I am currently recovering from a week in Austin, where I covered the South by Southwest Music Festival for Performer and XLR8R magazines.South by Southwest Music Festival celebrated its 23rd anniversary this year by welcoming a record-setting 1,900 registered bands and enough visitors to raise Austin’s population by about a fifth of its usual size. The festival evolved out of an interest the local cowboy blues and punk scenes in the late ‘80s and has since grown to include bands from across genres. For four days, festival goers can see bands performing R&B, thrash metal, punk, techno, and everything in between, at over 80 official venues (and countless unofficial ones). Given the overwhelming amount of stages packed into the greater Austin area – believed to have the highest per capita of official venues in the U.S. – it makes sense that the city is often referred to as the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
Perhaps most notably, though, SXSW proves that pretty much any establishment might serve as a venue. During the festival, taquerias, churches, rooftops and backyards, BBQ pits, and even furniture stores became temporary stages. On Friday afternoon of the festival, Philadelphia native trio Akron/Family tucked in among the sleek armchairs and coffee tables at Design Within Reach in Austin’s Warehouse District for a rousing performance of warm harmonies, polyrhythmic percussion and literal bells and whistles that echoed distinctly in the unlikely musical hall.
SXSW also provides a lesson in the art of letting go. With so many bands on the festival roster, even in such a relatively dense setting, it’s impossible to see every one of them. In truth, it would be difficult to see even an eighth of them. The best bet is to pick a must-see show for each night and take it from there, wandering past nearby venues, checking lineups with the doormen, and listening for tip-offs and things that tickle the ear. Either way, the SXSW festivalgoer can rest assure that he or she will hear some good music (especially with a pre-purchased wristband).
I feel like my SXSW experience was a pretty good example of what to expect once you head into the fray. I began the first official night, Wednesday, with a rich, synth-driven set from Ulrich Schnauss at Elysium, before heading to an energetic performance from DFA sweethearts Late of the Pier at a warehouse-sized venue called Zona Rosa on the other side of town, before finally finishing with the crowd-surfing electro-garage of French punkstress Kap Bambino all the way back at Elysium. Somewhere in the interim, I stopped by the communist-themed, punk-friendly Red 7 where San Diego-based band Rafter packed the house with a set combining the antics of Talking Heads with the funky vocoder-infused sound of Chromeo; meanwhile, a bit later down the street at the Red Eyed Fly outdoor stage, Atlanta punk foursome The Coathangers screamed its way through otherwise endearing songs about noisy neighbors and other little things that piss people off. And this was only the first night.
Festival participants who weren’t in town by Wednesday night were generally there by Thursday, as evidenced by increased foot traffic along main thoroughfares like 6th Street, Red River Street, which had been closed off to vehicles, and South Congress (“SoCo”) on the other side of centrally located Ladybird Lake. Thursday night saw buzz bands like Los Angeles punk rockers Mika Miko and experimental electronic duo Telepathe catering to mixed audiences back at Red 7. At Emo’s famous mainstage, eccentric crooner Francis Farewell Starlite of Francis and the Lights hopped, shimmied and scooted in untraditional ways to his soulful, Peter-Gabriel-meets-Prince style vocals. San Francisco outfit Thao with the Get Down Stay Down charmingly beat boxed and strummed away at The Parish a little further deep into the bustling, grilled onion-smelling scene on 6th St. The night ended with some added excitement for those who went to the Beauty Bar backyard for the late Drop the Lime DJ set, after which the pugnacious Brooklynite picked a near-epic fight with the soundman post-set for doing what he felt was a less than adequate job.
In order to escape the rush of visitors, noise chaos and resulting congestion, many locals opted to skip town for the week or head for the hills (i.e. nearby parks like Barton Springs). The obvious exceptions to this trend were the many Austin-based bands performing in the festival. The free Auditorium Shores Stage performance by perennial local favorite Explosions in the Sky appeared at the top of nearly everyone’s must-see list this year as well as The Wooden Birds, the latest project from former American Analog Set leadman and Austinite Andrew Kenny. AmAnSet fans that enjoyed the dreamy acoustic set from Wooden Birds at the Parish on the last day of the festival got a sneak preview of offerings from the band’s upcoming debut album, Magnolia, set to hit stands May 12 on Barsuk Records. Other beloved local bands to grace the stage at “South By,” as the UT students call it, included blues master Gary Clarke Jr., dub-centric experimentalists Grimy Styles, and arbiters of sweet, quirky pop, The Octopus Project (who dined five feet away from “surprise” festival performer Kanye West at Japanese fusion hotspot, Uchi, later in the week).
Music fans and bands alike who decided to break for real food at mealtimes (as opposed to several cans of the locally preferred cheap Lone Star beer) dove headlong into the grease at BBQ joints (like Stubb’s and Iron Works), Tex-Mex eateries (like Guero’s), and Pizzerias (like Home Slice Pizza) – all which, interestingly enough, still acted as venues for the festival. In fact, Metallica played a “secret show” at Stubb’s BBQ, which is equally notable for its tasty ‘que as it is for solid booking. Alternatively, those looking for less grease (or who were coming from nearby famed crate-diggers’ delight, Waterloo Records), stopped at the WholeFoods flagship store to sample from the roasted nut bar, raw food café, or mind boggling supply of other serious local edibles – as well as, yes, more live music. The pervasiveness of loud music coming from various orifices of the city in most areas made earplugs a necessity for even a walk down the middle of the street.
Visitors wanting to let their ears rest – or stop bleeding if they happened to pass within 50 feet of the Metal, BBQ, & Booze day party on Friday in the Red River district – could dip into the Austin Convention Center to check out Flatstock 20, a showcase of some of the finest concert poster art of the last two decades from contemporary artists like Jay Ryan, Mike Budai, Dan Stiles, and Billy Perkins, among hundreds of others. Some artists demonstrated the printing process on the spot by hand-pressing their own commemorative Flatstock posters for curious onlookers to purchase.
By Friday night, classic blues spot Antone’s was the place to be (unless you missed one of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s many shows earlier in the week, in which case Emo’s Jr. was the place) to hear tiny singer-songwriter Mirah open for the strange, classically beautiful avant-garde multi-instrumentalist St. Vincent, who played with a full band this time around. Handsome San Francisco-based lo-fi/garage artist Ty Segal, who also usually plays solo shows, took the stage at Red 7 with two members from another band, The Fresh & Onlys the next night. “One-man-bands are super fun, but they get really limiting,” He said. “If stuff starts to go wrong, it’s all on you. This is great because it’s really full and loud and crazy.” Indeed it was. In addition to a lineup of familiar songs that had girls all the way in the back row doing the hippie shake, Segal played a few songs off his forthcoming album, out in June on Goner Records. Even with an exhaustive late set full of throaty screams and stage rolling, Segal planned to spend the last night of the festival checking out other visiting bands – The Sonics, Devo, Mika Miko and Vaseline, to name a few. “Oh, and there’s also this house party later with The Mayors and The Intelligence and The Oh Sees,” he added. Ah, the ubiquitous house party. Once again, there is no venue too great or too small for SXSW – especially not if it continues to expand the way it is.