The Beths at SXSW. Photographer: Steve Rogers/TNS
The South by Southwest Music Festival wrapped up over the weekend, but not before 2,000 bands and artists from around the world had serenaded the city at hundreds of clubs. There were plenty of established performers at the conference, but the focus was on the up-and-comers, the bands that will define the next year of music and beyond. Here are some of my favourites from SXSW 2019 (listed in alphabetical order):
Beyond the catchy songs the Beths packed into their 2018 debut album, 'Future Me Hates Me' (Carpark), there was a standout feature: the intricate vocal harmonies that gave each of the melodies a richness several cuts above the typical indie-rock recording. Live, the band demonstrated that those harmonies are the real deal as singer Elizabeth Stokes was backed by the nuanced multi-part harmonies of guitarist Jonathan Pearce, bassist Benjamin Sinclair and drummer Tristan Deck. The band echoed the ambition of its New Zealand predecessors, the Chills, which also played several sets at the festival.
In the buzz band sweepstakes out of England at this year's festival, this four-piece would be in the top three. They're not cookie-cutter, unless you think a fondness for early 90s art-punk circa Slint and US Maple is a winning commercial formula. The band's twisted, slow-burn arrangements, noisy spasms of guitar and panicked vocals conjured visions straight out of a horror movie — think Danny Boyle's post-apocalyptic '28 Days Later'.
Erik Alejandro Rodriguez, aka Cimafunk, was rocking gold bellbottoms in one of his showcases, and his nine-piece co-ed band was neck-deep in the Afro-Cuban funk. Cimafunk is based in Havana, but his music is a melting pot of Cuban folk, rhumba, bolero and hard-edged, shape-shifting dance music from James Brown to Fela. His band had the chops to make it all go, and the set was less a series of songs than a nonstop river of rhythm.
Mojo "Juju" Ruiz de Luzuriaga with brother Steven on drums was a force as a singer and guitarist, and she needed to be. Her perspective is that of the eternal outsider, a woman of Aboriginal and Filipino heritage searching for home. "The search is my religion," she said. Her songs, a mix of soul, blues and folk with a dash of rock, outlined her pain and staked out her mission. "I don't belong inside your narrow definition," she sang on the potent 'Never Again'.
The co-ed quartet from Amsterdam makes a pop-punk racket that edges toward chaos. Spazzing out — rather than precision performance — is paramount. The band blitzed through a clutch of increasingly catchy three-minute songs as if they'd just been liberated for recess at school, led by namesake singer Pip Blom, who swayed in time to the rhythm down strokes on her guitar. Her brother, guitarist Tender Blom, and bassist Darek Mercks kept trading ‘can-you-believe-this?’ smiles as they stomped around the stage, but no one in the room looked like they were having a better time or expending more energy than Gini Cameron, a dervish on drums.
Chicago singer/songwriter Tasha goes it alone on stage, a woman and her guitar, and a handful of gentle, patiently developed songs. It doesn't sound overwhelming, but the singer is in no hurry to bowl over her audience. Instead she bides her time. The softer she sings, the closer listeners must lean in. Her voice boasts a quiet strength, and her songs offer hard-won consolation, a touch of tenderness in an unforgiving world. She goes about her work with a smile, and engaged the audience as if they were friends, collaborators. Her guitar playing proved to be as nuanced as her vocals, her fingers drawing expression out of the silence.
Gdansk, Poland's Trupa Trupa first made an impact in America last year at South by Southwest, and the quartet returned this year to debut songs from a forthcoming album on Sub Pop. The band dedicated its performance to Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz, an ally and friend who was recently murdered. "These are new radical, dark, anti-hate-speech songs," singer Grzegorz Kwiatkowski said by way of introduction, as good a way as any to describe the band's stark aesthetic. The lyrics were often snippets, phrases, designed to provoke rather than soothe, hint rather resolve: "I dream about no one, no way, no one," "I've got nothing to hide, I will just disappear." The minimalist constructions prized dynamics and drone over melody and often built hypnotic force.
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