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SXSW 2021 music recap: We came, we saw, we channel-surfed on our couches

Deezie Brown puts in a standout set as part of the Breaks showcase during South by Southwest 2021. While some artists adapted well to performing in a void, we missed having an interactive audience.

American-Statesman music writers Deborah Sengupta Stith and Peter Blackstock convened on Austin360's streaming show, the Monday Music Mashup, to recap their experiences covering the first-ever online version of South by Southwest. Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation, followed by some highlights.

Deborah Sengupta Stith: It’s the Monday after SXSW, and we are not attending to our blisters and our sore muscles and our sunburns. We spent the weekend sitting on our couches. Peter, what was your overall impression of online SXSW?

Peter Blackstock: Overall, the biggest impression that I was left with was how film worked really, really well, and music less so. And when I thought about it, this wasn't surprising at all, because our habits for those mediums were already pretty well established before the pandemic.

People had already been gravitating away from theaters toward watching stuff at home in the way that we take in movies these days. So it made sense that films would be a very online-friendly part of the festival.

With music, though: Before COVID, very few people were livestreaming. It's been a good thing to have when there is no other option. But really what people want is to return to live music again. And so, especially having already done the online thing for a year, it was a little harder to get into that. Though I still watched more than a dozen bands over the course of the week.

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D.S.S.: I think that one thing that I realized, as I was watching these showcases, was just how much an audience is part of the live music experience. If we go to a movie at the Alamo Drafthouse, we have to sit in silence. With music, the crowd is part of the show. It's a totally different shared experience.

For some artists, playing into the void, as it were, was something that didn't disrupt their music. Others, including rapper Deezie Brown, who put in an outstanding set on the Breaks showcase on opening night, had charisma and star quality that came through on the small screen. But for others who have really interactive sets, they would call things out, and if they were in a crowd, they would be getting that big shout back. The absence of that was something I really felt. 

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P.B.: I think we agree on this, but Tuesday night, the first night of the festival, the Jazz Re:Freshed UK show was really special. That whole first day was all about the international stuff for me, with shows from Sweden and Spain, as well. It was kind of hard for your SXSW music experience NOT to be about the international stuff, because it was most of the content of the festival. (More than 50% of this year’s showcasing acts were international acts.).

Music festival head James Minor talked to us about this before the fest and said that one of the reasons for the heavy international presence was because it's so much easier for those acts to be a part of it this year, since they didn't have to travel here. 

But even before the online festival, SXSW has always had a strong international presence, because other countries spend their government-funded arts dollars on bringing bands to Austin. So when we do return to the “real” world, I expect that to continue. It's not going to be a shift of everything international just staying online.

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Taiwanese band Neko Jam plays during the Taiwan Beats showcase at SXSW. The showcase took viewers on a tour of the bands' home country concluding at this Taoist temple.

D.S.S.: It’s worth noting that none of the festival showcases were live. I hadn’t really thought about the government money, but it makes sense that some of these international showcases were probably so good because they had a budget to produce a new piece of content for the festival.

That Jazz Re:Freshed showcase is one of my favorites every year. Artists are doing such interesting things with jazz in the U.K. right now. This year, that showcase was in (iconic London Studio) Abbey Road, so it was a really beautiful setting.

Some of the showcases that worked the best were the ones that played around with the setting. The Taiwan Beats showcase took you on this tour of their country. One of those sets was in this indoor shrimp fishing restaurant where people catch their shrimp and then grill them up right there. That’s apparently a thing in Taiwan. And that was really, really cool. 

Was there anything you saw that just didn’t work?

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P.B.: I didn’t go very deep with the panels. I watched Willie Nelson’s keynote on Wednesday, and a little bit of Stacey Abrams on Tuesday, which was marred by being delayed for half an hour — a reminder that just because it's online did not mean SXSW was going to be free of logistical difficulties.

Those were both pretty good, but I tuned into sessions with Mick Fleetwood and Carole King on Thursday, and found that after five or 10 minutes, I lost interest in them. In some ways, that reflected the typical SXSW for me, because I often find that it's hard to work panels into my schedule.

D.S.S.: Yeah, same for me. One problem I saw with music showcases: There's a movement in hip-hop and R&B over the last decade where artists sing over their own vocals. They play a vocal track that's the song, and then when they're doing it live, they'll actually double the vocals, so their live and recorded vocals will be going at the same time. There were some artists who were doing that for the showcases and clearly lip-synching. If you're thinking about it more like a music video, sometimes you are lip-synching. But there were some where it was just obvious that it wasn't synced.

And when the artists would talk, it was clear that the sound quality on their microphone when they were talking was completely different than when the music was playing. So it was very clear that the music that was playing was just the audio of the produced track. That didn't sit so well with me. But I only saw that in one showcase, maybe two.

P.B.: I'm looking forward to a real SXSW again, but I think they did the best they could with a difficult situation.

Vocal Vidas perform during the SXSW Online showcase presented by Soy Cuban on March 19.

10 musical highlights from SXSW 2021

DEBORAH SENGUPTA STITH

Flipped Coin Korea: Aiming for high artistry, each set in this showcase looked like a music video or short film. Y2p2k unwound dreamy electropop inside an animated box. She was singing in Korean and her lyrics popped up in Korean and English on the side. A small child danced in circles under a gauzy filter while Tengger’s music floated around her in a set that was simultaneously pastoral and psychedelic. 

Hotel Free TV: Myf Mars and Jordan Kovach, producers of Hotel Vegas’ streaming series, share a love of old school, analog recording equipment. This showcase, which included excellent sets from Sasha and the Valentines and Blushing, was a retro celluloid fantasy that had the strange effect of making you feel like you’d stumbled across an oddly amazing Saturday night public access TV get-down from 1995 while also making you feel like you were three ‘ritas into a day party at your favorite East Austin rock dive. 

“Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché”: Filmmaker Celeste Bell leads a heartfelt and at times gut-wrenching excavation of the life of her mother, British punk icon and X-Ray Spex frontwoman Poly Styrene. As she connects the dots, the film emerges as a meditation on the struggles the Anglo-Somali artist faced growing up biracial — at the intersection of colonizer and colonized — in 1960s England and breaking into music at a time when there were few female rockers on the scene. She takes a hard look at the racism and misogyny that likely contributed to both her mother’s mental illness and her enduring punk anthem “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”

“Soy Cubana”: The gorgeous four-part harmonies of the a capella singing group Vocal Vidas ripple through this documentary that highlights the challenges they faced while trying to bring their graceful recreations of classic and contemporary Cuban songs to a U.S. audience for the first time. The joyful reception they receive and ebullient performances they deliver are a potent reminder of the value of cross-cultural connections. 

NPR Tiny Desk Meets SXSW: The public radio-produced compilation of home performances from emerging artists included a charming hang with L.A. artist Steady Holiday, a soulful set from rapper/R&B artist Duckwrth and a lively living room jam from Domincan fusion group Yasser Tejada & Palotre. But the standout session came from Clipping, a new industrial rap project from Daveed Diggs. Taking the idea of Tiny Desk literally, the “Hamilton” actor rocked an inch-long microphone while his producers William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes huddled over dollhouse recreations of their mixers. Creating memorable characters seems second-nature to Diggs, and he excels at detailed story rap. With uncomfortably tight camera angles, harsh electronics and impeccable diction, Diggs and crew put in an intense set that ran heavy on expressive wordplay and looming paranoia.

Steady Holiday performs at the SXSW Music Festival showcase presented by NPR Tiny Desk Concert during SXSW Online on March 20.

PETER BLACKSTOCK

Music documentary films: This year's offerings produced my favorite pair of music docs since the Townes Van Zandt and Daniel Johnston films premiered at the same SXSW in 2005. I expected "Without Getting Killed Or Caught," Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield’s film about Guy and Susanna Clark, to be great, and it was. "Tom Petty, Somewhere You Feel Free" was similarly compelling, if bittersweet; the 1990s archival footage underscored how sad it is that we won't get to see what Petty would've done into his 70s and beyond. A bonus surprise for me was “Under the Volcano”: I knew nothing about George Martin’s island-getaway studio in the Caribbean, and how many indelible 1980s pop hits had been recorded there. (Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony and Ivory,” Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing,” the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” and Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” among them.)

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Willie Nelson keynote: My favorite line from the Austin legend’s conversation with Texas Monthly’s Andy Langer was about how his own instincts are his primary guide when he’s making music. "I know what I like, and I have to trust what I like as being good,” Nelson said. “And so far, that’s the way it’s been. I trust my opinion.” Willie also touched on everything from spirituality (“God is Love, period. … You can't have one without the other”) to weed (“It keeps me from killing people, or keeps me from getting killed!”) to getting back to work eventually as the pandemic recedes: "I don’t want to do a show anywhere at any time where there's a danger of someone getting sick. So that’s going to have a lot to do with when I get back to work.”

Jazz Re:Freshed: I’d never seen this U.K. showcase in person, but now I would probably make a point of doing so at future in-person SXSWs. Though I tuned in largely because I was intrigued by what I’d heard about tuba player Theon Cross, I found that once I started watching, I got pulled into all of it. Now I’m a fan of pianist Dominic Canning’s project Doom Cannon, the soulful sounds of saxophonist Camilla George and the adventurous spirit of drummer Richard Spaven’s explorations. Holding the whole thing at London’s famed studio Abbey Road was a nice bonus, but I’d take it in a Red River dive with these aces any time.

Continental Club shows: In recent years, the last day of SXSW has become increasingly focused on locals, as traveling acts start heading home during the final weekend. That carried over to the online event in one really nice way: Five local acts were shown performing at the Continental, the iconic South Congress venue that has been greatly missed for the past year. Jon Dee Graham and William Harries Graham brought the spirit of their long-running Wednesday night residency to a Saturday afternoon stream, shortly after a Nine Mile Records & Touring hour that featured inspiring sets from the Greyhounds, the Deer and Kevin Galloway.

Carson McHone from Canada: That Nine Mile show kicked off with another local artist performing from a faraway location. McHone, a rising star in recent years with a repertoire that has focused primarily on country-folk and Americana, stretched her wings with a lively 15-minute set from Toronto backed by a six-piece cast of indie-rockers. McHone apparently has been holed up there during the pandemic, working on an upcoming album for Nine Mile. The new material she played in her set suggests she’s headed for an intriguing breakout.