SxSW Music Diary: Sugarmen, Fizzy Blood & Demob Happy

Sugarmen impress and Fizzy Blood deliver a manic set that will stand out as a high point of the conference, but Demob Happy underwhelm. The Roots jam session turns away hundreds of hopefuls, highlighting the problems of Sx's unchecked growth.

Article by Aidan Ryan | 20 Mar 2016

Friday’s storm brought a chill that endures through most of Saturday, cutting down San Jacinto Boulevard and Brazos in sudden gusts, the bitterest of which we endure between 10 and 11 pm, waiting to be turned away from The Roots’ jam session at The Bud Light Factory, one of the most buzzed about shows of the week. The same sentiment runs in mumbles up and down the line: the exponential growth of the festival that started on 6th Street 29 years ago is causing problems that organisers can’t continue to ignore.

Four days of Sx have left us unevenly sunburned, scarred from a motorscooter racing mishap, and having all the spiritual wherewithal of a scooped-out cup of food truck mac and cheese – despite the residual thrill of having seen so many surprising new acts. Still, we need a generous helping of antelope and venison sausage at Banger’s on Rainey, as well as coffee served in a cup that looks like it could give us tetanus, to sally forth into Saturday. The music’s started already: the patrons of this venerable beer hall’s packed yard are entertained by local country and bluegrass acts The Boxcar Preachers and then The Cover Letter.

We spend most of my day at The British Music Embassy’s showcase at Latitude, though not before bumping into WOMPS in the Registrant’s Lounge, a small beer tent near the Austin Convention Center. We chat for a few minutes – highlights of their week, like ours, include Wednesday’s phenomenal Iggy Pop show and the frenetic Yonatan Gat.

At Latitude we're in time to catch much of Sugarmen. These Liverpudlians play songs like Plastic Ocean and It’s My Life, It’s Alright, with a sound leaning toward The Clash (they’ve worked with producer Mick Jones) and The Strokes. Their songs are simple and full of heart, and something about them reminds us of what Elvis Costello said about his crowd in the 70s: “We were just trying to play 50s music and were really bad at it.” That formula still works, and produces something new with each generation that tries it (whether they know they’re trying it or not). 

Fizzy Blood’s set is the high point of the day. On at 4:40pm, these hard rockers are even more evidently looking backward while moving forward. Their buzzing guitars jostle our tonsils while frontman Benji Inkley unleashes a classic metal yowl. They cite Queens of the Stone Age and Pulled Apart By Horses as influences, but it's difficult to trace either. Fizzy Blood can pray at whatever temples they choose, but right now we're standing front and center at their (quite literally) whiskey soaked altar. So close, in fact, that one of Inkley’s kicks almost sends the notebook flying.

It’s soon evident that their antics are an organic part of their live act – they inhabit, with British punk-rock panache, the mentality that Austin band Duncan Fellows recommended yesterday. Guitarist Paul Howells stands on the sound equipment, jumps off, and crashes into bassist Ciaran Scanlon, who in turn crashes into the drums. Luckily Jake Greenway can find a pocket of relative calm in one of their versatile songs to fix his toms.

This leaves Howells with a broken string by the third tune – “typical,” he says, and Inkley lends the man his axe and directs his full attention to the mic, like a lover. Something goes wrong with his pedal board and he disconnects and plugs straight into the amp without missing a step; they chew their way through I’m No Good and Queen of Hearts the way five rock-loving wolverines would tear through the annual Nugget World Rib Eating Championship.

They’re delivered double-shots of whiskey that must be laced with adrenochrome; now drummer Greenway and bassist Scanlon have fixed their faces into ferocious open-mouthed grimaces, looking like skeleton-pale Ndeemba masks. Howells he finishes their set from on top of the bar, roadies rushing to make sure his cord doesn’t cause a glass catastrophe, while Inkley frisbees records out into the crowd.

Demob Happy, the Brighton/Newcastle quartet, have a tough act to follow, even tougher when one of the guitarists’ pedalboards conks out. But they go on gamely and replace the batteries – after all, as the guitarist’s arm tattoo reads, “It could be worse. We could be dead.” But they’re not exactly demob happy once they start – the stumble has shaken them.

Inkley, in the crowd now, is quietly singing along to most of the band’s songs, a fine endorsement but they've left us indifferent. With yellow backlights making messy coronas of their grungey mops, they’re intermittently engaging but need to move beyond the training wheels of influences that are all to obvious.

Still with a bit of a thrill in our veins from Fizzy Blood’s unexpected transfusion, we take a pleasant bike ride across the Colorado River, passing through different zones of sound – a dance party above Shiner’s, indie rock on the Handlebar’s balcony, and the Caribbean Systema Solar at the Outdoor Stage at Lady Bird Lake – ending up at the New York Times-hyped Tatsu-Ya, which justifies its reputation with some incredibly unctuous ramen.

Then, of course, we enter the valley of SxSorrow. The badges queue for The Roots’ jam was “insane” and the wristbands queue “impossible,” according to one staffer, but we take a spot in a line that folds thrice on itself in front of the venue on 4th St, before stretching down Brazos almost to 5th. The Roots’ soundcheck rattles a window next to where we're queueing; we lean in to hear ?uestlove fool around for a while. His snare sound would be distinguishable anywhere. An hour later we’ve moved from Brazos to 4th St., in front of the venue, and can hear a cover of Express Yourself, and a hot trumpet solo from David Guy. Guests (we learn over Twitter) include X Ambassadors, Tish Hyman, Marc E Bassy, Emily King, and Too Short, culminating in Big Grams – Big Boi and Phantogram.

Meanwhile fans further up fool around with an interactive Bud Light soundboard set up along the wall – amusing them but making the rest of us even less patient.  I give up after about an hour into the jam – we’re waiting, we learn, not to get into the show, but to get into an overflow room where we can watch the jam on a smallish TV screen and sip one complimentary can of a brew most of us would only drink when attending a superbowl party at the house of an uncle stuck in his outdated bevvying ways – and then only to be polite, kicking ourselves for not bringing a six of a better craft brew.

The Roots jam typifies the problems with the 30 year-old Sx: it tries to be all things for all people. Badge-holders and artists alone numbered 30,208 at last year’s conference. This doesn’t include those who buy only wristbands, or hope to get into unofficial showcases, and this year’s conference was even bigger. Of 30,000 attendees, how many will want to get into a Roots jam session on a Saturday night? More than the few hundred – a paltry handful – that the Brazos Hall could hold.

Organisers need to get better at picking venues – and need to expand many of their showcases to much larger venues – while clearing up the confusion caused by badges and wristbands, VIPs, and the ability to RSVP directly to showcase-organizer months in advance. The saddest thing about missing The Roots' show was that it really wasn’t a case of old timers cruising in to steal thunder.

Big Grams came on late and only after a deluge of other acts (so many that some found them at once over- and underwhelming): this was a revolving door-show of relative unknowns, acts The Roots thought could use the exposure in front of this audience of tastemakers. That fits the original spirit of Sx, but it doesn’t fit the reality of Sx today: metastasised and many-headed. You might expect some soul-searching from the conference organisers: the key will be keeping the creative chaos but cutting down on the wait times, miscommunications, and disappointments like this.