PopMatters' Brian Bartels goes gonzo, mapping his serpentine slither through SXSW.
Songs, lyrics, and pangs of anxiety. I am numb these days. Where does one go in such mired times? Where does the joy in wine and song and good-natured wickedness resume?
There is nothing more true in my life than 6:20 in the morning. That is right now, when I am usually buried in sleep. Instead, I sit at my computer, as the early March rainstorm pelts the faceless window in front of me. So where does it begin?
Where the inspiration rests. Where artists and artisans flock for flow, a lullaby for continuum. Austin. Down South. Way down South. To a South I ain’t never seen. Somewhere else. We are here for the conviviality of song and dance, to bask in all its unbridled authenticity. After a friend picked me up at the airport yesterday, we drove down Highway I-35, amidst a new country language. “Eighteen-wheelers control this land,” she said. Yes! I thought. “Last week there was an awful build-up. A truck jackknifed down the center lane, knocking half the road out of business for a whole afternoon. People do not know how to drive here.”
I am in Austin for music, the verities for freedom. I am so excited about getting there I’ve started this article one day before the festival begins. If I had my druthers, I would time travel to the exact day the festival starts, an intergalactic journey into Texas reveries. Where else would a music lover want to be than smack-dab in a part of America we hear about but never see? I know little about Austin. I know Richard Linklater, Lance Armstrong, and the music. That’s it.
Austin, as a city, is a stage. The sidewalks are piano keys, unfurling in harmonious discord. Trees rustle the city streets and the greater outdoors command wooden strings that flow through the asphalt prairie. It rained the first day, a jungle dampness ringing true, emanating from each bar and club I passed. The bars don’t get going until four in the afternoon, so the city streets are quiet on Tuesday afternoon, save for the film-festival foot traffic.
It’s no surprise to me that most shows take place in downtown bars. If SXSW isn’t an excuse to celebrate life, liberty, and the pursuit of the next big, tell me what it’s about. Honestly, I could care less what band I'm seeing, as long as they’ve got some spirit I can stick on a wall and hit with a dirty felt-tipped dart.
Though the indie credo these days commands emoting without visible effort, every band here is a condensed, sensationalized jazz orchestra. Each time they strum their strings, the tightness in their chords provokes a physical reaction from the listener; the way, when hearing jazz, people close their eyes and move to the music with their shoulders and fingertips. These people keep their heads still because they’re considering their next move.
But, make no mistake, the festival is also a marketplace where the world’s most sensational bands come to ply their trade. It’s pertinent to distinguish monikers and genres here. For instance, there is a band called Holy Shit!, a punk outfit from Milwaukee, WI, which should not be confused with the electronic devices of Toronto-based Holy Fuck. Though many bands here fall into the “rock” category, they fight even harder to sound nothing like the bands that will play the forty-five minute set before or after them. Each band served this time will attempt to peel back the layers of your stone-cold memory, branding your heart in the mean time.
DAY 1: LATER
I had forgotten how popular cigarette smoking is in rock ‘n roll. Arguably, the two cannot live without each other. Even the musicians who don’t smoke look like they smoke.
Parking. Absolutely unfair to the bands and performers loading their equipment in and out each day (and multiple times on certain days). We found a lot across from Stubb’s -- a whisper away from the main street -- advertising five dollars to park in their lot. When we pulled up, the attendant said it was ten dollars. What? And we couldn’t leave and come back. Other lots were offering seven dollars with three chances to leave and ten dollars with one chance to leave. Get on the good foot, people. This is a celebration of heart and soul. With young bands going in and out, that’s a raw deal for musicians. Fuckin’A, already.
Yesterday, I wrote about jazz. In a rock/alt-country drenched pulled-pork sandwich of sound, where’s the space for the little guys, the space that embraces the more dynamic styles? Jazz. Shaking the head and those fingertips. Serious smiles and egg-beater drum sticks. Stand up, bassface! I got a mission for you. The jazz is the index finger inching closer to the thumb -- but never touching. No. Not inside this Jelly Roll of sacrifice, this tomato sauce of slim pickens. No sir, Mr. Olive Oil Dickinson. Is this Austin or Pluto?
The locals give me that knowing look, that I like my town, and I like this festival, but I know you won’t stick around to help clean up look. I realize SXSW has left a metallic, dusty, and regurgitated taste in the mouths of locals, but I’m here to reinstate the good times. I want to talk directly to the heart of this town.
I grew up in a family where, within the small-town Midwestern stillness and quiet, respectful gazes could open up portals into an excited youthful imagination. Our house was a castle on top of a steep hill. Some neighbors were princesses; some were old wizards; and some were, yes, fire-breathing dragons. But I’ve never experienced this sort of assembly. Now, I will never visit a canning factory specializing in sardines.
Oh, Austin angel. Oh, wire-tapped cars of inspiration. Your day-old streets humble my battle cry. I’ve been here less than a week, and I still can’t see. The furrowed brow of comedy waits in the ‘50s-style diner I just passed. There are no ideas now, no afternoon bagels for my sun-tanned forearms, and no candor from the narrow alleyways.
I search for my reflection in a natural spring, disappearing into glass, into static revelry, into cardboard whispers. Today, give me a train. So what if it’s a toy train. Give me something small to build from. A tiny red caboose. Lizard locomotive. Slinking through the parts of America untouched by a suit and tie, still, quiet, and glistening.
Rock ‘n roll is a train. Rock ‘n roll serves its purpose inside this festival. Nestled comfortably within these Austin walls are drum kits, tight pants, and electric guitars. The people stumbling through the Thursday streets are hungry for rock ‘n roll.
I’m on vacation at SXSW, taking time off with this article, to watch life go by, a liquid pretender in the game of life. A non-tactile sub-mariner, a city boy from a small town that forgot how powerful a tiny body of water can be.
A young girl bartender, singing along to Otis Redding’s “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” skin separating her T-shirt from her jeans, so young yet so tempered by her insistence of emotional strength. Whether she realizes it or not, the brevity of such sentiment teases her suggestive bunkers.
The girl plays George Thorogood, Radiohead, and the Rolling Stones. Girl plays Elvis and Van Morrison. Sweet as a Sidekick, sans digital impressions. The author wishes he could talk to someone who throws it back like Cool Hand Luke, like Harry Dean Stanton’s wrist holding a Spirit, like a bakers-dozen Dennis Hopper film.
I leave when I hear her play fucking “Jane Says” by Jane’s Addiction, arguably the most clichéd jukebox song of my generation’s anti-pop legacy.
My brothers -- all five of them -- arrived today. Not only were we celebrating a reunion of sorts, we’re doing it in Austin, on the last day of SXSW, which also happens to be St. Patty’s Day. Of course, I must confess, the few times the six of us meet up may as well all be called St. Patty’s Day.
This day, the last in the festival, shows me exactly why people get involved in these events: it brings us together in the familial sense. Now that it’s almost over, we are reminiscing the moments, reconsidering them before they pass on. Call me a spastic dweeb the next time you see me, but I can’t believe we’re here. Everyone: the managers, agents, the P.R. people, the promoters, designers, festival employees, bartenders and wait staff, college kids with everything to prove, coffee shop denizens, local authorities, street preachers, feral dogs and firemen, lovers and fighters, countrymen and worldwide guests, all soaking under the same UV rays. The roadies, the bikers, the bar sentinels and meter maids, the friends who let us crash with them (thanks TC/JC), the everlasting gaze of drunk people wandering the crowded city streets, the cousins and their awkward profiles, 21st Century pterodactyl bloggers.
And the musicians: awe-inspiring. Watching the limitless pools and springs of talent unfolding down numbered streets. Some quietly absorb the unspeakable attention. Others dress their anxiety-laden dispositions with cigarettes, starving their stomachs with the promise of a new day. Their double-fisted gusto abscesses the continuum. For the artists, victory is memory. Being able to soak up the intensity of 1,200 bands in four days, the non-stop music, the new days of sound -- it’s paralyzing to think that we were here, immersed in the fabric. We were here and we are still standing.