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.'

Neil Finn

Day Four: In Which I Actually Make Myself Sick

Made bold by yesterday's relative stamina, I ignore my sore throat and take the bus downtown for the Neil Finn party. Here the snacks are delicious barbeque sandwiches and tasty black bean salad with tortilla chips and guacamole. The venue, however, is cavernous and dark, with no place to sit except a sort of wooden equipment box against the wall to the right of the stage. Here I immediately install myself with snacks and beer, and await the Cinderella sensation.

I listen to two decent bands, the smooth Departure Lounge and the rather grating Sunshine Fix. I get increasingly overwhelmed and ill feeling. Neil Finn finally arrives, and everyone shuts up for once, and listens.

Neil Finn for those who don't know is a veteran of the groups Split Endz and Crowded House. He's originally from New Zealand, which can possibly be why he comes off as such a genuine, gentle and lovely guy. His clear voice (which most will remember from Crowded House's hit, "Don't Dream It's Over") is still perfect after all these years. He plays with a violinist/pianist, an upright bass, and also has Wendy of Prince fame playing guitar for sweet, contemplative, searching numbers, saturated by the female violinist and Wendy's backing vocals. Absolutely stunning.

However after Neil Finn I immediately retire to Local Friend's house and do not emerge, except to have a Grocery Adventure (no time, folks, no time!), until the next day.

Day Five: I See Hedwig, Local Friend's Band, and Join The Sound Team

LF's apt. couch, 10 pm Sunday, 17 March. I think my glands are swollen. I feel nervously around the outside of my throat, but I've never really been sure about the location of those mysterious "glands" that get swollen. The inside of my throat feels sort of hot, and aches horribly. I alternate between bottles of tap water and beer. I still need something to keep me going, and there's no tea in Local Friend's house, despite the Grocery Adventure of the night before.

I wish I could reproduce in a footnote the typo I just made: I wrote "glads" instead of "glands" up there. Because looking back I think really my glads were swollen. I'd landed at the bitter, distended end of a week-long feeding frenzy. I'd gorged myself on sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll (well okay, only R&R) and now I was getting to feel a bit ill.

I swallow two reassuringly large Tylenol tablets at Local Friend's house and then take the bus downtown in the rain. I've got the pills in my purse, and this reassures me just as their large size had seemed to be proof of maximum strength and gentle effectiveness. As it turned out, there was More, and I didn't want to miss out on the rest:

Stop one is the touring stage production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which is fortuitously playing here in Austin during SXSW. It's a small theatre, and people are drinking beer in their seats. I'm sticking to tea, which I've been able to obtain on my way here.

The stage Hedwig is considerably larger than the role's originator John Cameron Mitchell, in fact well over six feet tall. His facial features are pretty but not delicate, and by the final costume change you can see how thickly muscled his upper body is. His Hedwig was slightly campy, but irresistible. At the end, this seventy-year-old couple in the seats next to us are cheering and waving their arms. I couldn't agree more.

Local Friend is in a band named Rockenstein's Freakout featuring members of Friends of Dean Martinez, The Stingers, and Stinky Del Negro. Local Friend isn't in any other band. They play electric improvisational multi-instrumental sets. Local Friend plays the clarinet. In addition to that instrument, which I confess to Local Friend afterwards that I hardly heard, RB features a drummer, a percussionist, a trumpet, two guitars, keyboards, and some sort of synthesizer/sampler thing. It is actually quite entertaining improv stuff, because there is always a beat holding things together and moving them onward. In the audience girls with tank tops and St. Patrick's Day shamrocks sprouting off of their headbands are making them bounce to the beat. Out of nowhere, another woman steps forward to a little cleared area in front of the stage and lights ten long tapers, which she is wearing attached to her hands like huge fingernails. She weaves her fingers back and forth and then pulls her arms apart, drawing pinwheels with fire. It is all very stony and spontaneous, quite groovy I must admit.

After it's over I have another groupie thrill: I hold Local Friend's clarinet case, so he can help the other guys load out their equipment. Local Friend remarks with satisfaction that playing the clarinet makes his load in/load out experience much happier. Back in college LF was in several bands with several of my friends: the aforementioned Slobot etc. He always played guitar, but it always seemed like they had about three people playing guitar already, so LF would just sit in the audience drinking until his solo, take the solo, then return to his seat. That was how it got by the end anyway. I think he rather prefers the clarinet.

Initially at this show I'm feeling kind of woozy, and I'm sitting on the floor of this balcony thing in the club, though it's very small, and I'm looking through the grate down at the stage. This is to insure a good view, which it does, but it makes my torso feel all crumpled, and my neck all stiff from peering out through the grate. I have decided I need a whiskey and sip it cautiously. I finish off the rest of my water downing two more horsepills. Whisky's what they drank in the old days, to revive them, right? Right.

LF and I sit awhile upstairs and split the rest of my whisky after the rest of the band has left. The next band sets up. Those kids look really really young, I say. I think they are, LF responds. Two boys with tousled blonde locks (just faintly mullet-ed, which seems to be the Rock Star Boy Haircut of the Moment) loaded vintage-looking keyboards on to the stage. One was wearing an orange jumpsuit, and the other had a puffy blue vest. Both wore athletic bands over their foreheads and on their wrists. When they started to play, the blue one on keyboards and the orange one on a hilarious double-necked red guitar, they were absolutely expressionless and deadpan. Kind of like post-rock Dr. Seuss characters, Sneeches or something. With stars upon thars.

Let's go downstairs, suggests LF, and I agree. I'd love it if he'd only play the six-string part of that guitar. He hasn't touched the twelve-string yet. Neither of these two boys, clearly brothers and about seventeen years old, has spoken to the audience at all so far. The spokesperson is this tallish, geeky guy playing keyboards, who in contrast to the Sneeches fixed-point stare is totally emotive when he sings and plays and is wearing this vintage '80s jacket with all sorts of shoulder tabs and weird collars and stuff. First he tells us the band's name is Sound Team. Then they play another song, deftly switching instruments and moods. This song is pretty and has several vocal lines, whereas the first few were hard and strummy and anthem-like. Now Geek Boy speaks again: he wants to remind us that Anything Is Possible, and they go into some keyboard heavy, trippy thing.

Finally at this point the orange Sneech says, "I'm really glad to see you all" and LF and I eyeball each other with eyebrows meaningfully raised and smile. I can tell we're both thinking we're glad we joined up with the Sound Team.

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