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SXSW 2011: So you’re finally heading to South By Southwest. (A Pamphlet)

March 19, 2010

Ten years ago, when a young (insert name of once-promising comedic actor now used as a meta punch-line) taught us how to laugh, fellow Tweedster Lloyd and I made the 18-hour trek to Austin. For those who seek agency within their live music encounters, it is highly likely that you’re aware of the festival with the convenient abbreviation of SXSW. Every March, the city yawns and open up its doors for a whopping 1500+ bands. Punters from throughout the country, especially those on break from their collegiate responsibilities, invade several blocks of the downtown in hopes to see either The Next Big Thing or, especially these past five years, That One-Time Big Thing That is Finally Reuniting. While the festival involves far more than music (there are also gatherings dedicated to Film and Interactive Media), after four months of winter, I’m not dropping a month’s salary to spend a warm mid-March week indoors. Sure, most SXSW-sanctioned music venues are indoors, but almost every band plays an outdoor set at some patio or park during the day.

It is difficult to avoid hyperbole when describing the multitude of kick-ass elements of this extravaganza, so to avoid another interminable introduction, here’s a guide to the event, and what you can expect from the maelstrom of musicians, industry-reps, hipsters, free beer, expensive beer, barbecue, queso, and headaches:

What’s Awesome

The format. SXSW originally sought to serve as a means for the once-thriving record industry to bask in the temperate climate, all while showcasing their recently-signed talent (and possibly adding a few more acts to their stable). From eves of Wednesday through Saturday, over 100 commercial establishments from the classiest nightspot to the sleaziest Choke ‘N Puke will transform into live music venues from sundown till 2. A record company will contract with a particular venue, which will feature bands from that label for the evening. For those who like the dim sum approach to live performance, the typical venue asks that each act begin on the hour, and commence near the 45-minute mark, allowing time for the next group to tune their steel guitars and mic their sousaphones. If you arrive at (for example) the deceptively-massive backyard of Stubb’s BBQ joint at 8 pm, you’ll get to see six bands pound through their best 3/4-hour set in rapid-fire succession, like if the Chicago Cubs decided to place each pitcher on a 5-out limit. Unfortunately, that means that several of your favorite bands will be relegated to 6-to-8 song sets, but like That One Episode of Seinfeld, they get to be George Costanza leaving the room on a high note. But if a band is more annoying than entertaining, you are aware of the exact time when the suffering will cease. (I must warn you – this becomes the concert-equivalent of “flying first-class” – knowing the exact starting time and duration of a band’s set is extremely convenient, especially when your concert-attending mates are in their 30s and might not want to stand through 4 opening bands after tending to their newborn at 4:30 that morning. Regular live shows are never the same after you’ve spent four days in full sentience of your entertainment offerings.)

The choices. While there are many labels that feature multiple bands of my liking (Sub Pop, Domino, Rough Trade and Merge are four notable imprints that have hosted a showcase in my three visits to SXSW), I’ve never looked at the schedule and said “It appears that every band I want to see is at Antone’s tonight”. Luckily, the highly-concentrated setup – 90% of the officially-sanctioned SXSW venues are within a six-block walk of the event’s centermost site (Buffalo Billiards near the corner of 6th and Brazos Street) – the 15-minute soundchecks offer ample time to mosey over to another band’s set. In order to sample the music buffet, you need to procure an all-venue pass, also known as a wristband. This is only available for purchase for $150, and only within city limits. As a reward to the residents that make the festival possible, the sale time and date is randomly unleashed upon the aspiring festival-goer, making it almost impossible for an out-of-towner to snare a pair (unless you have a local connection willing to wait in line for you). Some residents will offer their highly-demanded wristbands for sale on the popular sites where that kind of stuff occurs (average resale price – $275). If you are unable to snare a wristband, there are three other options:

a. Buy the Official Badge ($595 – $750). Actually you should not, but here’s what this gets you: Front of the line for any venue, at anytime. Or, at least, in front of everyone without badges. Like Tony Wilson when he discovered that his new partner at the Factory was also called Tonay, but it was his fecking surname, there’s a hierarchy. The Badge is the Mr. Tonay of SXSW, and it allows entry into almost any show. But at 600 quid!? No matter how important that 45-minute set from Local Natives or Vampire Weekend may be to your future as a legitimate entity of the modern world, there’s a 100% chance that a venue two blocks down 6th Street is hosting a band of similar bad-assery at the same time.

b. Get to the venue early and pay their nightly fee. You are sans wristband, and have no badge – oh no! How about “Oh yes!” Almost every SXSW locale will allow you to purchase a ticket to their lineup for the evening for between $30 and $100. If you are dying to see that buzz band, or a venue’s entiretry for the eve, I suggest you arrive before 6pm, and hope that there’s no line of badge-holders before you. I am not sure how SXSW monitors this practice, and if they frown upon it or not. It is assumed that a person arriving at 5 o’clock to see a band scheduled for 10 is going to be allowed to purchase a spot, but you will not be allowed to leave and re-enter. There’s a strategy to this method that could save you some righteous bucks over the purchase of a wristband. If I ever desire to confine my evening of music to one locale, this will be my plan.

c. Avoid the evening showcases entirely. “BLASPHEMY!”, you cry. Isn’t that like driving to Walley World only to hang out in the parking lot? Indeed, this requires a massive paradigm shift in your SXSW agenda, and my friend Laila has perfected this method. What do you do?

Most awesome things in society attract a “suburb” of lesser-awesome items to their axis. This follows a basic economics corollary – people seeking the rush of a memorable experience unavailable in one’s hometown (like the architecture, food, language, nature, music or whatever) will often be accompanied by those who want to be somewhere near the greatness, but cannot handle its pure form. Watered-down versions of New York City (such as the t-shirt shops at the airport) exist as a means of offering the “urban” experience to skittish types who avoid public transportation. Fortunately, the extraneous events surrounding SXSW are not like this at all.

A parallel to SXSW’s surroundings would be Anaheim, CA. Orange County might sound like a boring example of Diluted Los Angeles, but in reality, it was once a real-world Disneyland that required no admission fee. Rickety “thrill” rides, wild Googie architecture (think bowling alleys, diners, and 1960s motels) and non-sequitor mascots sprouted in the business district surrounding The Mickey Mouse Master’s Level Course on Marketing to Children. For families without the expendable income to burn on $4 sodas, $15 mouse ears and $29 bags of chronic from the poor kid in the Pluto costume, the environs of Anaheim were a fine substitute. Besides, you knew that in the lane beside you, the guy bowling in an animal suit was doing it because he just freaking loves Yogi Bear, OK?

SXSW is just like Anaheim, circa 1966-79. While the evenings are dedicated to the walled-off showcases, the daytime is a massive free-for-all. Bands that will draw nighttime crowds so massive that even some badge-bearers will be turned away will set up shop in a park, a gas station or a bus in hopes to keep the buzz alive, with the requisite merchandise distribution (you might score a free t-shirt or CD). Due to all of the other daytime events, labels and venues have taken to offering free food, beer, magazines, and even shoes. And for these shows, YOU DON’T NEED NO STINKING BADGES.

Some events are planned well in advance, and follow a similar Mussolini-making-the-trains-run-on-time ethos. In 2006, Pitchfork Media paused their exclusive expose of Thom Yorke’s neighborhood-association meetings to inform us of their party with the Windish Agency, which featured Jose Gonzalez and the comic stylings of Mr. Patton Oswalt (when The Juan McLean were setting up, Oswalt saw the guy’s white blazer and quipped “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a roadie for Erasure!”). Unfortunately, most events amidst this daytime deluge feature no handy-dandy schedule provided by SXSW.com. While said Pitchfork event was in session, I later learned that Emo’s (yes, that’s the name of a club, no word if Twee’s or Chillwave’s was already taken) was treated to an appearance of the Wu-Tang Clan minus Ghostface (as ODB/Big Baby Jesus/Osiris/Dirt McGirt gazed down from the Great Grill in the Sky).

There are several websites that provide info on these “day-parties”, as they are called. But many are impromptu affairs, and may feature no prior warning (like that Wu appearance). In 2006, Libertines fanatics were treated to a surprise appearance from Carl Barat’s Dirty Pretty Things at a Johnny Cash-inspired bar called the Mean-Eyed Cat. In 2007, the aforementioned Laila was wondering the city on bike and stopped at a party where The Brown Tweed Society fave Aziz Ansari was providing the jokes during tear-downs and set-ups for bands. I must mention that the SXSW brass are not fans of these day-parties, giving them a contraband aura. During the day, SXSW attendees are expected to attend the seminars and events within the Convention Center, which feature PowerPoint presentations of trends within the music industry. While there’s always a few great moments that eventually enter the conversations while people wait in the lines, I have never thought to myself, “You know, this free plate of barbecue and complimentary tray of Lone Star tall-boys is nice, as is this unplanned set by Caitlin Cary’s new band, but I’d really rather be in a Soviet-style convention center watching the CEO of Warner Entertainment Group reading slides that describe their plan for encouraging their artists to mention commercial products in their songs.”

Well, that’s great for the days, you say. What’s a cash-strapped attendee to do in the evenings? SXSW covers a huge chunk of the city, but there are an equal number of places featuring non-sanctioned shows at night, most of which cost nothing. In 2000, Lloyd and I decided to abscond the official showcases fora bar called Hole in the Wall to see Mary Lou Lord, and were treated to singer-songwriter named Kevin So and country-rock rowdies Lucero. Since you lack the sunk-cost of a wristband, there’s no need to hustle between venues, allowing the opportunity to experience SXSW as a massive parade.

Other Awesome Things about SXSW

Random interactions with bands. In 2000, Lloyd and I walked past Alejandro Escovedo in a crowded setting on 6th, but in a side street, we almost knocked over Ben Ottewell and “Blackie” Blackburn of Gomez. This was in the midst of our fandom for the British quintet, which involved several multi-hour treks to hear their live show. (Ironically, I saw them two weeks ago with my friend and 2006 SXSW guest Leslie, in a locale 10 minutes from my house – oh, life). The difference between ages 25 and 31 is that you will not cower in fear of speaking with musicians you admire, I later learned. In 2006, I was crossing Red River St with Eddie Argos of Art Brut (whom we saw the night before, within a crowd featuring Jim DeRogatis of Sound Opinions) and I started chatting with him, which led to a conversation lasting the length of the entire block.

The antiestablishment attitudes. While I’ve been a wristband-bearer during my three appearances, I get a kick out of the backlash. The Hole in the Wall called their evening of music “South By So What!”. In 2000, when term “car-phone” was still in use, a common phenomenon was the observation of two industry-types walking side-by-side, both yapping into handheld devices (Lloyd asked me “I wonder if they are talking to each other?”). When we entered a record store called Sound Exchange (?), we passed a massive sign shouting “STAY OFF YOUR CELL PHONE WHILE IN OUR STORE. YOU’RE NOT IMPORTANT AND NOBODY CARES!”

The NCAA Tournament. Vacations are wonderful as a retreat from current reality, but there’s something to be said for a unifying event that serves as background noise to the bacchanalia. While investigating south Florida last month, the Missus knew that every TV in the bars, the hotels and even the punk-rock collectives would be turned to Olympic coverage. As fans of the UK Fightin’ Wildcats, Lloyd and I were seeking out places with televisions that featured Magloire, Prince and Co., which was not too difficult. In 2007, Kevin Durant was going to take Texas to the Final Four, or so it appeared. Austin’s hometown fans stood side-by-side with musicians and fans recovering from their hangovers to watch Texas get bounced way sooner than expected. A 2007 appearance by Vandaveer in a non-sanctioned venue involved a stage where Mark Heidinger was pinned between dueling TVs, both featuring different NCAA games. Thankfully, they pulled the plug during his set (although one could argue that “Grace & Speed” would serve as a helluva soundtrack for the ’07 Kansas Jayhawks).

The food. Damn! There are all kinds of awesome Tex-Mex places, with many varieties of queso. At Guero’s, just south of the river on Congress, there’s a Pico de Gallo Bar, which was so awesome it should be the subject of a Constitutional Amendment requiring its presence everywhere. Kerbey Lane Café features pancakes so massive that I was unable to finish my order of three.

Other randomness. In 2006, I wondered over to Antone’s record store, famous for early advocacy of Doug Sahm and the Texas Tornados. After exiting Ken’s Donuts, I walked in to Antone’s to the sounds of “Laugh, Laugh” by the Beau Brummels. Sal Valentino, their original lead vocalist, was playing a set of classic BB tunes. Unless the Twin Cites’ Own, The Castaways (“Liar, Liar”), randomly appear at the State Fair, this will likely be my only chance to hear a track from Nuggets performed live by the actual artist.  In another awesome moment, as my friend Leslie somehow got into an Arctic Monkeys showcase, I wondered into the Pecan Street Ale House, the Alarm decided to reunite. I get the feeling it wasn’t a surprise to everyone, with all of the Welsh accents surrounding me on the venue’s balcony. In 2007, my friend Aaron looked online to see if DeRogatis and his co-host, fellow rock journalist Greg Kot were broadcasting from anywhere particular that day. With the serendipity that seems to happen at SXSW far more often than it should, they happened to be at an event presented by hometown Minneapolis station 89.3, aka “The Current”. As Brother Ali set up his gear, the Missus and I had a chance to talk to two of our favorite music critics. Later that evening, we set out to see Patton Oswalt and Brian Posehn at the Human Giant showcase. Oswalt and Posehn didn’t show, but Ansari was there, with his infamous “River View” bit.

The Not-So-Awesome

Dumb vernacular. Many attendees utilize the abbreviated moniker of “South-By”. For some reason, I find this extremely annoying. Thankfully I wasn’t alone – Jason Loewenstein of Sebadoh spent most the between-song banter sarcastically asking “You guys lovin’ ‘South By’? Huh, HUH? You see ‘Guided By’ at ‘South By'”?

Entitled badgers. At a 2000 Damnations TX show, Lloyd and I arrived early, assuring our place when the once-hyped but now-underrated band hit the stage. Right as the set started, two heavily-scented catalog models rudely pushed their way in front of us, badges flinging in the wind. If we weren’t so dead from our lengthy drive that commenced just a few hours prior, we might not have been such easy targets.

Mediocre sets. Some bands are super-excited about lugging their equipment a few blocks, only to play for 45 minutes. But enough about bands that formed a month before the festival. For bands that have been chasing the dream for a few years, the novelty of SXSW gives way to the realization that such events are viewed as obligatory to maintain relevance. So when Sebadoh or Whiskeytown throw together disappointing sets, it’s not surprising. This is the down side to the tasting menu.

The preparation required to enjoy the event. You can go with no prep, and throw yourself to the randomness. But far too often, you’ll miss out on bands you’d have loved to see. SXSW features thousands of live performances, but successfully attending the festival requires a level of performance, too. (There’s a level of quick-thinking that resembles participation in a live political debate, although you get to carry your notes with you, rather than be forced to rely on an earpiece.) What if your chosen venue has a line that never ends? What other bands are playing at that time? And how do you get from the Red 7 to La Zona Rosa? It’s good to have this stuff on hand, especially when these so-called “smart phones” allow easy transportation of maps, lists, and other crib notes. Thankfully, the SXSW website facilitates the prep by placing an “add to calendar” button within each artist’s page. And remember that the ‘Dillo Bus (hiding the tires beneath wood paneling a streetcar does not make) offers free rides throughout the downtown area.

Well, that concludes our lesson. While the festival is already halfway through, if you are in Austin right now, here’s a chance to enhance your current investment. Rock on!

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