I hate music. What is it worth?
Those are the first lines of Superchunk’s “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo,” which Mac McCaughan performed in an excellent solo set at Cheer Up Charlie’s last week, and that’s I question I ask myself a lot at South by Southwest: what is it worth?
Is it worth the crowds, the lines, the traffic, the douchebags, the mud, the aching feet, the hangovers, the waiting around, the sound problems, more douchebags, the fatigue, the shitty bands playing between the good ones, and the complete withdrawal of any semblance of a normal life for a week? Still? Even approaching 40?
Let’s find out together, because here we are again. My fourth trip to SXSW, and my first one holding a music badge (possibly making me one of those aforementioned douchebags),has come and gone. Take a seat while I pull out my slide projector and show you motherfuckers some vacation photos. Breathe it in. Enjoy it. Just as “Me & You & Jackie Mittoo” is ultimately a love song to music, so is my annual sojourn to Austin my chance to re-establish how much I love music.
This year’s crew: me, some family, some lawyers, some social workers. And some dude with a giant glowstick that wanted to hang out with us for an entire Run the Jewels show. And some girl who handed me a full vodka and ginger ale at a show, then spent about ten minutes convincing me it wasn’t roofied (I wasn’t worried). And some dude who actually tried to network with me at a show by asking legitimate questions about my work. Oh, very young — though your dreams may toss and turn you now/They will vanish away like your daddy’s best jeans.
The first-day tradition: As we did last year, we started out at The Grackle’s Countrification party, with Bob Appel and Lost Pine providing a gentle, “Merle Haggard and ’50s Elvis” soundtrack to a boatload of free Brooklyn beer. A pleasantly drunk beginning to the festival, but one that also presented three metaphors for what South by Southwest has become, or is becoming:
1) At last year’s Countrification, the entirety of the Grackle, its patio and its parking lot was open to partygoers — ample room for the free beer and food stands, the petting zoo, and whatever else. It didn’t feel crowded at any point. This year, if you wanted to have a beer in your hand, you were confined to a small, enclosed area about a fifth of the size of the entire lot. The result: too many people for not enough space, and confusion about which line was for free beer and which was to pet a snake.
While the reason behind this change went unsaid, it’s easy to draw conclusions. Last year, a drunk driver killed four people and injured more when he plowed into a crowd while running from cops. This year’s SXSW was preceded by an avalanche of media coverage explaining that the Austin police force would be cracking down on public drinking, barricading off more streets, and strictly enforcing capacity at parties and shows. All over town last week, cops could be seen posted up outside venues, making sure that door and security people were enforcing capacity, and trying to keep lines orderly. Permits were changed or harder to come by, and people were penned in. Now, why would forcing dozens of people into a 5×5 area of a big parking lot rather than letting them spread out help safety, or ensure no more DWI accidents? I have no earthly idea. But you better not be suggesting that law enforcement would use a tragedy to needlessly expand the scope of their authority, and then use that expanded scope to focus on any and everything but the root of the problem. You’re not suggesting that, are you? Not in my America, pal.
2) A branded turtle race
All of SXSW is basically one big turtle race…hurry across town to get to a venue, then stand around outside in a line that doesn’t move for 45 minutes. At times, the whole experience feels like the slowest race imaginable.
And no, my turtle didn’t win.
3) Inside the Grackle, the end of Apocalypse Now ran silently on the small TV behind the bar as the bands played.
And perhaps South by Southwest has gotten so big, so corporate, so out-of-control with its tentacles stretching and invading every nook of the city, that it’s a time for a reckoning. For the whole thing to be slaughtered like a fatted calf or assassinated like Colonel Kurtz. We must kill them. We must incinerate them. Pig after pig… band after band… badgeholder after badgeholder … earplug-wearer after earplug-wearer…
Or, you know, we could just relax and watch some bands.
How long was it after arriving at this first SXSW event that I heard someone talk about their Etsy shop?45 seconds.
How long was it after arriving at this first SXSW event that someone said “I’ve heard Jemaine Clement pimping it on the podcast rounds”? About 20 minutes.
Was it me who said that? No comment.
What’s it like to be a beer slut during South by? You know, those young, usually attractive girls who have to run the turtle races and give out free brewery T-shirts and temporary tattoos. Or walk around at a show handing out coozies and free cigarillos to garbage people.
My God, it’s got to be so fucking horrible.
Best set of the week: TV on the Radio at Mellow Johnny’s on Tuesday afternoon. Or, as it became known in some circles, the St. Patrick’s Day Miracle.
A slow St. Patrick’s Day morning. A late move to get across town. Traffic. Parking issues. Showing up at Mellow Johnny’s to find a line wrapped around three sides of the building. Standing around by some garbage. Nearly giving up.
But not giving up.
Waiting. Waiting in the hopes that St. Patrick would drive some interlopers from the line like he drove the snakes from Ireland. And then the line moving….moving! Getting into the Rolling Stone party in time for free burgers, free snickerdoodle ice cream sandwiches (with edible wrappers!), four hours of free Patron and free beer…
Lesson learned: if you see a menu on a bar that says “Free Cocktails: Hurricane, Long Island Iced Tea, Firewalker,” don’t automatically assume those cocktails don’t come in a Bud Light Bottle. Noted. Also: drank.
After a decent set from Best Coast (who we were lucky enough to catch before SXSW beat Bethany Cosentino down, causing her to repeatedly exclaim “Fuck South by Southwest” at shows later in the week), and some nip slips in an otherwise not-great-Bob set from Alex Winston, TV on the Radio took the stage in a tiny, emptied-out bike shop with amazing sound. It’s been some years since I’ve seen TV on the Radio live — years that were filled with progressively mellower albums — and might have slept on the fact that they’re absolutely one of the best live bands of their generation (and maybe the 2nd most important rock band of the 21st century after LCD Soundsystem, but that’s a discussion for another day). In such a small setting, they sounded amazing and Tunde Adebimpe’s charisma was palpable, as he spastically hopped around the stage, and even into the crowd for one song, where your friendly neighborhood blogger was able to pat him on the back (#humblebrag…RIP Harris Wittels).
So what’d they play? Glad you asked!
My hearts aflame/My body’s strained but God I like it
What was Kyp Malone doing after the show? Getting stoned on the street and hanging with us, of course.
What one slightly confused staffer told a late arriver about the Rolling Stone party: “No, you can’t get in because you didn’t RSV. This is a private party, and the Rolling Stones are here.”
What did we do after the St. Patrick’s Day Miracle? Sat on a park bench outside a convenience store and drank Guinness like hobos (Irish hobos). For hours. Then seeing a man dressed as Peter Pan walk by, and instantly deciding to follow him and go wherever he goes. He went to a gay bar called Rain on 4th. They made really shitty rum and cokes.
Best covers of the week:
- Diarrhea Planet/Baba O’Riley
- Natalie Prass/Any Time, Any Place (Janet Jackson)
Speaking of Natalie Prass, what was most charming about her? Other than everything, it was when during soundcheck, rather than issuing a series of guttural grunts, “Yeahs,” “Testings,” and bad jokes like most singers, she broke out into verses from “You Keep Me Hanging On,” and Arrested Development’s “Tennessee.”
Best song introduction of SXSW: “Thanks for being here. You’re a great crowd, and you all seem like very nice people. That’s why I have to apologize for what we’re about to do to you.”
Then “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck)” happened.
Tell me more about Run the Jewels: So fucking good, you guys. As they took the stage for the third of three times that I saw them last week, Killer Mike announced, “We’re going to burn this motherfucking club to the ground.” And that’s exactly what they did. Here’s their entrance to that show:
Three half-hour sets, and 90 minutes of non-stop exuberance and excellence. At each show, when El-P introduced his partner as “my best friend, Killer Mike,” I legitimately got goosebumps. It was even enough to make you believe that a guy in a Yankees hat and a guy in a Braves hat could get along.
Was I at the show where RTJ got attacked? You mean this?
Yup. The dude just sauntered out from side stage so casually, I assumed he was a roadie or a guest artist. Then, just as casually, he went after first Killer Mike and then El-P. That was not a good idea. Killer Mike hurled him off the stage and into security’s waiting arms. Afterwards, El-P said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that was,” and Killer Mike answered, “That was a fuckboy.” Then he led the crowd in an extended “fuckboy” chant, thus creating a lasting meme for the week.
Several nights later, when I turned to The Dilemma’s SisterTM that some douchebag in a mosh pit was “a fuckboy,”a random girl in the crowd next to me started laughing, bumped fists with me, and gave me the RTJ sign:
In defense of #brands: A lot of people have been complaining for a lot of years that SXSW has become overrun by brands and marketing, and this year was no exception. I get it. The corporate saturation can be overwhelming if you let it. And sometimes companies do really dumb things, like that giant Doritos machine last year and McDonald’s balking at paying bands for their showcase this year.
But that sweet, sweet advertising money also makes all of this possible. They allow people to go see bands all day and all night, often for free, and often with free food and/or drinks. If you don’t like the advertising, just don’t pay any fucking attention to it. It’s not like I got home and immediately bought a premium Spotify account, an esurance policy, and a McDonald’s lunch. Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Is it kind of weird when you say you’re going to a show at the Yahoo! House or the Hype Hotel? Sure, but it doesn’t really amount to anything in the end. This isn’t the next step toward idiocracy (though this is).
This is American capitalism at its most rewarding and fair, in the same vein as free broadcast televised entertainment for half a century thanks to 16 minutes of commercials an hour. Thank you, corporate based gods.
Plus, I got a free Shamrock Shake on St. Patrick’s Day. I mean…my lord. Does it get any better?
Although, it was probably a little overkill when Grimace came out to take Zack de la Rocha’s verse on “Close Your Eyes (and Count to Fuck).”
Speaking of brands, is there some sort of mysterious new Sour Patch Kids house in Austin that hosts bands for free and puts out bowls of free Sour Patch Kids?
My role at SXSW: The organizer (and “the pace car” when it comes to drinking, according to some, but I don’t want to think too deeply about the ramifications of that one). I come in every year locked and loaded with a spreadsheet containing every possible activity for every possible time slot, RSVP links, band schedules and more. It looks like this:
I take some mocking for it, and deservedly so. I approach SXSW the same way I approach a vacation at Disney World — like an obsessive-compulsive Nazi drill sergeant. Every move has to be planned out in advance, every variable accounted for, every moment meticulously researched. I’m fine with deviating from the plan, based on group consensus, or rain, or hangover, but a plan needs to be in place. South by is not the place for spontaneity.
This is all driven by my deeply ingrained fear of missing something amazing, but the irony is that no matter what you do, you’re going to miss something amazing. On this trip, for example, I prioritized seeing music above all else, so I missed out on some amazing barbecue, some interesting films, cool neighborhoods, and some intriguing speakers. But you can’t pause to think about the experiences you’re not having. There’s so much going on at once that even with a perfectly optimized plan, you’re going to miss out on 99% of what there is to see and do. This is not easy for me to grapple with; hence the spreadsheet.
What’s it like trying to hang out with a Nazi drill sergeant when you’re just trying to chill and watch some bands? That’s a question for others to answer, I suppose.
Any Glasshole sightings this year? No, but so many selfie sticks.
How many selfie sticks did I snap in half over the week? I have tremendous restraint?
How many times, when someone was holding up an umbrella at a crowded outdoor show during light drizzle, did I grab that umbrella and blind that person in both eyes with the pointy end, then snap the umbrella in half? I’m a fucking saint.
Biggest news of the festival: Our longstanding Tiger! Shit! Tiger! Tiger! cover band, Shit! Tiger! Shit! Shit! has called it quits. In its place, we have formed a brand new Tiger! Shit! Tiger! Tiger! cover band called Lion! Fuck! Lion! Lion! There’s also talk of forming a Milky Chance cover band called Chancey Milk, but that’s in the very preliminary stages, so I don’t want to speculate.
Just a couple people at the Spotify House with no exposed skin, wearing headphones and American flag bandanas on their faces, typing out “fair and honest appraisals” of the appearances of those waiting in a long line to have such a thing done. Keep Austin weird?
There was another dude at a day party who took any amount of money to type (again, on an old-timey typewriter) a poem on the subject of the patron’s choice. The poem was…not good.
Best text sent by a lawyer to his girlfriend during SXSW: “I think this band is pretty great. But I’m pretty drunk. [sunglasses emoji]”
Anything interesting happen at the panel for Veep?
/normal-looking woman sits down next to me
Woman: Oh my God, is she really gonna be here?
Woman: Julia-Louis Dreyfuss
Me: Yeah, I think so.
Woman: (giggles and shakes with delight)
How are the audience questions at such panels? The wooooooorst.
“Hi Julia and cast, my name is Whatever Whatever from Nashville, Tennessee…” (who gives a shit?)
“Hi everyone, I just want to say congratulations on a brave, amazing show. I think it’s probably the best show on television right now.”
“Hi Julia, my question is: can I get a picture with you?”
Nerds and hicks, every one.
Reason I regretted missing the Henry Rollins panel: So that I could get in that line for audience questions, and when my time came, say into the microphone:
“Hi Henry, I am The Dilemma from Chicago, Illinois, and my question is: why should we believe anything you just said during this panel? Because we all know you’re a….
All about that #badgelife: So, was the music badge worth it? Not really. It got me in to see Courtney Barnett and Twin Peaks when I otherwise wouldn’t have, and let me wait in shorter lines a few other times. But ultimately, it wasn’t that different than a music wristband. Did get me this free pulled pork benedict/rum & coke breakfast though:
Haters gonna hate.
T-shirt I wore that received the most comments: A shirt for First Avenue in Minneapolis, which drew a lot of, “Hey, Minnesota, all right, brother!” Obviously, I had to respond by just giving the finger, to show that I’m not Minnesota Nice.
Best part of Speedy Ortiz’s set at Spotify House:
A five-way tie:
- Watching Sadie Dupuis dance around to Bound 2 during soundcheck
- Dupuis taking several little digs at Spotify throughout the set, making sure we knew she’s not all about #brands
- Dupuis’s self-proclaimed #1 fan, a Mexican dude who kept yelling about wanting to blow her “besitos” between songs
- How good the band sounded: tighter and more muscular than last year, perhaps thanks to personnel changes and a strong new batch of songs with a harder edge
- The best legs in indie rock (apologies to Emily Haines)
Any celeb sightings? Yes…Jim DeRogatis.
Also: Mark Cuban wandering drunkenly down the street by himself late at night, Win Butler sitting in a booth by himself at a mediocre Mexican restaurant, and Doug Benson sitting in a sub-Hooters franchise called Bikinis looking more stoned than I have ever seen anyone look in my entire life. And I know the Musky Canadian. His eyes were as red as Brother Love’s face.
Semi-annual R.E.M. sighting: Mike Mills jumped on stage during Jody Stephens of Big Star’s last song (“Thirteen,” naturally) to sing some harmony. Afterwards, Mills was approached by a member of my entourage, given a Moscow Mule, and chatted up about the Zombies. He lived up to his reputation as the nicest fucking guy in music.
Bill Murray sighting? Not by me, but Bill was spotted checking out both Girlpool (Bill, no!) and Ghostface (yes, Bill!), among others
Did anyone celebrate 3/16, aka Stone Cold Day? This guy.
Favorite sight of the week: Asshole skateboarders in the middle of a busy street wiping out in a pile of fresh police horse manure.
Nice. Remember this?
Definitely. Did that happen again? Not quite, but the day after SXSW, the same gentleman who owned the toilet in the picture awoke to find his new commode shooting a stream of water into the air.
The Lagunitas Follies: Wednesday, Lagunitas held their annual Couchtrippin’ Party at Container Bar. 7 hours of 5 free varieties of Lagunitas. Standing in line at 11am on an empty stomach, we wondered, “Should we grab some food from a food trailer? Nah. With 7 hours of free heavy beer, they’ll definitely have food inside.”
There was no food inside. We’ll get back to that.
What the fuck is that?
A gypsy of some kind?
A gypsy cosplaying as an elderly Catskills comedian, telling me ribald jokes.
A gypsy taking my heartbeat on the back of my knee.
Yes, the Lagunitas party was lousy with gypsies, from belly dancers to fortune tellers to people dressed and acting as tigers to burlesque performers. Needless to say, upon entering the party sober, I basically hid from the gypsies as they made their way through the crowd trying to engage people. But after several Laguniti on an empty stomach, I was happier than could be to idle away the between-sets time chatting them up and pretending to laugh at their jokes. Lagunitas: It Will Make You Tolerate Gypsies on an Empty Stomach.
Since I went to the trouble to pixellate my face, couldn’t I have Photoshopped myself to be a little skinnier? FUCK YOU.
Do all these gypsies mean that Borat jokes are back? They’re back, baby!
The bassist for King Tuff, aka Real Life DadBoner, aka America’s Greatest American. In case you can’t tell, he’s wearing a 1989 Detroit Pistons championship tank top. Vintage, I gather. And he handles his bass like a goddamn rock hero.
And what is King Tuff wearing on his guitar strap?
I take it King Tuff was good, then? They were phenomenal. The most energy of anyone I saw all week, and a healthy dose of weirdness (at least lyrically and visually) to add some punch to the catchy garage rock.
Anything else good at the Lagunitas thing? The Screaming Eagle of Soul, Mr. Charles Bradley! I first saw Bradley 4 years ago at SXSW, so it was gratifying to see him play here again, this time in front of a crowd eager and ready for him. Bradley added to his schtick by grinding with audience members and gypsies, and even doled out a hug to your old pal The Dilemma after the set. Here he is, passing out magical hugs like they’re free Sour Patch Kids.
I haven’t showered since.
Unexpected treat of the week: Having JEFF the Brotherhood and Cloud Nothings play concurrent sets at the Swan Dive to close out Thursday night….one inside, one outside. I was able to wander back and forth between the two and compare mosh pits: Cloud Nothings’ was much nicer and more considerate, while JEFF’s was filled with the same assholes who tried to ruin Diarrhea Planet’s set.
Not DP! I know! But security was non-existent for their set at the Infinity Cat showcase, and a bunch of assholes took it upon themselves to literally hang from the awning at the front of the stage, blocking the crowd’s view of the band for much of the show. DP’s set was also riddled with sound problems. It’s not a great sign when you see a sound guy wandering around at random holding an iPad with what looked like Garage Band running, adjusting various levels with no discernible result.
Thank God for “Kids” into “Baba O’Riley.”
By all accounts, they redeemed themselves, free of awful sound and crowds, Saturday at Empire Control Room. And for sure the following Friday, at Lincoln Hall in Chicago.
Do people standing around waiting for Diarrhea Planet to start enjoy it when a couple semi-hipsters start loudly singing Pavement songs a capella to idle away the time? No. No, they do not.
Any important mid- or post-show texts I received regarding that DP show?
1) “I’m in the back by merch table and bar. No one else survived.”
2) “[redacted] better not disappear during the first song like last time. And don’t drop two crowd surfers on their heads like The Dilemma and [redacted].”
Any other big news to break? Yes. Emmy the Great, with her amazing British accent, and I are now married.
Although should I take her name, or should she take mine? Which sounds better: Emmy the Great the Dilemma, or The Dilemma the Great?
Best new discoveries:
- Rozwell Kid — they opened the Infinity Cat Showcase and sounded right at home with their somewhat-better-known label mates.
- Fantastic Negrito — young, energetic soul singer with a tight band
- Honeyblood — poppy, catchy two-piece from Scotland
- Torres — bad-ass 22-year-old who sounds like she’s been playing arenas for 10 years
- Blank Range — a shit-kicking young band out of Nashville, in the vein of Drive-By Truckers, with the best guitar solos and organ work I heard all week
Worst sets of the week: A lot to choose from this time around, so we’ll have to count them down:
3) James Hersey, who managed to create a myriad of synthesized sounds despite only having guitar/bass/drums on stage. And acted like such a douche, he could only be described as a cross between John Mayer and Jean-Ralphio from Parks & Recreation. John Ralphio Mayer.
Want to watch a dude peacock around stage, drinking a PBR, while ignorant of the fact that an entire crowd hates him and wants him to leave? This is your dude.
1) Alice Drinks the Kool-Aid. The first band to take the stage at the Lagunitas party looked like your dad strapped on a guitar and decided to entertain his guests at his summer family cookout. Sounded like that too. The singer/guitarist wore a striped button-front shirt, dad jeans, and looked to be about 60.
Watching this amateurish abomination, we joked that this must be the Lagunitas CEO, who sponsored the event only to give his band a venue and an audience, much like James Dolan only owns the Knicks to give JD & the Straight Shot some street cred and exposure. After a couple songs, the singer announced, “Hope you’re enjoying the free beer!” Hmmm.
A quick Google search revealed that this was in fact the Lagunitas owner’s band.
Those poor gypsies.
A small pleasure of SXSW: Seeing bands and genres you would never otherwise seek out. For example, I would never buy a ticket to go see Buraka Som Sistema at home. But I will happily stand and listen to a Portugese dance group I’ve never heard of for half an hour while recovering from Speedy Ortiz and The Vaccines. And it’s gratifying to see a crowd that is plainly there to see other acts give them a chance and even get engaged.
Best meal of the week: Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, inexplicably without a wait during prime dinner hours, and wonderfully, coming to Chicago later this year.
What’s better than King Tuff? King Tuff with a smoke machine.
King Tuff were the last band I saw this year at SXSW, Saturday night around midnight at Hotel Vegas.
The sizable crowd was eager for them to start, and then lost its damn mind once they did. A huge, unruly mosh pit formed on the muddy grounds, which eventually led to mud-caked weirdos crowd-surfing to the giant tree just behind them, then latching onto branches and trying to either climb their way up or tear the tree down. For a little while, it seemed like only the thinnest of lines separated us from total chaos and an utter breakdown of civilization. The cops were gone…capacity was blown to bits. Otherwise mild-mannered young ladies hurled full beers into the crowd. At one point, I looked up and saw a woman dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West (no one else there was in costume) perched on stage, ready to dive into the throng. I thought I might be descending into King Tuff-style madness.
The people there seemed desperate for South by Southwest not to end, and they knew this was their last gasp, their list chance to feel this particular thing for a good long while. It was an amazing, jumping, insane way to end the week, and when King Tuff’s bassist/sophist declared that we were all a family now, my cynicism melted away and I wanted to believe him.
Although, nothing can kill your King Tuff buzz more quickly than a nearby lawyer declaring enthusiastically, upon hearing the opening riff, “This is SO Skynyrd!”
At any rate, we wandered out punch-drunk into the endless night afterward, SXSW officially behind us.
Each year when I leave Austin, there seems to be one refrain from a song I heard that week playing over and over in my head. My first year, it was Lucero’s “Smoke” (“unknown and beautiful/unknown and beautiful/into the streets”). In 2011, it was TV on the Radio’s “we’re howling forever, oh oh”. Last year, of course, it was Diarrhea Planet and “Can we carry so much weight?…We’re just kids.” This year, thanks to King Tuff, it’s “Forever young/but forever’s not that long/so I’ll just keep on singing Eddie’s song.”
Do all those have something to do with aging and wanting to stay young or alive forever? Maaaaaybe. What’s your point?
What’s the end of Saturday night like at SXSW? Terrifying. Thousands of people staggering drunk, with several days’ or a week’s worth of bodily abuse trying to drag them down but their legs trying to push through to their destination. Zombies criss-crossing each other in senseless patterns on the sidewalks and in the streets, depressed that it’s over, yet eager for relief and hopeful that another drunk, buzz, or memory is around the corner.
So where did I end my Saturday night?
Oh. Do exhausted, put-upon Denny’s servers appreciate it when a wasted band of semi-hipsters wanders in at 2 a.m. at the end of a long SXSW week, making endless jokes about the Hobbit menu that was featured like two years ago? No. No, they do not.
What was the lady next to me on the flight home reading?
Good God. Well, what did I come home to?
Gahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Please hurry, March 2016.
Overheard at SXSW:
“You got my beard pregnant.”
“Feel your titty. OK, now feel my titty.”
“This song goes out to Darius Rucker.”
“This is a song about texting.”
“This reggae is making my dick soft.”