Texas each March to immerse in music, movies and technology, spent five days online last week after having to completely cancel its 2020 edition. Instead of hordes roaming the city 24-7, they populated the Internet for pre-recorded speeches, panel discussions and presentations -- including by Texas luminaries President George W. Bush and Willie Nelson. Documentary and feature films were premiered without red carpets. Networking sessions were held screen to screen, happy hours were BYOB -- from afar. After-hour activities were at your own discretion.
And the music showcases pivoted from all-night in crowded venues to virtual affairs, with 40-minute sets truncated to 15-minute (or so) samplings from each of the acts.
The latter faced perhaps the greatest challenge, having to maintain interest in a format that hasn't proven to be the nearly as engaging as in-person performances. There also weren't any of the big-name, mainstream acts that SXSW purists revile but have helped give the event a more prominent stature beyond Austin.
Nevertheless, under the auspices of a variety of record labels, management companies, booking agencies, promotion firms and other organizations, scores of acts were able to "play" SXSW this year and perhaps court a little more attention for themselves at a time conventional playing-out is impossible.
A half-dozen of the best things caught during the very different festival included...
• NPR Tiny Desk Meets SXSW: The popular public radio feature scored with four solid acts during its 70-minute session -- none really around tiny desks but taking advantage of the format for their own invention. Los Angeles singer-songwriter Steady Holiday was the best, starting off solo, a fireplace behind her and a dog playing on the floor, then got up to pull up blinds and reveal her band members on the porch beyond the windows. The set also included song selections faxed to a machine on a table in front of her. Duckwrth and Yasser Tejada & Palotre played nicely filmed full-band sets in their own environments, while clipping. the experimental hip-hop group led by "Hamilton" Tony Award winner Daveed Diggs, did hunger around small workspaces, working with tiny microphones and other devices.
• British Music Embassy: The SXSW fixture and one of the most consistent high-caliber programs each year delivered five days of meticulously filmed performances, showcasing four dozen acts covering a broad spectrum of styles. Watching each BME session alone would have made for a satisfying festival, and for those paying attention acts such as PVA, Phoebe Green, Enola Gay, Sinead O'Brien, Katy J Pearson, Yard Act and Squid made a convincing case for further listening.
• Tengger: The South Korea-based Mongolian singer contributed an ambient trip whose visuals were as captivating as the music. Not exactly mainstream fare, but intriguing enough for further exploration.
• We Gon' Make It: Austin promotion firm Heard Presents showed off some of the best the city has to offer with energetic performances by Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, Nane, Sir Woman and the over-the-top Golden Dawn Arketstra, all mixing abundant showmanship with their musical skills.
• Nine Mile Records & Touring: Another Austin-based company batted 1.000 with its showcase, with winning sets by singer-songwriter Carson McHone and her band and, from the city's Continental Club, the always-soulful Greyhounds, the emotive Kevin Galloway and the spirited troupe the Deer.
• Yamaha Guitars & BGS Presents: BGS is the Bluegrass Situation, but the start of the show was former Semi Precious Weapons member Aaron Lee Tasjan, playing infectious pop songs from his new album "Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!" solo, on guitar and piano. Also of note, and closer to the mark, was Jade Jackson and Aubrie Sellers, who merged their respective solo careers to write together and presented the songs as part of this diverse showcase.
News, updates and recaps can be found via sxsw.com.
Send your thoughts and comments to