After spending the bulk of my week at SXSW Music watching panels, conducting interviews, and speed-walking from event to event, I crawled into Friday night hoping to embed myself in a series of performances without a looming distraction. I’ve been surrounded by music here in Austin, but it’s remarkable how little time I’ve actually spent listening to it. I know enough to understand that’s par for the course despite everyone’s best intentions, but I still had my fingers crossed. Would I stumble into a transcendent experience or end up in bed before midnight, laid low by decision paralysis and listening to old podcasts?
Reader, I’m happy to report that I danced my ass off. I spent the night at Ninja Tune’s showcase, an event that offered a sort of electronic music prix fixe menu: diverse, peculiar small plates that seem disconnected in isolation but make sense as part of a larger whole. If you wanted winking, fecund footwork, you could arrive early for a set by the enigmatic DJ Paypal. The Detroit legend Moodymann would work up a stew of disco, house, and funk a few hours later. Some of the tastes are familiar, and some of the tastes are surprising. You place your trust in the chef and find yourself reflecting on the meal as a whole.
If you forced me to pick a favorite chunk of sets, I’d point to the three that anchored the middle of the night. Brainfeeder’s Taylor McFerrin stitched together forthcoming new material and highlights from 2014’s jazzy, laid-back Early Riser, an album that took nearly half a decade to complete. The music wasn’t particularly propulsive, but it was earthy, warm, and cerebral; hips were quiet, but heads were moving. The British producer Leon Vynehall offered up sumptuous, hypnotic club music in a set that surprised me with its darkness and rhythmic aggressiveness. When he tucked into "It’s Just (House of Dupree)," a highlight from his 2014 mini-LP Music for the Uninvited, it felt like watching the sunrise after a night on the floor.
I decided to surrender to SXSW
After a minute I spent catching my breath, Machinedrum took the stage for nearly an hour of blinding, hyper-speed new music, all of which he’d apparently composed since January. Every new track threw off disorienting color and light, and when he brought out future-R&B goddess D∆WN — he produced her single "Not Above That" — it felt like a well-earned victory lap. None of these sets have much in common on the surface, but they share a few essential qualities: intelligence, generosity, congeniality.
This is my first SXSW, and I’ve spent most of the week racked with low-level anxiety about everything I’m probably missing. I haven’t made it out to Austin’s gigantic musical forts, houses, and hotels, and my attendance at any secret after-hours gigs has been limited by being both uncool and perpetually exhausted. At some point during last night’s showcase, I decided to surrender, to allow myself to drown in the flood of performances and setlists and wristbands. There’s more worthy music being played here than I could enjoy in a lifetime, and there’s nothing wrong with picking a single thing and sticking to it.