Words by: Brittany Martin, Molly Beauchemin
Photos by: Stephanie Breijo
A lot of people like to tell you that South by Southwest has gotten ungainly large and is kind of a drag. Yet, somehow, we had a completely amazing time. How is this possible? Here is my number one tip for making SXSW not a drag: partner up for the festival with someone you absolutely love and have a lot of fun with (even in the occasionally mildly annoying situations like over-long set breaks or seemingly unending schleps back and forth across the city) – but also have no problem whatsoever with periodically ditching that person and wandering off to do things alone.
The second tip, it should be noted, would to book a hotel room very early so you can actually stay in the downtown core, but that seems so obvious in hindsight as to barely be worth mentioning.
SXSW is a place where it is totally safe and comfortable to be the awkward music nerd that you truly are. While is might seem like all the world’s “cool kids” descend on Austin for the week, they are all fundamentally there because of how much they love music and every single show we attended felt supportive and positive… with two exceptions.
The two biggest disappointments of my SXSW? The Boiler Room event at Emo’s on Saturday night and Damon Albarn’s Fader Fort set on Thursday.
As much as I love Boiler Room as a brand in dance music, the Emo’s event was just a logistical nightmare, located far outside of downtown when cabs were almost impossible to secure, wildly over-packed with sloppy drunk college kids, and generally felt removed from the rest of the festival both by physical distance and vibe. Upon realizing that Four Tet and Future’s featured sets were just not going to be worth the hassle, getting a cab back into downtown Austin was like catching the last helicopter out of hipster Saigon, with kids literally running after the taxi and banging on the windows begging to be let in. So, OK, that was just kind of a mess, and in all honesty, I don’t believe it was the organizers’ fault that things got out of hand.
Damon Albarn was disappointing for more serious, musical reasons. The problem was Damon Albarn. He ran late, as he had also done to his headlining set at NPR’s event on Wednesday night, and did not seem remotely apologetic about that fact when he did eventually appear on stage. Then, instead of winning over the crowd from the start by bringing some energy to his performance, he launched into songs off the solo record he is currently promoting that were just entirely too sleepy for the packed crowd that had stayed to see him after Wiz Khalifa’s highly animated Taylor Gang performance which preceded. He even sneered at the audience about being obliged to play some older material (which would, as it turned out, be tracks from the stage of his career spent with Gorillaz, not the part when he was in, you know, Blur) and told the crowd “Not to worry.”
When Albarn was so late to appear at NPR’s event earlier in the week, we left to go elsewhere and ended up catching a set by Minature Tigers who were a delight. They bounced around through their peppy songs, lead singer Charlie Brand made his way through the crowd, singing directly at individual audience members, and the crowd was singing along to the catchy choruses within minutes. While I had heard of the band before, I had never taken the time to really follow up to listen to their records, having gotten the impression from their choice of touring companions (Ben Folds, Fun.) that they wouldn’t quite be of my taste, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Being open to those pleasant surprises is very heart of a good South by Southwest experience, where you never know what you might think of some band in a tiny room or mid-way through an eclectic bill, and where running around trying to see a bunch of music you already know would seem like kind of a waste.
Saturday, for example, might be the single day of the festival about which I feel best about my experience just for sheer diversity of music absorbed. After stopping for breakfast at one of the cutest spots in Austin, Easy Tiger, we made our way to a show organized by music blogs No Fear of Pop and ISO50. We caught Tomas Barfod a Danish DJ and dance music producer whose “Salton Sea” album was one of my very favorites of 2012. The performance, accompanied by live singing by Barfod’s frequent collaborator Nina Kinert – with whom he has just released a great new single, “Pulsing” – was as stylish and richly textured as hoped. They were followed by Jessy Lanza, an artist I had not previously known but who I clearly should have because everything about the British singer-producer’s dreamy, electronic R&B worked for me. I expect I will be listening to her record on the way home and for months to come.
We were invited to attend Austin events site do512’s party which we stayed at longer than expected to catch a surprisingly entertaining set by veteran Gary Numan. Best known for his signature 1979 hit “Cars,” the 56 year old Numan is currently promoting his twentieth record, “Splinter (Songs from a Broken Mind)” – and still delivers a really committed on-stage performance. He and his band, all snug black tee shirts, dyed black hair, thick black eyeliner, still snarl and sweat and fling themselves all over the stage with abandon, and while that might sound a bit hopeless, it actually comes off as oddly genuine and engaging from a man who was definitely doing that thing ‘before it was cool’ and he might as well keep it up long after it goes out of style because that’s just the real him.
Another delightful Saturday night surprise was the cheerful dance pop from Brighton duo Anushka. Singer Victoria Port charmed the audience on the Swan Dive’s patio with both her appealing singing voice and her amusing between-song encouragement to “party Texas style” pipped with a distinctly non-Texas accent. The stuttery, shuffley uptempo production of their soul-inflected pop is sure to become a favorite. (Note: It is a formula not wholly unlike my other SXSW favorite, the previously-reported Sylvan Esso.)
All that said, the temptation to attend shows by artists one already loves is just too strong at SXSW – and the festival generally affords the opportunity to see bigger acts in smaller, better venues than you might catch them otherwise, and packed into stronger bills than a single tour could put together. Indulging myself on Friday night, I made the excursion to Austin Music Hall to hear A$AP Mob, Nas, Thundercat, and Flying Lotus, along with all the various and sundry special guests trotted out over the course of the couple of hours I stayed in one venue (quiet a rarity at SXSW) at a Mass Appeal showcase. Much to Mass Appeal’s credit, it was the single best-run and professional show I attended of the whole festival, and, if you attend enough of these types of shows you know how a great venue and promoter can really make or break an experience. Nas’ headlining set was underwhelming, but the penultimate set by Flying Lotus and Thundercat was the real star of the night anyway. (Minor quibble: FlyLo’s signature video-art visual projections being interspersed with slides of corporate sponsor logos, but, hey, what can you do?)
That same night, we stopped by another known-quantity/known-good event, which was also a great party as well as great music, the Fool’s Gold Records showcase presented by Dream Hotels. Both of the label’s co-founders, Nick Catchdubs and A-Trak did sets at the event which also had the nicest drinks (cocktails from a converted Airstream trailer brought down from PDX!) and most relaxing patio lounge of anything we attended all week – which is a really important thing at times like these. Fool’s Gold, along with Stones Throw Records, from whom I caught a bit of a showcase another night, are labels that have a real sense of identity and personality, and one can generally count on anybody they put on the stage.
Ultimately, the key to finding your South by Southwest bliss is to just seek balance. Balance between things you already know and things you’ve never heard of or even toss in a few things you’re pretty sure you won’t like. Balance between jumping up and down dance parties and the occasional intriguing little show where you sit quietly on a church pew. Find a partner to share the experience with, ideally one with complimentary but distinct tastes from your own, who will expose you to things you wouldn’t otherwise make an effort to see but will probably enjoy and who will also be totally fine when you abandon them to seek out your own interests. You know, pretty much like life in general.
Oh, and also: bring an extra phone battery.
FAVORITE SXSW SONGS:
For me, SXSW was all about trying to find a balance between the city of Austin and the festival that made it famous. I’d never been to Austin before, but I’d heard good things about it from friends who have lived here, so I decided to fly down early in order to “warm up to the festival.”
Before SXSW began, I made the requisite trip to the shops on South Congress Avenue, spent time on Lady Bird Lake, visited the mothership Whole Foods on Lamar, drooled myself to death at Waterloo records, checked out Hope St. Farmer’s Market, mingled with locals, took a Barre3 class (I’ve been waiting for them to come to NYC!) tried on some expensive, radical boots at Allen’s, and explored the University of Texas. A few days after arriving under the beautifully lit state house at night, I got caught up in the momentum of SXSW, and I felt the momentum shift: the city was suddenly overtaken with new energy. Music was streaming from virtually every crevice of the city, from the pubs and bars and arenas to the parks, warehouses, restaurants, and hotels that were also suddenly filled with many more people.
What outsiders probably won’t realize about SXSW is that Austin during SXSW feels like Beijing does every day. There are thousands of pedestrians, an explosion of people going out on 6th street and into the Red River District between the hours of 4 PM and 4 AM. Streets are blocked off so that the river of people can flow freely, mardi gras-style through the streets, whose storefronts and open doors spill forth of still yet more people. It really does remind me of Mardi Gras (or some sort of music-, tech-, and film-centric bacchanal) where swarms of music fans get packed into venues so tight that you find yourself thankful for the BBQ smell that wafts through the streets on a 24/7 basis: it keeps you from smelling sleep deprivation in the air.
50 Cent was one of the most entertaining performances I saw on opening night. Get Rich Or Die Trying was the first Parental Guidance-requiring CD that I ever bought (err, my Mom bought, when I was in 7th grade,) and part of me just wanted to see him perform because it was a big name act and seeing him perform would somehow requite the misplaced nostalgia I seem hold for my tender middle school years. I also suspected—correctly– that it would be funny.
And it was. Fiddy had a live band, and at one point—I can’t even make this up—he played air guitar during his stage man’s solo, and I’m pretty sure I started crying because it was the funniest thing I had ever seen. 50 Cent also raps like he knows he can kick your ass. That is one muscly dude! He’s definitely a full-time musician, part-time ass-kicker.
Later that night, I saw Chance The Rapper perform at Red 7 Patio and it was incredible—so hott that the fire marshal shut the show down after just three songs. This was one the biggest crowds and most highly anticipated hip-hop showcases of the week. (One of my editors at Pitchfork was actually turned away at the door because they were breaking the fire code, so even members of the Press didn’t get in…THAT’S how crazy the Southby crowds can get.)
St. Vincent and Kelis put on darling shows the following night. The former is in her ‘Bowie’ phase and the latter is in her ‘Erykah Badu’ phase, and together along with Damon Albarn (of Blur) and Perfect Pussy (a metal outfit that we love over at Pitchfork), the NPR showcase was an exquisitely-curated event—one of the week’s best, in my opinion.
During the days, I made an effort to have a mixed-media experience beyond just concerts. I went to talks, film screenings, and interviews, and all of them were fantastic—funny, educative, and endearing.
Neil Young’s talk on his new MP3 alternative, PONO, was both inspiring and insightful, as someone who works on many levels in the music industry. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein gave a hilarious Q & A at their in situ Portlandia “conference”, where I got to see outtakes from the next season of the show and to watch Armisen giggle alongside Carrie, (the former lead singer of Sleater-Kinney, which is still one of my favorite bands of the 90’s).
Diddy’s talk with a colleague over at Forbes was also really endearing—he even said he was nervous—and he apologized for the cheesecake incident on Making The Band 2 and offered some inspiring thoughts on millennials. (Spoiler: he thinks we’re way too smart for this shitty economy, too!)
By Wednesday night, I had photographed Schoolboy Q, the Neighborhood (who now strike me as terrible, piece-of-shit LA bros who make songs that I regret to like,) and by Thursday (but wait, one last thing about the Neighborhood: I don’t like all of their songs, there’s just this one song, “Sweater Weather”, that I think is great, so I wanted to see them live) I ended up seeing Lady Gaga at Stubb’s—two things I would never think to put together—the following night. Yes, I was there for Vomit-gate. (That shit was crazy. Almost as crazy and gross as the Neighborhood!)
Ana Tijoux, a Chilean rap-singer who I love, performed at Palm Door afterwards, and her set was just magical (she gave an inspiring talk on NPR’s Alt Latino that afternoon, which I also attended). I speak Spanish, and seeing Tijoux debut at the first ever SXSWAmericas was really special.
Pitchfork’s showcase on Friday night was also spectacular. Angel Olsen, Hundred Waters, and Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon were highlights in an evening of mostly-acoustic and gentle music played in a gorgeous church on E. 8th street. Real Estate, playing material from their recent album, closed out the night.
Between the stained glass and tinkling notes, the Pitchfork showcase was unlike any others I’d been too at SXSW—it wasn’t rowdy; the setting fit the artists perfectly (unlike, for example, the Kendrick Lamar show I went too two nights before, which was in a stuffy theater ill-suited to a hip hop concert). Both Angel Olsen and Mark Kozelek got standing ovations– the only one’s I’d seen in all of SXSW.
Fortunately, I go to enough festivals that I’d already seen a lot of the artists who performed at this year’s SXSW, so Saturday night I rounded it out with some new additions and old favorites—but that was my luxury. A lot of people go to festivals like SXSW and get so caught up in trying to see ALL of the music that they don’t take the time to properly engage with any of it. I’d rather see two or three really good shows in FULL than skip out on 10 shows in one night. That kind of maneuvering can be useful, but it makes it hard to feel a lasting connection to the performance when you are only staying for a few songs before leaving—so on closing night, I chose performances that I knew would WOW me, and I stuck to them.
South Central LA’s The Pharcyde are a duo that defined a particular niche of hip hop in the 90s—one which I hope needs know explanation, but one that might if you are younger than 20. By now, the Pharcyde are veterans of backpacker rap who rarely perform on tour, and on closing night they gave an outstanding, hilarious performance at Blackheart that was one of the most thrilling hip-hop showcases I saw all week. Those guys are total legends (and I saw Method Man and Redman perform at Def Jam’s 30 Anniversary Bash a few days prior, which was also a highlight, so this is saying something). They ended the set with the 1993’s “Passin’ Me By”, which was completely perfect. The vibe was light, with lots of dancing– mostly from the artists, who were obviously stoned– and the venue was close enough to ?uestlove’s Okayplayer showcase that before/after I got to see Cody ChesNUTT, SZA, and Erykah Badu (who gave the best performance I saw at last year’s Governors Ball Festival, even despite the rain). Badu performed with Thundercat, who is by now the bass-darling of the general public and the music world writ large. Even Flea loves him! And the performance illustrated that point with ease. With Erykah, there was no question; she’s proven herself to me many times before, so this show was going to be good whether I knew it or not. After a week of chaos and running around the city, this kind of soul music was exactly what I needed to say goodbye to Austin.
The Lagunitas #Couchtrippin’ Showcase:
No Regrets Coyote:
Albert Hammond, Jr.: