One of the upsides of the increasing sprawl that is South by Southwest is the opportunity for the festival to contain a series of mini-festivals — house shows and pop-up performances and other events designed to appeal to a narrower set of musical tastes. Of these, the most consistently reliable have been the shows that take place at Hotel Vegas, an Old West-style multi-room bar located on East Sixth Street, a fair walk from the festival’s main point of action. This year, their roster seemed even fuller than in year’s previous — around two dozen bands played every day, all five days of the festival.
I like Hotel Vegas because it’s one of the few places left in Austin that vibrates with a love of music that feels wholly undiluted by commerce or corporate cool-jacking. It’s completely unpretentious, modest in scale but stunning in scope. The stacked bills seem to spring from a manic desire on the part of the day’s organizers to hear as much music as humanly possible, and the fact that most of the bands who played over the course of the week had at least some passing connection to the California label Burger Records — whose own aesthetic is essentially “as much as possible, all the time” — gave the shows a familial vibe. The bookings were also entirely indifferent to trends and buzz, and seemed designed to cater to those festivalgoers who felt the same. Don’t care about Lady Gaga on the Doritos Stage? Here’s Buck Biloxi & the Fucks on the patio.
All of the bands that played operate within roughly the same stylistic locus — some variant of power-pop played with the raggedness of garage, or garage undercut with the sweetness of power pop. Every band I saw on Saturday was good — and I saw around 20 — but some were better than others.
The best by far was the Brazilian band Boogarins. It seems simplistic to compare them to Os Mutantes, but it was that band they channeled most (particularly on the pinwheel-psych opener “Lucifernadis”). Their songs are remarkably accomplished, bleary verses swerving into strange, glazed-over choruses. Their set kept changing shape, gradually feeling like the soundtrack to a fever dream, perfectly suited to final-day exhaustion.
John Wesley Coleman and Fletcher C. Johnson were rowdier and more aggressive. Both of them play grubby iterations of what could loosely be defined as pub rock. Coleman, with his gang of guitars and hyperactive sax man, felt like a dollar-store version of the E Street Band. They bashed out blues-derived rock songs that felt like they were running on a combination of cheap beer and sweat. Johnson’s songs channeled the pubby power pop of Stiff Records. Decked out in a suit (apparently, one he’d worn into a hot tub a few days earlier), Johnson rocketed through a series of radiant rock songs as long on charm as they were on hooks.
Then there were the bands who preferred things messier. AJ Davila, of Davila 666, delivered Spanish-language punk rock, the pogoing tempos and wiry guitars of which nodded toward rockabilly. The Coathangers were brash and clattering, taking the propulsive tempos and rickety arrangements of bands like Delta 5 and amplifying them to ear-splitting volume. Their set was the most gleefully anarchic, drums landing like knuckles in a bar fight, guitars slashing madly. And Cherry Glazerr, from L.A., paired hyperactive vocal melodies with guitars thick as cold bacon fat; theirs was a set characterized by raw tonnage — sledgehammering chords and deceptively sweet singing.
And then there was Curtis Harding, whose stunning early-evening set consisted of songs that laced classic soul melodies to rowdy rock instrumentation. To watch him was to be filled with the sense you were seeing the early part of a rocket ride to colossal popularity. The music was tough and nervy and Harding’s voice was gorgeous, and the combination of the two felt like watching an old Stax artist backed by the Reigning Sound. His performance was brief but spectacular, R&B reinvented for the punk-rock set.
In the end, though, even Hotel Vegas was no match for the stampede South by Southwest has become. By the later part of the night, moving from one room to the next had become impossible, so thick was the crowd of people, and the ragged punk venue was beset by the problem that plagued the festival at large: long lines. (To be fair to Hotel Vegas, they usually moved quickly, and they never robbed me of seeing something I really wanted to). At the end of the night I finally got to see my Most Anticipated Band of the Week, Peach Kelli Pop. They barreled through four songs of bright, sugary power-pop, effortlessly nailing the caramel-dipped Shirelles harmonies on the record. I was ecstatic. Then, an amp blew and the whole set came to a screeching halt. I didn’t wait for it to resume. Part of the charm of seeing shows at a place like Hotel Vegas is dealing with the setbacks that come with such a ragged setup. I’d gotten to hear the band I came here to see play four songs that made me happier than nearly anything else I’d heard all week. That was enough for me.