Of course we’ve all heard about SXSW. It’s a long way from a conventional festival, and can be more than a bit obtuse to get your head round, so I’ve knocked out some notes about how the whole thing works, feels, smells, drains your wallet, all that sort of stuff. I’ve also even mentioned some of the….you know, music….later in the article.
Despite having decided months in advance, by the time I finally booked a flight, I’d left it much too late on the hotel front. I tried the usual corporate chains, only to find the ones in walking distance all full up. I did a bit of research on the SXSW website www.sxsw.com , saw there was a shuttle bus that called at maybe twenty out-of-town places, and let this be the deciding factor, even if it was way out near the airport www.microtelinn.com . The shuttle was $70 for the week, or you could do a single ride for $20, comparable to a taxi as a one off. Lesson number one, decide really early and snag a hotel down-town. It will pay for itself when you need a bolt hole mid-afternoon. As it was, my flights and cheap / decent hotel were around £1000, but you could certainly do it cheaper, not least by sharing hotel rooms with friends. I snore too much to put my chums through that.
The next issue was tickets. Friends had been before, and had talked about surviving a week without tickets and only having to pay the odd $10 to get into venues here and there, the rest being a free ride. Could this be the case? I also did what I would do for any other festival and tried for a press pass. Yes, they exist for SXSW, the application is more complex than my tax returns. Three weeks later, the answer came back – Congratulations, I was to be blessed with the opportunity of buying a press pass for the knock down rate of $595! What’s that, come again? I wasn’t paying anyone six big ones for the privilege of writing about their event, so I decided to ignore their kind offer. I later found that there was a hierarchy, or perhaps it was how early you applied. While many other writers and photographers had the same response as me, a select few others were given the whole thing gratis. These were admittedly the same guys who also had the connections to get VIP’d to the Springsteen show or whatever, and I’ve got no issue with that, pecking order is the way of the world when there is a velvet rope involved.
To explain this a bit more, it’s worth spending a moment on how ‘SouthBy’ has evolved. I’ve said already it’s not really a festival, and was never intended to be. It’s a ‘music conference’, originally a trade show, where the business could show off it’s wares, the goods in question being musical talent. I’ve been to much smaller versions in the UK, an invited music-biz audience being shown new bands looking for a manager or a deal, that sort of thing. I imagine that SXSW was like that for about five minutes. It now has dozens of ‘official’ showcase venues and gigs, and these are some of the biggest events.
Alongside, a huge unofficial event has mushroomed. The website says there are now more than 80 venues. Surely it’s got to be more than that, well over a hundred by the time you include bands playing in filling stations, this thing is juggernaut immense. I saw music everywhere from the back lawn of a taxi-ride-out-of-town restaurant, a scruffy TV studio and a very posh TV studio, through proper auditoriums, parking lots with stages, innumerable clubs, the grounds of a museum, and on more than one occasion, in the alley between two clubs. There’s something called ‘Fader Fort’, a short hike away, which is akin to a small single stage festival in it’s own right.
There is indeed a conference, keynote speaker Mr. B Springsteen, and delegates (tickets costing several hundred dollars for those not being VIP’d) proudly sported laminates on lanyards that wouldn’t only get them into any venue in town for nothing, but would also guarantee going to the front of the queue, even they though might have to wait half an hour, or might not get into venues at all if already at capacity.
The next stage down, and the one we plumped for, was to buy a wristband for $170. Limited in number, sold out after one day, you can’t buy these in advance, or if you can, the website and the conference centre were both too obtuse to tell you how. No, I had to spend hours looking for somewhere that sold these things – word of mouth and cardboard signs that meant little. Getting there a day after most people, I almost missed out, but eventually managed to buy one in a club from a shady character who acted like a cross between a drug dealer and a tout. With these, we had second pickings, not as good as the swankers with the laminates, but able to get into medium importance venues ahead of the ticket-less who had been queuing an hour.
And then, for a gazillion other events, none of this applied at all, instead you had to be ‘on the list’. Mainly this was a simple matter of having RSVP’d in advance on the various websites. An example was the ‘Introducing Scotland’ afternoon at the British Music Embassy. It all seemed very casual, but yes indeed, they were checking and turning people away. Luckily we had spent boring hours in advance, RSVPing hundreds of events in case we fancied any of them, so we got into this event and saw a blistering set by the Twilight Sad.
Dozens of other events you could just walk into, and some were also inclined to give you tickets on the way in for free beer or food. Denise, a friend who lives in Austin, also reckons that an English accent will get you into anywhere, ticket or not. I never knowingly tried this, but on the other hand, I never got turned away either.
The location is amazing. As the joke goes, I went to Austin for a week, but didn’t have time to visit Texas. The city is a complete and utter island of liberal values in a reactionary state. The snappily attired young man we were chatting with at the Austin City Limits TV studio encapsulated it. We asked him if he had been brought up in Austin? “A few miles outside town”, answered our preppy new mate “in one of the more conservative areas”. There were almost as many single speed courier bikes as you’d see on a Friday afternoon in Brick Lane. The town was like a slice of Portland, Brooklyn, or Shoreditch, dropped like a piece of confectionary on a hot beach, to soften but somehow stay intact in the Texan sun. I’d mistakenly thought that SXSW took Austin over once a year and the rest of the time it was just another US city. Nope, it’s like that all the time, with music, film and other events following in quick succession through the year. I’ve been to Nashville and Austin is more deserving of the ‘Music City’ title. Right now they’re advertising a psych-rock festival.
So what was the music like then? In a word, amazing. And what was the best of it? That’s a very much more difficult question. I’ve read more than a few reports and round-ups, and I was blogging daily through the week myself. Given what I’ve described above, the sheer scale of the whole thing, I’ll stick my neck out and say that any notion that there can be one or five or ten definitive best acts is complete and utter tosh. It might well have been Springsteen getting Arcade Fire on stage for an encore, but I wasn’t there and neither were 97% of the plane loads of music lovers descended on the place. So these are simply MY personal highlights, in no particular order, but mainly based on whose records I have been obsessing over in the after-glow. If you want the also-rans, read my blog.
Trust are a two piece (expanded to three for touring) from Toronto. I’d been sent to see them by someone with impeccable taste, but not entirely independent from the band, so I wanted to see for myself. Maya Postepski (also the drummer in Austra) drives from the back in impressive manner, while Robert Alfons hangs head down and wasted on the mic stand. They’re as percussive as you’d expect given Maya’s 50% stake, darkly brooding. The album pulls a languid performance from Robert’s vocals; live it was very different, immediate, crawling and tortured. Something like Crystal Castles vs The Cure. It was almost the first set of our week, so to be sure I sought Trust out again the next day, this time barely shaded by an awning under glaring mid-day sun. I was curious and hopeful, could something so suited to a warehouse be done justice in these circumstances, with hangovers still being nursed? Yep, after maybe three tracks they were reaching out and pulling us in, the crowd becoming more and more rapt and pressing ever closer to the stage, and there it was all over again, intense, draining, compelling.
Sharon Van Etten also has an album fresh out. I’d reviewed it, which meant I’d lived with it for a few weeks, which can make you love or loathe. In this case, it was the gift that kept on giving, so I was keen to see her. Thing was, I hadn’t realised quite what a big deal Sharon now is as a result of that record, born of a year’s effort so intense she became nomadic and homeless during the recording process. The gig was at Stubbs, one of the bigger outdoor venues, and an NPR showcase. It only really struck home when we were in a massive queue to see her, and I realised that Sharon was headlining, while the artist on before was Fiona Apple. Call me sad, but I was impressed by this. In the event, the gig was mostly spoiled by being one of those hipster conventions where 70% of the crowd are there to be seen and chat over and despite the music. I was hugely frustrated, so I made Ms Van Etten another act I would try to see twice. A much more intimate venue the next day, half past midnight start, and stage front spot made for the intense experience I’d been looking for. I pretty much like Sharon in most of her musical moods, but when the electric guitar is strapped on and the feedback howls, I’m smitten. All I can really say is that I have played ‘Serpents’ maybe twice a day since that gig. We weren’t the only ones keen to see her. J Mascis was stood to our left, and, reasonably enough, she chose to ask him rather than us to join her on stage for the visceral gut wrenching howl of ‘Peace Sign’ to bring the night to a juddering, shuddering close.
Zola Jesus‘ front woman /alter ego Nika Roza Danilova is diminutive, making the volume and intensity of her other-worldly wail and howl all the more remarkable. It’s too simple to call her goth, this purity of intent, the chop and skew of the industrial, the sound sufficiently complex to demand live violins; this is what witch house was supposed to be for its brief moment of credible existence. Nika’s tiny stature also came in more than handy when she hopped down into the pit and decided that Peter and I were the sensible (i.e middle-aged and sober) fans in the front row that she would use as a step ladder into the crowd. This was in Fader Fort, as I’ve said, a festival main stage in its own right. She was headlining the night and carried it impressively and effortlessly. Live or on record it’s apparent that she, along with a few others, are well and truly this year’s Champions’ League.
And my fourth and final highlight of maybe 50 sets during the week was a band that I have been trying to see for ages in Britain, crazy as it might seem. I almost missed them again and I’m so relieved that I actually made the connection, however late. Lilies On Mars struggled to get here, the girls said as much on their facebook where they had a little campaign to raise the fares. London-based Lisa Masia and Marina Cristofalo travelled out on the cheap with only one guitar between them, so were playing on borrowed kit, programming where there might otherwise have been a live drummer. Coming to Austin originally to do only a single set at Ryan Abato’s ‘I Am The Programmer’ showcase, with Ryan’s help they had somehow squeezed in four gigs already, this was to be the fifth and final set. In the car park of a Mexican restaurant, the bands on before them were rockingly great (check out Ringo Deathstar and Ume) and it was getting late. There was a portent though. When the half baked MC got their name wrong, at least half the crowd shouted out vociferously to correct him. Preaching to the converted then, or converting people along the way? As a band, they were all modest charm through ‘Aquarium’s Key’, displaying woozy psych one moment, in the next dreaming into Sonic Youth-like soundscape pieces, only to suddenly and righteously tear it all down with the howl of two guitars fighting up front and central. They are probably too avante-garde, insufficiently accessible to ever bother the Gaga-masses, and that’s just fine and dandy, I’ll keep them to myself. Oh, go on then, I’ll share, buy their album and be half charmed and half frightened, just like I’ve been.
Lilies On Mars
Of course there were other highlights, huge, massive ones. The Twilight Sad, a band I saw entirely by accident because I was hungry, reduced me to great wracking sobs, and not only courtesy of the bottle of single malt passed between band and audience while they were playing.
On other days I met two fabulous Australian pop bands, Alpine and the Voltaire Twins. Strangers walked up next to you in alleys, sidling up, not to mug you, but to ask if you were having a great week and what was the best thing you’d seen do far. I met people I previously only knew from the internet, and in the case of two of them, left Austin with life long friends. I think the biggest thing is the way that, in sharp contrast to real life, you can chat with grown up adults all day long, and find people as touched by and enthusiastic about music as you are. See you next year. Maybe I’ll take an extra day and go see Texas as well.
Nika, aka Zola Jesus, mixing it in the crowd
Love that street sign
Voltaire Twins (Perth AUS)
Alpine (Melbourne AUS)
Niki And The Dove
The posh TV station I found myself at was for the Austin City Limits music show. Confusingly there’s a festival of the same name, but this venerable show is one of the mainstays of the Austin Music Scene. I was lucky enough to attend a 90 minute taping of a live set by the Shins, joining the local season-ticket holders and facebook competition winners. This wasn’t part of SXSW proper, taking place on the Sunday night when the official event had come to a climax and a close the night before, but it was close enough. The Oregon based band were just on the point of release with their new album ‘Port Of Morrow’ and it’s fair to say it had been dividing opinion on this side of the Atlantic, with some critics swearing they were bowled over, while others are decrying a tendency to veer to safe-but-middling ground. I’ve been a Shins fan in the past and then lost touch, so it was a cold call for me. It started out pleasant indie jangle but so-so, lacking much emotional connection. It’s a mark of their quality though that they had me well and truly won over by the end. Of course it was designed that way, with the big hitters and new singles packed at the latter end of the set. In all the false-ness of TV (‘don’t look at the camera’, ‘put your phone away’, ‘clap more’), there was a genuine moment when James Mercer lost it and forgot the words to ‘September’ and it being for TV and all, they had to start over. That was actually my very last set of the week, if you don’t count the live acts going on at two venues in the airport departure lounge the next day. It had been a bizarre day, the alleged cool-down Sunday during which I’d found myself standing on a street corner chatting to members of the Australian band Alpine when Regine Chassagne sauntered past, hoody pulled up, in the shabby-chic shopping area of SoCo. I had been supposed to go to yet more music that night, but being knackered from a long week, after the Shins I bought pizza slices on the street and took a cab to that hotel out by the airport, and that was that.
Big Freedia and crew in an alley
Your crew…before they got tired and emotional