Only two days old, SXSW is officially a memory. The mega stages are down; the tourists are gone. If you drive downtown for work today, it’ll be as if it never happened.
But from this festival, a million stories are born. Here are four of mine from five days of crazy at SXSW Music 2016.
Corporate and the Authentic
It’s hard to dig music in an airplane hanger. But at 2:30 in the afternoon on a hot and humid St. Patrick’s Day, I was standing in Hype House, a monstrous SXSW venue on East 5th Street. My wristband sped me past security, but at that time of day, I could have gotten in with a smile. I didn’t know who was playing. After an outdoor show at The Grackle, I was there for shade and a free bottle of water.
With two drink tickets in hand, I wandered about the complex. It wasn’t a venue. It was a car commercial. A living, breathing Mazda showroom disguised as a hip Austin hangout. Take a selfie with a sedan. Play bags in a sand pit while your friends relax on beach chairs. Aside from an East Side King food truck, it was as Austin as a booth at a convention hall. Manufactured fun.
Eyes hurting, I escaped and walked back east to Yellow Jacket Social Club. Lineup be damned, at least it wouldn’t be sponsored by Pepsi Cola and Doritos. When I arrived, it was perfect. Full of people, but not packed. Kids ran about, while bearded locals sipped Stash IPAs and Bloody Mary’s. And on a small patch of dirt in the back of the garden sat Ralph White.
He was weathered and worn from decades of touring. His fingers danced across banjo stings as he growled lyrics of pain and longing through gravely vocal chords. The music was rough and warbled, rich with authenticity. No sheen, no mixing board. No signal to a sound guy asking for more reverb in his wedge. Simple music. Real. Genuine. Austin.
As the music melted away the gloss and glimmer that got all over me at Hype House, I felt like I had found the real SXSW. The grit, grizzle and bone at the core of our current state of product placement mayhem. The seed from which the giant grew. The main nerve. Sponsored by nothing but pure, honest music.
The Clog, the Fog and the Achy-Breaky Leg
Dirty 6th Street during SXSW is a war zone. A battle of noise and crowds and competing record labels, all fighting for a moment of your attention. A bubble about ready to burst.
Case in point. Exactly one day after my Hype House experience, I was leaving a wonderful Black Fret showcase at Teller’s. The mid-afternoon sun was peaking though a dense grey sky. The humid air held the threat of a coming storm. And 6th Street was already starting to press at the seams.
As I walked down Trinity towards the battle ground, I felt a smash against my right leg. A full can of Monster energy drink struck the side of my thigh, exploded and skittered behind me down the street. The psychopath who threw it glared at me with wild eyes, his body tight with tension.
Not wanting a confrontation I’d surely lose, I merged onto 6th like a car with a busted tire. Pants wet, bruise forming and smelling of hype juice, I felt defeated. Bleary eyed drunks ambled about. Music of a thousand varieties blared from bars. A thick fog of pot smoke hung over the street.
As a family of four shuffled by like war-torn refuges, I realized this is what people (including locals) think SXSW is all about. Like hanging out in midtown Manhattan or downtown LA, this first impression is the lasting one. And it made us look bad.
But on Saturday, the real Austin fought back. Brightly dressed Carnival dancers shimmied and danced on Red River. Two high schoolers played Kenny G on saxophones. A five-some from Kentucky named Atomic Bomb, who days earlier drove overnight in a ramshackle RV to play two Saturday night shows, did an acoustic set on South Congress. A pair of hip hop lyricists joined in and spit some freestyle.
As I watched a one-year-old dance along to a the joyous sounds of a samba/ska outfit, I felt better about our much-maligned avenue. Hopefully the family of four saw this before they retreated to their hotel and got the early flight out: the true joy of Austin and what we’re all about.
Nine Lines About Nine Local Bands
Gina Chavez started the week with Latin flavor and hip-shaking rhythm. CAPYAC sent it to overdrive with beats and riffs from the land of Daft Punk. Golden Dawn Arkestra crammed Maggie Mae’s tiny rooftop stage with twenty musicians, and sent the night swirling into a musical delirium.
Walker Lukens gave St. Patrick’s Day revelers a soulful reason to party. Foot Patrol rewarded those who trekked eastward to Hi Hat with spirited, heart-shaking funk. At The Parish, Bee Caves lulled the rain-drenched masses into a surreal, trance-like state.
Stripped to the bone with only a guitar and a keyboard, two members of The Rocketboys blew away a room of Black Fret regulars. Night Drive’s driving, moody euro-pop thumped Rainey Street revelers into a dancing mass. And January May ended it all by turning the 18th floor of a hotel into an impressive sonic showcase, exactly as it ought to be.
One look at my SXSW itinerary and you may think I wasted my wristband. I didn’t see Iggy Pop at ACL. Missed Kasey Musgraves completely. Didn’t know The Roots were in town until the line was a block long. As a writer for a hyper-local Austin blog, I did what I felt compelled to do. Stayed local; watched local.
And much of it was free to the world. Most of the time, my band saved me a small wait and a $5 cover charge. And it got me free food and drink at Easy Tiger. At times, it even seemed like a shackle, forcing me to see official showcases so not to waste it.
But as a I walked a quiet mile from East 6th to Holly via Waller Street on the festival’s final night, I thought back to all it gave me. Over four days of music, I walked 60,000 steps, covered 28 miles and saw 22 bands. An all-female psycho-punk band from Spain. James Supercave. More Austin music than I’ve seen in a year.
And that’s why this festival exists. Of course it’s a pain in the neck. The traffic, the tourists, the noise. All of that is valid. Love it or hate it, for ten days Austin is the center of the entertainment universe. A showcase for what makes our city great: art, music and quirky fun.
By the end, I was over it. All I wanted was my home, my wife and a couple of hours playing “Fallout 4.” But SXSW Music 2016 did something to me. It rekindled my love for live music. Reminded me of the joy of discovering something new. Showed me beauty, passion, fun and joy can co-exist in a pressure cooker of 100,000 people. Before SXSW, I had failed to embrace The Live Music Capital of the World. Afterwards, all I want is more.
From the other side of 35 at the doorstep of Rainey, I could hear SXSW’s final gasp. Drums, guitars and tiny voices tossed up to the chilly night air. One last hurl into the music maelstrom before it was all swept away Sunday. And while I can’t imagine stomaching another day of this maddening–yet amazing–festival, I simply can’t wait for SXSW 2017. It’ll be another opportunity to fall in love with Austin music all over again.
@BillTuckerTSP wants to know:
Did you spend your SXSW hidden in your house or out and about in the craziness? Regardless, share your SX experience!