NOLA’s small but strong showing at the week-long music festival was enough to remind the industry how diverse and far-reaching our influence is.
Of the hundreds of bands that played in Austin last week, only 14 New Orleans acts performed at official South By Southwest showcases. But these acts—along with a few other Louisiana bands and yet a few more who played unofficial shows—provided a vivid, if incomplete, music industry State of the Union for our little sliver of Planet Earth.
The first New Orleans act I caught was Sweet Crude, who played Wednesday night at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary. Sweet Crude recently signed with Verve Forecast, and it seems the band's newfound major label backing is paying off. The show came with a $20 ticket (a high price point for a single set at South By), but the the band still managed to pack the pews of a very large congregation hall. The church’s resounding acoustics worked well with Sweet Crude’s big, electronic-edged Cajun pop sound, and the whole crowd got into it.
On Thursday night, I saw Shreveport's The Seratones’ set inside at Cheer Up Charlie’s. The Shreveport garage-gospel four-piece signed to New West Records has been relatively quiet since releasing their debut LP, Get Gone, in 2016 to considerable buzz, including an NPR Tiny Desk concert. Still, they managed to fill the intimate room and put on an excellent show. A.J Hines’ gritty yet tuneful voice is good on wax, but the real artifact is even better. Onstage, she wore a pink tutu and wielded her guitar with consummate confidence, riffing deftly while hitting high vocal runs. Set closer “Don’t Need It” had the crowd singing along and ended the show on a high note.
Some of the best New Orleans music at SXSW 2019 came from the unofficial Community Records showcase at Hole in the Wall, an airy, two-stage dive just off UT Austin’s campus, over a mile away from the epicenter of the downtown action. Like most Com Rec events, the showcase felt both homespun and expertly organized. Running five-and-a-half hours, the event featured 13 short sets, alternating between the stages so there was never a break in the music. I was late to the action, getting to the bar just as Matt Surfin’ and Friends finished up. The brand new collective, whose only core component is Matt Seferian (Donovan Wolfington, Buncho), will release its debut, self-titled album on May 3.
Seferian was back onstage an hour later with his more established act, Pope. The trio is co-fronted by Seferian and Alejandro Skalany (New Holland, Donovan Wolfington). They make an odd pair as Skalany strikes an imposing figure and sings with a raw growl, whereas Seferian is quite small and sings in a soothing, nasal tone. Still, they achieve a rare symbiosis that can only come from years of playing together. They switch off on vocals and even trade bass and guitar back and forth, while Atticus Lopez provides an animated but steady drum foundation. Their set was laidback and full of banter. Seferian repeatedly mispronounced the band’s name Popé, poking fun at the self-promotional fervor of SXSW. After the show reached its climax with “Gym Birds,” a standout from their 2017 album, True Talent Champion, Pope seemed ready to call it a day, but Community Records co-founder Greg Rodrigue urged them to play one more, so they tried a cover of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” Skalany forgot half the words, but no one seemed to mind too much. Spirits were high.
An honorable non-NOLA mention goes to Hikes, an Austin band that recently signed to Community Records. Hikes headlined the showcase and played one of the best sets I saw all week. Their sound is virtuosic but never masturbatory, somewhere between post-punk, bedroom pop and jazz. Lead vocalist and guitarist Nathan James Wilkins floats around harmonic tones while Claire Pluckett plays rhythm guitar licks that would take the lead in any other project. Chris Long and Colin Jenkins round out the four-piece on bass and drums respectively. Wilkins stopped the set at one point to shout out Rodrigue and Daniel “D-Ray” Ray, Com Rec’s other founder: “We love telling people about Community Records, how it’s just these two ex-ska guys who drove around in a van run on vegetable oil for years. Well, I guess you’re never really ex-ska.” From the crowd, Rodrigue giggled his approval and shouted, “Ska, baby!”
Later that night, I checked out the “Lafayette Live Sheauxcase” at Antone’s Nightclub downtown. A few blocks from South By’s hectic central drag, the large venue was packed with patrons buzzing to see acts from the zydeco capital, including Ray Boudreaux, Sean Ardoin and the Roddie Romero trio. Near the front door, volunteers served jambalaya from deep silver hotel pans, and it wasn’t half bad. I arrived in time to see the last couple songs from New Natives Brass Band. The 10-piece outfit plays straight-ahead brass band music, from trad jazz to Mardi Gras Indian standards. Dressed in all-white uniforms and white sailor caps, they presented a united front to an enthusiastic crowd.
I left Antone’s to swing by the Goner Records showcase at Beerland, at the heart of the action on Red River and 7th. I got there in time to catch New Orleans' Pscience, a straightforward garage group that pleasantly surprised me with its energy and charisma. Pscience is fronted by three women who trade vocals and play bass, drums and keyboard, respectively. Each had her own style, but they harmonized nicely together and seemed to feed off each other’s energy. By the end of their set, their songs got a little repetitive (as garage rock tends to do), but it was still a strong performance.
The last New Orleans act I saw at SXSW 2019 was Cha Wa, who played a late-night set at The Palm Door and Sixth, at the mouth of Austin’s infamous “Dirty Sixth” (essentially Austin's Bourbon Street). Dirty Sixth is a full-on mess during South By (essentially Austin’s Mardi Gras), but the sloppiness of the club’s exterior didn’t permeate inside, and Cha Wa played for a relatively civil crowd. Recently nominated for a “Best Regional Album” Grammy for Spyboy, Cha Wa has been touring extensively throughout the world. The band warmed up earlier in the day by playing a festival on Willie Nelson’s ranch just outside Austin. The Palm Door set was tight and energetic, demonstrating the best of Mardi Gras Indian/funk fusion. Founder Joe Gelini is not the best drummer in town, but he always puts together a solid cast of characters, led by singer J’Wan Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indian tribe. Cha Wa’s South By lineup included trumpeter Aurélien Barnes (formerly of New Breed Brass Band) and guitarist Joshua Starkman, best known for his “Have a Great Day” Instagram video series. On Friday, Cha Wa ran through a series of classics with warmth and dexterity, a shining testament to the roots of New Orleans music and its future.