PACKED IN THE PARTY: A SXSW Road Journal
From Stooge sightings to bear-soaked breakfasts, PopMatters' Kevin Pearson explains how to survive 46 full sets in 4 days on 14 hours of sleep and 11 slices of pizza.
As with all great sagas, my SXSW adventure begins with a problem, namely a flight delay from Philly that may or may not mean I get into Nashville too late to make my connection to Austin. The flight is late leaving the gate, and, as it sits on the tarmac for a further 30 minutes, I glance at my neighbor who is tapping along to a binder full of tabs. Turns out he just joined a cover band and needs to learn the songs. As he flips the page, and just as the pilot announces a further 15-minute delay, the song jumps out at me: “It’s A Long Way to the Top (If You Want To Rock and Roll)” by AC/DC. Could anything be more apt? Me, sitting on a runway, wishing to get to the top (of the clouds at least) so I can rock.
Suffice it to say, I did make it to Austin on time. I forgot about the difference between Eastern Standard and Central Time, and that hour difference made it possible for me, and several others, to catch our connection -- even if we did have to run from one end of a terminal to another.
It seems, though, that since I’ve been in Austin, all I’ve done is metaphorically run from one terminal to the other. I feel like I’m speed-dating bands. It’s one big musical relay, and I’m the baton being passed back and forth. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining at all, but I feel a little like Jack Bauer in 24, in that I have no time to eat or go to the bathroom.
My fledgling vegetarianism went out the window yesterday when I ordered a breakfast burrito that contained “fajitas.” Now, I didn’t know fajita meant meat. I knew that you could order steak fajitas or chicken fajitas, but I thought that the steak and chicken part of the recipe constituted the meat and that the fajita aspect had something to do with how it was prepared. Ah well, no worries.
Because really, how can you worry in Austin, surrounded by so much music? And it’s even harder worry when you’re awoken the first morning by more house guests offering you PBR for breakfast. I duly obliged. After all, I needed something even nastier to wash down those fajitas.
I burnt out on festivals a decade ago. Glastonbury 1995 was one of the few times the sun actually shone, so much so that weathermen warned against more than a maximum 20-minute exposure. Being the young, unimpressionable youth I was, I either ignored the warnings or forgot, and stood in front of the second stage all day. The sunstroke kicked in as the dusk fell. The less I say about the burn I suffered the better (ah, the things we put ourselves through to see Echobelly). The following year, at Reading, I went without sleep for 52 hours because of a flooded tent, only to pass out, against a speaker, while Rocket from the Crypt blasted punk-rock rockabilly.
On the second day of SXSW, I find myself suffering from a combination of both of the above afflictions. Afforded two hours of sleep due to a situation beyond my control, I set off Thursday only to be greeted by the blistering hot sun. My first port of call was an invite-only British-music event held in a small tent across from Austin’s Convention Center. The free food and booze meant lines quickly formed for both, stretching outside of the tent. People tried to push to the front and succeeded -- they’re industry folks you see. Even as the musical guests performed (I only stayed for Amy Winehouse), people continued to queue, which made me ask myself: do people actually come here for music, or the free food, booze, and social networking?
Disgruntled by the affair, I wandered around, trying to keep to the shady side of the street, and found myself across the other side of I-35 at Mrs. Bea’s, an old-school Mexican bar with a make-shift stage out back. What struck me first was the lack of badges (the in-theory all-access passes that get industry folks in and out of events), then the lack of pretension that came with their absence. The only badge I saw was draped around the neck of the bass player from the Gossip, there, I guess, to support former Kill Rock Stars labelmates, Macromantics. It was the first time I felt comfortable at SXSW. People were actually there for the music. Some were even dancing.
Out front sat a shaded tent where you could buy authentic Mexican food. The backporch area afforded me a place to rest, recuperate, and postpone my sunstroke whilst reaffirming my faith in the festival.
SXSW, thus far, has left an indelible stain on me. I don’t mean in a life changing, re-affirming way, but more that my hands are so full of stamps from various venues that they look like Rorschach inkblot tests. And, due to the way I sleep, so does my face. My arms are adorned with so many wristbands that I am severely weighted to one side. Thus far, in three days, I believe I’ve seen 34 full sets and several snippets, making this a marathon event. SXSW is, after all, a salad bar of musical delights, one of those by-the-pound places where you can choose how much you want. And, as usual, I’ve overindulged.
One thing I have learned though is that the majority of bands I picked to see prior to the festival just haven’t been as good as the ones I’ve happened on accidentally. Similarly, the catered and sponsored industry events have left a lot to be desired, especially compared to the smaller, more intimate unofficial events. One event, yesterday, saw me fight through a crowd just to get out. I felt like the protagonist in Park Chan Wook’s Old Boy during that famous one-shot corridor fight scene, but, instead of a clawhammer and fist to fight past people, I had only my bag and nimble elbows.
If it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. The good far outweighs the bad. Yesterday evening ended with me stumbling, as you do, upon a private event with free vodka. The scene was a hipster-styled Hieronymus Bosch bacchanal of bands and DJ’s, alcohol, and avant-garde dress. After talking my way in -- I didn’t have an invite -- I ended up chatting with various folks, including a punk band from California who, as with most punk bands from California, described their sound as ‘Cheap Trick-esque.’ I left though, after spilling an orange vodka drink on myself, a sure sign that the night is ready to end, and another indelible stain that SXSW has left upon my body.
It seems as though Saturday at SXSW was set aside for bad bar bands. There was obviously more than enough music to keep me going, but none of the scheduling conflicts that had taunted me during the early part of the festival like a dropped dollar bill on a windy day.
It hasn’t been easy deciding which bands to see, especially with the knowledge that, as you’re standing there waiting for one band to break down and another to build up, something fantastic is being thrown down somewhere else, something you’ll only know about after the fact. Case in point: I missed Ghostface Killah today, playing with a full band. Do you know how awesome that would have been? I do, because my friends were there and able to tell me about it afterwards. Then again, I’m not disappointed with my choices. Although some of my decisions went awry, on the whole, the SXSW experience couldn’t have been better.
That is of course, until the full weight of St. Patrick’s Day descended upon me. It looked liked God had sneezed on Sixth Street; such was the greenery on display. The added crowds made getting into places a little harder, with one badge-holding friend waiting in line an hour and ten minutes to see the Stooges. Totally worth it, he said. On a Stooges note, I spotted the band’s streamlined singer slinging out some yoga on Sunday morning as I waited for my plane at Austin airport.
But, back to Saturday. I decided to spend the day -- Ghostface Killah aside -- in the company of friends. You see, the life of a reviewer can be lonely. Sure, you talk to people, but only after they look at your lanyard to see if you’re worth talking to (seriously, it took me half a day to realize that people weren’t looking at my crotch). But the friends you make at these things are fleeting, leaving you as soon as you move on to the next venue to see the next band.
With that in mind, I decided to allow my final day to be dictated by people without badges. What transpired was a free breakfast-and=booze buffet, plenty of music, and some prime-time gambling. As Canada’s A Northern Chorus cued up their orchestral sound outside the Creekside Lounge, we sat at the bar, rolling dice for dollar bills with a couple of locals. I lost $3. And, since we’re speaking of numbers, I just added up that, in my four days at SXSW, I saw 46 full sets (and several snippets of others), survived on 14 hours of total sleep, ate 11 slices of pizza, and drank enough free beer to flood a small Polynesian island.
So, I was thankful to close out the festival on a low-key note, sitting curbside on Sixth Street as the Walkmen played above on the outside balcony of a bar. It was nice to just sit and soak in the craziness, the crassness, and the completely overwhelming nature of it all, safe in the knowledge that I had nowhere else I had to be.