SXSW, with its 1,500 bands and scores of venues, is probably a different festival for everyone who attends it. Oh, sure, you’d have to work hard to miss the Mae Shi, who played 18 shows this week (including a Sunday night bash for the kids at Beerland after everyone had gone home), and an awful lot of people seem to have seen Bon Iver and Sons & Daughters. Still, there were so many bands and so many parties that it’s hard to imagine any two people seeing the same combination of bands, or even close to it, let alone having the same reaction to everything. And that, in the end, is what’s so beautiful about this festival…and so maddening. You can’t do it all. You can’t even do a good portion of it. Even if you stop eating and sleeping and going to the bathroom, you’re still going to miss more great bands than you can count, and some of them, you won’t even know about until you get home.
So in a world full of choices, here are some guiding principles.
1. Seek extremity. SXSW is full of subcultures, only the largest and blandest of which reflect consensus indie taste. Stick to that, and you’ll miss the garage folks at Beerland, the metal guys at Elysium, the alt.country crowd south of Congress…and you’ll hear a lot of people talking on cell phones. Getting outside the convention center area, whether for a drunken rampage at the Yard Dog (Waco Brothers), an impromptu taping of guitar legend Joe Ely, or an all-day beer bash for experimental pop label Home-Tapes, is always a good idea. Likewise, getting outside of the buzz-band circuit, whether for a half-hour hour of solo drumming (Jon Mueller), a string band with attitude (Hoots and Hellmouth), or a long-lost singer-songwriter (Gary Higgins) recharges you. Which is important because…
2. Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it sucks. Some of the buzz bands are worth seeing. Bon Iver put on one of the best sets I heard all week, at the Pitchfork/Windish party, ground-zero for blogger see-and-be-seeing. There, I admitted it.
3. If you’ve got one chance, take it. An extraordinary proportion of the bands that I really enjoyed—Half Japanese, the Homosexuals, Gary Higgins, and the Stems—don’t play very often, haven’t played in decades, or are otherwise off the grid, except for here.
4. Don’t plan everything. When you walk down Sixth Street or Red River, music pours out of every door and paper schedules rattle in the breeze with bands crossed out. You don’t need a spreadsheet to have a good time. For instance, I finally got to see Jay Reatard (after missing 4-5 other shots) when I paused for a second to check out Beerland’s line-up on Saturday. I saw the Felice Brothers, another highlight, mostly because I stopped at Opal Divine’s to use the bathroom.
5. Don’t stress over missed opportunities. Most of the bands here, even the ones at Stubbs with lines that snake around two blocks (hello, Body of War), will play other shows, probably in your town. And here’s the dirty secret: almost nobody plays their best at SXSW, land of short, hits-heavy sets, no covers, and very little room for error. So if you miss the Sadies, one of your very favorite bands, seven or eight times (ahem), relax. They’ll be in Boston someday and they’ll play an even better show.
6. Find time to hang with people. No one was meant to see 55 bands in a week (actually 58, if you count the three I saw at Beerland today, after the whole thing was over). Eat. Have a drink. Talk to Akron/Family about free jazz. Ask the kid with the notebook what’s blown him away. Have a long conversation with a band member’s mother. Human interaction is necessary, even if it means you miss Yeasayer or Times New Viking.
7. You can’t hear the words through earplugs. Which sucks because if you don’t use earplugs, you’ll be going “What?” a lot, and trying to dig the buzz out of your ear canals all day Sunday. Er, what was that? Sorry.
8. There’s always a good spot by the amp. Even at the most crowded shows. Really. Wonder why.