Fact: Austin, even in mid-March, gets crazy hot.
Tie this heat in with copious amounts of free beer, handed out to soothe the previous night’s inebriation and get one started on another night of debauchery, and you’ve got a recipe for dehydration. Stay Hydrated!
With that in mind, you’ve got to do two things: get a hold of all the free vitaminwater you can, and catch your afternoon gigs in the shade whenever possible. Though another tip: stay away from the caffeine-added water before bed. Good luck getting in any shut-eye if you do.
Kingston, Ontario’s PS I Love You, one of the more-hyped bands at this year’s SXSW, threw it down at an impressive eight shows in a little over four days. On the heels of Meet Me At The Muster Station, one of 2010’s finest releases, this noisy two-piece was eager to prove that their debut was no fluke. Looking mighty tired from their previous three sets, the band powered through their mid-afternoon set behind the Beauty Bar and found the gusto through equal parts cold water and bottles of Lone Star. With the big tent providing ample coverage, the two piece rose to the occasion; their sonic language became more understandable as their set continued. Some decided it was the right time in the day to start the slow bend back into a drunken haze, while others decided the only way to keep up was to keep sucking on the H20. I don’t have the secrets, but I do have proof: loud, gnarly guitars somehow intensify the Austin heat. Keep an eye on those water coolers in every venue.
The next day I found myself at Mohawk to catch Wye Oak. This Baltimore male/female duo treated the multiple level, outdoor patio to a folky, harmony-laden set that, while pleasant enough, never really took off. But you couldn’t blame them. Instead, there were more than enough distractions. Between the ping-pong tables and the pancakes being made out of a can, every effort was being made to distract music lovers from the band onstage. Factor in the heat and the hangovers, and it becomes tough to focus on a band onstage.
Wye Oak did their part, with the kind of easy-going rhythms that were made for afternoons everywhere, but still, something was missing. One can’t help but wonder that, in the midst of all the schmoozing, product demos and distractions, the full effect of the music was lost.
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SXSW can be as random as the night you return to your hometown after many years. Sixth Street definitely offers an allure at first, but it can be tough to discern a good bar from one which relies primarily on underage drinkers. Between all the choices on Friday, I threw my hands up in the air and walked into the first bar that sounds appealing. Agave on Sixth might have been the kind of bar you wouldn’t have given a second thought to any other day of the year. But the crevices in Austin seem to offer much more than the most-hyped of showcases often do.
Inside Agave, White Laces, a gutsy four-piece out of Richmond, Virginia played to a near empty room as if it was their last show on Earth. Jangly but full of an unmistakeable lo-fi honesty, if this band’s organic approach to rock and roll doesn’t have record labels knocking down their door, then the majority of the world will be deprived of some bonafide rock and roll warhorses. White Laces set was the most endearing and pleasant surprise of SXSW.
I’d shown up late in the afternoon at Uncorked for the Paper Garden showcase. The sun was beating down, and Uncorked’s relaxed patio on the other side of the IH-35, miles away from the madness, was the perfect place to spend an afternoon. Originally supposed to take the stage at 4:00, Brooklyn’s The Loom strolled onstage at 4:45 and wiled away the afternoon with a dizzying array of banjos, finger-picking, lush harmonies and clap-alongs that didn’t require much to entice. Their half an hour set lasted a comfortable eternity, and it was all anyone could do to peel themselves off their chairs and get back into the madness of Austin. The Loom’s set captured a spontaneous vibe that hopefully becomes more prevalent in future years at SXSW. It’s said that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. At SXSW, one band’s late set is another man’s perfect afternoon.
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You’d think this would go without saying, but for SXSW rookies, landing in Austin is a little like a thirsty beer enthusiast landing in the heart of Oregon. The possibilities are limitless. Scheduling conflicts lead me to have minor coronaries on my flight in; how could I miss Okkervil River at Flamingo Cantina on Friday at 4 when the Cave Singers were playing Homeslice Pizza at the same time?
I briefly entertained the thought of splitting their sets in half. I was quick to remind myself however, that catching fifteen minutes of a set is a disservice to the bands that fight harder than I did to get to Austin. I stuck with Okkervil River in a jammed Cantina at the Under The Radar party and was treated with a little slice of the truth.
Not just with Will Sheff, who quickly found their footing and treated the crowd to a buoyant, lively set that proves they’re one of the better live acts on the circuit these days. But with the knowledge that SXSW has become as much a cultural exhibition as it is a music festival. Between the free swag and the streets and floors covered with garbage, the festival has become the height of young western decadence.
So when bands like Okkervil River sing literate rock, even through what was at first terrible sound in the Cantina, we all become a little enlightened. Attendees of SXSW must remember (and rookies like myself must burn it into their brain) that wherever we are in Austin, be it a dimly lit coffee shop, a multi-level patio or standing in the middle of the street unsure of where to go, we are all in it together, with the purpose of letting the music show us something we’ve never seen before.
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One of the more attractive and focused set-ups in Austin was the Mess With Texas party at the East Side Drive-In. Two stages were set up allowing free entrance for those eager to escape 6th Ave and feel as if they were actually attending a music festival. Sure, there were sponsors out, but with elevated stages, the focus could not be taken away from the expertly-crafted lineup. Jangly, relentless and thoroughly entertaining, bands like Davilla 666, the Strange Boys, the Fresh and Onlys, and Thee Oh Sees did what so many tried to do, play not for industry but for the hordes of fans swamped in the front row. Tim Cohen, the Fresh and Onlys lead singer, handed out records to the front row, while the Strange Boys continually took requests.
There is an inclination at SXSW not to return to venues that you’ve visited in the days previous. Yes, when Austin is known as a great place to party, you’d like to check out as many bars as possible. But when a party like Mess With Texas eliminates all the worries about venues and showcases bands, both proven and not, for the sheer joy of the music they play, then SXSW takes a step in the right direction.
Perhaps that’s what remains as the final lasting irony that this SXSW rookie observed. With thousands of bands playing at hundreds of venues, SXSW has grown into an uncontrollable evolving beast which now, 14 years since its inception may have lost sight of the music which it was meant to proliferate. Still, as the festival continues to grow too large for its surroundings, it is the open air segments of the festival, including the Mess With Texas party which worked best.
That, and a random gathering late in the Thursday evening. Slowly walking in a daze from one venue to the next, I felt a trembling under my feet that surely wasn’t the result of countless bottles of Lonestar. What’s more, every venue within earshot remained largely separated, audibly that is, from the evening.
Then in the distance they appeared: a multi-piece marching band dressed to the nines with a sturdy, rockabilly groove. Swarmed by dozens of groove-thirsty fans, the band plowed their way through the hordes on 6th Ave, playing with a passion that didn’t require electricity to amplify. No official label showcase, no overly-tweeted after party. Just a group of musicians playing for anybody who wanted to listen. I only found out that this band of musical renaissance men and women were called the March Fourth Marching Band after they allowed me to bang along on the drums and dance helplessly back and forth under the legs of their band members of stilts.
And just as soon as they’d started, the band took disappeared. The only legacy they left was that of their vibe, not their image, swag or garbage, giving hope to those looking eagerly to dance long into the night.