Music Festival Travel Journal: SXSW 2018

It’s SXSW 2018 and I’m in Austin for the third time in four years to enjoy the festivities. I’ll be doing a running journal of all the dope bands I see!

THURSDAY, MARCH 14

I intended for this travel journal blog to be a rundown of everything I saw but I’m short on time this morning before I hit the ground running so I just want to write a love letter to the Phantogram show I saw last night and why it was so special.

On Tuesday I was watching Men I Trust and I bumped into my friend Ray who is always at the same shows that I go to in LA, we have a lot of the same tastes. He tells me about this Phantogram + Local Natives + Barns Courtney show happening Thursday that’s put on by LiveNation (he works there) and I am lucky enough to get the hook up. No details on this show were released and it was clearly one of the hottest shows of the week.

But more than that, Phantogram is a band that I absolutely love. This was going to be my 15th time seeing them, and it was taking place at Native Hostel (where I saw Elohim on Monday), a pretty small venue for them to be playing. I’ve been on the rail for their festival sets, but that still puts you 20 feet from the stage and those stages are usually super elevated. Here I snagged a rail spot and was literally a foot from where Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel was going to be setting up.

My friend Sydney is someone I’ve known since I was like 12 years old. I used to make her mixed CDs of music back then, and when I moved to LA in 2014 I bumped into her a day before I had an extra ticket to see Phantogram for the first time at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. She came with and our friendship picked up right where it left off in high school. She’s been one of my best friends and I couldn’t live in LA without her, honestly. So I saved her a spot on the rail and she got up there in time for Phantogram.

SXSW is full of industry events where most people are only half paying attention — but this was not one of them. For Local Natives, half the room was singing along. For Phantogram, it bordered on superfandom. People were going HARD, none more than me. Two songs in, I was an absolute sweaty mess.

You could feel the appreciation from the band — they probably half expected a stuffy industry event where people at the back of the room talk to each other loudly, but they got a passionate crowd that was fully absorbed by the performance.

Phantogram at SXSW 2018 from my phone

Halfway through the show, they performed the song “Calling All” from their latest album Three. I always felt this was an underrated banger from the album and it’s probably my favorite song from the entire record. During the second verse, I was singing along and rocking the fuck out and Sarah Barthel came right up to me and sang the words right at me. It was one of the coolest moments I’ve ever experienced at a concert, and the very next song she did the same thing to Sydney during “When I’m Small”, one of my favorite songs of theirs for sure.

Sharing that experience with one of my best friends, and having that connection with a band like that — it’s a feeling that’s better than any high you can get from drugs. It’s really uplifting that you can feel something like that, even when you go to as many shows as I do (or probably anyone else in that room goes to). After the show we couldn’t stop talking about it. It felt like they high-fived us right in the heart. And when they walked off the stage at the end of the show she looked right at us and gave us props for being so locked into the show.

That’s what music at its best is all about. Connections and memories. I’ll live off that high for as long as I can.


OTHER THURSDAY HIGHLIGHTS:

I saw Kitten climb an actual tree, living up to her name at the Girls To The Front showcase down E. 6th St. put on by my friend Emily Treadgold at The New Nine. It was an awesome gathering and they played this new song “Strange Embrace” that I’ve listened to on a loop while writing this blog post and making my schedule for the day. They are so fucking amazing live and I can’t wait to hear this new album.

My other friend Grant Owens had his We Found New Music/Peppermint Club showcase after I saw Phantogram and I swung by and caught NoMBe and Billie Eilish. Serious kudos to Grant because he is absolutely killing it and is one of the nicest dudes in the LA music scene. His curating skills are also top notch, he was on Billie Eilish before anyone I know. NoMBe has the potential to be a huge star.

I also caught Sunflower Bean for the third time, and crossed Morgan Saint off my list of acts I had to see by catching her Pandora set. She’s got an Ellie Goulding rasp meets the production of Bishop Briggs and MO. Really digging it.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 14

Wednesday ended up being my first full day of action. I hit the ground running at 1 PM, catching a Sunflower Bean set at the FLOODFest showcase at Cedar Street Courtyard. A funny moment happened where the DJ played their song “Twentytwo” while the band was soundchecking, and singer Julia Cumming mimed along to the song. They have a great sense of humor and also seem way more mature than their 22 years of age. It was a killer set that the crowd seemed really into.

Next I finally got to catch Tristen, who was playing The Blackheart for the PledgeMusic + The Current showcase. I first discovered her as a touring member of queen Jenny Lewis’ band. She took Natalie Prass’ place when she went to record her solo debut (Prass would ironically play the same showcase a few hours later, which I saw). Tristen’s set was awesome — “Glass Jar” is such a fun folk jam with a catchy as fuck chorus.

OKAY, I’m running outta time to catch this 1 PM show, will add more later.

TUESDAY, MARCH 13

Usually I’m on the ground ready to catch shows at noon, but because of my night I woke up at 12:30 PM and I was definitely not ready to roll. After a few hours of decompressing and eating snacks, I finally got ready and headed to Austin around 3 PM. I caught one of my can’t miss acts Men I Trust from Montreal. They were the perfect hangover cure with their downtempo groovin’ jams, and the song “Tailwhip” was just as good live as it is on record.

After that, I headed down to Scoot Inn to catch White Reaper. Thankfully, they had free High Brews, and they had a salted caramel flavor that is absolutely delicious. I always forget how much these guys go OFF live. The keyboardist always looks like he’s living his absolute best life and at one point he went into the crowd with the microphone and had the crowd singing along. Beers went flying into the crowd and a nice little mosh started. It was definitely the most enthusiastic crowd of the day.

After White Reaper, I headed back to 6th St. and rested up for a bit before catching some sets at Empire. The first band I caught was local Austin band Los Coast, and the singer has a really killer raspy voice. It was very old-school funk sounding in the best way.

Next up was this band Trouble in the Streets, and they closed their set with an awesome cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade”. I also saw this R&B singer Josiah Bell that had some serious Luther Vandross feels to some of his songs.

The real reason I was at Empire was to see the Gary Clark Jr. produced hip-hop duo Blackillac. There was a lot of buzz about them during NBA All-Star Weekend in LA and this was their first official show. I love hip-hop, but seeing it live I’m often underwhelmed because it’s a dude letting the vocal track do all the heavy lifting a lot of the time. Not Blackillac. Zeale and Phranchyze rapped every bar, and they had legendary DJ Kurupt scratching behind them. There were so many points in their set they dropped some really dope bars that the crowd yelled “Ohhh!” It was a very high-energy set, my highlight of the week so far.

Afterwards I went to Elysium and found a couch for KCRW’s evening showcase. I saw Jason Bentley from KCRW there and chatted with him about how awesome his set at CRSSD Fest a few years ago was, and the sixtysomething year-old woman that was dancing to his set. Nilufer Yanya that I caught the previous night was finishing up her set.

Next was Minneapolis indie-pop band Now, Now, a band that I had gotten into in the last year or so. There was quite a solid singalong during their set, and the banger of the night was their catchy hook-filled song “S.G.L.” — one of their latest singles. It was a good way to wrap up the evening. I only had one beer the whole day which is why I’m in good enough shape to write this thankfully.

MONDAY, MARCH 12

So I had a 5:45 AM flight out of LAX with a stopover in Denver, finally landing in Austin around 1 PM. I’m staying with my friend Kristin from my one year of college in Texas for the week and she grabbed me from the airport. We made a pit stop at Trader Joe’s, I did a short interview with awesome indie rock band Night Moves, and then I charged up my phone in order to head out to downtown for the day.

My first band of the week was one of my favorites — NY indie rock trio Sunflower Bean. The show was at Prohibition Creamery, an awesome ice cream shop with a little bar inside. There was an open bar, and one of my LA friends Elizabeth also made it just in time for the band to start their set.

This was also extra special because it was an acoustic show, and I talked to Julia and Nick from the band who said they haven’t really played many acoustic shows. They played songs from their awesome new album Twentytwo In Blue that drops next week — I’ve been listening to my advance copy in regular rotation. The latest single “Twentytwo” is a really pretty ballad that sounded phenomenal acoustic. The whole set was serene and a great way to kick off SXSW.

Next we headed out to Native Hostel for the SoundCloud event. This was as swanky as the events came, I really dug the vibe. It also had an open bar and this is where my night gets a little murky. I caught Nilufer Yanya, an act I discovered while researching SXSW through NPR’s list of can’t miss acts. Her voice was awesome and she also had a sax player that was really dope.

The real reason I went to this event was because it was the only SXSW show from Los Angeles-based electro-pop producer and singer Elohim. She drops her debut album on April 27 — the same day she has a Fonda Theatre show — and it felt like I wasn’t the only one who was there to see her specifically. She brought the house down.

After that I caught BRONCHO at 1 AM at Hotel Vegas for the Strange Brew VII party. It was a hazy rock show, and I took a shot of something with a girl at the end of the bar and it’s honestly the last thing I remember. I haven’t blacked out from drinking in many many years, but I woke up with some bruises and also a nasty hangover. Not a great way to end the night after having a pretty good time up until then.