South by Southwest is always an odyssey. Set aside a week in a college town to celebrate the entertainment industry’s many facets with live musical performances, film premiers, and panels – all expertly lubricated with copious amounts of booze – and it would be insane to prepare yourself for anything but bedlam.
I spent my formative years at the University of Texas in Austin in the typical haze of underage drinking and unadulterated debauchery. But even as a college student, it took a lot to withstand downtown when SXSW rolled in each March. It was Vegas for hipsters. The streets closed off to facilitate the drunken beeline to the next show with flyers from Red Bull and Levi’s and random garage bands shoved into hands and littering the ground like those nudie cards with the 800 number you find all over the Vegas strip. Yet brands and bands do so much pimping and ho-ing at the South by Southwest fest each year, Sin City looks virginal in comparison, shrouding its sex in darkness and secrecy. Vegas is a prude next to 6th Street on St. Patty’s Day.
But I digress. This is supposed to be a recap of this year’s SXSW festival, an exhausting seven days I spent simply trying to see a few bands and survive the pandemonium. I’ll tell you about the best performances, share with you some pretty pictures, and see if I can weave in some do-or-die tips for South by, just in case you decide by way of sheer madness to make this fest in the future.
The biggest thing to come out of the interactive portion of SXSW this year was the whole homeless hotspot debacle. The concept: give a few hobos one of those wireless router thingies and a t-shirt that says “Hi, I’m Brian, I’m a 4G Hotspot” so festival attendees can gather ‘round and upload their latest profile picture or check their email to see if they got an RSVP to that night’s hottest off-the-record shindig.
The result? A lot of politicking and rallying about improper use of human beings as objects. Of course. But the point here is that yeah, you never looked at a bum before and saw him as anything but foot traffic obstacles as you’re stumbling back to your car at 2 a.m., and also, these guys are getting paid. Talking about the homeless? Also something no one wanted to do before. So I give these guys four full bars of awesomeness.
Next up: daily showcases. Now if you’re like a certain swath of the South by crowd, you’ll have your entire day timed out by the minute, so you can make sure you head over to see The Vandelles, whose set ends at 9:25, and then haul ass to catch Lera Lynn at the Deseo Centro Lounge at 9:30. To you I say, excellent. Now go have a dose of Airborne while I talk to the other folks.
In all seriousness, the hectic schedule posted months in advance on the website serves as nothing but an anxiety-inducing grid of hell. The official schedule? Yeah, that sometimes doesn’t go as planned. And then there’s the unofficial schedule, which is what you should really be counting on here. Like this badass show by David Edery at the Trophy Room I caught.
Now don’t go get your fanny pack in a twist. I know that “unofficial” does sound very uncertain, which could lead to unrest, uncomfortable scenarios, and worst off, your bed un-tucked. But it is truly the way to go if you are to capture this whole SXSW bitch by the weave.
Rule number one: don’t buy a badge. Seriously. Spending $800 on a platinum magic badge so you can hit up all the panels (which you will find a reason not to go to), movies (no one at home will be impressed you saw “Girls Against Boys” before they did, so you skip this too), and music (most of the bands you want to see are performing at totally free, way cooler parties anyway).
I give you exhibit A: Flosstradamus (read their oft hilarious interview here), B: Astronataulis (totally caught him on the roof of 512, totally free show and badass), and C: Mumford & Sons (had to be the best concert of the week – sorry Eminem/Jay Z- but was a totally free show and they put freebies before badge holders).
So anyway, the Astronataulis show was great as per usual, only the performance went on late because the sound gear was all f—-d up. Which happens, but then like two songs into it I’m wondering why I can’t hear a damn word and he proceeds to tell the sound guy “I’m going to need the vocals like 100 times higher. Like get it as high that it will go, and then f—ing double it.”
I’ve been to 512 during normal off-weeks in Austin, and the sound was never great, but that got me thinking about these 6,000 or so venues that pop up during SXSW, either in current live music spots or in fields or garages or wherever the hell people can gather and play. And is the sound that great? I mean, musicians get kind of antsy when their shit isn’t like the perfect pitch and all that. So this fest might be seriously maddening for some folks.
Well it appears Asher Roth has the same thought. I cornered the “I Love College” rapper at the Broke Mogul/MySpace lounge on Wednesday night where he was chilling with some homies (caught awesome sets by DJs Statik Selekta and Dr. Midnight). He was saying how the interactive portion of SXSW was becoming the main event, while the music side was suffering because of a lack of space that was conducive to the kinds of “big sound” artists were after. It’s true that everything from record label execs to app creators to social juggernauts like Spotify come to the fest early to mix media and see about the next big thing.
Take for example MySpace, making its comeback at SXSW with a kitschy campaign entitled “Myspace is Dead. Long Live MySpace.” Street team zombies took to the streets with swag and augmented reality fliers and grumbled and groaned incoherently as they handed you stuff. Which was silly, but added to the mystery. Local makeup artist Chloe Sens was touching up her gore outside of the MySpace lounge on Wednesday, which boasted a massive “Long Live MySpace” banner.
While I can dig some of this marketing stuff, it still has the palatable inertia of a spoonful of mashed potatoes in my book. Maybe that’s because my MBA was eclipsed by MIA and REM back in the day. Either way, business crap runs second fiddle compared to music at SXSW for me, so I was glad to catch Theophilus London at the Broke Mogul bar Friday night, another unofficial soiree mind you (read: free booze).
Then the clincher: The Big Easy Express Encore. Saturday night about 10,000 people remained sober enough on their St. Patty’s Day to wander over to the LBJ Library lawn for the encore screening of the Big Easy Express film, with performances by Ed Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Mumford & Sons. In a word: kickass.
The film itself was cause for a standing ovation, a documentary of the bands’ experience aboard the old-fashioned train they took across the country while making music and postulating on the condition of the music world today. Then the bands spent a good hour apiece wowing audiences with popular songs like Ed Sharpe’s “Home” and Mumford’s “The Cave,” which was joined by the Austin High School band, a great addition both instrumentally and fanatically.
It’s like I always say. If you have to spend a week fighting crowds, bad pizza, cell phones on roam, and persistent-as-hell-hangovers, all while Mercury is in retrograde, finish it up with a little Maalox and Mumford. Works every time.