[4 April 2011]
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.
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.
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
Joshua Kloke is a music writer and hopeless Toronto Maple Leafs fan who splits his time between Melbourne, Australia and Canada. He's contributed to The Vancouver Sun, Exclaim!, Beatroute, Beat Magazine, Time Out and veri.live.