Everything’s hipper in Texas: It’s been four years since I last braved the overwhelming crush of Sixth Street in Austin for the South by Southwest Music Festival, and among the cacophony of a punk band, an indie band, a honky-tonk trio, a dubstep deejay and a hip-hop collective bearing down on all sides from rooftop bars, freshmen Longhorns vomiting into the nearest trash can in any given direction and the general smell of rot riding the breeze, I’m trying hard to keep my inner killjoy at bay.
I’m trying harder than I normally do, anyway, in spite of the zoo, because I have arrived in Austin, Texas, unwilling to buy into what seems to have been a popular sentiment among media critics leading up to this year’s festival: namely, that South by Southwest, once a scrappy, dirt-encrusted dingo, is now Boo the Pomeranian, and this year’s festival is but a soiree for the bourgeoisie during which Justin Timberlake is scheduled for a “secret” show in order to shit on the dreams of all the just-about-to-break singer-songwriters that would’ve otherwise caught their big break, if only everyone had come to their shows at restaurants-turned-venues in east Austin instead of his.
I will give the cynics this much: The corporate folk don’t make it easy to ignore the logofication of everything. The poor pedicabbies have sold their calf space to Tito’s vodka and pedal around town in branded kneesocks; some dumb-looking TV show called Hannibal is hawking cannibalism-punned fare from a shiny food truck. But what’s a little commercial deluge in the face of what is still one of the largest music celebrations in the country? To the naysayers I pass on a bit of advice that I gleaned from a T-shirt upon arriving in Austin: “Namaste, y’all.” If you’re feeling a little disgusted by the whole corporate takeover, I suggest you channel your anger at Doritos into patience, because you’re going to need a lot of it if you want to catch that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis show.
Cathedrals, Escalades and brats: As for me, my plan is to not plan much. On Friday, my first morning in town, I wake up, grab some kimchi french fries from the Chi’Lantro food truck, and head out to see Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. The Radio Day Stage set up in an exhibition hall of the convention center isn’t a suitable cathedral for one of the high priestesses of Americana, but sterile as the room is, it falls away when she and Crowell cover Kris Kristofferson’s “Chase the Feeling.” Later on the same stage, I catch Seattle band Pickwick, a neo-soul five-piece that sounds a bit like the Black Keys on performance-enhancing drugs. The band’s enormous confidence is nascent and endearing, and frontman Galen Disston’s voice is a thing to behold. Dawes follows, hawking its sincere tunes to an enthusiastic and mostly sober crowd, which is refreshing in its own way.
That evening, I head over to an indie-rock showcase for Sacto locals Brown Shoe (full disclosure: the band’s guitar player is the Kurt Russell to my Goldie Hawn), and I’m pretending to help load gear when a black Cadillac Escalade rolls up next to us and Warren G pops his head out of the window.
Anyway. The showcase is full of pleasant surprises: Austin natives Boy + Kite remind me of the Silversun Pickups crossed with Metric; Sad Baby Wolf (consisting of former members of the Shins) weave tight harmonies with poppy folk. Postshow, I have the good fortune of eating a “spoiled brat”—a gyro stuffed with beef, lamb, chicken and falafel—from food trailer Kebabalicious. I go to bed indigestion-riddled but happy, feeling the SXSW magic.
Vegan queso and melty hearts: When I wake up the next morning, however, I’m feeling pretty bereft of said magic. After a considerable effort to get out of bed around 3 p.m., I head to the BrooklynVegan party, where everyone there is hipper than the hippest person there. I try some impressive vegan queso. Around 9 p.m., instead of trying to see Prince, the Smashing Pumpkins or Justin Timberlake, I forcibly drag some folks to go see Kitty (the artist formerly known as Kitty Pryde). If you don’t know who Kitty is, she’s a former Claire’s accessories employee around the age of 17, who raps about being a girl. On this particular evening, she asks the crowd if they know what “incontinence” means, and asks us not to tell her mom when she starts grinding on the bar. Are her crass verses supposed to melt your heart? Is she an abomination to the hip-hop world? I have no idea. I don’t have much to contribute other than this: She is brazenly vulnerable, very 17-ish. The audience seems to be about 80 percent white male music bloggers, whatever that signifies. I’m still trying to puzzle that 30 minutes of my life out.
On Sunday, the city empties out quickly, I stick it out for four or five more Lone Star Beers and one final showcase at the legendary Stubb’s BBQ. I’m glad I did, too, because I got to catch Austin locals the Wheeler Brothers. Watching them, you get the feeling that this alt-country five-piece killing it and the crowd loving it is a standard affair—confirmation that while there may be a lot of annoying packaging to tear through, the old SXSW spirit isn’t so hard to find once you stop making demands of it.