Cheap buses, swollen ankles, Trash Talk mosh pits, Nate Dogg tributes—a writer shares music-industry insight and lessons from this year’s festival in Austin
Once a year in March, as in the Muslim tradition of journeying to Mecca, musicians and fans from all over the world head to the capital of Texas for a 10-day-long festival of music, film, panels, barbecue, excessive drinking and God knows what else, all in the name of exposing unearthed artists to folks with money. Unlike similar music festivals, such as the CMJ Music Marathon in New York or the Noise Pop Festival in San Francisco, South by Southwest unites the masses unlike any other, and the city of Austin embraces it in full.
My journey at SXSW is best shared as a nonchronological highlight reel:
But first: The night before leaving, I had a small accident where I hit my ankle on the fridge, which seemed like nothing at the time. As I boarded my plane for Texas, I had a small limp. No big deal …
Another quick note: In order to be cost-efficient, I’d found someone on Craigslist offering their backyard for camping at $10 a day. The location was a 10-minute bus ride from downtown. I would like to mention that the bus in Austin is $1 for a one-way ride, $2 for an entire day (you hear that, Regional Transit?).
My first taste of SXSW was M for Mikey, an event hosted by former Long Drive Home frontman Mikey Rishwain (known by many in Sacramento as Mikey B) at a nightclub called Spill. Mikey handles booking for M for Montreal, a festival that promotes Montreal and Canadian bands. This is their fourth year hosting SXSW events. Robbie Percell, formerly of Sacramento-based band Quitter, showed up to check out the performances. After far too many shots with the crew, I took the night-owl bus back to camp (yes, Austin also has a bus that runs well after 2 a.m., Tuesday through Sunday, and not just during SXSW).
Day two: With 1,500 bands in town, you have to pick and choose shows and parties. It seemed like everyone I talked to was trying to find a way to catch the supposed “surprise” acts, hot tickets such as the Jay-Z/Kanye West appearance, or Jack White. No one was talking up bands that were supposed to be “the next Yeah Yeah Yeahs” or anything like that.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a town with so many bars. It seems difficult at times to find a place to eat in downtown Austin, but a place to drink is more about deciding on which place. Author Edward Abbey once wrote, “Any town with more churches than bars, that town’s got a problem.” If true, Austin has no worries.
I quickly discovered that the only way to find new bands would be at day parties with free food and booze. So I hoofed it from venue to venue, catching nice sets by hip-hop group More or Les and my home province of Manitoba’s Imaginary Cities; plus Dance Laury Dance, a French Canadian rocker group who put on a hell of a show.
My first big gig, Queens of the Stone Age, included Jack White among a full-capacity crowd at La Zona Rosa. QOTSA was lively, including so much fog-machine fog that you could barely see the band.
By day three, SXSW was harrowing, relentless. Besides hangovers, my minor foot injury had amplified tenfold. Plus, St. Patrick’s Day festivities had kicked off. What I thought would be the March 17 of my life turned out to be a giant headache. It seemed, too, that the entirety of SXSW’s attendees had taken the night off and given way to green-clothed frat boys and sorority girls. To illustrate: A band played Sublime’s “Santeria,” and the entire intoxicated Sixth Street audience joined in giant singalong.
A Sacramento moment saved the night: Sea of Bees at the Central Presbyterian Church, where Julie Ann Baenziger and band put on a lovely performance. I also bumped into and chatted with Sacramentan James Neil of the the Golden Cadillacs, and Bird Peterson, a deejay who’s previously played DJ Whores’ monthly dance night Hump at The Press Club.
On Friday, I encountered the best band name at SXSW: Tehranosaurus.
And former Sacramento band Agent Ribbons’ showcase for Antenna Farm Records revealed that their presence in Austin does not go unnoticed by the locals, as there was a healthy number of folks present just to see them.
On my final day, at the M for Montreal/BrooklynVegan day party on Red River Street, the main attraction was at Barbarella Patio, where an overheated and tired audience drank free samples of the new Sparks while watching Chk Chk Chk, who worked through some nasty technical difficulties to get the entire crowd in the mood for dancing.
Later on: The famed Fader Fort is known for its free alcohol and blue-chip bands, but I finally checked out the venue out to see Sacramento’s own Trash Talk. When I arrived, James Blake was about to take the stage. In the photo pit for T.T., I warned fellow shutterbugs of the carnage they were about to endure, but no one heeded my advice. T.T. singer Lee Spielman came out onstage and observed, “James Blake to us, what the fuck?” The chaos that followed was brilliant, as the group destroyed any sense of good concert-going camaraderie. Spielman flew over the stage into the audience and, while only a few participated in the giant circle pit, those who did made every attempt to piss off the others by kicking cans and throwing garbage at them.
Next: I received a last minute email explaining I had been approved a pass to Perez Hilton’s gala event, so I decided, “What the heck?” I had heard last year there was an open bar. There wasn’t. In fact, not only were they charging (a lot) for drinks, but the lineup was also so-so. And I think the most interesting thing about the event was how many people were fighting to get in. And Hilton’s third-grader-with-no-fashion-sense outfit.
My chosen event at SXSW: Odd Future at Buffalo Billiards. There was a lot of hype surrounding this gig. The opener was Curren$y, an act that I found completely one-dimensional. When Odd Future took the stage, the crowd was not exactly hyped up, and O.F. member Tyler the Creator was noticeably upset after two songs. The group tried to get the crowd into the show, but eventually the guys said “fuck it,” threw their microphones and bolted, leaving a very shocked and confused audience.
To end my SXSW experience: I’d heard that Snoop Dogg and Warren G were performing across the street at the Vibe magazine showcase. We waited an hour or so before Tha Dogg Pound, Warren G and Snoop all took the stage to pay respects to their recently passed away brother, Nate Dogg, performing a few songs, most notably “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None).” It was actually a very solemn moment, and that’s just the way to end a spiritual journey to a personal Mecca.
My apologies to those Sacramento bands I could not find, including Sister Crayon, MC Rut, Dance Gavin Dance and many others. For the most part, it’s impossible to set out to do exactly what you plan at SXSW. But it’s also impossible not to have an adventure.