SXSW: Manitoba Musicians Flood Austin

Royal Canoe (MB Music showcase)

by Daniel Emberg

Our intrepid contributor Daniel Emberg has made his way down to Austin, TX for the “corporate orgy called SXSW”.  Here is his second report home from the front, featuring plenty of insight into how the homegrown talent is faring … 


Thursday afternoon was arguably the most important one at SXSW for lovers of Winnipeg artists, as the Manitoba Music Showcase was taking place at a bar called Friends which has been converted into “Canada House” for the week. I spent the whole afternoon there taking in the action and got in a few minutes with each of the bands afterward.

Federal Lights opened the action with a solid set that almost didn’t happen. Singer/guitarist Jean-Guy Roy informed the crowd the band had left Winnipeg the day before to find out the big storm up north caused their connecting flight from Chicago to be cancelled. They managed to sneak on the last flight to Houston on Wednesday, but their gear didn’t land with them so they drove to Austin and thankfully the airline managed to get their equipment flown down just in time. Phew! Anyway, the gang did a great job considering how stressed they must have been.

As Roy put it, “For 3:00 in the afternoon, we were really happy with the turnout for a town we’ve never played before. We came down here with little or no expectations. I’ve been here just for fun in the past just as a visitor and it is such a gongshow. It’s packed with so many bands that if you get five people in a venue to listen to two of your songs, you are miles ahead of a lot of other bands—and today we had half the room full!”

Clearly pleased with how the afternoon went, Roy and Federal Lights also played their official showcase later on Thursday. Your next chance to catch them back home in Winnipeg will be at the Park Theatre on the Friday night of JunoFest, then they’re rocking festivals all summer before heading to Europe in the fall.

The crowd was indeed good for the Federal Lights set, but they didn’t exactly swarm the front of the stage—maybe shaking off hangovers or something. Stefanie Johnson of Mise en Scene was having none of that, walking onstage and calling everyone a bit closer to, “get up here and taste our sweat. We’re Canadian guys, it will taste like maple!” The growing crowd happily complied, so the band responded by rocking the snot out of the place and the whole band came out of it feeling great.

Johnson in particular was very pleased with the sound. “It’s the first time in my fucking life I haven’t had to ask for the vocal mic to get turned waaaaaay up.” Mise en Scene continue their SXSW with an official showcase Friday night, playing alongside July Talk.

“We played the WECC with them awhile back and they’re doing great these days,” offered Johnson, “so it will be good to see them again.” Back in Winnipeg, your next chance to see them will be the Friday of JunoFest, after which the band has dates booked in England and France, “because Europe just loves us for some reason.”

Rock-solid music blasting out the windows, coupled with increasing action in the street, led to a steady stream of curious humans strolling in to find out what was up with all them crazy Manitobans. By the time JP Hoe took the stage, the place was almost full and spirits were high.

Unfortunately, Hoe and his band suffered from a ton of feedback issues, particularly during their first few songs. Guess the Mise en Scene crew took all the good sound? Well, it’s also a lot easier for a three-piece band with one live mic than Hoe with his string players and newly-arrived bassist and drummer, most singing backups to boot. They had no choice but to just laugh through it, and by the time their set finished the place was seriously buzzing. Hoe’s last few songs in particular really got the room going, and after they closed the set with a blistering cover of The Band’s “Ophelia,” half the people within range of my ears must have said “That was awesome.” It was actually pretty cool to see Hoe win the crowd over so completely after the sound issues that opened the set.

Said Hoe, “It was nice because it was our first time playing with our rhythm section this week so that really energized us.” On his first SXSW experience: “It’s kind of overwhelming to figure out how to manage the week. You gotta take care of yourself, pace yourself. We’ve got eight shows this week so I wish I could party every night but I’ve got a fragile bird throat,” laughed Hoe. “We had a surprisingly good turnout [for the showcase]. You never know what’s gonna happen at festivals because so much else is going on. There were definitely some people that liked what they heard.” Next up, Hoe and his string players are heading to Vancouver and playing their way down to Los Angeles, with some European dates planned for the fall and a lot of new songs in the can for when the time comes to follow up his widely-praised Mannequin album.

Closing out the Manitoba Music showcase was Royal Canoe, who commanded everyone’s full attention as usual. By this time the audience was eagerly coming up to the stage, including several artists who commented that they take every chance they can to see these guys in action. There was lots of head-bobbin’ and booty-shakin’ as the gang made a case for people to come see their big show later in the evening.

Royal Canoe was the only band at the showcase who had played here before, so Bucky Driedger had some veteran perspective on the show.

“As per usual it was insane. You gotta get your gear onstage so fast and everyone’s so sweaty and it never sounds quite like you really want it to, but that’s part of being at SXSW.”

Given those challenges, what keeps them coming back?

“Sometimes I don’t know, because it’s such a shitshow,” laughed Driedger. “But it’s a lot of fun even though it’s really stressful, and there are a few shows this year we are really looking forward to playing: [our official showcase] is at this Presbyterian church. We’ve been down here before and seen shows there, and we’re really excited to play that room this time around. Then we’re playing [Friday] night at Palm Park, it’s an outdoor stage so that’ll be really nice too. It’s always nice when you can do something other than a crammed bar, because it’s so nice here you want to be outside.”

Next up for the Royal Canoe gang will be three Juno-related shows with the WSO, then a bit of downtime at home before heading out for a six-week US tour with Bombay Bicycle Club and a festival-packed summer.

John Doe @ Continental Club, SXSW 2014
John Doe @ Continental Club, SXSW 2014

The rest of my night:

  • JP Hoe’s official showcase. First time all week he wasn’t cursed with rough sound, and the performance was excellent.
  • Soundgarden marked the 20th anniversary of their Superunkown album by playing it front to back for the first time ever—Chris Cornell even warned us that they’d never made it all the way through in practice. I thought it was a long shot to get into this one, but a few strategic questions and a little patience got me a spot and it was a great performance helped along by a positively rapturous crowd in a mid-sized theatre.
  • The Barr Brothers in a church hall, with only a few rope lights on their mic stands to illuminate the entire room. In a classy move, they observed a moment of silence for victims of the nearby tragedy on Tuesday—the only “official” acknowledgment of what happened that I’ve picked up on here. They were playing great but I had to leave a few minutes before they finished in order to make it down to the last show on my list for the night…
  • John Doe absolutely lit up the Continental Club, which after two visits is already near the top of my “coolest bars in the world” list. Things were running a little behind so we got there in the middle of his first song even though it’s a bit of a trek from the main SXSW drag. Wicked performance, and when “some guy with a sign” informed the band they had five minutes left, Doe responded with one of the most hilarious, profane, curmudgeonly, punk rock rants about how he wasn’t cutting his set just because the venue had fallen behind schedule. Too many f-bombs to print here, but it was memorable enough that I’d gladly recreate it in person for anyone who asks.
  • We went to grab some munchies at Home Slice Pizza, and a few minutes later the Royal Canoe lads all showed up to grab a bite after finishing their showcase at the church. When asked how it went, there was another chorus of “awesome” (you hear a lot of that down here), as apparently it took a couple of songs for the crowd to start feeling it but soon enough everyone was dancing their tails off and the band was heading to bed on a high note.

Alrighty, now it’s time to boogie because the weekend is coming so there’s obviously a ton going on down at the festival site. Catch ya soon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *