It might be shocking to realize that an event bringing in over 800 bands from
around the world, 150 films, a barrage of industry bigwigs and many surprise
artists would be considered a rip-off by so many Austin residents. Commonly
referred to by locals as "South by Southwaste," the annual conference
brings in enthusiasts from everywhere to spend a week in Texas' most creative
city, yet many of the town's residents spend the whole time trying to avoid
the traffic jam downtown.
The lead singer of The Spades - one of Eindhoven, Netherlands' punk-metal favorites
that played at Beerland on the first night of the music showcases - even had
a few words about it. Right before he poured a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon over
his head and hocked a gnarly loogie into the crowd, he snarled quite viciously
"What a stupid festival."
As eloquent as his delivery was, this troubadour might have missed the mark
on what exactly South by Southwest is - as do many Austinites who dismiss the
event. Hardly a festival in the traditional sense of the word, this annual gathering
is actually quite different from anything of the kind. It's similar to New York's
CMJ Music Marathon, except Austin's version also includes a weeklong independent
film festival. The entire conference spanned from March 7th to March 15th, although
there was a lot of "unofficial spillover" into Sunday, March 16th as
far as music was concerned.
So why don't the locals like it? Because it's really catered more towards industry
people than music fans, in all honesty.
Those who are privy to a "badge" for the event get to see all sorts
of interesting panels, trade shows and press conferences, along with all the
great music and films, not to mention more free crap than you can shake a stick
at. But the poor sap who pays $115 for a music wristband thinking he's going
to see twenty great bands often feels a lot like someone who ate at The Golden Corral
Buffet during the 6-8 spot: angry and frustrated because they ended up just
waiting in a long line to take in a lot of little things that don't really go
together when they wanted a quick, easy, filling meal. In the end he's left
wondering if he really got his money's worth.
If you're hardcore you can do a lot with a wristband, but it's really more
like guerilla warfare than a "festival." The music is scattered in
clubs all over town, so your wristband doesn't allow you to walk freely from
place to place. You're still subject to ID checks, fire hazards when clubs get
too crowded, unfathomably long lines and jacked-up drink prices in one of little
ole' Austin's busiest bar weekends.
I personally had a blast, but I saw lots of "wristband holders" waiting
in lines while "platinum badge holders" filled the clubs ahead of
them. Nevertheless, patience and a sense of humor will get you everywhere these
days, and if you know what you're getting into it's truly a week like no other.
The music officially started on March 12th, but the film festival had the streets
crowded well before that. As a result, local bands not affiliated with SxSW
got to play to some new ears earlier in the week.
One such act played at the Flamingo Cantina on March 12th as the promising Austin
quartet, Mikado. The band combines a roots/rock/reggae approach with a psychedelic
angle, performing ambitiously crafted originals amidst assorted covers. Mikado
pleased the crowd with tight versions of the Talking Head's "Heaven"
and Bob Dylan's "Man in Me" but also challenged them with original
tunes like their original dub exploration called "Igloo" featuring
an impressive solo by drummer Shadd Scott.
The first official night of music started without much planning on my part.
When there's not someone I know of performing, I try to check out bands from
other countries or different genres of music. The "loogie and beer"
set I mentioned earlier by The Spades started things off for me, and moments
like that always give me a new perspective on musical taste and what all is
out there. And that is good.
As the night wandered on, I eventually made my way over to Stubb's to see Particle.
Unfortunately, the earlier set the B-52's were supposed to play was canceled,
but Particle fans got a treat out of the deal since the band was the only act
of the week to get two full sets at this great venue. They stepped up to the
plate, and delivered a high-octane dance party, driven largely by keyboardist
Steve Molitz's mesmerizing chops and overflowing energy.
Particle's impressive light rig translates well to Stubb's, and the Molitz
was quick to express his happiness to be back in Austin. They opened the show
with an appropriately placed version of "Launchpad," and proceed to
cover Lynrd Skynyrd and Pink Floyd later in the show. Guitarist Charlie Hitchcock's
playing compliments Particle's sound best when he keeps it simple, such as the
hypnotic riff in "The Elevator," which closed the first set.
Thursday night was when we hit our first snafu. After getting skunked at the
Red Eyed Fly because they were not letting anyone else in to see New Orleans-based
Supagroup, we wandered down to the Mercury to try to catch the end of Topaz's
set. Instead we waited in line for almost an hour, hoping we'd get in before
midnight to see Soulive. They finally let in a huge rush of people all at once,
but only after many in line stepped away to go sell their wristbands in the
Once we got inside, Soulive didn't disappoint. The funky groove trio closed
out the Mercury's showcase with a long set in support of their new album, Live.
Driven by organist Neal Evans - who handles harmony and bass on the keys - Soulive's
set was long and strong, featuring lots of material from the live release. Alan
Evans pounded the skins throughout the night, and a guest saxophone player joined
the band to close things out. Soulive also played a looser set at The Vibe the
next afternoon, taking requests from the lively crowd as part of JamBase's daytime
party along with Psychedelic Breakfast, Tea Leaf Green and Maktub.
Friday afternoon, we decided to take a break from live music and check out
one of the films at The Paramount Theater. Although we missed "This is Spinal
Tap" director Christopher Guest's newest music mockumentary, "A Mighty Wind,"
we were lucky enough to see a screening of Woody Harrelson's captivating project,
"Go Further," which premiered at SxSW directed by Ron Mann. The film
covers Harrelson and Co.'s road trip down the west coast in a bus that runs
entirely on hempseed oil, and their efforts to spread the good word about organic
living, industrial hemp, sustainable development alternative energy and simple
It's a diverse group aboard "The Mothership," but the film focuses
largely on Steve Clark, the token jester who illustrates that you don't have
to be a hippie to benefit from sensible lifestyle changes. And you don't have
to give up all of your guilty vices, either. In addition to being engaging,
thought provoking and hilarious, the film also features scattered acoustic performances
by Bob Weir, Natalie Merchant, String Cheese Incident, Anthony Kiedis, Dave
Matthews and tons of other great music. My favorite moment shows Medeski Martin & Wood laying down a swampy Motown groove, plugged into a generator powered
by four people on stationary bicycles alongside the band. If this film makes
it to your town, you'd be a fool to miss it.
Later that night we ended up at the Elysium to check out a band from Santa
Cruz, California called Estradasphere, who played at SxSW as part of a mini-tour
through Texas supporting their most recent album, It's Understood. This insanely
talented band has come up with a sound that blends, twists and defies any sort
of classification the music industry would like to pin on music.
Like a schizophrenic whirlwind, these guys will move from classically-composed
thrash-rock, to a pop cover from the '80s, to Middle Eastern trancejam, to throwback
jazz grooves. Saxophonist John Whooley proved to be quite the showman as he was seen jumping
into the crowd, stripping down into a one-piece leotard and even picking up
Tim Smolens' bass so that the low man could take a spin on lead vocals for a
song. Guitarist Jason Schimmel ripped throughout the set, all the way to the
closing number that started with the line from The Offspring's "Keep it
Separated" but morphed into a high-speed Russian Klezmer jam instead of
the lyrics. This innovative band is definitely worth checking out.
We decided to forgo Willie Nelson's midnight show after seeing the long lines
at Soulive the night before. Instead, we stumbled into The Mercury's "Japan
Nigh" for quite an unusual treat, Papaya Paranoia, a trio from Tokyo.
I don't know much about this band and most of their lyrics were in Japanese,
but these girls put on a great electro-dominated show and treated the predominantly
American audience to an raging original tune called "I Like Sushi"
to close the set.
On the last official night of SxSW we started at Austin Music Hall to check
out Keller Williams, and got there early enough to catch some of local favorite
Bob Schneider's set. Having not seen Williams' solo act since 1998, I was absolutely
blown away by his performance, and definitely consider it one of the week's
highlights. His "traditional" guitar work and songwriting is very
impressive, but his technique of looping and layering acoustic/electric guitars,
bass, percussion and vocal effects is nothing short of astonishing.
Keller Williams is a master and pioneer of his craft, and what he does as a
single musician shows an amazing amount of devotion to the art. He carries himself
onstage with grace, and his genuine appreciation for the fans that come to see
him comes out through his performance. Amidst the course of his set, he treated
the Texas crowd to a tease of "Deep Ellum Blues" with modified Austin
lyrics, and closed the set with "Freaker by the Speaker." I raise
my glass to this truly unique and talented musician, and I urge anyone who has
never seen his solo act to check it out at your next opportunity.
Aside from the long lines, the only bad thing there really is about SxSW is
that it's impossible to see everything. With over 800 bands spread across town,
tough decisions must be made. While watching William's set, we missed the Drive-By Truckers at Cedar Street , and both OM Trio and Hobex during JamBase's showcase
at The Vibe. We arrived just in time to watch Tea Leaf Green ripping through
the tail end of its set, with guitarist Josh Clark working the crowded porch
into a frenzy during the band's final number. This marked the second of three
appearances that this great California band would make at The Vibe over the
course of the weekend.
Next on the stage was the Dallas-based quartet, Olospo. The band stuck mostly
to its repertoire of quirky originals, including an energetic version of "Beans
and Franks." But they also dipped into a supply of Brit-rock covers, along
the lines of The Beatles' "She Said She Said," and the opening instrumental
section of Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same." The band kept
a steady dialogue with the crowd, which was offering rounds of shots to the
four musicians throughout the set. About 45 minutes after the club's normal
closing time, guitarist Chris Holt led the band through The Rolling Stones'
"Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" to end the night.
The next day, after SxSW had officially ended, The Vibe hosted a heady crowd
in Austin to one more day of music. Billed as a benefit for Austin SoundBoard
(www.austinsoundboard.org), the event offered several traveling acts from throughout
the week as well as a handful of local acts, including Dimorphodon (New Orleans),
The Harmony Theory (Austin), Heart of Gold Band (Austin), Tea Leaf Green (San
Francisco) and Groovin Ground(Austin).
The week ran as smoothly as could be expected, and there was always something
good to see as long as you kept an open mind. For locals weary of attending
the event next year, I'd offer two suggestions. First of all, don't buy a wristband
in advance unless they are much more reasonably priced in the future. You can
get into many of the shows for a small cover charge early in the night, and
if you stay in one place you'll get more than your money's worth. You can also
get into most of the films without a band for a very small price.
Secondly, if you have the means, I'd recommend taking a bicycle downtown instead
of a car. Parking throughout the weekend is a debacle, and the people on bikes
seemed to be able to cover ground between the clubs most easily since 6th Street
gets blocked off at night. Groups of fans that rolled up in convoys of bikes
looked like they were having a pretty good time, (I was jealous as I fought
for a cab).
If it's a "lawn chair and cooler" experience you're looking for,
hold off for the Austin City Limits Festival in September. However, if you're
up to check out a lot of great bands in a downtown Austin club setting, or have
any interest in getting involved in music or film, South by Southwest is a great
time and an excellent opportunity to meet people in the biz.
I'll see you there next year.
Words by: Travis Langdon
Images by: Marcy Molitor
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