“Texas forever” — Tim Riggins
Typically, when you land at Austin-Bergstrom International airport, you become instantly relaxed. The airport itself is slower-paced and less busy than most big-city aiports, and when you step outside, the air is inevitably warmer than wherever you’re coming from. The Austin air evokes front-porch rocking chairs and sipping bourbon. You feel your worries slipping quietly away into the Texas breeze.
Landing in Austin for South by Southwest is different. You feel like you’ve been shot out of a cannon the second you get off the plane, released into the night to do and see and drink and hear as much as you possibly can in the time you’ve been given; launched into the world at 300 miles per hour to create mayhem and receive its most hedonistic graces. You want to consume everything, the entire festival, and you want to do it now. You’re free. You’re engaged. Like Jerry Maguire when he’s writing his manifesto, you’re the best possible version of yourself. You’re on speed. You’re God’s own music soldier, and for a few days, that’s all that matters. Here you go, like a sales force into the night.
Sunday afternoon, after South by is over, and you’re completely broken. You’re sitting on the couch, if sitting is even the appropriate word, afraid to even contemplate daylight. You just exist, and barely at that. Everything redeeming and human about you is gone. You’re like some demented cave troll afraid of its own reflection and incapable of normal social interaction. You’re drained of all feeling, and you have to place a weary hand over your heart just to make sure it’s still beating. Every time you go through this — four full days and nights of music, crowds, and whatever substances you ingest careening through your system — it takes something out of you, and you become a little bit less than you were before. So the question becomes…is it worth it?
After losing my South by virginity last year, I’m back for my second go-round as an experienced, gritty veteran. (The David Eckstein of SXSW?) I’m joined this year by the Musky Canadian (the scrappy rookie — Jeff Skinner? — to put it in terms the Canadian might understand), who endured an ear infection, a last-minute no-fly order from his doctor, assorted other maladies (we are OLD), a 29-hour Amtrak ride, and a cab accident to be in Austin with us. The man is dedicated, you have to give him that. And he arrived in time for his birthday/St. Patrick’s Day/the first day of the NCAA tournament/the second day of SXSW — so, yep, definitely sober that day.
Let’s break the 2011 SXSW down, all calm and organized-like:
Number of bands on my Tuesday night ORD-AUS flight: I’d estimate 3-4 based on the number of scruffy dudes with guitars (as opposed to everyone else on the plane, including myself, who were scruffy dudes without guitars).
Number of white people on my flight with ?uestlove’s haircut: Just the one.
Sign o’ the times in Austin, TX: The giant tour bus parked outside Juan in a Million.
Describe the inherent contradiction at the heart of SXSW: Uh, kind of a weird request, but OK. The biggest challenge of South by is balancing the inherently laid-back nature of the town and the festival with the acqusitional, compulsive desire to experience everything. To check every “must-see” band off your list. There’s so much going on at all times — on any given afternoon or evening, there can be as many as ten legitimately compelling shows or parties — that you have to prepare rigidly. You have to make difficult choices about where you want to be and when, and then you have to plan ahead to get there. You have to account for lines and lack of cabs and walking times, and you have to get out of the house early in the morning to get into the most in-demand day parties. You have to weigh the merits of waiting in line for shows you might not even get into versus going to a lesser show with no line across town. You have to survive the lull between the afternoon and the night, and then get out early again.
None of this lends itself well to the spontaneity and general level of inebriation that seem so ingrained at South by. The key to solving this contradiction is forgiveness. You have to forgive yourself when you call it an early night, or are too sluggish to get going before 2 p.m. You must accept that you’ll miss shows you really want to see, and that you’ll make some bad choices. That forgiveness, that acceptance is the key to relaxing and enjoying the overall experience.
Best set of the week: TV on the Radio, hands down. I caught them Thursday night at Stubb’s, and they absolutely blew the place apart. In reaffirming their position as one of the best live bands going, they seamlessly mixed material from the forthcoming Nine Types of Light with recent and older cuts. They were tight as could be, had charisma to spare and burned through “Wolf Like Me” like their lives depended on it. By all accounts, their other shows during the weekend were just as strong, and now I have to consider buying a day pass to the Pitchfork Festival to catch them again. This wasn’t just the show of the week, it was a strong contender for show of the year. We’re howling forever, indeed.
Late at night, waiting for TV on the Radio to go on, when you’re really drunk and have been watching shows all day…is that really a good time to start an argument about which is more racist, Texas or Boston? No, it is THE BEST time.
Latino David Crosby. Why do you ask?
That right there is the saddest, most broken person in all of Austin. That is the poor pedicab driver who had to shuttle the Musky Canadian and me (combined weight: 4?? lbs.) all the way across town. She (yes, she) was tipped handsomely for her suffering.
Hey, remember when this happened last year?
Ha ha ha, that was great. Anything like that happen this year? Well, actually that same exact thing happened. An iPhone fell out of the same exact hand on the first day of SXSW yet again. But that was eclipsed a little later in the week, when this happened…
Does all this mean that I didn’t learn my lesson and once again got so drunk on the first day of South by that I missed that evening’s shows? It does. Although I resent the implication that I had anything to do with that shattered toilet.
Who won the battle of the British buzz bands — The Vaccines vs. Yuck? I enjoyed The Vaccines’ set more, but Yuck had the distinct disadvantage of immediately following Jeff the Brotherhood. Both bands merit checking out, and I probably have higher hopes for Yuck’s long-term career, but the Vaccines’ live show was energetic, taut and crowd-pleasing. And if they were both playing in town on the same night, I’d choose to go to The Vaccines’ show right now.
Is that really…
OMG it’s Michael Cera! Jesus, calm down. Yep, Cera’s the bass player for Mister Heavenly, also featuring members of Modest Mouse, Islands and Man Man. Cera seemed to acquit himself well, although he did look remarkably waifish. If I were his mother, I would definitely be encouraging him to dig into the post-show buffet tables a little bit more. Eat, George-Michael, eat! Mister Heavenly were fun, but didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Of course, they were sandwiched between The Vaccines and Surfer Blood. At SXSW, even more so than in other settings, so much depends on where you play, what the time of day is, what the crowd is like, and who you follow.
So how much of the NCAA tournament did I get to watch amid all the music and frivolity? There’s a tournament going on?
Best Outfit, desperately trying too hard for attention division: This guy.
Best cover song of the week: Unlike last year, when I begged in vain for bands to include covers in their sets (particularly Big Star covers), this year saw a solid number of well-chosen and well-executed covers. Wye Oak played “Strangers” by the Kinks, which helped rescue a theretofore lackluster performance with a strong closing surge. Ted Leo, as is his wont, broke out the Billy Bragg-via-Woody Guthrie Wisconsin-rallying song, “I Guess I Planted.” (Is anyone a little worried about Uncle Ted after reading his blog lately?) Casey Neill & The Norway Rats did Hüsker Dü’s “She Floated Away” proud. But the hands-down winner was Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold,” as performed by Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band.
Oh. Wait…what? Who the fuck are Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band? How dare you! Actually, I shared that ignorance, along with most of the crowd waiting to see TV on the Radio. Bradley et al. are a soul revival band along the lines of Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings, and they are fucking awesome. Take it from Jeff Weiss of the Los Angeles Times (and the fantastic Passion of the Weiss):
Do yourself a favor, do me a favor, do him a favor. Pay this man money for his talent. He has earned it. Read his bio: it sounds like Dickens by way of Donny Goines. Murder, poverty, multiple failures and unimaginable setbacks.
Bradley and his band had the crowd eating out of the palm of their hands like the white-guilt-ridden hipsters we were. He’s a former James Brown impersonator and plumber who has only recently made any ground in the music business. Faced with repeated rounds of rapturous applause, he kept insisting to the crowd, “We love you too!” And he fucking meant it.
Well, how was Ted Leo? Effective without any Pharmacists in sight? Indeed. Leo has earned my eternal respect because he gives it his all at every show, and this solo outing was no different. He played an eclectic setlist that included rarities, the aforementioned covers, and mainstays like “Timorous Me.” He also managed to keep the energy high with impassioned vocals and furious electric guitar even though he was alone on stage.
What the drunk homeless guy who sat next to me at Casino El Camino wanted to talk about: The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones, naturally (he was a big Stones guy).
My biggest mistake of the week, by popular consensus: The meatball, ham and basil pizza. It was the basil that really seemed to throw everybody.
Band that really blew out the dry ice budget for the year: Portugal. The Man, who were enjoyable despite playing amid so much smoke that they couldn’t possibly have seen their own instruments.
Cognitive dissonance Award goes to: Middle Brother, the “supergroup” comprised of members of Deer Tick, Delta Spirit and Dawes. Playing an afternoon set at Swan Dive, the guys in this band couldn’t have come across as bigger jackasses on stage. They’re prone to yelling “Whoo!” into the microphones a lot, unbuttoning their shirts down to their navels, and just general douchebaggery (though as far as general douchebaggery goes, I’m kind of fine with shotgunning beers on stage and spraying the crowd with beer). But their music is rollicking and won me over in spite of the band members’ behavior. I don’t know what to think.
Anyone else interesting on that Middle Brother bill? Yes! I finally got to see the Old 97’s play in their home state, and they did exactly what you’d want them to given the situation: they threw a party, broke out all their best songs, integrated a couple of their catchiest new tracks, and ignored everything from their two worst albums (the two before Grand Theatre Volume I). The perfect outdoor, Texas, daytime drinking atmosphere. And the Swan Dive, where they played, was packed well beyond any legal or safe limits. In case anyone’s interested, Murray wore a Minor Threat T-shirt, and Rhett was pretty as ever.
Favorite fan/attendee of the week: The chubby guy who sat on a railing for the Old 97’s show, attempting to sing along to every line even though he clearly only knew about a third of the words. There was also much fist pumping.
What’s going on here?
Just a Duck Boat parked in front of an IHOP, with a legion of senior citizens filing off for some Rooty Tooty Fresh N’ Frooty pancakes. (Seriously, people, don’t you know there’s a Waffle House across town?)
Best unused benefit of accidentally being given artists’ wristbands: Free haircuts.
Best unused explanation for who we were if someone discovered us walking around with ill-gotten artists’ wristbands: We’re in a Tiger! Shit! Tiger! Tiger! cover band called Shit! Tiger! Shit! Shit!
Clusterfuck of the week: The Kanye West show at the abandoned power station. Yeah, yeah, I know there was a near-riot at The Strokes’ show, and some assorted other fights and scuffles spread through town, but the Kanye thing seemed to piss off way more people than anything else — including me.
Vevo, the vile company that put on Kanye’s show, required us to text an RSVP to some random number on Wednesday. Many of us did. We received a confirmation message. We were then asked to give our names. We did. We received another message that read, “You are now on the guest list; admission for one.” Thursday, we received another message saying we would receive final confirmation Friday. Friday, I had a text exchange with some automated company that went like this:
Vevo: Kanye fans, IT’S ON! Reply Kanye to guarantee entry to the line for Saturday night’s show! Good luck!
The Dilemma: Kanye.
Vevo: You were THIS CLOSE to making the final cut! Sorry you can’t join us but reply VEVO to join VEVO mobile alerts.
The Dilemma: Burn in hell.
Vevo: “Burn in hell.” is not recognized, may be misspelled or you’ve waited too long to reply.
Needless to say, there was much gnashing of teeth in Austin that night. Thousands and thousands of people were led to believe they were confirmed for the show, only to be told they couldn’t go. Things got even worse when word filtered out that Jay-Z joined Kanye at the show, and it was amazing.
To sum up: fuck Vevo, whoever the fuck they are.
OK, even so, was it smart for someone to suggest burning Kanye in effigy, given that we were in Texas and Kanye is a black man? Probably not.
Was it a better idea for the people who lived near the power station to blast Taylor Swift music at the people in line for the show? Definitely.
Who’s that standing near me?
Face disguised to protect my top-secret identity
OMG! It’s Marissa Cooper! Marissa! Marissa! I love you! Where’s Summer? You’re alive!
Number of photos I discovered in my phone the next day of us taking turns standing near Mischa Barton: 16. I’m not proud. I was also probably close to being attacked by Mischa, because at the very same party, on the very same day, this happened.
Still, nice celeb encounter. Any other good ones? Saw Adam Duritz on a street corner. Of course my sister had to trump me by a) seeing Jack White, and b) getting on stage with Big Boi and having this photo taken:
Amount of food consumed by one man in one beautiful, terrible afternoon in Lockhart, Texas: 1/2 lb. prime rib, 1/2 lb. brisket, 1/2 slab baby back ribs, 2 spare ribs, macaroni & cheese, mashed potatoes, 1/2 block of cheddar cheese (palette cleanser), 1 dinner roll, 1 slice pumpkin pie, 1 rainbow sherbet sugar cone.
That’s revolting: You think I don’t know that??
Let’s talk about Spring Training at the Yard Dog for a bit: Sure thing. Steve Wynn put on a free party Saturday afternoon with a baseball theme, at my favorite SXSW venue — the Yard Dog, a tiny art gallery with a makeshift stage set up on the tiny back patio. Mark Eitzel, Jon Langford, and The Minus Five played, among others; but I only had eyes for one band — The Baseball Project. A band featuring Peter Buck on bass and Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, Minus Five) on vocals and guitar? Yes, please. A band that only writes and plays songs about baseball? Yes, please. Lyrics that include phrases like “Fucking Tom Browning“? Yes, please. And a cute girl drummer to boot? “Have mercy.” — Uncle Jesse
The show itself was superb, but as a lifelong R.E.M. fan, two things stood out for me:
1) Being in close proximity to Peter Buck all day, in a small space, watching him hang around to check out other bands, and generally be the cool guy I always thought he’d be — that was priceless. Buck worked the merch stand after The Minus Five’s set, which gave me the chance to get a Baseball Project CD (yes, a compact disc) signed and meet Buck. We made small talk for a couple minutes (about marijuana, if you must know), then as I was leaving, I said, “You guys have meant everything to me.” He was sweet about it. It was dorky, but it was true, and I’m glad I said it. 17-year-old me couldn’t have been more elated.
2) I spotted Mike Mills just hanging around in the crowd, watching the show. (Yes, I definitely considered the possibility of an impromptu R.E.M. show.) Mills eventually hopped on stage to play tambourine and sing backing vocals on one song (McCaughey: “Keep working on that tambo, baby, and you’ll go far someday.”), but mostly he just hung out and watched like a fan. This delighted me. It reaffirmed my faith in what bands are supposed to be: people who enjoy each other’s company and like hanging out together, and that chemistry leads to great music. Maybe Buck and Mills secretly hate Michael Stipe and vice versa, but on this one sunny day, everything worked out aces for this R.E.M. fan.
Amount of time I spent following a well-dressed, petite bald man around Kiss & Fly, trying to ascertain if he was Stipe: > 20 minutes. The Musky Canadian was fooled too.
Amount of time it took three brain-dead people on Sunday night, two of them Austin residents, to come up with even one restaurant in town that served salad: Way, way too much time.
Five songs to check out by bands that I saw and enjoyed but haven’t really gone into detail about:
What’s the perfect way to spend the last night of SXSW? At a house party, loudly singing along to Bruce Springsteen, Titus Andronicus, and of course, “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem. OK, maybe that’s not quite as good as if we had gotten into the Kanye show, or the Deer Tick-covers-Nirvana show, but it’s not a bad consolation prize. And it felt pretty perfect at the time: drunkenly swaying arm in arm, belting out “Where are my friends tonight?”, maybe setting a stereo on fire, maybe driving some people away from the party, and feeling pretty alright.
- “Fucking Ryan Bingham. I’m going to set him on fire.”
- “I was just told Bruce Springsteen played. Turns out it was Rick Springfield.”
- “Okkervil River hates you and your sudden morality.”
- “There’s free shit EVERYWHERE!”
- “We’re at war. Are you sure we can trust your Canadian friend?”
- “I don’t want to go back to my real life”
But back to our real lives we go, with only our memories, our extended hangovers, and our fading hand stamps to remind us…