10 for 10 at SXSW

The Annual South by Southwest, from light-swinging frontmen to human-saving flash drives

Banks at Bar 96, March 15.
Nick Meyers
David Boyd of New Politics hangs from lights atop the roaring crowd at the Brazos Hall, March 17.

For 30 years South by Southwest has been bringing a smorgasbord of film, music and innovative lectures and showcases from around the world to Austin, Texas. Each of the festival's 10 days in March holds a surprise and a double take in every café, bar or dark alley. Here's what a couple of savvy Tucson Weekly scriveners dug the most.

Numero Uno! Banks

Danyelle: If you haven't heard her, go listen! If you haven't seen her live, go watch! This 28-year-old powerhouse puts on a performance to match any I've ever seen. She's a hit of Ecstasy, a cliff-dive, love at first sight.

"This music is truly from my heart," she tells a hundred people at a tiny bar in downtown Austin. Her speaking voice is soft and sweet as her singing powerful.

Two dancers behind her, their long blond hair and silver skin sparkling under black nylon. Banks' hair is dark down her back. Long strings hang from her black top and sway with the music as the women dance in sync, like a machine. Banks' lyrics are deeply human, but her voice is something more.

"Everyone put away your phones," she tells us. "And we'll experience something really special."

She begins to do something akin to scatting, but unique. It's all her own. Her lyrics are about overcoming heartbreak, being resilient, accepting your mistakes and imperfections. And I'm not the only one in the audience with tears in my eyes. I'm not the only one who knows I will leave the show changed.

Nick: I didn't know what to expect walking into Banks, but from the moment she appeared on the stage, like a ghost out of thin air, I couldn't look away. There was something in the chilling cadence of her voice and the intimidation behind her eyes that drew me in. Then, in the same wisp with which she appeared, she vanished with the last note of her set.

By the time she had the crowd singing, "I can love you better than she" to her own brand of scat, I was mesmerized. When she combined her lyrical command with an almost-too-sweet demeanor between songs, I became skeptical that she wasn't a subversive government agent sent to brainwash the masses. Either way, it worked. Yeah, so maybe I was the other one tearing up.

No. 2: Trainspotting 2

Danyelle: Anticipation. Waiting in line for a "secret screening." Unsure if we'd get in. Then we made it inside the doors. The smell of popcorn filled our noses. And Ewan McGregor and Danny Boyle were taking the stage of the intimate, dine-in theater and introducing the prescreening of T2. (Yes T2, not copyrighted by the Terminator conglomerate, but Trainspotting's director!)

The movie, now in theaters nationwide, is not a reboot or a cliché take on middle age trying to relive youth. No, T2 is an exhilarating yet relatable tale about the cost of living for the moment. The unforgettable Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud come back 20 years later to pay their debts and find new reasons to live.

But some things haven't changed, like McGregor's famous smile that screams, "Fuck you! I'm alive!"

Nick: Trainspotting 2 feels like visiting an old friend, and true to the movie's plot, one you wanted to hit over the head with a barstool as you return for the range of reactions to one of Scotland's most defining pieces of cinema in the last 25 years.

The sequel takes the fast-paced energy of its predecessor and gives it a facelift. The movie's relation to the first film mirrors that of the characters' relation to their younger selves. Older, though perhaps not much wiser, their search for meaningful lives while attempting to reconcile the events of the past carries every punch of the original.

No. 3: Future Islands

Danyelle: The lead singer of Future Islands reveals his soul while he performs. That persona most of us wear when in public, guarding our inner selves—frontman Samuel T. Herring motions pulling off his mask while on stage at one of SXSW's most popular venues.

Under his mask, he's crying unabashedly in front of hundreds. He pounds his chest. He growls into the microphone. He dances all over the stage. He stretches out a hand as if to say, "Be real. Be strong." Sweat pours down his face. He reaches to the sky. It's a difficult time in our country, he tells the audience, and he's so excited to be here.

No. 4: New Politics

Nick: While most begin crowding the front of the stage for Weezer's appearance two hours later, the audience finds an energetic surprise in New Politics. The band has been recording an album for more than a year and you can tell they're psyched to be back under stage lights.

The Danish punk band stands at the front of a new wave of pent-up generational angst, carrying the torch passed on by The Beastie Boys and Green Day. Front man David Boyd's cheerful between-song demeanor elevates light-hearted spins about smashing Lexus windows and slippin' the five-O to sling weed.

No. 5: San Fermin

Danyelle: The eight-piece Brooklyn band greets their audience with fierce abandon. In a black slip and red four-inch platform heals, Charlene Kaye wails into the mic, growling and scowling at all the right moments. Wild-haired Claire Wellin is brash on the violin. Open-mouthed smile, she looks into the eyes of band mate Allen Tate, who howls, "Run to the hills. Run to the hills. Run!"

John Brandon and Stephen Chen on trumpet and saxophone jump into the crowd and the audience surrounds them, dancing, laughing, ultimate-blissing. San Fermin's indie-pop demands joy of each and every audience member—joy of being in love, joy of being heartbroken, joy of being wild.

No. 6: Lights on Ceres

Nick: Hailing from the Mexico side of Nogales, Lights on Ceres is a three-piece band self-described as "space wave," a nod to their electronics and effects. Comprised of 28-year-old Alberto Espinosa on lead vocals and guitar; drummer Roberto Garcia, 32; and Jorge Pablo Zarate, 26, on keyboard and backup vocals, the combo goes all ethereal with a rich pop bent, a blend of '80's night-club with a 21st century urbane sheen. Throwback futurism that's danceable and sexual.

No. 7: Secret Sisters

Danyelle: The Secret Sisters are as joyful on stage as their songs are depressing. Laura and Lydia Rogers love the dark days.

On the second floor of one of Austin's ubiquitous barbecue restaurants, the huge head of a longhorn bull looks down on the Alabama sisters as they harmonize with a rapturous twang. Between songs, Lydia tunes her guitar, and Laura chats with the audience, chewing gum, joking and telling stories.

The sisters love music from another time, and most of their favorite musicians are dead. It shows in their old-timey feel, with a sorrow older than they are.

"And now we're going to segue into happier material by playing a murder ballad," Laura says. It's a sequel to their first murder ballad and will be on their next album, You Don't Own Me Anymore, produced by Brandi Carlile and out this summer.


Nick: Capyac weren't on the list of things to see, but in a moment of circumstance they fill an unexpected void. Offering up some updated funky turns and a casual coolness, this electronic trio set a mood for a night of indulgence. They effortlessly captivate with sights and sounds—images reminiscent of the old-school iTunes visualizer on an acid trip dance across the walls.

No. 9: Gina Chavez

Danyelle: Red dress and red lips, Gina Chavez rocks the mic, strings and percussion with a standup-for-your-rights Latin vibe.

"This song goes out to our friend, Mitch McConnell," Chavez says before launching into a politically charged song. A sign that reads "Yo no creo, fronteras" is projected behind her. Rocking a short do, she dances with her guitar, while her band—trumpet, trombone, bongos, bass, drumkit and guitar back her up.

Her vocals sometimes recall Mexican love-ballads. She flows between Spanish and English and even throws in a rap. There's a reason why Chavez has won eight Austin music awards. She's unafraid to try something new knowing exactly what she's doing.

No. 10: Sleigh Bells

Nick: "It's like being blinded by garage rock aliens," says one fan prior to the show with the foresight to wear sunglasses at 1 a.m. Garage rock is many-headed beast, from soul and R&B to glam and punk, yet it's all an apt descriptor of this band's brutal sound.

Singer Alexis Krauss commands; she owns the stage, a full-on master of the live show, and her melodic, often pretty voice stands in contrast to the chest-caving rhythms. As Krauss jumped from stage supports to railings and surfed atop the crowd, the pit feeds off her energy like hyenas in the savannah devouring a lioness.

'Cause it's cool:

The SXSW tradeshow, which ran for four days, was a global showcase of tech innovation. The inventions showcased may just save the world, or at least entertain us on our way out. Here are a few faves:

Though the tradeshow had little to do with music beyond the cutting edge of recording and instrumental technology, it was too good to pass up during the festival. Exhibits displayed everything from the latest in self-driving cars, to the technology that would land humans on Mars, to the next generation of entertainment in virtual and augmented reality.

The coolest exhibits were hosted by Lockheed. Lockheed not only showed off a rudimentary exoskeleton for demanding, physical labor, but also its latest EEG, a slick headband that measures brainwaves for application from fighter pilots to third graders by measuring concentration and stress to maximize cognitive performance.

Local Roots is growing as much produce in a bus as traditionally takes acres. They're currently selling to large food distributors. But in five years, they plan to have affordable home kits, the size of a mini-fridge. People will just pour in some seeds, regulate the environment with an app and grow their own veggies. Find out more at www.localrootsfarms.com.

Flash Drives for Freedom collects donated flashdrives, fills them with information and delivers them to North Korea. With the help of North Korean defectors, the organization uses drones, balloons and other methods to deliver the information. Their slogan: "Silence the regime with your flashdrive." Find out more at flashdrivesforfreedom.org.

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