Eight ecstatic moments from SXSW
DAY ONE – TUESDAY
The way it works:
You can purchase a SXSW badge (from $600 for music) in advance. Everyone with a badge can buy one wristband ($170) for someone. All the official nighttime parties are wristband and badge only. If there’s a queue (American’s don’t know what that is, you gotta say ‘line’), the Badges get let in first. However, there are a stack of Day Parties and unofficial night parties that you can go to for zero moola. There are over 100 venues during SXSW because every Automotive Garage, Carpark, Bikestore, and field, including the rooftop of Wholefoods and the carpark of Waterloo Records is transformed into a stage. Most venues will have a day party (11am-6pm) and night party (8pm – 2am) from Tuesday through to Saturday of SXSW Music. Bands can play up to 10 shows in the week, so if you miss them in one place, you’ll catch them at another. In saying that, some of the bigger acts or surprise guests such as Nick Cave, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Prince, Justin Timberlake and Kendrick Lamar, only play official venues and people with Badges literally line up for hours to see them. Yep, lines are a big thing and something no-one warned me about. Your best bet is to see the big acts early in the week, pick one person you want to queue for and then make the most of discovering new music because there is so much going on that requires no lining up. Oh, but you’ve got to RSVP to all the parties beforehand. There’s sites that do a whole heap of RSVPs for you, but connecting on facebook so you’re in the know before the festival is priceless. You’ll likely score yourself free beer and breakfast burritos to go with that free music too.
My first SXSW party was at the Belmont for the Warner Music showcase watching Macklmore, Icona Pop, Action Bronson and Charlie XCX. The venues are, for the most part, very intimate. Action Bronson walked through the crowd rap-spitting on everyone and then threw his manky yellow beanie at my friend, which he kept. Macklemore crowd-walked, which means what it sounds like – instead of lying on peoples hands he walked on their palms – amazing. That dude is ripped and is a great performer too. Icona Pop were as good as I’d hoped. I crown I Love It as Ecstatic Moment #1.
DAY TWO – WEDNESDAY
The day started with a look at the Tradeshow, which was in the heart of the Official SXSW, Downtown at the Convention Centre. My favourite thing in this building was the phone recharge station where you find a compartment that has the input to match your phone, close the mini locker door and swipe any card to lock. The card acts as a key, so you can go away for an hour or so and come back to a newly powered phone. Ta da!
The Tradeshow was pretty interesting. The activations and inventiveness of the stalls made if really hard to get around quickly. There were instagram competitions, stations that printed every instagram that had a specified hashtag, new music app promotion stalls, performances, free straw cowboy hats, free sunglasses (far too many….I think I ended up with a pair in every colour all from different places). The highlight was the Post-It stall, which came with it’s very own cartoonist, who drew me being a groupie yelling out my room number to the band. Maybe he thought I was a whore or maybe he was one of those Americans who have a sense of humour. I guess satire and cartoons go hand in hand universally.
Then I had another lunch meeting. A cruicial thing that I have not yet mentioned is that SXSW is for networking. 90% of the people who attend are in the industry. You chat to the person next to you and they are a musician, producer, entertainment lawyer, journalist, director of a record label, editor of a magazine, etc. Everyone has a business card. It’s a quick, easy way to exchange details. And even more surprising is that people are genuine. When they say let’s meet for lunch when you get to Venice Beach in LA, they mean it. Go with a purpose and relish the fact that everyone around you is musically saturated and obsessed. Conversations get passionate. That’s pretty exciting.
Wednesday’s Day Party for me was at the Empire Control Room watching Ecstatic Moment #2, the totally bab’n MO from Denmark, whose alt, electro pop, with original dance moves and nostalgic graphics pierced the centre of a sweet spot. I adored the bright green projection lighting during Empress Of too and it was great to chat to the Aussies Alpine in the bathroom as they warmed up their vocals and did their makeup before taking the stage.
I chose to go to the Wednesday night Hype Hotel showcase. I arrived as The Orwells were starting. They were on a lot of must-see lists, and while I thought they were good, they very quickly slotted into the ‘just another lo-fi garage rock band’ category. Phosphorescent were next with a really solid set. The mature vocals, reminencent of Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill, put them in my ‘must get this album and listen to some more’ category.
Then it was time for Foxygen – one of the most hyped bands in indie circles for SXSW 2013. I’ll admit I am a fan of their recent single San Francisco; I love a little glockenspiel and the nursery rhyme ease-in which this song flows makes it an instant winner. However, with hype comes expectation, and they fell really flat for me. By the time they finally took the stage it was well past midnight. The venue (a converted warehouse) completely swallowed them and their performance was really sloppy. The lead singer, Sam France oozes on-stage theatrics, but Mick Jagger ain’t Mick Jagger without a great voice to back up his stage antics. As I mentioned earlier, bands play a lot of gigs across the week, so I was willing to give them another shot. I watched them the following day in a more intimate outside venue. They were better, but still disappointing. I contemplated leaving my opinion on Foxygen’s performance out of this article because everyone I spoke to had such high praise for them. Then I watched that Coachella video and it shit me so much that I vowed to never be silenced by mass opinion; That video annoyed me deeply, not because they faked knowing the bands, but because those same buzz words – “they’re great live”, “their energy is amazing”, “they’re such good fun” reappeared again and again until the generic haze of bullshit was blinding. Just because a band has been great live, doesn’t mean that they will be.
What happened to the subjective and why are we so afraid to express what we really think? Are most people are so concerned with keeping up that don’t stop and really listen long enough to know?
On a whole, SXSW is refreshing because it’s not like that. A quick Google of ‘Foxygen SXSW’ revealed that the following day the lead singer had a meltdown on stage and after receiving some terrible reviews from the festival, the band had actually apologised and cancelled their tour for ‘creative health’ reasons. Not surprising really. More surprising that it doesn’t happen more often – 10 gigs in five days. That shit cray.
Foxygen were exhausting, so I only stayed for the very start of the party’s final performer Jim James (of My Morning Jacket fame, although I didn’t know that at the time). The perfect styling combo of that wild-shoulder length hair, neat beard and suave suit was matched by soulful vocals and smooth beats. What a pro!
Public transport is not Austin’s strong point. Like most places, taxis aren’t cheap. There are the minicabs – two person carts, powered by a rider who pedals, which can be hilarious to watch if the passengers are quite overweight. At $10 a pop per person you’d want to get the rider dressed as Wonder Woman or the Hulk (or be rather large) to get your money’s worth. Then there’s buses, most of which stop at midnight… except for the night bus, which was my saviour and acted as a portal for the communal debrief of the day. This particular day I made friends with a crew from Brooklyn. They were on their way uptown to another gig and said I should come along. I followed them to a small gallery space, scored free t-shirt and some more free wine before absorbing a real sonic treat. The band playing were A Hundred Waters. Although they supported Alt-J on their US Tour, I hadn’t heard of them before this gig, but have played them a lot since. It was such a surreal experience. I was in this low ceiling, intimate setting, standing a meter away from the 5-piece band, while melodies evoking Bjork and Fever Ray were brought to life with other-worldly, innovative synth, flute and vocals. In a week full of music, this was fresh; new enough to be unique and engaging but not too abstract to lose me as a first time listener. Ecstatic Moment #3. By the time I left it was after 3am. I was pumped full of wonder and gleefully skipped the 12 blocks home through the empty streets of Uptown Austin.
Up and at ‘em early (well relatively) to catch Billy Bragg at Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop. His honest, poetic set was great, but one couldn’t help notice the irony of a musician known for his left-wing activism playing at a venue plastered in jerseys signed by the corrupt, cycling drug cheat, Lance Armstrong (originally from Texas, and clearly so big of a hero that they are somewhat in denial).
I then raced to the Pitchfork showcase in 1100 Warehouse to be met by a two-hour-long wait in line. Being the 3rd official day of the Festival, the hoards had arrived. Fortunately, I carry my personal shade, aka ‘really cool squashable wide brim hat’ with me at most times and love a good stranger convo. I got to hear Chvrches while I was waiting, as they played on a nearby outside stage. I missed Rhye and a few other bands I wanted to see, which was a little annoying, but not as annoying as how empty the venue was when I finally got in. They intentionally make sure there is a line of people waiting so that they look more popular, well that was the only logical explanation I can think of, which is pretty Grade A shit. And, to tell you the truth it wasn’t the hottest showcase either… it lacked atmosphere (perhaps because it was so empty!!), had an unfriendly inside stage and a really amateur backyard-looking outside stage.
I did see solid sets from Parquet Courts, Youth Lagoon and Toro Y Moi, but the highlight by far was scuzzy, cruisey surf rock of Mac de Marco. With prominent guitar lines, laidback vocals and hints of a 70s psych vibe, I was won over quickly and captivated for the whole set.
In the evening I hopped between a few venues in the heart of downtown Austin. I started at historical Antones and after another hour and a half wait, I got in to see Richard Thompson (in his funny marching band beret) totally rock the house in a way that only the old greats can. But that was nothing compared to Ecstatic Moment #4 when one of my music heros, Emmy Lou Harris took the stage. My face hurt from smiling so hard and I think I may have shred a tear I was so happy. Americana represent and where better to catch these legends than at one of the Americana Meccas of the world; Austin, Texas.
I didn’t have long to dwell in my emotion. I dropped into the Citizins gig (you know the guys that sings “turning into a reptile”?) before finishing the night with Ecstatic Moment #5, the Shout Out Louds at The Parish. If you don’t know these gorgeous Swedes, I urge you to look them up. Their music is pure joy and at 1am after a long day, they sucked the fatigue out of me and replaced it with a compulsion to dance, jig, jive, skip, spin and whatever you do to express joy-in-motion.
DAY FOUR – FRIDAY
Friday was Converse Fadar Fort day for me and my crew. Wristbands were needed to get into this venue and one of my friends knew someone, who knew someone, who ran something, so I got one. Sweet! Fadar Fort was like a mini festival within the festival. It was very ‘sceney’. There were fashion bloggers running around snapping people (including me – WOO!), a funky hair salon, bands recording in the Converse redlight sessions, multimedia, interactive entertainment and most attractively for me, many activations with lounges. We’d been given the heads up that Friday was the day to be at Fadar Fort, because there was a very special guest performing that we wouldn’t want to miss. The day was filled with sweet potato fries, free vitamin water, jams from Ra Ra Riot, beats from Disclosure and chats to some incredibly friendly Austinites. In the early evening we took our places as close to the stage as we could get and all very suddenly one by one (about 5 minutes apart) all these black rappers started appearing, yelling aggressive rhymes at the audience until there were about ten people on stage. Everyone around me went BALLISTIC and sang/spoke along word for word. I thought “wow!”, in a completely bewildered, unimpressed way, “I spent hours waiting to see this?” In case it means anything to you, I later learnt that some of the people on stage were T.I, B.oB. and Trau and clearly they’re a pretty big deal in some circles. I consoled myself with the fact that it was a very ‘American’ experience and therefore a suitable and worthwhile cultural education, albeit slightly frightening.
I stayed on and watched reformed rock band the Afghan Whigs, who did a mid-set cover of Usher’s ‘climax’… except, it wasn’t really a cover because Usher (pictured) walked on stage during the song. Talk about a climax!
It was unbelievable. I have never considered myself a massive Usher fan, but holy cow that man is SO beautiful and his voice makes you melt and he moves so smoothly. I was four rows back at that stage and was completely overcome with teenage hysteria. And that was Ecstatic Moment #6. I am still reduced to a silence awe when I think back to his performance, particularly his a cappella mash-up encore. What a man!
Call me stupid, crazed or opportunistic, but I wasn’t finished for the day.
I headed to Hype Hotel for instrument and soul heavy groovers, Rudimental, followed by the less famous Knowles sister, Solange (pictured, top). How I wanted to love her. She’s gorgeous and funky and that voice sure runs in the family but, her songwriting was weak, which made for a boring set. Of course when she busted out ‘Losing you’ the house went off and her potential was so clear.
Steve Earl at The Parish featured somewhere in my night too… the man whose song can pierce your heart. So honest and so raw. As true a folk singer as any.
DAY FIVE –SATURDAY
With the end in sight propelling me on to make the most of my final Austin day, I headed to Mellow Johnny’s Bikes again to have the Zombies (the real ones, not a cover band) soothingly wake me.
Saturday was The Aussie BBQ and I while I didn’t go to Austin to see Australian music, I really wanted to support my buddies from Down Under. Clarey Brown & the Bangin’ Rackets were my pick of the day. The nine piece band, that includes leading lady Clarey Brown and her three female back-up singers brought an old-school bluesy, rockability feel to the stage and with such a presence, what a pleasure it was to see them live.
I returned in the evening to see Jonathan Boulet, who delivered much heavier rock renditions of their songs than I had heard before, especially on their final song ‘Animal’ which verged on metal. I heard rumours that this was a taste of lead singer Jonathan’s new direction on the side projects he’s pursuing at the moment.
During the day I snuck into one of my favourite Austin venues, Mohawks – a pub with two stages, one of them being outside with ground or top deck vantage points as stage viewing options. Here I watched the ambient electronica artist, Baths and the very loved Scottish band, Frightened Rabbit. With the late afternoon sun on my back, those charmingly accented Scots with their hilarious, I-don’t-take-my-self-too-seriously lyrics and really great easy-listening rock, it’s no surprise that this venue and band combo made for Ecstatic Moment #7.
My last stop for the festival was over the river to the suburb of South Congress. This is the side of town that a sort of breakaway, unofficial SXSW happens called South By South Jose (yes the Mexican presence in Texas in very much part of the landscape). If you’re looking for less hype and more soul then this is where you want to hang out. My destination was The Continental Club, a place that calls itself “The granddaddy of all local music venues”. We arrived early, sat at the high bar table closest to the stage and let the drinks roll as we soaked up the dimly-lit, cavernous, dive bar atmosphere, before getting our boot scooting on when the band took to the stage. We were there to see reformed local band The Wagoners, who some say founded the alt-country genre in the 80s. It was such a hoot and a quintessential Texan experience.
Overtired and a little drunk from another round of far-too-strong free-pour drinks, I misplaced my backpack. I loved that bag. It was made by Aussie super designer Emma Mulholland and has been my trusty sidekick for months. Other than that the only vital contents it held was my phone charger. I was flying out of Austin at 6am the following morning and Mercury retrograde (an astrological time for miscommunication) was turning direct, so there was no way I could risk attempting to catch a flight without a charged phone. Shit!
I made a cab drive me around the outskirts of Austin, as I ran into servoes, Walgreens and supermarkets. NONE of them had a suitable charger. Finally I found a charger at Walmarts, 5 minutes before it closed at 1am. I was so happy that this has to take Ecstatic Moment #8.
It turned out that my cabbie did forget to pick me up so I needed my phone to call and remind him. (no chance of getting up cab in the streets around where I was staying at that hour). Of course I hadn’t packed, so when I got to the airport at 4:30am, I was riding on half-an-hour’s sleep and around 15 hours for the whole week. Total nuts and I was hating life. The flight with my SXSW buddies from Austin to LA was hoods up silence; the sound of a very good week.
SXSW is not a festival for the faint-hearted or musically apathetic. It could hurt you, but pain never felt so good. I list eight Ecstatic Moments above and without being hyperbolic, they truly were. I’d think I’d had the best day of my life and then the next day would arrive and top the one before.
SXSW Austin, Texas – where seriously cool shit happens.
Words and pictures by Harriet Cheney.