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[I’m still not sure words will do any justice, but I am going to attempt to describe the awesome insanity of the past weekend in Austin, TX. Enclosed are notes from my journal about my experience at SXSW. I went to a mixture of official and unofficial SXSW day and night parties. Most were free. I spent $15 on music (for one night’s cover charge) the entire time I was there.]
5 a.m. Thursday, March 17
My friend Anna and I arrive at the airport, prepping for our three flight journey to Austin. There are not many direct flights to Austin and the ones that are available are expensive. We don’t care, we decided that we are going anyway. Anna has been to SXSW several times before; I am just a newbie. She has prepped me with necessary information and keeps reminding me that flexibility is key in enjoying this festival. Yes, we have our schedules planned out – but so many things change in an instant down in Austin. I think I know, but I really still have no idea what is in store. I’m just brimming with excitement and nervous energy at 5 a.m.
2 p.m. Thursday, March 17
After dropping off our bags and grabbing a quick taco lunch, we head to the madness of 6th street and Congress. It is 80 degrees and the sun is shining bright. I am immediately struck by the fact that music is playing EVERYWHERE. In every bar we pass, a musician is setting up or playing a set. On every street corner, there is someone singing or playing guitar. Every three steps, I hear a mixture of sounds or a completely new band. They say there are over 2,000 bands in Austin this week. I now understand. The space is overflowing with positive energy and over-all excitement. You overhear conversations about the best bands you’ve ever seen and who you are excited to see next. There is comfort in knowing that everyone on the street (and even in the city) is there for the same reason as you: the music. Instant friendships are formed so easily and effortlessly. "You like music? I like music! It’s 80 degrees – let’s go check out this next band together!" It feels much like any summer music festival, but is amped up by about 1000 %.
We head over to the NPR party at the Parrish, but the line is just too long – so, we look across the street and see the Flamingo Cantina and waltz our way over. We made it in time for the end of Sondre Lerche’s set, the darling Norwegian singer-songwriter that I forgot I used to love. His set was a nice, calm refuge from the beautiful, but overwhelming main streets of the festival. Next up was an energetic five song set from Lord Huron. After celebrating the lead singer of The Dears' 40th birthday with a rousing version of “Happy Birthday" and cupcakes for everyone in the venue, we run over to the East Side Drive Inn for the Pitchfork showcase. By the way, it’s about 4 p.m. at this point and the only money we have spent has been on food. During the day, artists play free shows of half sets that last around 20-30 minutes. If you play your cards right, you can easily see over 15-20 bands a day – for free.
We catch the end of Times New Viking, and get geared up for the legendary Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis. Our homeboy with long grey hair and a black beard does not disappoint, playing solo with just his guitar. Up next is a band I was very excited to see, Chicago’s own Smith Westerns. I really enjoyed their latest album Dye It Blonde, but had been warned about their bratty attitudes. And boy, did they really deliver with some of the most pretentious diatribes I have ever heard. They put on a fine rock show, but nothing life changing or even extremely interesting. I was extremely put off by their stage presence. We didn’t even finish the set.
A quick dinner and we’re off to figure out how to spend our evening. We are also exhausted by this point. After walking up and down 6th street, we end up at a local blues bar at the suggestion of the door man who lured us in with no cover. We saw a great local blues band open for New Jersey Americana-folk-rock band Reese Van Riper. It was LOUD and messy and good….and not at all what I expected for folk rock. After a few Lone Star beers, we are heading back to the house to try and catch some rest for the next few days of music.
12:30 p.m., March 18
The first thing we all did when we woke up in our rented artist loft on 22nd street was to check our email and Twitter accounts. It wasn’t just because we are internet junkies, it was to see if anything new had been released over night – any secret shows, any special appearances, etc. This is the thing that is most exciting about SXSW: it is changing constantly. Lineups are changed, bands switch locations, and special shows are played in parks. So, we did our research and settled on some plans for the day.
After a relaxing brunch at the South Congress Café, my pals and I headed over to the Homeslice showcase across the street. The weather was beautiful, with highs reaching around 90 degrees. When we arrived at Homeslice, we could barely hear the music set up in the back yard. Turns out, Homeslice didn’t get the proper sound approval from the city, so the bands would have to play acoustic. I stuck around to see two indie bands, Versus and Lost in the Trees who played a delicious set in the round. It was a very intimate space because of the sound issues, and it needed to be – as soon as you walked outside of that circle you could hear different music blaring in every direction.
In the interest of cleansing my palate, I headed over to the Scoot Inn for a hip-hop showcase that was weirdly enough hosted by Andrew W. K. Das Racist was the first set we caught, and man, what an awesome set it was! These boys have so much fun on stage, great energy with each other, and utilize humor in a way that’s over-the-top, but somehow completely reasonable. AND, their rhymes are tight, socially conscious, and still playful. Das Racist put on one of my favorite sets at SXSW.
After Das Racist, we saw the much hyped Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. OFWGKTA can only be described in one word: insanity. This L.A. Collective features rappers aged 17-23 and their youthful energy feels destructive and immediate. The crowd was so excited to see them, and Odd Future played off that energy by constantly crowd surfing, climbing on speakers, and at one point, jumping off the roof of the venue into the crowd. They are crass, and their punk attitudes shine through their raps. Definitely worth seeing, but for safety’s sake, at a distance.
Feeling hyped from the energy at the hip hop showcase, we headed back to Homeslice to catch the rest of the acts in their day party. I caught the tail end of Someone Still Loves You Boris Yelstin which is one of the most clever band names in indie rock, part of one of my favorites, Thao and The Get Down Stay Down, and Canadian band Rural Alberta Advantage. Like I said earlier, the acoustic sets were fun if you were up close, but the noise restraints put a damper on the shows for those of us near the back. Homeslice allowed RAA to play their last song at normal level, and that was my favorite part of the day party.
Then, we ran into Yoko Ono who was trying to buy a cowboy hat. It was surreal, and I just yelled “OMG YOKO" because I am really just a star struck adolescent behind these skinny jeans and large sunglasses. She got into a limo, and we continued walking.
7:30 p.m., March 18
We headed over to the legendary music venue, Antone’s for our choice of night party. Unfortunately we missed the indie pop openers, The Head and the Heart because of the line wait. After about fifteen minutes, we got in just in time for Philadelphia band,
We ended the evening with another set by Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, but this time – they were plugged in. Obviously, a bigger crowd = greater energy, and they played mostly up-beat, danceable tunes which was perfect for a Friday night. We tried to stick around for the headliners of Okkervil River, but we were too exhausted (and our feet hurt from dancing!). We headed back home to rest for our final day of music in Austin.
12 p.m., March 19
We checked our email and saw that that the set times for the Mess With Texas Party had been confirmed, so we decided to head back to the East Side Drive In to hang out in the sun. Up first was California band, We Barbarians. A good old fashioned rock and roll band, their set is tight and clean – and we decide they sound like a non-washed up version of the Kings of Leon. Up next is Deertick, a band from Rhode Island. I have heard a lot about this band from friends, primarily that they are great musicians and probably alcoholics. They played a Nirvana tribute set in Austin the day before and called themselves Deervana. The point is, this band knows how to have a good time, and I was blown away by their immense rockabilly/rock/roots sound. They’ve been around for a while, and I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to finally experience them. It was a fun set.
The next three bands were heard from sitting down in the shade. I had run into a few friends from Chicago and we decided to catch up over some beers instead of work our way to the front of the stage. Our soundtrack to the lovely afternoon was Strange Boys, Lemuria, and The Dodos. After a much needed break, we headed back to the stage for Ted Leo’s solo show. Say what you will about the man (i.e. Is his music still relevant? Why do all his songs sort of sound the same?), but there is something about Ted Leo that I will always find magnetic and nostalgic. I still think he’s better with a full band, but he played well known (and very loved) songs like “Me and Mia" and “Timorous Me" by himself and definitely did them justice. Ted Leo is still a force to be reckoned with, but it was obvious that this set was only for the very serious fans.
7 p.m., March 19
I head over to Auditorium Shores to see the Bright Eyes show. My relationship with Conor Oberst’s music has really changed over the years . As a 16 year old, the man sang the Gospel truth to me (i.e. “Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh" was one of the most important songs of my high school experience). A few years later, I began to resent his negative outlook on life and love and found the music I once loved so much as very whiney and predictable. But then (!) his solo albums and side projects reeled me back in, and I started listening to the up-beat tracks on the albums that I had always skipped for the slow, sad ones. I must emphasize that I did this with great caution and skepticism , knowing that I will always be a recovering acoustic -emo-music addict. I went to this show knowing that I had a very long, personal history with the music of Bright Eyes, and with a strong curiosity to see him in a very large outdoor space like Auditorium Shores.
It was one of the best shows I have ever been to in my entire life. Yes, we must put it in context: it is my last evening in Austin, TX; the full moon was out in full force; I was there with new and old friends who were singing as loud as I was; and there were fireworks afterwards. Regardless, he played a perfect mixture of old and new songs, and had fantastic stage presence (not even drunk or awkward, unlike the last times I’d seen him). Conor Oberst is more than just Bright Eyes, he is an amazingly talented musician. I have always been impressed by the amount of music this man can produce, and now I re-appreciate every sort of song/lyric he has ever experimented with. He’s the real deal. (This concert is currently streaming on npr.org/music, and I highly recommend checking it out if you are at all curious.)
The evening ended up at the Vibe party’s tribute to Nate Dogg (we knew a guy). Warren G. was headlining, and if I hadn’t been so physically exhausted and emotionally drained from the Bright Eyes shows, I would have enjoyed it more. I was ready to leave when I looked up on the stage and saw Snoop Dogg make a special appearance. There is a reason that these rappers are famous (obviously). Their rhymes were still so smooth, the show was still fun, and they were still awesome performers. It was nice, random, perfect way to end the evening.
8 a.m., March 26
It has now been a week since I returned from SXSW, and I’m still trying to figure out how to talk about it. This is what I know: It was extremely awesome and overwhelming and I’m still on a live music high. Like many of us, music has always been more than just background noise for me. It has articulated my feelings, it has helped me dream of different possibilities, it’s been a way for me to express myself. Live music possesses healing and transformative powers. There is something so special about being in the same space as musicians you love because they created the music you cling to.
And yes, SXSW is a big party. But, it is a big party in celebration for the necessity of and for the future of music we love and will grow to love. It’s a reminder of the all the music in the world we’ve yet to discover, and a way to appreciate all the songs that got us here in the first place.
“As for us, the listeners, there's really no proper way to feel besides grateful. This is a work week for everyone on the many stages of South by Southwest; a labor (to invoke another buzz band down here ) of the head and the heart." – notable rock critic and prolific music journalist, Ann Powers
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