South by Southwest on a Shoestring: A Diary

Margaret Schwartz

Schwartz writes about her odyssey at this year's South By Southwest Festival in the 'Home of Live Music' [Austin, Texas]; the place where 'Music Still Matters.'

11:18 am 19 March, 350 Route Northbound to the Austin Airport. A native Texan, eager to converse with an out-of-towner (he gestured towards my suitcase as a conversation-opener) but not sure of the location of Iowa, is surprised to hear I have taken an airplane to Texas. He squinted his already narrow brown eyes and bit his lip: "Iowa, that's where they make baked potatoes?"

I set him straight on the whole Iowa/Idaho thing. It may surprise my reader to know that this exchange brought the tally to four total such conversations I'd had while in Austin.

Austin is a humid city sprawled across central Texas' hill country. It is the capital of the state of Texas, as well as home to the major branch of its state University. The capital dome dominates the skyline from downtown; the University makes itself known in more subtle ways, like the proliferation of cheap pizza stands and vintage clothing stores. The town has grown enormously over the last fifteen years, largely because of the boom computer giant Dell brought to the area -- and of course, more recently, the settling bust. Both the boom and the bust are favorite topics among my many cab drivers; the second most popular is declarations of artistic aspirations, chiefly writing or music.

Everywhere during South by Southwest, vinyl banners bearing Jim Beam or Budweiser decals welcome you to "Austin, The Home of Live Music." Waterloo Records, the city's largest and most popular independent music store, claims that at Waterloo, "Music Still Matters." In the Austin Chronicle, chatty advice columns and dating services often used "local music" as a touchstone for getting young people together. Local music in Austin means live music, at any one of hundreds of venues in the downtown area.

Arrival and First Day

1:00 pm Wednesday, 14 March. I take the bus downtown and go first of all to the Austin Convention Center, present my identification, and am issued a pass indicating my status as a member of the press. I am also given an enormous canvas bag full of all sorts of promotional material, from buttons and key chains and stickers to a designer package of Kleenex advertising Sony Music Import's "Best Music from Japan" compilation Japan For Sale Vol. Two.

This promotional material seems pointless. There's so much to see down here, that I hardly have time to go to see random bands I know nothing about. On the floor of the air-conditioned Convention Center people are charging back and forth madly, greeting each other and squealing. I feel shapeless and inert as a wave of a kind of tawdry ambition washes over me. Rock ambition is a slightly gothic, bruised goddess -- not at all like diamond-white Hollywood ambition. It attracts a different kind of crowd. Women in ripped jeans and plunging necklines pinch their tight cheeks in the hollow glare of the Convention Center ladies room and give the mirror one last ruthless, slightly strung-out look.

Everyone's on the phone, all the time. I don't even have a cell phone, and I am on the phone all the time. People are calling publicists to get passes for different parties, they're calling their friends to meet them for lunch or margaritas or for whatever show later on, and they're calling their hotels to see if they have any messages. They're calling ahead to get on the guest list or to find out whether they missed Neil Finn's in-store at Waterloo. It's a freaking gabfest.

Across from where I am sitting on the carpeted floor there is a coffee bar, and I notice that as they move my fellow participants are sucking on enormous plastic coffee containers, with straws. To the left there's a room full of extra-speedy Dell computers for press to use -- fifteen minutes only!

Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, I consider what makes Austin a "home of live music" and a place where "music still matters."

One idea of Austin as a live music town: dancing. The first night I don't see much except some honky tonk/rock country stuff at a place across the river called The Broken Spoke. The highlight of that experience is watching people two-step: dignified old guys with wasp waists and watermelon guts bowing and twirling before the powdered, Aquanet-reinforced visages of their ladies. I get the idea that here are people relating in a timeless way, within the strict but endlessly variable steps of a dance their parents and their parents' parents must have danced. Perhaps it has lasted because it is made of simple patterns, and because it offers the participants clear-cut roles. I feel nostalgic, but it's a sort of unearned nostalgia practiced only by those born after the demise of simple patterns and clear-cut roles.

The Broken Spoke bathrooms are heavy with the close smell of wet cement. In a small museum area, visitors can examine photographs taken of the Broken Spoke's owner with such famous Texans as Willie Nelson and Sam Shepard. Willie even gave one of his hats, one with a leather strap stamped with the Lone Star Beer logo. The walls also display every album ever cut with a picture of the Broken Spoke on the cover. There are more than you'd think.

After the Broken Spoke I go to a bunch of bars on the Sixth Street strip. It feels like Mardi Gras: drunken crowds, policemen on horseback and on bicycles and in squad cars at every intersection. Doormen hawk tonight's band lineup and the drink specials in the same breath. By the end of night one, I am convinced that if there is fun to be had, it is elsewhere.

>> Day Two: In Which I go To the Parties and Learn The Beautiful People are Not So Beautiful After All


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.