I stood and stared out into a sea of unrecognizable faces, all ripe with anticipation and possibility. I held few possessions; only what would help me get through my time in the great unknown. Sober as the day I was born, it was as if everyone around me had somebody to see and somewhere to go. And there I stood, frozen in time while the rest of the world moved beyond me.
Of course, I’m reminiscing about my first day of high school. But the dizzying wave of anticipation and hope came back to me in spades on my first day in Austin, Texas for my initial foray into the mad, hipster-infested jungle of South By Southwest. I was told that SXSW is indeed a music festival, though throughout my four days in the wild, I had to be constantly reminded that it was a meeting of rock and roll bands and music fans. Sure, there were thousands of acts playing countless sets for what seemed like millions of people. But amidst all of the above were entirely too many free download cards, empty goodie bags once full of shameless swag and the concerned looks of many attendees, worried sick that they’d be missing the one chance to see that one act that everyone except themselves would be talking about for years afterwards.
SXSW Music Festival
(17 Mar 2011: Austin, TX)
And for what? Just to say, “I was there” when a nameless act stepped onstage in front of a small crowd, years before they’d take to Madison Square Garden for thousands of nameless fans? Live music by its very nature is supposed to stir up emotion from the pits of our stomachs. But in an age where music is as disposable as it is digestible, attaching emotion to a live set becomes difficult.
Even as a first-timer in Austin, I knew there was good live music to be found, but I knew it would come at a cost. See one band you want to, miss twelve others. Grab a few free drinks at one joint (ultimately, I became very wary of how many free drinks were being served just to make bands sound tolerable) and miss out on free BBQ and coleslaw at another. I left for Austin as a music fan, wary of how I would survive in a world where schmoozing and networking was at a premium. I know I’ll return to the staggering Austin heat in the future, but only because I’ve learnt from my mistakes. Yes, SXSW is a marvel to behold, but for a rookie, it can be overwhelming.
It hasn’t been that long since the insanity that was SXSW 2011 ended. When I returned from Austin, I was immediately quizzed by family and friends as to the nature of the festival. Even now, I struggle to properly define it. Those who’ve been, know. Those who haven’t, wonder. I left wondering if I could survive SXSW. I returned and wondered what I had just visited: a music festival or a mass cultural awakening that has evolved into a nearly-primal meeting that cannot, in the ludicrous age of technology we live in, be contained.
* * *
I had made up my mind that I came to Austin to hear new music; not to hear bands that would be rolling through my neck of the woods in the upcoming months or had in the months previous. Music fans are often so proud of the bands they are closely associated with that they fear getting caught up in anything else. I had my eye on the Canadian BBQ across from the Hilton on Thursday, and it was tough not to show up promptly and wave my hoser flag high.
But instead, I stuck by the Terrorbird/Force Field day party. There a handful of bands, that hadn’t made it through my neck of the woods before, were kicking off SXSW in an auspicious manner. Lord Huron featured benevolent and melodic island rhythms while Screaming Females kept the party going with their dynamic, thrash pop.
If you decide to make the trip to Austin, it’s best to leave any preconceived notions of “Comfort music” (The musical equivalent of mac and cheese) at home, at least in the beginning. SXSW is about exposure: to the elements, to the limits of your own sanity, but most importantly, to musical acts that many fans in your hometown could only dream of seeing. Forget what you know, and dive in headfirst.
* * *
We’ve all been there: while the rest of the world is lost in the party of the century, you’re just not in the groove. It’s easy to get a little down at SXSW. After all, feeling overwhelmed usually leads to feelings of seclusion. But don’t lock yourself in a well-ventilated room; instead, let the tunes you hear offer you guidance. Yes, it all sounds a little hokey. Enter the no nonsense, bar-room rock of Cheap Girls. This Lansing three-piece proved that to be memorable, you just have to do one thing really well.
Buzz bands use SXSW as a vehicle to expose their genre-twisting music. Very often, these acts draw a line in the sand between indie fans. Either they’re too complicated, or their art is simply too advanced for the common ear. Cheap Girls proved that, with no pun necessary, thrills can be cheap. Good times are there for the taking in Austin if you want them. While we watch other renowned party cities in America fall victim to an unfortunate natural disaster or the economic equivalent of a punch to the solar plexus, the city of Austin seems synonymous with good vibes and great parties that make the trip worth it.
For the rookies, I offer a challenge: your first SXSW will only be as good as you make it. Live music in a bar has not yet gone the way of the dinosaur; SXSW is keeping it alive, so let’s raise a glass to Cheap Girls, a band that proves good times should never be complicated.
* * *
When the end of the world finally comes, I imagine it will feel a little like Friday night at SXSW. Sure, Saturday is the last big night, but by that point, everyone rides a strange, euphoric high that it might as well be some form of the after-life. Friday night is when you hedge your bets and try to find that “Epic”, Untouchable Story.
My options were many on Friday night, though I had a severe hangover in tow. As mentioned, there is a pressure to see as much as you can and be a part of as much madness as possible. But the world of SXSW, when standing still, seems to grow by the second. I met many a character who seemed convinced that moving around was ultimately necessary and as such, could not relax long enough to appreciate an entire set. So it came to pass then, that on Friday night I set up shop at the Goner Records showcase at Beerland.
On one of Austin’s better patios, I watched the determined yet clueless masses roll by like cattle being led to slaughter. Sure, Beerland wasn’t too packed early on, but a within an hour or so of headliner Ty Segall’s set, fans were hopping (not so gracefully) over the patio fence in hopes of catching one of San Fran’s favourite garage rock wonder boys. He had four shows at SXSW, but this one felt the one to be at. Remember, at SXSW, go with your gut. Don’t be held hostage by a one of a thousand rumours of bands that never usually appear in Austin, parties shelling free beer and food or pseudo-celebrity sightings. Bands come to Austin to be heard; attendees to SXSW owe them as much.
The rock and roll gods were smiling on me, because Ty Segall stepped up and knocked one out of the park. His intense ethos only validated my decision. What’s more, Segall personifies everything that SXSW ought to strive for: a collection of insanely temporary moments, but palpable enough to create something tangible. Beerland, a smokey, grimey dive might scare off some; but those who stuck around late into the night to see Goner Records head honcho Zac Ives hop onstage with Segall for a reckless rendition of GG Allin’s “Don’t Talk to Me” were rewarded with one of the fest’s certain highlights. Standing still, even amidst a raucous crowd, certainly has its benefits.