As the overrated Bob Dylan once sang, “things have changed.” It’s been three years since we’ve been able to have a man on the ground at South by Southwest, those Elysian Fields for music fans, that Bermuda Triangle for up-and-coming bands, that irresistible siren song for hipsters and corporate douchebags the world over. And for me.
In the 36 months since I last avoided 6th Street, I’ve had a kid and I’ve gotten 36 months older. That’s 36 months further away from my prime. 36 months further removed from my body being able to adequately process a hangover. 36 more months from the time I actually knew what the fuck the kids were listening to.
So it was not without some trepidation that I de-planed on Sunday, ready and not ready for a full week of music, alcohol, sleep deprivation and the worst piercings known to man. How badly would I feel my age? Am I getting too old for this shit?
Well, after 47 sets of live music, 40 different artists and 16 different venues (not including bands playing on front lawns of random houses or rappers standing on parked cars or rapping out the windows of moving vans), I can report that I am definitely not too old for this. Because it’s still fucking awesome, no matter the toll it takes on my organs, bones and brain.
This year, I’m joined once again by a Musky Canadian, two blood relatives, and a shit-ton of fucking lawyers, of all things. Full 2014 SXSW rundown, coming right up.
The thing we have to talk about: The first full night of SXSW this year took a horrific turn when a drunk driver in a stolen car, running from the cops, plowed into a group of pedestrians on Red River, killing 3 and injuring more than 20. Word spread quickly through the festival via Twitter and text messages, but the full weight of what happened didn’t hit me until the next morning, walking on Red River in front of the Mohawk where the incident occurred. That area is usually bustling with activity, even early in the day, but on this morning it was eerily quiet, with the street and nearby venues still shut down while police completed their investigation.
More eerie still must have been being at the Mohawk when it happened, listening to Kurt Vile’s airy, downbeat guitar soundtrack a tragedy and its response. The area in question is one of the most heavily trafficked pedestrian zones throughout South by, meaning that basically anyone at the festival could have been dead for no reason. I wondered if the somber, reflective tone from that morning would continue throughout the week, curbing partying and hanging over everyone like a poisonous fog.
But people carry on. Just like anything else in life, those not directly affected by the tragedy think about mortality for a bit, then move on. SXSW abides.
Anyway, on to the important stuff…
Number of Glassholes spotted during SXSW Interactive: Two.
Topics that were debated until all interested parties agreed
- Does college football suck? (yes)
- Is college football super boring? (yes)
- Are Bob Dylan and The Beatles overrated (yes)
- Is Breaking Bad overrated and filled with poorly drawn characters? (…)
- Who was a more talented quarterback in their respective prime: Steve Young or Joe Montana? (Steve Young)
- What’s the best 90210 episode ever? (“One Wedding and a Funeral”)
- Is that hard-of-hearing guy giving us the stink-eye as we discuss R.E.M., and if so, does he maybe want to fight? (no and no)
- Am I an idiot for passing up a free ticket to Jay-Z and Kanye West (we’ll get to that)
Did I run into Justin Bieber while he was in town? No. But I did purchase a drink from a heavily tatted, ripped bartender, who explained to me that he hates Justin Bieber so much he wants to take him in an alley, knock him unconscious, then brutally rape him until he injects semen into Bieber’s netherparts. Not out of lust, just out of sheer, uncontrollable hatred. Maybe he’s just mad about Selena Gomez? #belieberstogetherforjustin
So about the Jay-Z/Kanye thing: Yes, I won a ticket to see that show, and yes, I passed it up. But I had my reasons. So don’t get judgy.
- It was the Musky Canadian’s first night in town and sometimes you just need some warm companionship and a conversation about the Tragically Hip.
- I attended the Watch the Throne tour a couple years ago, and it was great, but maybe eliminated my burning desire to see them together.
- After the Kanye/Vevo debacle the last time I was at South by, I smelled a clusterfuck.
So, I opted to trade my ticket for a few beers, and instead went to see Diarrhea Planet and the Hold Steady. No regrets, Lyla Garrity. Of the people I knew who went to the Ye/Jay show, they experienced the following: hours of waiting in lines, inexplicably getting cut off in line, poor sightlines, bathroom issues, getting kicked out by security, getting drunk and wandering off into the night, and getting a bunch of beers bought for them by a Belgian. OK, that last one doesn’t sound too bad, but of the 6 people I knew who went to the show, exactly one sounded like she had a great experience.
Meanwhile, I saw two of my favorite live bands of all time. The one less traveled by, kids.
Best set of the week: That would be the aforementioned Diarrhea Planet — pick any one of their shows, at any point during SXSW, and you have your best set of the week. It doesn’t matter which one, because they’re so reliably entertaining and committed. I saw them by myself at empty day parties. I saw them in tiny, packed joints late at night. I saw them in a mudpit. I saw them in the rain. I watched Diarrhea Planet in a box. I’d watch Diarrhea Planet with a fox.
I spent most of the week reciting a familiar refrain: “Forget about the name. Forget about the name. Forget about the name. Just watch them.” And this is a band great enough to overcome such an insanely terrible name, thanks to boundless energy, a pervading sense of fun, and guitar-god, one-foot-on-the-monitor heroics. A lawyerly friend of the blog asked after one show if DP gets paid by the note like Dickens got paid by the word. During that same show, one of the countless (four? thirty?) DP guitarists jumped offstage, hoisted a girl from the crowd on his shoulders, and sprinted around the Scoot Inn while still miming playing guitar on his unplugged instrument.
I’m even coming around to the name, thanks to the band’s new T-shirt, which reads “Diarrhea is the New Fuck” — a shirt they only distributed by tossing them to the first ten people who stage-dove at each show they played.
Bonus DP Tidbit: frontman Jordan Smith explained that “Ghost with a Boner” is “about all of our insecurities. Because it’s a ghost with a boner. He can’t hide it.”
The dark side of Diarrhea:
An open letter to the Musky Canadian: no more mosh pits. Time marches on and leaves us all behind. Respectfully yours, The Dilemma.
The beauty of free shit: A couple hours after landing in Austin, the decision was made — let’s ease into the week. Let’s find a relaxed local bar with a good jukebox and take a baby step toward living the life we dream. However, upon arriving at said bar, we discovered free Brooklyn beer, a decent country band or two, chickenshit bingo (my first time seeing it live), and a petting zoo featuring bearded dragons.
Message received, universe: THERE IS NO EASING INTO SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST. There are no middle gears. It’s all or nothing.
How many free Brooklyn Lagers can a table of four drink in two hours?
Let me answer your question with a question: Is there any beer left in Brooklyn?
The perils of free shit: Just because something is free, that doesn’t mean you must consume it. If the free shit don’t fit, you may just quit. If the free shit don’t apply, you need not comply. Before next year’s South by, I am going to say this over and over to myself until I actually believe it.
Just because you have access to some weird cranberry-flavored vodka, that doesn’t mean you should drink it and then start putting back Moscow Mules at the next bar. Just because you have access to a new product by Mike’s Hard Lemonade called Mike’s Harder Blood Orange (16 oz. can; 8.2% ABV), that doesn’t mean you should collect as many free drink tickets as you can find and use them all. And most importantly, just because your SXSW Interactive Badge gets you something called Subway FlatizzaTM, you should definitely definitely definitely not eat that.
Biggest regret: Other than the FlatizzaTM? Not brushing up on my knife skills before heading down to South by, because with the incalculable number of Lone Stars I drank, I am very sad that I didn’t spend some time going all Rust Cohle.
Worst venue: Cedar Street Courtyard, a long, narrow outdoor space flanked on both sides by to nigh-identical halves of the same bar. So, during shows, everyone in the packed crowd jams the outdoor area to hear the music, leaving the two inside areas empty and making a mockery of the term “capacity.” The crowded tended toward the douchey side, both for a Julian Casablancas-headlining show (no surprise) and a Hold Steady-headlining show (also probably no surprise). Additionally, Chevrolet corporate sponsorship was apparent everywhere you looked, and the venue handed out ridiculous flashing wristbands, which you had to match with another anonymous attendee to win free, outdated iPod Shuffles.
Speaking of our old pals The Hold Steady: Still great live. While the Cedar Street show’s energy suffered, THS were their usual great selves kicking the week off at the Mohawk and playing an abandoned warehouse on the east side. They ignored the woeful Heaven is Whenever, played some decent-sounding new stuff from the forthcoming Teeth Dreams and otherwise kept on keeping on.
Best hipster trend: An inexplicable love for ALF.
Watch out, cats of Austin.
Hipster trend that’s neither here nor there: Franz mustaches.
Worst hipster trend: Bringing giant backpacks to shows. Seriously, guys, fuck the fuck right off. I know it’s a long haul out there, and you need your water, sunscreen, sunglasses, towel, book for if you get bored, phone charger, iPad, iPad charger, seat cushion, bike lock, drugs, draft of manifesto, backup koozies, and whatever the fuck else you need to get through the goddamn day, but in a crowded bar or club, it’s not pleasant to take a heavy backpack to the gut while its owner dances like a deformed prick. Plus, it holds up lines when you have to get all eight compartments searched at the door.
Speaking of lines…
Amount of time it takes one Austin door person to check one ID and allow one person entry into a venue, on average: Four and a half minutes. Fucking cowtown yokels.
Most pleasant surprise: Wild Cub, a Nashville band I’d never heard of until they followed The Hold Steady at Mohawk. It might be that the Mike’s Harder influenced my judgment, but their Tears for Fears-by-way-of-Cut Copy sound was delightful, and they had a big bar full of indie kids dancing their asses off. Like Diarrhea Planet, they’re an advertisement for the value and importance of seeming like you’re enjoying yourself on stage.
Plus, singer Keegan DeWitt tied for first place in the “Best Stage Banter of the Week” competition with Wilco side project The Autumn Defense. While John Stirratt and Pat Sansone struck a self-deprecating pose for a crowd mostly there to see Chance the Rapper, DeWitt jovially mocked hipsters in attendance. Everybody wins.
Other potentially interesting bands I checked out for the first time: Sage the Gemini, Thumpers, and Cheers Elephant
Favorite moment of the week: Another tie!
- At a Diarrhea Planet show, when someone signaled to the band that they had time for one more song, one of the 11 guitarists responded, “Time is a flat circle. I think we have time for a few more songs.” This obviously made me weak in the knees.
- After watching Fucked Up play (with images from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me playing on the video screens!), I thanked Damian Abraham for a great show, and for being the one to turn me on to Daniel Bryan. Damian immediately began a Yes! chant with the Musky Canadian and me, then proceeded to give us all sweaty, sweaty hugs.
While he was at it, Abraham also recommended going to Torchy’s Tacos and getting the Trailer Park taco. Done and done. He has yet to let me down. I’d start watching Mixology if he told me it was good.
While we’re star-fucking, here are some Nicolas Cage quotes from his SXSW Film session:
- “That role infused me like a fig-infused vodka.”
- “Beads of sweat were coming down my forehead, like last night’s bourbon right now.”
- “Me and Depp — we used to be really tight — split a bottle of tequila and went to a mall in Beverly Hills. We climbed to the top level and decided to see who could hang the longest from the railing. Thankfully, nobody died that night. But I hung on the longest.”
- “I wanted to be Melville and write stories on the sea. Valley Girl kept me off the water.”
Has Austin changed much in the last three years? Sure. More crowds for SXSW, more traffic, more development everywhere. But the most noticeable change to me is the proliferation of food trucks and trailers. They were certainly around a few years ago, but they’ve exploded to the point where they’re all over town, and you can find everything from amazing barbecue to the crappiest pizza. It’s certainly a different, probably better, set-up than here in regulation-heavy Chicago, but the aesthetic is…Shanty Town Chic?
Thank You Based God: Here is what I knew about Lil B before this week: a) he’s a rapper, b) he’s “Internet popular,” c) he’s maybe kind of a joke?
Here is what I know about Lil B now: he is fucking amazing. His show at the Scoot Inn was about as purely fun as live music gets. Here’s a taste:
So, now I’m indoctrinated. Fuck KD. Highlights included:
- The guy in the crowd with a Texas Longhorns Durant jersey with a piece of masking tape above his name reading “Fuck.”
- The white hipsters in the crowd wearing Penguin shirts (yes, I own Penguin shirts. Seth Cohen doesn’t steer you wrong. But I wasn’t wearing one on this day, is my point. Come on, guys.)
- The guy in the crowd wearing this Reba McEntire shirt:
- Lil B interrupting his song, “You Can Fuck My Bitch” to announce, “I just want to say that I respect all the women out there.”
- Lil B wearing a “baby shirt” and referring to it constantly. It was indeed very small.
- Lil B halting another song for a moment of silence in honor of those who lost their lives in the car crash earlier in the week. At this point, a packed, partying, diverse, young crowd all went stone silent, with many putting their heads down to reflect. All silent, that is, except for one lone voice yelling out into the void, yearning to be heard. The voice shouted, “Lil B’s got bitches!” And the voice emanated from the lawyer standing directly to my left, who had been talking to a friend and missed the whole bit about the moment of silence. Disgusted head shakes from all around followed. An operative outside the grounds reported that even among a very slovenly lot loitering outside the venue, all had fallen silent, and that when the voice rang out through the air, someone said “Damn, that’s disrespectful.” That’s good lawyerin’.
Disaster of the week: Much-hyped MTV BUZZ BIN BAND Perfect Pussy played a set on Saturday that consisted of three 90-second songs in which singer Meredith Graves showed she doesn’t have the voice to make herself heard over loud, thrashing punk rock. Then, sound problems ensued, leading to several minutes of the band and tech guys fiddling with knobs while a horrendous squawk of feedback blasted the crowd…and while Graves sat on the stage pouting. Then, barely into a scheduled 40-minute set, they stomped off stage, with Graves offering only a brusque, “That’s the only way you’re gonna get more than eight minutes out of us,” before dropping the mic.
Still, that wasn’t even the worst show I saw: Nope, that belonged to Fever the Ghost. According to FTG’s bullshit PR-hack-written bio:
In their very brief existence, Fever The Ghost have already made quite an impression with their uncanny, spectacular live performances, quickly becoming the one band on the tip of everyone’s tongues within LA’s Silverlake/Echo Park scene.
In reality, picture the most boring band you’ve ever heard, with Orin from Parks & Recreation as its frontman.
That’s Fever the Ghost. Live, the band members actively avoid making any contact or connection with the audience, literally staring at their own navels while noodling with guitars and playing with knobs on random pedals. It takes a lot from an artist to make me actively angry, but good on you, Fever the Ghost — mission accomplished. Also, Jukebox the Ghost would like a word with you.
Things have taken a dark turn. Let’s talk about some other good music: OK!
Potty Mouth overcame some sound issues (see, Perfect Pussy, you can do it!) to play a fun set at Side Bar of catchy, clever punk-pop.
Old reliable We Were Promised Jetpacks closed out a day party at Flamingo Cantina, filling their set with slow-build classics like “Keeping Warm” and “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning.”
And Speedy Ortiz sounded even better live than they did on their very good debut album.
Other great shows by: Archie Powell & The Exports, Pusha T, Dum Dum Girls, and the always-enjoyable So So Glos.
Play some damn covers, guys: I know you only have 30 minute sets for the most part, and want to showcase your own material — but honestly, when you’re playing for a crowd of people unfamiliar with you and your music, a cover can be the best way to form a quick connection. Yet the only covers I heard all week — out of 47 sets! — were:
- The Autumn Defense faithfully covering Big Star
- Royal Teeth — who were abysmal, mostly thanks to their Flava Flav-esque indie hype man contributing nothing but taking selfies on stage — covering The Knife
- Together Pangea — an annoying band featuring a frontman wearing a trucker hat with an upturned bill — covering The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Oy.
How did the crowd react when the fire marshall interrupted Chance the Rapper’s long-anticipated set after 20 minutes to shut down Red 7 for ostensibly being over capacity?
Best pedicab in Austin: This one.
“Yes. No. When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”
The Battle of San Jacinto: The Saturday of South by Southwest is always a war of attrition. You’re exhausted and hungover. The bands are exhausted, hungover and gravel-voiced. You’re sad that things are wrapping up but relieved that you don’t have to put your body through another day of things that it shouldn’t experience. The multi-mile walks across town feel longer and more hilly than ever.
This year’s Saturday was particularly challenging because I had been there for a full 7 days already. If I’m always imagining I’m in a scene from Friday Night Lights when I’m in Austin (which I am), this Saturday felt like the scene when Matt Saracen was drunk and sobbing in a cold shower. My body wouldn’t tolerate any more Lone Star so I switched to rum and cokes. If I was no longer truly alive, at least I survived.
Speaking of Friday Night Lights, what was the outcome when I took BuzzFeed’s “Which FNL Character Are You” quiz?
* results may not be entirely accurate
** apologies to everyone who got “Julie Taylor”
Amount of money I declined to twerk for 60 seconds in front of a guy who looked like Harry Caray and danced like him too, during the Hood Internet: $300
The hardest working man in the South by business: The drummer for Cloud Nothings. Dylan Baldi’s band burned through a blistering half-hour of new material at Stubb’s, just one blitzkrieg pounding after another. Drummer Jayson Gerycz — who is pretty skinny, even by hipster band standards — never relented, slamming away at the drums without relief or pause. Someone get that guy a bottle of water.
Best stage dive of the week: With apologies to all the T-shirt winners at Diarrhea Planet shows, it’s this dude, who used an impromptu set by punk band Trash Talk out on the street (broken up by cops soon thereafter) to climb up on the awning of Beerland and leap off into the arms of the hesitant crowd below.
What the plane smelled like on a 7:30 a.m. flight back to Chicago: Decaying flesh. Sin. Regret. Throw-up. The Yellow King’s girlfriend.
So that’s it, then? Yup. “I went there on business.” Until next year — or three years from now, if recent history is an indicator — goodbye, SXSW. Goodbye, heavy shot pours. Goodbye, time that seems to slow down and speed up at once. Goodbye, interminable sound checks. Goodbye, life-affirming joy of discovering new music. Goodbye, brisket. Goodbye, way too many people who look like Taboo from the Black-Eyed Peas.
Goodbye, Diarrhea Planet.
Overheard at SXSW:
“Mr. Cage, I just want to say that you are my favorite actor on earth, and you starred in my favorite movie of all time — in what I think is the best example of modern acting in its purist form. That movie is Face/Off.”
“Mr. Cage, I’m a big fan of what you do, but unlike you, I’m not in the Hollywood game. I’m in the startup game, and…”
“Mr. Cage, are you familiar with the internet meme ‘Rage Cage’?”
“Do you think Eric Clapton’s kid jumped out that window to get away from Eric Clapton?”
“I just can’t quit you, Austin.” — bro at the airport making an outdated yet oddly poignant reference
“We’ve gotten really, really into astrology in the last year.” — the singer of Pure Bathing Culture, letting me know ahead of time what kind of music to expect
“Lil B’s got bitches!”