The Times
Friday, March 23, 2020

South by South West Festival Austin, Texas

Austin, Texas, is the most bohemian and liberal city in the Southern states, home to a vast community of musicians who have moved from all over the union to make it the self-proclaimed "live music capital of America." Once a year Austin also plays host to the world’s biggest and most extraordinary music festival, South by South West, with more than 800 acts performing in some 40 venues.

The festival attracts its share of big names and this year they included the Black Crowes and David Byrne, both previewing material from their new albums. But the real excitement of SxSW lies in spotting tomorrow’s household names today.

This year’s star-in-waiting surely has to be Ryan Adams. Once the singer with alt country band Whiskeytown, his first solo album Heartbreaker won rave reviews last year for its searing poetics, sung in a voice somewhere between Gram Parsons and Neil Young. But here Adams was transformed. Backed by a punkish band called the Pink Hearts, he was arrogant, swaggering, brattish, and rampant – the very spirit of rock’n’roll.

The jagged guitar chords of the opening song sounded like the Rolling Stones in early-1970s excelsis, while I Don’t Want To Work was a speed-thrash which the Ramones would have been proud to call their own. There was nothing country about it. This was just pure essence of bad-boy, kick-out-the-jams rock with attitude. At the end Adams threw his guitar to the floor and flounced off stage with a word. Half the audience loved it and the other half was in a state of shock.

But if Adams broke the mould, for the most part, SxSW is still singer-songwriter heaven. Sharing the same bill was Lucinda Williams, who road-tested material from her forthcoming album Essence. The new songs unfolded with a delicious, slow country burn, and Williams smouldered with the same sort of Southern sexuality which Shelby Lynne exudes. From the same stable, Kim Richey and new name Tift Merritt also performed impressively.

- Nigel Williamson