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So you’ve always wanted to know what South by Southwest is like? We too have felt the allure of that infamous hipster convention, where a sea of signed and unsigned bands descend upon Austin like a plague of bearded locusts and plug their guitars into any outlets they can find.
Thus, for you, we sent one intrepid reporter to Texas, to brave not only SXSW, but also St. Patrick’s Day and the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend. On our own dime! Join us after the jump, and we promise you’ll almost be able to smell the one-hitters and Port-a-Pottys.
March 17-21. South by Southwest Music Festival. And You Are There!
“All the sniffling indie kids: hold steady”
I’ve attended plenty of Lollapalooza-style music festivals: spending three exhausting days in a giant field, with bands spread out over a handful of stages, handling oppressive crowds in blistering heat. But South by Southwest is a different animal: thousands of bands take over a small city, playing day and night at bars, clubs, churches, in parks and parking garages. Normal life in Austin essentially stops functioning for a week: traffic is ridiculous, cabs can’t be found, and festival-goers fill every square inch of the town, sleeping outside, jaywalking at all hours, muddling through and taking up space.
In some ways, SXSW is even more tiring than traditional festivals, because you’re always on the move, trying to get across town, to get into shows, to ascertain if that rumor that Michael Stipe’s going to be at the Big Star showcase is true. But all things considered, I’ll take SXSW over the Lollapaloozas of the world, because there’s a lot more freedom. You’re not trapped in once place. You can get a break whenever you want. The crowd isn’t as condensed or overwhelming. And most importantly, you can see great bands in small venues, with a couple dozen other people, instead of straining your neck to catch a glimpse of Eddie Vedder on a big TV screen.
Let’s break this down:
Number of ridiculous hats being worn on a Wednesday morning flight from Chicago to Austin: About 40
Number of people sitting next to me who were going to SXSW because they’re in the badge-laminating business, and the festival is “the hippest place to be”: 1
How long it took for me to put headphones on after that pronouncement: 5 seconds.
Hey, who’s that blurry guy in line behind me to pick up wristbands?
Am I the only person in the world who would be star-struck by standing so close to Will Sheff? Yep.
Was it demeaning to listen to him trying to pick up his wristband and spell out his band’s name and try to prove he was actually in a band? Yep.
Favorite set of the week: Japandroids at the Shuba’s/Threadless party on Thursday. The crowd was small enough on the patio behind an art gallery that singer Brian King barely even needed a microphone. His unamplified howls while standing near the drum kit away from the mic stand were still plenty loud enough to hear. While the guitar/drums/no bass gimmick may have gotten a little overplayed after The White Stripes, Japandroids manage to rock as hard as the Stripes, without sounding much like them.
Can you tell Japandroids are Canadian just by looking at them?
Show I was looking forward to the most all week: Spoon/Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings/Broken Bells on Wednesday night. I do love me some Spoon.
So, where was I when the show was actually going on?
Oh. Is that because I’m too old to be doing stuff like this or because I have a drinking problem? You can blame it on the Bear Fights.
Wow. I flew all the way down to Austin and missed one of my favorite bands because I was too drunk? That’s shameful. Give me a fucking break. It was St. Patrick’s Day.
Saddest thing I saw at SXSW:
Most underrated aspect of SXSW: The short set times. Bands almost never play more than 25-30 minutes, with showcase headliners maxing out at 45-60. That means that when a crappy band is on, you don’t have long to suffer before they take their leave. And good bands always seem to come out with something to prove: they don’t have long to make an impression, so they pull out all the stops to do so. They play their four or five most immediate, hard-hitting songs, and stack their setlists with new material. As a fan, you’re always left a little breathless and wanting more.
Most troubling aspect of SXSW: Sound and technical problems. Almost every day party and showcase involves multiple bands and quick changeovers, with no time for soundchecks. Which means a lot of waiting around listening to people say things like, “Check. Check. 1, 2. Check. A little more low end?” and a lot of instances when bands have to restart or cut songs short because of sound problems.
Most surprising fact learned at SXSW: People LOVE Band of Horses. Just absolutely fucking love them. Band of Horses are huge. There are Horseheads out there, and a lot of them. At a Thursday night showcase, they received much more support than Drive-By Truckers and Broken Social Scene. People crushed in to get closer to the stage when they went on. There was fist-pumping and foot-stomping. To Band of Horses. There was very nearly crowd-surfing. People reacted to “Funeral” like it was a newly reincarnated Kurt Cobain launching into “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time.
Second-most surprising fact learned at SXSW: Band of Horses are actually pretty fucking good.
Best individual song performances I saw all week: “Two” by Antlers, “Heart Sweats” by Japandroids, “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning” by We Were Promised Jetpacks, and “What Are You Willing to Lose?” by Lucero
Artist names I learned I’ve been mispronouncing for years: Lucero and Sondre Lerche
While we’re on the subject of Lucero, would I want to oppose them in a bar brawl?
Number of Big Star covers heard over the weekend: 0. Completely unacceptable. Big Star was supposed to play the festival, until Alex Chilton died on the first day. Every single fucking band there should have been required to play a Big Star song, or “The Letter,” or something. I’d even settle for “Alex Chilton” by the Replacements. The closest we came was two lines of “The Ballad of El Goodo” by Lerche. Meanwhile, we had to endure a tribute to Sparklehorse. Prioritize your dead musicians, people.
Is there anything better than Magic Hat #9?
Best way to murder hipsters en masse: 1) A giant magnet that rips all of their oversize ear piercings out, causing excessive blood loss. 2) Telling them that Surfer Blood and Sleigh Bells are playing a double bill just outside of town, just up over that hill — then leading them over a cliff like lemmings.
The entire SXSW experience, summed up in a quote from Sondre Lerche: “I’m from Norway. But I live in Brooklyn.”
Most frustrating celebrity near miss: 1) Bill Murray spent an evening tending bar just outside of downtown. He was, by all accounts, convivial and awesome. 2) I was in the same sports bar as The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn at the same exact time, watching college basketball, and I didn’t even know it. He was by himself, too. He probably wanted someone to chat with, about hoops, baseball, the best Hold Steady lyrics, and how great he is. He was probably really lonely. Someday, we’ll be together, Craigie. Someday.
Best celebrity sighting: Freddie Mercury
Most disappointing buzz band: The Soft Pack. They came across like a bunch of frat brothers five years past graduation who are hanging out together out of necessity rather than genuine affection. And their songs were punchy in a bad way — like an indie band who had been listening to too much Limp Bizkit. Also, their guitar player announced, “We have a number one song in England right now. It may be a small country, but it means a lot to us.” What an irritating thing to say, on several levels. And…was he just lying?
Am I too proud to stand on a public street and visibly take a picture of the Real World Austin house?
Are hipster girls terribly dressed and often annoying? Yep.
Are they also incredibly attractive? Yep.
Isn’t it great when a hipster girl is singing along and dancing to a great band? It is, until she raises her arms high above her head to reveal bushels full of armpit hair.
While I’m being a sexist dick, does a great voice and/or cool stage presence make girls about a thousand times hotter? Yes. See: Nicole Atkins and Those Darlins.
What’s up with The Pains of Being Pure at Heart? They’re God’s own indie rock band. They represent everything both right and wrong about the state of indie music in 2010. They’re pleasant, melodic, vaguely catchy, and they have absolutely no stage presence. I’d never seen a band engage in literal navel-gazing on stage before, but they do it. And the band members look like they were created by computers trying to simulate the prototypical 21st-century indie rockers. Bad haircuts, mopey glares, even a female Asian-American keyboard player. Check, check and check.
What makes you feel like an outsider in Austin more quickly than anything else? Not carrying around your own beer coozy everywhere you go.
Consistently disturbing trend: People being pussies about earplugs. I get that we live in cautious times. We slather on sunscreen, we eat organic foods, we protect against hearing loss. But way, way too many people have earplugs stuffed in their ears for solo acoustic shows and female singer-songwriters. We need to balance actual risk vs. how silly we look, people.
Best rumor being circulated: That Zooey Deschanel was spotted wearing a panda suit.
Awesome. Is this her?
Were there any unfortunate Zooey Deschanel-related rumors making the rounds, to balance that out? Yeah, that she was being a massive diva at every show, complaining about people taking pictures of her and bitching at her crew.
How adorable was Zooey when I saw She & Him? VERY. She wore a cute red hat and a long, fitted coat. Her favorite dance move on stage was jumping up and down with her hands in her pockets. Awkward, but endearing.
Did M. Ward look like he wanted to kill her every time she complained about the sound? Yes.
What kind of people bring tiny dogs to loud, crowded concerts? Villains.
What kind of people bring babies to loud, crowded concerts? Monsters.
What kind of people spend $700 on a festival badge? Apparently, no one. Everyone I encountered in possession of a badge had been given one by a client or company, had no interest in seeing any actual music, and seemed completely miserable.
What happens when a douchebag pops off his teal polo shirt?
Worst band I saw: Freelance Whales. And it’s not close.
Random thing I saw that made me unnaturally happy: The guys from We Were Promised Jetpacks standing in the audience, watching Centro-matic’s set and seemingly enjoying themselves.
Why did that make me so happy? Because it encapsulated for me what I loved about SXSW: the spirit of community. A band on a different bill just wandering over to check out someone they were interested in seeing.
What else was great about SXSW? Last year, some friends and I made a pact that we would get out to see live music once a month. The very fact that we had to make a pact about that says a lot about the sorry, aged state of our lives right now. But even worse…the pact began to feel like a burden after just a couple months, and we were all feeling forced into shows we didn’t have much interest in.
But SXSW did nothing less than help me rediscover my love of and passion for live music. I gorged on bands, overdosing on concerts (except for St. Patrick’s Day, when I overdosed on car bombs). Seeing a whole bunch of bands, some of which I knew well, others of which I’d never even heard of, completely re-invigorated me, and I loved every second of it. There are moments that happen at live shows that don’t happen in any other part of life, and they’re indescribable. When those moments happen, you forget about all the impracticalities and inconveniences of live music. You forget about being shoved, or having beer spilled on you. You forget about your sore feet and backs, and what a nightmare catching a cab will be after the show.
And SXSW provided the perfect avenue to lead me back to the heart of something I’ve loved since I was 10, and seeing Billy Joel for the first time. Seeing bands in tiny venues, close to the stage, caught in the moment, it never got old — even after four draining days. And as much as I complain about hipsters, I had almost nothing but good experiences with the people out at the shows. Much more often than not, they were there to check out bands they’d heard about, or re-experience bands they loved, not to see and be seen.
So my most lasting memory of the festival will be a Friday afternoon, outside in the sun at Club DeVille, just the right amount of drunk on beer and vodka iced teas, jumping in the air like an idiot, pumping my fist and screaming along to “Smoke” by Lucero, which should be SXSW’s unofficial anthem: “Unknown and beautiful! Unknown and beautiful! Into the streets…”
So what was the absolute best thing about South by Southwest?
Best thing on the menu at the Austin Denny’s: The Hooburrito, inspired by iconic ’90s band Hoobastank.
For real? For real.
Can we get back to looking at funny pictures of hipsters?
What was the Austin airport like on Sunday? A post-apocalyptic wasteland. A bad epic Kevin Costner movie, like The Postman, or the end of a Cormac McCarthy novel, like Blood Meridian or The Road. Just pale, skinny, exhausted people everywhere you looked, shuffling along in silence, lugging their guitars, dead-eyed and soul-weary. Serious Night of the Living Dead shit. Also…very smelly.
Overheard at SXSW:
“You think that just because you read The Economist, you actually know something about Texas politics?”
“I’m telling you dude, when I had a kid, I hated that fucking thing for a solid six months. Then, from six months to a year I only strongly disliked it.”
“We have to find a way to bring up Schindler’s List. That’s the only way we can know for sure if he hates Jews.”
“I’m not going to let you shoot a gun over that fence, into the highway.”
“You just have a really bad attitude. Really shitty. I told you I have to call my Mom back, and you give me all kinds of attitude. Do you really not understand the difference between, “Sure, of course, go ahead, call your Mom” and “Sure.”? I’m done with this conversation until you get a better attitude.”
“It’s not that I’m not compassionate, it’s just that retards disgust me.”
“Ain’t they got no bellhops here? Jeez.”