Big Joanie // Photo: Michael Coleman

Friendly Priests, Weed Rice Krispies + Seven Eclectic Acts: First Night at SXSW 2019

You know you’re back at SXSW when within an hour of wandering through the music festival showcases, you’re offered weed-infused Rice Krispies bites and greeted by a rock ‘n’ roll-loving priest.

Sounds about right, and it’s good to be back.

SXSW 2019 marks my second consecutive year covering the music festival, and I’m coming back with a little more insight into what to expect – and how to embrace the unexpected – than last time. It seems only fitting that our first evening in Austin was spent with absolutely no game plan – no itinerary, no showcase wish list, no expectations. Within a five-hour period, we stumbled upon one DJ and six bands across six venues. Not bad for night one.

We started off at SXSW’s last official DC-centric event – we had to pay homage to the motherland, after all – EventsDC’s Levels Unlocked: House of DC Heroes at Trinity Hall. The bass reverberating from DC-based DJ Farrah Flosscett’s set was more than my 31-year-old ears could handle, but the younger millennials totally dug it. In fact, the esports-themed event itself seemed right up the alley of a 20-something, inviting a fresh-faced crowd to try their gaming hand at NBA 2K and Super Smash Bros. (the latter in oversized beanbag chairs, no less).

But the real draw for me was Drink Company’s Austin cameo, with a mini-version of one of their wildly popular pop-ups – detailed installation and all – in full effect, including a set of signature cocktails like I Call Yoshi (a sake, cucumber melon, green chartreuse and lemon concoction made lime green thanks to Midori and complete with flashing lights and a marshmallow garnish).

After saying hey to a few DC friends, trying some cotton candy and watching my colleague M.K. gracefully squirm her way out of an uncomfortable set of pickup lines – including, “What’s your oldest memory, like when you were a baby?” – we motored on to navigate the streets of downtown Austin, where we encountered some super enthusiastic stoners passing out edibles from little baggies that looked like they belonged in my two-year-old’s after-school snack.

Next stop: Venezuelan food truck Four Brothers (my best friend from SXSW 2018) where we inhaled chicken and pork bowls (literally dreaming of the next one, which I will consume later today) and then Barracuda to see lo-fi pop darlings Barrie. The mellow vibes emanating from their set were the perfect way to kick off an evening of very eclectic sounds, and my respect level for the eponymous lead singer went way up when she shared with quirky candor that her band had had a long travel day – and some of them were not wearing any underwear.

From there we made our way to St. David’s Historic Sanctuary to see the lovely Edie Brickell (Paul Simon’s bride) and her New Bohemians. I had been intrigued by all the shows I kept seeing pop up at local churches last year, and felt perhaps more excited to sit in the pews after a warm greeting from one of the St. David’s priests than to actually catch her set – because what’s tripper than watching live hippie folk rock in a church, especially when you grew up Catholic? Okay let’s be real, Catholic light – but still.

We didn’t make it through the whole set, as we were amped up and ready to check out some lesser-known names, so sadly I missed the chance to relive my youth (so many of my parents’ cocktail parties were soundtracked by “What I Am”). But Brickell’s pipes are just as smooth and her band’s sound is tighter than ever, and I thoroughly enjoyed being in a room of more seasoned music lovers truly appreciative of the perks of a seated show.

Next up was my personal favorite of the evening: London-based Big Joanie, who liken themselves to “The Ronettes filtered through 80s DIY and riot grrrl with a sprinkling of dashikis.” I mean, how could I resist? The trio made their U.S. debut at the BBC-hosted British Music Embassy pop-up at Latitude 30, and I was immediately smitten with their polite witticisms via thick British accents paired with their fierce style. So the second they started playing dissonant, complex chord progressions and pulsating drums – think Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, The Raincoats – set to lyrics exploring both the challenges of (and empowerment in) being black women, I was completely captivated. They hands-down won the badassery award for the evening.

Onward we rode to Speakeasy, where I was chomping at the bit to see Peruvian dream pop band Mundaka (because South American surf // garage rock is for sure in my weird little niche wheelhouse). Instead, we walked into the second half of Cuban artist Cimafunk’s set, which I would liken to a sweaty, sexy, underground Afro-Latin dance party that was equal parts Dirty Dancing and Havana nightclub. Best people watching of the evening, for sure. Erik Alejandro Rodriguez’s partially unbuttoned, silky shirt was soaked through with sweat and together with the rest of his supergroup – including a brilliant female singer who busted out her trombone on one of the last songs – brought more energy to the stage than all the acts we’d seen that evening combined.

At this point, we decided to divide and conquer – Mike couldn’t pass up the opportunity to catch alt-country legends The Waco Brothers at the iconic Continental Club. Meanwhile, M.K. and I searched for Mundaka. After climbing the stairs at Speakeasy – where the super sweaty, still out of breath members of Cimafunk’s band were downing craft cocktails set to the backdrop of a vintage mini-bowling alley (all I could think about was the milkshake scene in There Will Be Blood) – we caught the end of the surf rock quartet’s set on a smaller stage from the balcony (apparently we were in a VIP spot but were too lazy to move, whoops).

The guys played upbeat, garage rock-laden tunes in tropical-themed boxer shorts – M.K. pointed out that the drummer was sporting a Troll Doll earring, cause why not? – and we tapped our tired toes from the comfort of a couch meant for Rodriguez and his band (sorry guys, thanks for sharing). As they wrapped up their set, we realized it was nearing 2 a.m., and we decided to call it knowing that we had three more days of the delightfully unexpected in store.