Earlier this year, the Web site furia.com tossed all the votes from the Village Voice’s 2008 Pazz & Jop Poll into a database and determined—of the year-end corral’s 577 voters—which were the most similar in terms of the albums they considered to be the best. Only Brent Burton, a contributing writer for Washington City Paper, shared my 2008 tastes more than Marc Masters, another near-D.C. denizen who was one-sixth of the team this newspaper took to South by Southwest this year. Funny thing, though: Until I caught a ride into South Austin Sunday night to meet Marc and a few of his friends for a late dinner, our paths didn’t intersect once in Texas. Crazy, right?
Not really. During four days in Austin, about 1,900 bands played official shows for SXSW. There's no telling how many acts playing only day parties for sponsors or, by nighttime, bars not included in the sanctioned Sixth Street activities joined them. Such is the necessary qualification of Eric Harvey’s SXSW-as-iPod/iTunes analogy: Not only does this iPod carry more music than you could hear in four years—much less four days—but it also covers a range of genres, subgenres, styles, strata and niches more expansive than most people will ever appreciate at any single point in their life and, most likely, all points of their life combined. Sometimes, such a variegated gathering can lead to unexpected glory, where unlikely artists unite to form a front of sorts or collaborate in surprising ways. And sometimes, well, not so much.
After circling the blocks of 6th and 7th streets east of Interstate 35 for about 10 minutes, I finally found a parking space so big that I could squeeze my brother’s pick-up truck—a ’94 GMC, a real Texas ride with straight pipes that emit a gnarly roar even while parallel parking—inside. Jumping from its cab, my heels hit the asphalt hard, and I was reminded that today would likely be my fourth and final 15-hour day of music. The thought hurts.
It’s not that I don’t want to see live music. Actually, I have a whole list of bands I want to hear today. Rather, it’s that I don’t want to walk everywhere to see them. SXSW felt more scattered this year: The FADER Fort moved east of the interstate, a half-mile or so from the center of the action. Places like The Scoot Inn, Victory Grill, Homeslice Pizza and the Shotlz Beer Garden gathered bigger acts, too, moves that meant more walking for me. By bedtime every night, rest only felt like an excuse to get off of my feet. But, hey, it was totally worth it.
When it comes to musical performance, there seems to be a thin line between showmanship and gimmickry. I prefer bands who play great music with their heads down, but even with my favorite groups whose unique stage acts approach gimmickry—Wolf Eyes, Boredoms, Prurient, etc.–the difference is that I could close my eyes and still enjoy them. But by the fourth day of SXSW, even though I had heard more great sound than I could imagine, I started to crave something novel to see, too.
No matter how I tried to pace myself, my Saturday became a gauntlet. By drifting to whatever show seemed semi-interesting and close enough to walk to, I somehow saw more bands than all previous days combined. Inevitable schedule delays meant I saw a lot more sets than I'd intended, and most of the time, that was a great thing.
I hate getting stuck down here. You show up at the spot a little early to get yourself good and situated for whoever's up last and find more often than not that every little thing's been pushed back, so that drought in the back of your throat or the crimsoning of your forearms (If you're me, that is...) in the unforgiving Texas sun will just have to wait another 45 minutes for somebody else's schedule. I'm that dude who, even back home, buys tickets for a show and intentionally gets there to avoid the openers, even when I like the openers. Impatience can be a virtue too, you know. After all, why waste one's time waiting for the Soft Pack to tear down in advance of your fave rave's soundcheck when you could be sitting under a tree in a back-alley bar somewhere watching the Vivian Girls learn by doing. Zing.
So why I volunteered myself to cover a few of the biggest shows this town put on during SXSW 2009 was—until about 9:45 p.m. last night— more than a little unclear to me. I don't discriminate between what sells and what doesn't: My favorite album thus far in 2009 is by a mall emo band who shall, for the purposes of my continued employment as a music journalist, remain nameless. But this is South by Southwest, not Lollapalooza, and it's my understanding that we journalist types are supposed to be on the lookout for the next big thing, not just a big deal shoehorned into a small spot just 'cuz somebody thought that might be fun. And when it comes to the bigger deals—I mean, the deals even bigger than the line wrapped around the corner for St. Vincent— there's even more waiting around to be done, even more of that nagging sense that you should be out there seeing stuff instead of standing around trying to angle more free waters. But Kanye West's supposedly secret set last night was worth missing a day chock full of truly excellent somewhat obscure acts and what I'm told was yet another spectacular showing from the Dirty Projectors. Sometimes, if you want to see the best thing, I guess a little patience is required.
As Scottish indie pop band Camera Obscura were tuning up in advance of a 5 p.m. set, covered from the blazing sun by a huge canopy, lead singer Tracyanne Campbell asked the audience: “Are you hot, and freaky? A bunch of hot freaks?” The crowd yelled in approval, but not because they were anticipating the sort of sweaty dance party that question might imply or from the temperature outside, either. It’s because they were attending the second day of the Hot Freaks day party, curated by six of the best and most hardworking music bloggers (MOKB, Gorilla Vs. Bear, Aquarium Drunkard, Largehearted Boy, Chromewaves, You Ain’t No Picasso).
Writing about my Wednesday activities, I noted that skipping between South by Southwest shows was akin to clicking through iTunes—eclectic, somewhat random, fast-paced. To say that Hot Freaks was a bit like taking a Tron-esque trip inside Hype Machine, the aggregating website that culls together and streams mp3s from thousands of music blogs around the world, would not be untrue, but only a bit shortsighted. That’s because the entire festival, more or less, is a of course its own living, breathing, promotion engine.
“This is the center of the universe—well, our universe,” said Josh Moore, a folk singer-songwriter from Carrboro, his face was glowing with child-like excitement. Moore caught a ride to Texas with Wilmington band He Is Legend. He isn’t in Austin to play his own music, but rather to absorb everything else that's here. As we sat on the pavement together, we listened to The Love Language run through a quick soundcheck. I thought about all the North Carolina bands who are at SXSW this year. North Carolina—in particular the Triangle of Chapel Hill, Durham and Raleigh—sent several dozen bands to Austin to play both official showcase sets and house parties and art gallery shindigs.
SCENE I: THURSDAY NIGHT
[Standing in a balcony overlooking a venue beneath the cool Texas night. A stranger approaches a music writer (myself) and a group of friends, all in a band the stranger has just signed]
Band Friend 1: Grayson, [Redacted.], have you two meet?
[Writer extends hand.]
Stranger with Record Label: You're dead to me.
[Writer extends hand again and smiles in what he is sure is the most disarming Southern way ever, right?]
Stranger with Record Label: Nope, we're done.
[Without smiling, Stranger walks away.]
Three Hours Pass. More alcohol is consumed. The group reassembles on the balcony after the club has closed.
[Writer extends hand. Stranger shakes it, grimaces.]
Stranger with Record Label: You're still dead to me.
[Stranger walks away.]
SCENE II: FRIDAY NIGHT
[Standing under a tent, with a large man with long hair and a beard draping his arm around same music writer (myself) with a beard and a notebook]
Writer: Hey, [Redacted.], it's great to see you again.
[Redacted.]: I'm glad you're here, Grayson. Grayson, man, [Redacted II.] is going to kick your fucking ass tonight. Seriously, I wouldn't put it out if it wasn't good. The new stuff is so much heavier. Stay for ’em, I promise, they'll kick your fucking ass.
[Writer smiles and agrees, silently wondering if the whole "kicking of fucking ass" thing is literal or figurative. As it were, he stays. With a great deal of bittersweetness, he’s happy to report that the ass-kicking was neither literal nor figurative.]
My favorite surprise about SXSW is that most of the live music booms out of the clubs and onto the streets with no complaining neighbors or disgruntled cops showing up. Apparently, this is somewhat routine in Austin even when SXSW isn’t happening, but it’s a bit of revelation for someone from D.C., where just one instance of noise blaring into the streets would likely result in a law against live music itself. They should probably mention this excellent benefit in Austin’s tourism ads.
As mentioned by my comrades here in Austin, hanging your hat on a few must-see bands at festivals as large as SXSW is preferable to running yourself ragged trying to catch everything. I've done my best to keep my schedule loose and hope the wind takes me toward some new and interesting bands—one of which was the charming weird pop of Woods, who play a warped and loping brand of folk that's still wholly accessible and melodic, and another was Pictureplane, who I describe a little more below. But even the unofficial parties at SXSW seem dominated by acts who consistently tour nationally, and admittedly, the few must-sees I've picked are artists I'm going to be seeing again, possibly in a few months.