A four-day blur of tacos, sun, Lone Star beer, pizza and—of course—bands. That’s the short and easy description of my trip to the annual four-day live music orgy known as South By Southwest.
Location: Austin, Texas
Distance from Charlottesville:
Dates for 2009 festival: March 18-22
Austin, Texas, in mid-March, when SXSW spawns, is a Mecca for music maniacs. You can’t walk (or stumble, as you’ll likely be doing by day four) a few steps without running into a band unloading its gear. You can’t stretch out your arms without knocking some distracted hipster upside the head. And you can’t—absolutely cannot—avoid having your eardrums constantly bombarded by chord after chord, song after song, band after band and show after seemingly endless show.
The first time my feet hit the pavement on Sixth Street, the downtown strip where SXSW’s activities are the most dense, it was clear that I had reached some sort of Holy Grail-ish Xanadu. Austin touts the nickname “Live Music Capital of the World” with good reason. Blocked off from traffic and teeming with band members, bespectacled bloggers and industry types, Sixth Street was like the Downtown Mall but with music spilling out of each and every doorway.
My destination on one afternoon of the festival was The Parish, a nondescript but top-notch midsized concert hall (these come a dime a dozen in Austin) where I met up with our hometown boys in Sparky’s Flaw to catch their Mercury Records showcase. Sandwiched between oddly named U.K. rockers Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong and up-and-coming neo-soul pop star Duffy, the Flaw put on a solid show for the guest-listed crowd of Mercury folks and friends. Free record company t-shirts and CDs strewn across the rear of the venue, an open bar oozing drinks and a wealth of hobnobbing revealed the industry indulgence that laces itself through many of the festival’s sounds.
An essential part of the SXSW experience is narrowly missing something that you really wanted to see. Once I had parted from The Parish, I scurried to a nearby park to catch indie rock veterans Yo La Tengo, only to show up minutes after they had left the stage. I did, however, make it in time to lounge in the grass and listen to the experimental pop of Atlas Sound. The lesson? There’s no missing out at SXSW. You just end up seeing something different than what you had in mind.
And the unanticipated moments of SXSW emerged as its best. South of Sixth Street’s manic bustle and across the Colorado River, South Congress Avenue provided a much more lax vibe. While the music still echoed into the street, an older, laid-back contingency made the scene more of a backyard barbecue and less of a downtown blitzkrieg. Here, it seemed, were the city’s oddball veterans who embody the slogan “Keep Austin Weird.”
At Homeslice Pizza I scarfed down a few slices while watching Detroit rockers The High Strung and listened to an aging, wobbling drunk as he tried to convince me that he was the drummer for punk rock band Bad Religion (he definitely wasn’t).
Across the street, Pabst cans were doled out freely in the rear of folk art gallery Yard Dog while Canadian alt country group The Sadies teamed up with Jon Langford of the Mekons before aging and proudly amateur rock band Half-Japanese took the stage. Brothers Jad and David Fair led their group through quirky discordant punk rock tunes like “Red Dress” and “Charmed Life” while the crowd sipped on brews and enjoyed the afternoon sun. An elderly lady in the front row, who I believe was Mother Fair, rocked out despite the fact that she was supporting herself with a walker. With the audience mostly made up of married couples, old buddies and toddlers, the event was akin to a reunion of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.
Crossing back over the river, I found myself in Waterloo Park on the festival’s final day. I navigated the sea of Wayfarer sunglasses, neon thrift store shirts and three simultaneous stages to catch Brooklyn synth-pop duo Matt & Kim, L.A. weird-rockers No Age and the spaced-out neo-psychedelics of Yeasayer. I skipped the immature pop punk of NOFX to get a good spot for The Breeders, who capped the night and my SXSW experience with a mix of old and new songs as darkness descended.
It was just like any outdoor concert, except that, all across Austin, hundreds of other shows were taking place at the same time and thousands of ears were being fed the candy that they craved so much. And if music is candy, then SXSW is the ultimate sugar high. How else could us music hounds stay on our feet? How else would bands play as many as three or four shows a day? And why else would I, exhausted and only a few hours outside of Austin on the long drive back to Charlottesville, already be hatching a scheme to return next year?