Clever title, eh?
I’ve been submerging myself in SXSW news and media coverage since we left. Each night I’d do a quick google news search for it, and now in preparation for writing this article/blurb/thing, I’ve done even more of the same. What’s interesting, to me, is that the event has thousands of really big moments, the single events or headlines that the internet covers well and that sting just a little when you find out you just missed them. The huge, packed, line-to-jump-the-fence shows, the surprise guest appearances (Pauly D, Springsteen, Kanye, etc), and the truly weird moments (Tom Morello getting shut down by police for trying to start a riot-ish, Vermin Supreme walking the StyleX runway, etc). I had plenty of these moments of my own, to be sure. I may not have seen the Vermin Supreme walkway event, but we met him shortly after and got to look at the pictures on his staff camera. I knew I was missing some of the big shows (all Titus Andronicus shows were 21+, I believe), but I had a twinge of jealousy every time I happened across an article later on covering one I missed. It is, after all, hard to cover an entire city’s-worth of events over a span of four days.
When you have an entire city (a capital city, no less) of good music and unique events to worry about, it’s hard to think about the single moments. The entirety of Austin is, for that week and a half, thoroughly overwhelming. In trying to plan my activities for the days there, I was impressed by the schedule. It’s big. I saw a stat that there were 20,000 bands playing. The volume of the names on the schedule is unbelievable, and looking at the schedule, the number of artists that I recognized or was excited about was not as big. This was clearly a comparative effect though. I thought that there were so many groups I hadn’t heard of that finding the events I DID care about would be a simple matter. This was not true. I also thought that, no matter my planning, no matter what little venue I happened into, I’d find really good, fresh, worthwhile music. This was also not necessarily true. Don’t get me wrong – there is, of course, a lot of great music, and I came away seeing and really liking artists that were brand new to me. My favorite overall, in fact, was a woman that we happened across performing with AU two shows in a row (Holland Andrews, goes by Like A Villain, http://likeavillain.bandcamp.com). This is exactly what I had hoped for – to finally see some old favorites live and discover a world of new things that make me happy. Done, check.
But unless you have a lot of time and money that you’re willing to spend on bands you’ll only kind of like (and a 21+ ID), wandering and stopping in to shows will not work as well. The first night there, we got to a venue early for The War on Drugs (recommended to me, I still haven’t heard anything of theirs, but http://www.thewarondrugs.net/) and faced sitting through four completely unfamiliar and mediocre bands. It wasn’t worth it, and we left after the first band. This was mostly due to exhaustion from the car trip (it went much more smoothly than expected, but was nonetheless long). New genres are awesome and new music is awesome and every act there had a lot of merit in different ways. That being said, I must stress the importance of finding a balance between finding new music, and trying to ensure that it will be new music that you will like.
My SX experience was interesting because I had a concert partner with music tastes rather unlike my own. I was therefore in a situation of seeing a lot of music that was new to me but, since I trust Addy’s quality-of-music taste, I knew that it wouldn’t be terrible. Probably. The 21st Street Co-op supposedly-password-guarded-but-actually-ridiculous-shit-show show on Friday night was one that Addy and I were mutually excited for (mostly for Maps & Atlases, partly for the exhilarating prospect of Dan Deacon and Andrew WK). The band Zorch (http://zorch.bandcamp.com/), who Addy had kindof heard of and now likes a lot, put the show on, kindof, so we knew that it was a reputable set of acts being put together. This show was, in fact, AWESOME earlier in the night. I really liked most of the acts we saw (Girlfriends [http://girlfriends.bandcamp.com/] and AU), it had two cool stages, and was overall a great venue (a cooperative housing complex of about 100 students from the University of Texas-Austin). However, from 10 PM on, the slow crawl of no-longer-in-control-of-their-bodies-and-too-intoxicated-to-be-considerate-about-it concert-goers began. We stuck it out through Maps’ set at 12:15 but just couldn’t handle staying any longer. I’m really glad we went to that, and I’m really glad that the big-name headliners drew us to the show, despite the mile-and-a-half walk. It was perfect. Aside from the less-than-well-controlled alcohol, which is something you encounter slightly less at the official SX shows. We also couldn’t leave the indoor stage room for the last couple hours because the lines to get upstairs near the venue and the line into the room were both at least a hundred people long. That made it tough. But a good show. I wanted to stay all the way to be spit on by Andrew WK, but we just couldn’t do it.
If you have the luxury of having several or lots of days to spend at SX, do try to make an effort to explore everything once. I assumed that, in our lulled moments, we’d wander the city and happen upon good music. This CAN happen, but wandering the city takes hours, and you’re already tired just from getting to your specific destinations, so wandering for very long turns regretful and boring. This is also because all of the planned music is in buildings, and it’s not very clear which buildings it’s in from the outside. So, in one of our plan-less and still-energetic breaks, I suggested to Addy and Jacob that we look around the convention center (it was the last day, so only some music was still going, and the film and interactive were totally over, so the convention center was mostly empty), and once we got in, I begged them to go to StyleX with me for a bit, or at least wait for me. Jacob was in the middle of trying to refuse (pfffff) when he spotted Vermin Supreme inside. Apparently Landon and Dylan had been seeing Vermin around each day, but this was our first sighting and I’m glad it bought me some time in StyleX, even if I did miss the runway show for conversation with him. It was by bored chance that I chose to wander into the convention center and that we happened upon StyleX at all. Of course, exploring into the convention center at any other time would have still just been boring for dumb Jacob (even though it totally wasn’t completely once he gave it a chance, right?), but still. You will never find your Vermin Supreme if you don’t explore into StyleX. That’s my new metaphor for that.
It is natural, of course, to just scan the schedule for music you know well and really want to see live. For me, this feeling was exemplified by Rachael Yamagata (http://rachaelyamagata.com/). I got her first (?) album in 8th grade, loved it, and have probably listened to it a hundred times. I haven’t heard anything of hers since then. I was therefore excited to see her, for nostalgia and for finding out what she’s been up to. We finally found her playing in a time slot that nothing else really occupied, though it was a late spot, at a nice church. She didn’t play anything I knew, which was fine, and it was generally nice and calming and not very exciting. My music tastes have changed a bit since then. But it was good to see her. But only really because I didn’t know what else to do with that time, besides perhaps sleeping. The acts opening for her (not really opening, everything at SX is more of a showcase) were within the realm of her sound and genre and demographic. This is what you’ll come to learn – the variety of music is very large at SX, but you’ll often find some kind of link between artists in any one showcase. It will not always be obvious.
I also wanted to talk a bit about the style of concert-goers, but that’s not an easy thing to do. Basically, we saw thousands and thousands of really well-dressed people, and every once in a while I’d see someone in a particularly well-patterned dress and get excited and say something to Addy about how and why it was fashionable. There were very few unfashionable people there, by which of course I mean practically dressed, and we were some of them. I liked seeing the fashionable things that other people were wearing, but in the end was glad to be wearing my well-worn-in vans slip-ons.
We hardly spent any money on food. This is partly due to school-funded clif bars and fruit, and partly due to the fact that a lot of SX is based around advertisement and popularization of start-up names, and that their best way of accomplishing that is free food and water. That was great. We visited our favorite food truck four times in three days. It was awesome. That food truck was one of our big moments every day.
All in all, I should stress the importance of using your time well at SXSW. That doesn’t necessarily mean “see everything you possibly can all day”, because once that midnight show that you’re really looking forward to rolls around, you’ll really regret it. It means wandering over to the convention center when it’s empty because you don’t have much else to do, it means making time for the opening acts for bands you really like, it means taking a nap on the Whole Foods up-cycled pallet chaises once in a while. I guess it even means taking a shot at free swag out of a fake 100-foot-high Doritos vending machine. You’ll see some good, big, memorable things happen, and you’ll be in the vicinity of enough of them to feel at least a little special.