South by Southwest Music Festival | 03.13-18.12

6thstreetnight sxsw2011 jamesbuchanThere’s a vibe to Austin that’s reflected at the copious amounts of t-shirts declaring “Keep Austin Weird.” It is weird, but in a wonderfully comfortable way that manages to feel “normal”—it’s not a pretentious weirdness that just wants you to pay attention to it.

sxsw registrants credit leyla kuhn  

6th Street photo: James Buchan. Austin Convention Center photo: Leyla Kuhn. All band photos: Teresa Montgomery.

My exposure to the craziness of SXSW started on the train from Dallas. You see, I had booked my flight too late, and when round trip flights to Austin had jumped from $350 to $800, I was in need of another plan. Dallas-Fort Worth airport was much more reasonable, and as I’d never been to Texas other than an hour-long layover, I figured it would be nice to enjoy a train trip from Dallas to Austin.

As I was boarding the train and getting situated, a young man asked me if I was going for SXSW, to which I replied in the affirmative. We talked off and on during the trip, during which time I discovered his name was Reese and he was from Australia. He had just finished recording an album with his band, Jolan, and he was in the United States visiting his manager. Part of the visit was SXSW, though he wasn’t performing (and the rest of the band was not in attendance). He and I exchanged email addresses once we got to Austin, and I met up with him the next day to get a copy of the album (review forthcoming once it’s actually released). I knew from there on out that I was in for an experience.

For those of you who don’t know how SXSW works, it’s essentially live music, all the time. There are hundreds of bands doing “showcases” (sets of between 25 to 50 minutes) one right after another, all over Austin. Some are free and some require “badges” (basically, a ticket to all SXSW has to offer) or “wristbands” (badges, available to Austin residents only, receive admittance before wristbands; additionally, some shows and events were badge-only). That said, many shows also sell single-tickets—so if you only wanted to see one band, you might pay $10…though seeing one band sort of misses the point of SXSW.

The first thing that struck me about SXSW once I arrived at the Austin Convention Center (home base for all SXSW activities) was that it was really well put together. The process of getting my badge and press credentials was pretty seamless. The whole week I was there, I never encountered any problems. At one point, my camera tag came off my camera and they happily re-attached it for me. When there was an issue with getting a SXXPRESS pass (basically a “jump the line” ticket for a showcase), they solved it quickly and never made me feel like I was the cause of the problem. All in all, actually, the residents of Austin that didn’t flee in terror at the influx of people that show up for SXSW were really very nice. There’s a vibe to Austin that’s reflected at the copious amounts of t-shirts declaring “Keep Austin Weird.” It is weird, but in a wonderfully comfortable way that manages to feel “normal”—it’s not a pretentious weirdness that just wants you to pay attention to it.

I settled in to Austin fairly quickly and then it was time for some music. It was then that I learned the most important lessons of SXSW. Allow me to share them with you.

1. Dress for comfort. My first full day in Austin I wore full-face makeup and jeans. I felt like my legs were going to sweat themselves off and my face was melting by the end of the day. The next day, I decided matching socks was about as classy as I needed to be. I wore denim shorts the rest of the week and, at most, mascara and lip gloss. Also, it should go without saying, but wear the most comfortable walking shoes you can find. You will walk—a lot—and stand—a lot. Nothing kills the buzz of a good show like feeling like you’re going to die from foot pain. Blisters are not conducive to happiness.

2. Pee like a toddler. What I mean by this is pee every time you’re near a bathroom, unless you have a strange port-a-potty fetish. Parents of the newly potty-trained will frequently ask their kids, “Do you have to potty? Why don’t you go just in case.” There are bathrooms at every venue, as far as I know, but every venue is also pretty full, if not packed, so if you see a reasonably clean, unoccupied bathroom, go for it. Your bladder will thank you two hours later when your options may be much more limited.

3. Make sure you drink and eat. This might seem simple, but when you’re rushing from one place to another, from mid-afternoon ’til after midnight, it can be hard to fit in a decent meal or a beverage other than whatever’s on tap. It’s pretty crucial, though, to make sure you stay hydrated and stay away from low blood sugar. Thankfully, Austin has lots of great places to eat within walking distance from just about any venue (see above about the comfortable shoes) and there’s tons of food trucks.

4. Be flexible. There were bands I really wanted to see (and a few movies that were part of SXSW Film) that I didn’t get a chance to see. I saw a few bands twice (intentionally or not). If you go with your heart set on following a very specific schedule, you may end up disappointed. You really have to be willing to go with what happens and know you’ll see good music—even if it isn’t exactly who you thought you’d be seeing.

Overall, SXSW is something every music fan should do, at least once. It’s an amazing experience—from the really nice Austin residents to the Whole Foods home store to Waterloo Records to South Congress, which is one of the coolest streets I’ve ever seen. I ran into the most random people: the manager of Smoking Popes (who played St. Louis while I was gone, much to my dismay), Rhett Miller’s website administrator, and various musicians walking the streets of Austin when they weren’t playing. I met people I’ll stay in contact with even now that SXSW is over, both within the music industry and without. I have every intention of going to SXSW every year I can, so powerful is its allure.

And now, for some highlights of the music I saw:

Justin Townes Earle

JTE

Justin Townes Earle was perhaps the biggest surprise of the week. I had seen him previously in St. Louis, opening for The Decemberists. At the time, I was enamored with his most recent album, Harlem River Blues, and had expected a performance that matched the greatness of the album. While his short opening set wasn’t bad, it was a bit of let down in comparison to the album. I worried he was one of the songwriters out there who could write wonderful songs and perform them in the confines of a studio, but faltered when confronted with an actual audience.

In stark contrast to that show, Earle’s performance at SXSW was nothing short of phenomenal. The new songs, from his forthcoming release Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now, are as good as—if not better than—the songs from Harlem River Blues. He sings openly about his parents (his father is musician Steve Earle), and speaks of them, too. He told the audience, before introducing one of the new songs about his folks, “I’m not sure if my parents have heard the record yet but—“ He looked like he was searching for the right words before saying resignedly, “I’m sure they’ll call.”

He mentioned at one point that he was getting to perform songs he didn’t normally get to play, due to having a full band with him. He wondered if the “folkies” would have a problem with it, before commenting it didn’t matter, because “It’s been a long time since the folkies were good and pissed off.” I’m not sure if I’m considered a folkie or not, but the only thing I was pissed off about was the fact that St. Louis isn’t included in his next tour.

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