Tales from the Fest: An Abecedarium

[19 March 2008]

By Kevin Pearson

A is for Accommodation
“It’s not the mouse I’m bothered about,” explained my host after we witnessed a rodent scurrying across his living room floor. “It’s the rat that worries me.” That—and the fact I’d be sharing a room with seven other people, and possibly a band—had me immediately fumbling for housing alternatives. The alternative, found for me by a friend, happened to be a palatial villa overlooking a lake that was 30 minutes west of city. While the distance was a downside, the swimming pool, hot tub, and expansive view more than made up for it.

B is for Baseball
On the flight to Austin I sat next to a bunch of dudes who were as equally enthralled about the list of bands playing as they were about baseball stats for their upcoming fantasy league. This got me thinking: SXSW would be a lot easier to navigate if the bands came complete with statistics. In baseball, we can find out if a batter is better against a left or right-handed pitcher. At SXSW, it would be nice to know whether a band is better outside or indoors, in the afternoon or at night. For example, if I am able to find out in advance that Vampire Weekend’s ERA (Earned Rapturous Applause) is only a .304, I won’t waste my precious time.

C is for Convention Center
Last year I picked up my badge at Austin’s Convention Center and never looked back. This year I used it as a haven: a cool, calming, Zen-like refuge where I could decompress once or twice a day and fill up on free water. Given that it’s the festival’s hub, it was surprisingly free of chaos and saved me on several occasions when I wanted to use a restroom that didn’t double as a portal to hell.

D is for Day Shows
The free day shows prove that the average music fan with the average-sized American wallet can see more than an average amount of bands without shilling for a badge or wristband. This year’s array of sunlit shows was surprisingly strong and could be found in venues as disparate as the traditional nightclub, the parking lot, the museum, and the pizza shop.

E is for Eating
After overindulging in trans-fats at last year’s festival, I vowed to eat better this time around, avoid pizza, and stock up on my vegetables. I think this lasted about seven seconds. Fortunately, on day two, some friends tipped me off to a Korean restaurant called Koriente. The handily placed establishment (it sits half a block off Red River Street) was cheap, quick, and extremely edible. So, instead of hitting up the Hot Dog King whenever I had a craving, I took off to Koriente. Here, I could nibble on edamame, drink green tea lemonade, and be in and out in 15 minutes.

F is for Find of the Festival
Several bands that I saw and loved were already on my radar prior to attending SXSW, so my one true find of this festival was Pepi Ginsberg. Attending on the advice of a friend, her combination of Patti Smith vocals and Bob Dylan’s lyrical cadence catapulted her to the front of what was a pretty crowded field.

G is for Groups
There were a lot of them. I saw full sets or snippets of 46 bands. That’s only 0.03 of the groups who actually played over the four-day festival. I feel like a failure.

H is for Hitchhike
Sunday morning found me stranded at the palatial villa since my hosts had to hightail it north to Dallas for an afternoon flight and didn’t have time to take me downtown. Bags in hand, I trundled to the nearest cross section, wrote a sign, and, for only the second time in my life, stuck out a thumb. (The first time was when my car overheated, so that doesn’t really count.) Fortunately, after only twenty minutes, a young man named Jason stopped and kindly took me downtown despite being headed to Houston. True Texas hospitality.

I is for IHOP
My new living situation meant I was beholden to others as to when I arrived and left the festival. (There was one van for ferrying all of us.) On Thursday night, two of our posse decided to sneak into the Playboy party, leaving three of us sitting in IHOP for two hours. As they watched Justice at 3am, we tucked into pancakes and syrup. To make matters worse, our driver had unexpectedly taken the van home earlier that day, meaning we had to take a 30-minute taxi ride back to the villa. To make matters still worse, our numbers meant someone had to travel in the trunk. As the smallest, I was assigned this task and gingerly climbed in, curled up, and hoped they weren’t going to shoot me when we reached our final destination.

J is for Just Missed
There were several bands that I missed by minutes, but the two that eluded me throughout were the similarly named Fuck Buttons and Holy Fuck. I did manage to catch two songs of a Fuck Buttons set and fell for their dystopian take on experimental and electronic music. Unfortunately, every time I tried to see them again, I rolled in just as they were packing up. I didn’t even get that close with Holy Fuck. Instead, I consistently misjudged set times or got waylaid. Their name summed up my mood each time it happened.

K is for Kevin
It’s my name. I was reminded of it each morning as I placed the official lanyard around my neck. Unfortunately, I’d let the SXSW people use last year’s photo, meaning that my current close crop looked nothing like the shaggy, humidity-fried mop of 12 months ago. So, while the name was mine, the image was of someone else.

L is for Locals
Saturday at SXSW, it seems, is set aside for the locals. Not only were my musical choices not as overwhelming as they once were, but Sixth Street and its surrounding areas were packed with more people and even more terrible bar bands. That said, the locals whom I met were down to earth, dutifully polite, and definitely welcoming—that is, when they weren’t complaining about Californians moving in and driving up the real estate prices.

M is for Malady
Without getting into too much detail, Wednesday found me unable to hold down any food, meaning I didn’t eat a morsel all day. Being ill at SXSW is a little like being sick on your birthday; you’re bummed, but you battle through.

N is for Nostalgia
On Thursday morning, just after midnight, at Seventh and Red River, I was transported back in time. Here, at a busy intersection, you could simultaneously hear REM at Stubbs and The Lemonheads playing Emo’s Annex. It was the early ’90s all over again.

O is for Obnoxious
I’m English, so I feel as though I can say this: the most obnoxious people I encountered—and there weren’t that many—were the English. Maybe the declining value of the dollar meant they could get drunker cheaper. But any altercation I encountered—people getting kicked out of bars or forcing their way to the front of shows—involved a Brit. Let’s hope the dollar strengthens against the pound before next year’s festival.

P is for Parties
After indulging in them last year—and not really enjoying myself—I decided to ditch industry parties this time around. The only one I made it to was an event staged by the New Zealand Music Commission. It was civilized and serene and, despite the outdoor environment, involved wine served in real wine glasses. No plastic cups for the Kiwis. Unfortunately, their showcase coincided with the Japan Bash, which took place in a neighboring tent, and drowned out the sound of the three bands I tried to watch.

Q is for Queuing
I didn’t have to do too much of it. Last year, I stood around a few times, kicking my heels, waiting to get in somewhere when I knew the band I wanted to see had already taken the stage. The only real line I found myself waiting in this year was for the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Deadly Oceans showcase, which only lasted 15 minutes and was well worth it.

R is for Recycling
I certainly hope there’s some extensive recycling process put in place after SXSW, because the amount of paper wasted on this festival is astronomically crazy. From thin flyers to bible-thick catalogues, paper was a commodity to which everyone seemingly had unlimited access. Worst of all were the official tote bags containing what felt like half a ton of useless information.

S is for Serendipity
Half the battle at SXSW is figuring out when bands might start. The first bands on the bill—even if it says they’ll begin at 8 pm—tend to start 20 minutes late. I was pretty lucky this year and felt particularly blessed when I decided to go to the Neon Neon show an hour early. (My plan was to relax in the sedate surroundings of the Cedar Street Courtyard). Upon arrival, I was informed that set times had been swapped; they were going on just as I walked in. Sometimes it pays to plan for some relaxation time.

T is for Technology
My new hosts were technically at SXSW for the technology part of the event, better known as the Interactive Festival. They spoke in sentences such as “you think so episodically, whereas I think virally,” and used phrases and terms I can’t even spell, let alone define. Their villa looked like a Best Buy warehouse, with wires and various other facets of technology littered around (see, I don’t even know what they’re called). Yet, despite not being able to understand half of what they said, they were good people who generously offered me a sanctuary far away from the craziness of Sixth Street.

U is for Ubiquity
Last year, the band around town was the Black Lips, who played 12 shows. This year it was the Mae Shi who allegedly played a whopping 18 shows, including a free Sunday afternoon set after the majority of the industry folks had already headed home.

V is for Volume
By “volume,” I could be referring to the amount of litter, people, or bands around town this weekend, but since this is a music festival, I’m talking more about taking that further step towards tinnitus. Though I brought earplugs, I often forgot to use them. This wasn’t a problem when faced with acoustic acts, but when a band like the Mae Shi cranked up their amps, well, all I could do was watch in awe and hope my hard-of-hearing, 80-year-old future self won’t be too mad at me.

W is for Weed
I entered the restroom at St. David’s Church and immediately encountered the smell of weed. It must have seeped outside, as a minute later a SXSW volunteer came in and said: “Please tell me that you’re not smoking a marijuana cigarette in a church bathroom?” I quickly buttoned up and backed away from the urinal with my hands above my head. Unfortunately, my allergy-ridden red eyes and dazed, sleep-deprived expression didn’t help me as I protested my innocence.

X is for Xylophone
This could have also been “X for X-rated,” but I surprisingly didn’t witness any debauched behavior this time. What I did see, though, was an unusually high frequency of xylophones that were plinked, plunked, and pattered. Most bands used them well, but others—Los Campesinos!, I’m looking at you—made it seem as though they’d just bought the thing from Fisher Price.

Y is for Yo
A reviewer’s life can be a lonely one. We rush from show to show, trying to see as many bands as we can while making small talk with a handful of people along the way. Fortunately, several friends from Philadelphia were also down at the festival. Most of the time, we’d arrange to meet, but it was pretty amazing, given the size of SXSW, how often we accidentally bumped into each other, acknowledging the fact with a very Philly “Yo.”

Z is for Zzzz’s
With day shows starting at noon (or earlier in some cases) and official showcases stretching into the wee hours of the morning, SXSW isn’t set up for sleep. Surprisingly, you learn how to survive on just three hours of shut-eye, running instead on a mix of adrenaline, excitement, and whatever stimulant you need to get by. Me? If you must know, my drug of choice was some very un-rock green tea lemonade.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/an-abecedarium/