If you were to break down the South by Southwest experience from start to finish—which I have been doing now over the past two years—it goes from innovative discovery through interactive to contemplation of stories through film to expression of the soul through music. Ultimately, the entire conference becomes a creative sampling of what is coming over the next year, or at least until the end of winter this next year. Of course, that is only SxSW in it’s purest, intended state—due to throngs of people and over-commercialism, it can become a relatively hostile, over-packed money-grab, as I had reported it to ultimately be last year. I was not the only one in the media and public to reflect this and either 2011 was an anomaly or the promoters and the city of Austin took note and disciplined their middle-aged beast. This year’s conference was the polar opposite of last year’s—a perfect melding of the fantastic culture and sensibilities of Austin, Texas and the innovation and talent SxSW draws from every nook and cranny of the globe, truly making it the epicenter of cultural expression for more then a week in America, if not the world over. For me (or any other reports), there were virtually no incidents of note, which is shocking when nearly a quarter million people invade the city to drink heavily, among other things, and totally let loose.
This could be attributed to a variety of things. For one, the rains that slam the city when South By begins only threaten the following week, blowing a constant, gentle sea breeze through the streets, making it pleasant just to stand in line. There are also more stages, more showcases and generally more great events, spreading out the crowds more evenly, creating shorter lines and generally less hassle and stress. If there is an artisanship to large-scale event planning, it was on display at this year’s South by Southwest.
As should be the philosophy when delving into the vast and daunting music portion of the conference, I focus on the smaller, up and coming bands who may one day become the next big thing. Bruce Springsteen, Counting Crows, Fiona Apple, Jack White all played at South By this year—headlined to many who think this is just another music festival—and I’m happy to say I didn’t see any of them. This is not to say I don’t have the utmost respect for all of those aforementioned artists and their mere presence at SxSW indirectly draws the throngs to see other bands they otherwise would not—but the essence of the music conference is discovering something new. So rather then make a war plan schedule of bands that I have heard or have always wanted to see every day and night, I go where the wind takes me, based on split decisions, friend’s recent recommendations, or just what I hear on the street.
I begin on Tuesday when the music showcases kick off with Slowtrain, a six-piece blues rock band at Beale Street Tavern on 6th street, sitting on the small upper porch above the stage, watching the club steadily fill as the band’s music draws people inside, like moths to the moon. They are dynamic, fun and full of purpose, especially when you are drinking whiskey. Next, it’s to The Whiskey Room for Mr. Bleat, a Columbian electro-pop group who puts on one of the better shows of the week. I regret not putting them on the top 50 list from the first SxSW bit torrents as I did with the dynamic DJ Mr. Pauer, who took the stage next and closed out the night.
Wednesday consists of a few less then memorable performances at venues from Rainey Street to Congress until I return to The Flamingo Cantina, one of the best and oldest venues in the city. The Flamingo is a perfect venue for hip hop, with a raised stage above the standing room area of the crowd, wooden bleachers built along one wall and an open air outdoor smoking deck which overlooks everything inside. I am here to see Nu Cumbia founder DJ Dus aka El Dusty, but am floored Los Rakas, the Panamanian via Oakland hip-hop group who plays the set before. Regardless if you know what they are saying or if you would ever bump experimental Latin hip-hop on your own, they play a show that is not to be missed.
The highlight of Thursday comes early, as I am given the opportunity to see live music in a way that few others are granted at South By. I link up with Kalen Egan and Noelia Estrada, two filmmakers from Los Angeles who have come to town to continue shooting their web series Knock and Rock, in which their small crew follows a different band to a random house where they will attempt to perform inside for whoever lives there. It is a unique, personal and simply charming way to connect music to an audience, an idea that came to Egan when he was trying to shoot a music video for a friend’s band. “We did it a few times and it went really well,” Egan says. “Everyone—the crew, the band, the people we played for—felt really good afterwards and we realized this was a really good idea and we should keep doing it, as it’s own thing.” While a camera crew and live band showing up on your doorstep to play a few songs may feel like an invasion of privacy, Egan tells me just about everyone has let them in to play. I see this first-hand over the next few hours the media amoeba of band, camera crew and journalist wander around the Rainey Street District with the Radiohead-esque English group Films of Colour. We stop at the Black Heart bar, which has just opened and allows the band to play and soothe a few hair-of-the-dogged patrons and bartenders while they set up. Next it’s a older Hispanic man at a house down the street holing up during the festivities, his thugged-out son peering in curiously from the kitchen where he cooks sausages. Then the band and crew crams into a shaved ice bus outside of the Lustre Pearl venue to play for the kid who has been working the crowds all day, giving him his own personal show to make up for all the ones he has been missing. Everyone is smiling after each song and there is an unforgettable connection to the music. You can see one of the videos from the shoot here.
On Friday, I see shows with a festival-like intensity, beginning with the best day parties in town on East 5th Street in the newly developed Eastern Block of Austin’s bar and club scene. First, it’s the second year of Mess with Texas at the brand new 1100 Warehouse, a converted furniture storage facility that holds nearly 1300 people, is indoors, right downtown and will soon rival any of the larger venues in the live music capital. Here I catch the soon to be festival favorite alt rock group We Were Promised Jet Packs and then pop-punk group Titus Andronicus, whose loyal followers crowd against the stage and fist pump every song with rebellious intensity. Then, I simply step across the street to The Fader Fort, which is like a little slice of heaven this year with free tall boys and Bushmills cocktails, custom-made t-shirts and up-and-coming performances from chart toppers like Kimbra and the dynamic one-man-show of Blood Orange. Plus there’s pizza from Brooklyn’s own Roberta’s, worth every penny of the ten bucks, the only money I spend all afternoon. That night Stubbs may have one of the better line-ups for the evening, so I head there with the intention of staying all night. First, it’s the fantastic Icelandic group Of Monsters and Men, who could best be compared to bits of Arcade Fire mixed with their own original folk. They are energetically followed by The Delta Spirit, as original as Modest Mouse in their sound and another group destined for at least short-term greatness. In the crowd I meet the members (and manager) of the sweet and soulful Aussie group Busby Marou, who invite me to their showcase atop the nearby Hilton Garden Inn. From the top of the 18 story hotel, lifted by their peaceful songs and mandolin solos, I look out over much of Austin, flickering and lively in full South By swing. From there, it’s back down to the east side to close the night at ND, a high-ceilinged multi-deck venue carved out of an old film and television sound stage with some of the better acoustics of any in town. While I’ve seen Cults before, this performance was undoubtedly one to remember, bolstered by their experience and fine new tracks like “You Know What I Mean” from their debut full-length album. After that it’s back to punk, a underlying theme at this year’s music conference, from The Cloud Nothings, prompting a gleeful mosh pit on the crowded yet spacious venue floor.
By Saturday, St. Patty’s Day, I am worn considerably, as this is day ten of my South By escapades. I cruise from venue to venue on my bike, catching a song here, a song there during the day—and even some attitude from the folks at the Rayban Visions house who won’t let me or anyone else lock their bikes to the city’s trees out front, because it will “mess with the venue’s image.” Say what? LA’s psychedelic rock group Bleached at the Red Eyed Fly is the only one that makes a real impression, though my whipped instincts may have finally led me astray. That night it’s the sprint to the end—with the singer / songwriter Dawn Landes at Lustre Pearl and then a furious bike ride across downtown to Lambert’s for Harriet, another group with a bright future ahead of them, before heading back to Clive Bar for The Belle Brigade and Graffiti6, to close and finally allow me to sleep peacefully, resting my senses until next year. Maybe going where the wind takes you is the best possible strategy when seeing music at SxSW, for future reference—or maybe there was just so much talent this year, it was impossible to go wrong.