Time and space are both weirdly compressed at South by Southwest, which you don’t realize until you’ve done the festival for two 12+ hour days. You see a dozen shows in a day at a half-dozen bars, and don’t have to walk all that far to see them. It’s different than something like Bonnaroo because you’re traversing city blocks, not fenced-off pastures, so you don’t feel like you’re part of some separate music colony as much as that you sort of own an entire downtown. SXSW is a microcosmos of music cultures, a huge disposable music scene that feeds off Austin (and vice-versa) for four days that feel like a month each. Thus, on any single day, I could feasibly cycle through weeks worth of emotional states, weird bodily pains, friend-and-band sightings and stages of inebriation. On Thursday, my second 12+ hour day in a row, I came to an important realization, one that might seem very obvious: sometimes, for long stretches of time, South by Southwest can suck.
A confession: I’ve done precious little advance planning for this festival. Aside from picking through emails and deciding on day parties I want to see, setting up a place to stay for the week and, well, packing my suitcase, I haven’t done anything to the level of what others have (I’ve seen intricately-designed Excel spreadsheets down to 10-minute increments). And for the most part, it’s fine. I prefer having a vague impression of certain things to do, but I like to give myself a lot of flex room as well (also: I don’t really know how to use Excel). On Wednesday, every time my day started lagging a bit, I ran into someone who pulled me toward something else. Thursday, though, was different: The first half of the day there was no knowledgeable person pulling me in any direction, telling me what to do, and perhaps predictably I wasted a ton of time.
I decided to start my day at the Gorilla Vs. Booze day party, hosted by huge Dallas mp3 blog Gorilla Vs. Bear. It was held at the Peacock, which I slowly learned was waaaaay out of town. For walking, that is. Like, a couple miles. I hoofed it in the heat (again, not having done a lot of Google Mapping or anything) and for all my trouble, I arrived after the free beer had run out (about ½ hour into the show) and the band I wanted to see (Brooklyn psych-pop quintet Here We Go Magic) had just finished playing. On top of that, the venue itself didn’t have air-conditioning, so I got to experience that strange feeling of when the hot Texas sun is cooler than it is indoors. San Franscisco hippie dandies Girls (with no actual girls in the band) were playing in a corner of the small, incredibly sweaty room, huddled together and looking not unlike a litter of baby animals discovered by a group of kids in a garage. They were fine enough, and everyone else was having a great time, but they weren’t enough to keep me at the Peacock. After a bit over an hour, I came to terms with my first SXSW failure.
I wanted a sure bet after that, and the only one I knew of was nearly three miles away in the heart of downtown. I wanted to see Women (again, no actual women in the band), a Calgary indie rock band whose 2008 debut was one of my three or four favorite records last year. So, I walked it, getting more and more irritated as the heat beared down on me, and I realized that it was 4pm and I’d seen a grand total of one band. The Scholz Garden is an old-style beer garden, with tons of tables, waitresses, and a sight I’d forgotten existed: an elevated stage. I popped down and watched Bell, a spacey indie pop group with a powerful female lead, and drank several free Tecate beers. Women played everything I wanted them to (“Shaking Hands” and “Black Rice”), and on top of that a friend of mine appeared at the show and offered to drive me back downtown. Things were looking up.
And then No Age brought me right back down. I waited outside the Radio Room for a few minutes to make sure to get in and see the LA two-piece arty-hardcore band, whose Nouns was another of my favorite rock records of last year, open the showcase. Yet after their short set—the first time I’ve seen them live—I realized that the music I enjoy so much on record is, well, made by two unassuming dudes named Randy and Dean. It was no doubt partially my aching knees and the fact that I forgot to pack my earplugs (guitarist Randy Randall pries deafening squalls out of his instrument, and I’m old), but also that hardcore music isn’t really the same when no one—including the band, really—is moving. I’d planned on sticking around for Chicago indie legends Red Red Meat, but I decided that I needed a change of scenery.
Wild Beasts, from Leeds, England, did the trick. The quartet were playing an NME showcase, and having been enamored of their Domino Records debut Limbo, Panto, I was excited to see how they’d translate live. For the first time that day, I did something that totally worked out. Their music wouldn’t sound too out of place to those familiar with the Talking Heads’ peak-period output between Fear of Music and Speaking in Tongues, but the vocals are what set the band apart. Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming trade singing duties, and they’re each possessed of beautiful falsettos, which weave in and out of each other and the polyrhythms behind them. I danced for the first time that day, and learned something: British people (that was the majority of the crowd here) also don’t mind dancing at shows. Refreshing!
I bolted right after the show to catch a few sets at another showcase, but the main activities (Los Angeles big-rock septet Foreign Born, another great Akron/Family set) were interrupted by conversations. South by Southwest is different things to different people, of course: Some view it the same they’d view the aforementioned Bonnaroo, other non-music geeks probably see it as a multi-day party-in-the-streets like the Indy 500. But to a lot of the attendees who work in various facets of the music industry, SXSW is a yearly chance to meet others and talk about that industry. That said, I spent about 30 minutes with an inebriated promotions representative, who was more or less letting me have it for the gentle critical ribbing I gave one of the albums she worked to me. It wasn’t all that awkward, really (she’s incredibly nice and does her job well), but that moment did make me realize that SXSW can also resemble a big, insidery insurance conference for music laborers.
The night did end well, though. Another friend of mine grabbed me from that showcase and pulled me across town to see the Wrens perform. I’d never really given them much thought before last night, but I haves several friends who swear by them. The band’s cult, and the aura surrounding them, is unique: They’re four unassuming Jersey guys who play deceptively complex rock music. Complex enough to get them unceremoniously dropped from their label in 1996. The mystique built until 2003, when they cashed in on it and dropped The Meadowlands, a quietly amazing return to form, after which they more or less dropped off the map again (their adopted slogan is "Keeping Folks Waiting Since 1996," after all). They were playing in a small corner of an otherwise very upscale bar called Prague (complete with a restroom attendant!), but they made the most of it, loudly ripping through their set in front of a crowd of sweaty, fist-pumping acolytes. The Wrens are pros, and they converted me.
Then, it was off into the streets again, to walk back toward my borrowed bike a few blocks away. Austin at 2 a.m. was chock-full of drunks, half-lidded girls being held up by their friends, dudes high-fiving for no reason, solo folks frantically texting their friends. A girl was sloppily eating a slice of pizza alone, wobbling in place on the sidewalk. When she turned to walk, she didn’t notice that she loudly dropped her cellphone on the ground, and kept going. I picked it up and gave it to her.
Strolling through the city, I started to actually develop an affinity for it. We’d been through a lot together in the last two days. I even smiled when I saw Randy Randall from No Age, stumbling toward somewhere with his arm around a girl, both of them laughing.
Bring on Friday!