I spent months planning–organizing and promoting the Nextbop/Art of Cool day party, my own schedule of what I’d see, connecting with friends with whom I’d stay & my travel companion, and gathering supplies. I actually saved money, something about which I’m particularly horrible. I vacillated frequently between excited and worried. Nevertheless, last week in Austin, Texas, I tackled the South by SouthWest Music Festival. I saw quite a few bands, jazz and non-jazz alike. Yet more importantly, I had an adventure. As I do every year, I look at this experience not as some corporately funded free-for-all for attention. SXSW is a week in a city I love to visit and traverse and embed myself into its weirdness. It’s a festival that encourages my ability to walk forever. It’s an experience that makes stories even in its doldrums. Last week had a bevy of tales from so many others– of spiritual uplifting, of unadulterated joy, of tribulation, of tedium, of consternation, of tragedy. No one ever has the same SXSW experience, that’s the charm hidden in its constant, unwieldy expansion.
On Travel Companions and the Allotment of Resources
Buskers: Jazz Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Not Presented
The Jazz for the Masses Party
On Alcoholism and Stamina
Everybody Got the Same Text
On the Virtues and Vices of the Small Venue
Am I Out of the Loop or Is Synthpop A Thing?
On Parking Spots, Proximity, and An Ongoing Problem
Standouts and Surprises
Thank Yous and Shout Outs
On Travel Companions and the Allotment of Resources
Problem solving, like music, is about doing what you can with what you have. Sometimes you’ve decided to dedicate the rest of your life to constantly rearranging twelve notes for applause and a piece of the pie, sometimes you’re trying to figure out how you’re going to get to a towing company in South Austin. It’s all about the allotment of resources.
I had decided to take this trip with a friend of mine who had been through some hard times. It’s not for me to say but his ability to endure all that he has approaches Jobsian levels and I like to be the eye of his ongoing shitshorm when I can and lead him out if possible. However, he not having a wristband like I do or my vigor at problem solving stilted our accomplishments for the week. Many evenings were uneventful because my concern for what he’d do while I’m in some showcase (and his general inability to pay cover charges) left me not seeing as much as I’d like. As horridly mechanical as it may seem, people, like anything else, are resources. How we approach problems, our outlook at genres of music, knowledge about the backroads of a quaint but very congested town, amount of access one has– these are all attributes that do need to be accounted for when going to SXSW. They’re job qualifications or boxes to fill in an OKCupid profile or sometimes just the sign at the amusement park saying you must be this tall to ride the roller coaster. I enjoy my travel companion’s company at times but I couldn’t help but wonder how this week would have been had I tagged along with someone else, or meandered about Austin solo as I had the last two SXSWs. Was he a resource I should have used for that week? Could I have hung around him more? Less? If one’s SXSW experience is made distinctly different every time for everyone due to such myriad choices, questions like these are just as crucial as whether or not waiting in line at Fader Fort is really worth it. This isn’t to say I don’t generally enjoy his company but he honestly may not have been best prepared for SXSW– a musical marathon, not a sprint.1
Yet this was just part of the things to consider for a trip such as this. Once again, my home base of operations was Breeze House, a very laid back quaint home in East Austin that’s ever a comfort. Everyone there loves having me around, all the dudes there own some of the best records– Scott keeps a constantly rotating mantle of recent selections on display. Matt can actually follow along for quite a while in my prattling on about recent jazz artists. Nick is just a bundle of whimsy and a great friend. When in Austin and staying on the cheap, it’s good to have a friend with couch. That level of reassurance is great, but I honestly couldn’t think of a better couch. I love this house.
With the major things out of the way, then comes the priorities of packing, making sure to bring a tote bag since plastic bags are banned in grocery stores in Austin, bringing along the portable battery charger, and other assorted supplies. Determining how much cash to carry or whether to use a debit card most of the time. These are all decisions to be made at one time or another. Getting them out of the way at the start is preparedness. That’s a good use of time. That’s all part of the allotment of resources. This is my Super Bowl, my NBA Game 7, my Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Championship. I was getting my ducks in a row. I was going in prepared.
Buskers: Jazz Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Not Presented
Shortly after arriving in Austin, I figured I would make my way to the Hometapes showcase at Old School Bar & Grill on 6th Street, right in the heart of the action. However, the walk down 6th brought about some of the best busking I had ever seen with a street performance that rivals some of the shows in actual venues I saw that week. The pinnacle of this was the Brooklyn trio Moon Hooch of Wenzl McGowen and Mike Wilbur on saxophones and James Muschler on drums drawing a very large crowd on the corner of 6th & Neches. It wasn’t until I was putting this piece together that I learned that when it comes to busking, these guys are the best there is, which would make total sense that they would seem right at home on what could possibly be the highest concentration of street performers crying out for attention on earth. Their music stretches and unweaves for periods so long that it easily facilitates moving crowd whil still being complex enough to maintain interest (though staying for maybe three songs in the bustling crowd was pushing it a bit for me, I must admit).
However, just one block down on 6th & Trinity held the Diamond Kings, which was essentially the black version (or really the saxophonists were black, the drummer was still white) of the same band. On numerous occasions this week did I see jazz trios of two saxophonists and a drummer legitimately holding court. It isn’t as though they were playing some offshoot of jazz or avoiding the genre altogether. Various jazz groups were able to draw attentive crowds to listen to and enjoy dynamic, improvised music. It was reassuring to see, and reaffirming to know that there is an audience for this sort of music, even in a mass of crowds who honestly aren’t looking for it. They merely need to be presented this music. A group like Moon Hooch gets this, but they’re from Brooklyn where asymmetrical jazz music can reign supreme and they’re playing on the street (and according to NPR, at some very beloved showcases) of one of the largest music festivals in the world in a city that embraces weirdness. Groups like these’s success is on display here so well because this festival is what it is and thus maybe not the best example of how well this music could work the world over, but it’s an inspiration nonetheless. I’ve said before that SXSW, especially 6th Street on this week, is the music blogs of the internet taking form and walking among us. If a jazz trio can draw a crowd on a street in Austin, maybe one day it could funnel into people’s ears on the other side of the globe. It’s through the street buskers that the democratization of SXSW really comes to be. Everybody’s got to walk through 6th eventually and there are just too many sights and sounds to not stop somewhere.
The Jazz for the Masses Party
The night before our Jazz for the Masses Party, I went to see my friend Adam Schatz play with his band Landlady at the Hometapes Showcase. Schatz was putting together the first act of the Nextbop party the next day at El Sapo and I got so bogged down with planning the rest of that day that I trusted him to put together something great to the point that I never asked him what exactly he was planning. So when I ran into him Tuesday night, he immediately asked me, “Everyone playing the show gets free beer, right?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Because I’m bringing twenty people.”
I freaked. Freaking out is the reasonable response to such a statement like this, especially in regard to the logistics of a SXSW day party that’s often riddled with equipment problems and schedule changes. However, as Wednesday morning started settling into place, I was set at ease that Schatz was merely playing with nine performers– a melding of his own Landlady, Killer Bob and everyone’s good friend, guitarist Jonathan Horne. I might have still blanched (or the black man’s equivalent thereof) had he told me there were nine guys starting off our day, but downsizing from twenty to nine people in the band made for a much easier pill to swallow. Their improvised set had a cohesion to it that one certainly would not have anticipated. The group managed to ebb and flow in tone, swelling en masse with a coordination only friends of Schatz could have. It was certainly a can’t miss experience that only the weirdo mind of Adam Schatz could make. I want to ask him to do something crazy like this every year.2
What followed was a much more conventional day, or at least as conventional a day one could make with a group of fringe jazz bands that I pulled together. The Whale — the San Antonio free jazz trio of Kory Cook on drums, Eddie Vasquez on saxophone and Justin Carney on bass — played one of their rare sets. They’re an outstanding trio who play with a great deal of range and somehow make their free jazz appealing to those in attendance, particularly drummer Cook who can wail and thrash like anyone’s business. Years ago when he first started at KRTU as the jazz station’s music director, he very quickly embedded himself into San Antonio’s music scene as the drummer on call for just about anyone in jazz and rock. He has a pliability in his style that suits many needs, so seeing him truly unwind in this trio is a different sort of creature. There was a solo Cook made in the middle of The Whale’s set that stopped absolutely everything on Manor Road for a few minutes that Wednesday afternoon. As the set ended and The Whale broke down to make way for BADBADNOTGOOD to play next, Kory and BBNG’s Alex Sowinski chatted, just as they did last year, about drumming and method and gigging and whatever else one older drummer with incredible ability says to another younger player who’s ever improving. A smile crept over my face watching this happen, the same smile on my face that I had a year ago.
A repeated theme of this year’s Jazz for the Masses Party is how similar this year’s show was to last year’s with the large difference being my actual ability to enjoy my own event. If there was anything that encapsulated that idea, it was everything involving BADBADNOTGOOD’s set. With last year, my first time coordinating a SXSW day party or… anything, I was running around like crazy, essentially leaning on the expertise of others trying to improvise and figure out how to solve the various equipment insufficiencies we had while trying to stay on the day’s schedule.3 There also wasn’t any beer (so many many thanks to Ranger Creek and Branchline Brewing for providing the beer for all the bands and my numerous indulgences that day; besides, I’ve always loved Ranger Creek’s Oatmeal Pale Ale). This year, while there were still some equipment issues regarding who specifically would supply a keyboard or tracking down the appropriate number of snare and cymbal stands, these issues were ultimately much simpler to solve than last year’s. I truly felt capable of fixing things that went wrong as opposed to flailing and failing and considering everyone’s kinds words as some sort of backhanded patronizing (I’m a writer, those thoughts are in my nature). Yet, as every one, BBNG’s Matt, Chester, and Alex in this case particularly, saying how much they enjoyed the day and playing this quaint little party, I could actually believe them this time. BADBAD’s set of new material from their upcoming album, III (out May 6th on Innovative Leisure), was expectedly crowd pleasing but more contemplative. This new material has had more time to ruminate as the guys made it in their homemade studio. Sure, they played Flying Lotus’ “Putty Boy Strut” and played through their recently released singles “Can’t Leave the Night” and “Hedron”, but their newer work shows more maturity– they play bangers with depth. Our boys are growing up. It’s still plenty of fun to hear their music, but they’re also keeping their critics in mind and it shows.
Todd Clouser’s A Love Electric rocked out while still staying in the jazz pocket. This is the variance this trio of guitarist Clouser, bassist Aarón Cruz, and drummer Hernan Hecht have shown in their numerous releases. The output these guys have in albums is admittedly overwhelming– the trio dropped two albums apiece in 2011 & 2013. However, this is not to say they’re cranking out inferior work. It’s amazing how this trio continually fires on all cylinders and keeps audience attention no matter what sort of auditory and genre turns they seem to make. In essence, they’re the perfect kind of jazz band for SXSW because of their versatility. They’re also the kind of jazz band who are just happy to be playing and touring; this show was just a small handful of SXSW shows in the midst of a tour of the southwest that takes much more importance in its larger context as it stretches into Argentina in April. These are a trio of guys whose breezy attitude made the day go by so smoothly. Even in their rider with exacting specifications was accompanied by a reassuring “I’m sure everything will be just fine” in the email. Clouser was right, it was.
I’ve wanted Ingebrigt Häker Flaten’s (formerly) Austin hip-hop/indie rock/free jazz band The Young Mothers to play last year. A band like this doesn’t have many comparisons (there are likely others but currently only Glows in the Dark comes to mind) and their work is very inspired. However, since their formulation a few years ago, trumpeter/emcee Jawwaad Taylor moved to Houston, Ingebrigt is constantly touring the globe with other acts like The Thing and Atomic, drummer Frank Rosaly is up in Chicago. Corralling this sextet together is quite the task which they managed to do for a few weeks last month throughout some US tour dates, embracing one another in their uproarious sounds in Austin and Dallas and Buffalo, NY, before parting ways again just before SouthBy before my constant needling of them all managed to jostle them into action again for this show (and subsequently an official showcase a few hours later) so shortly after their tour had ended, but they didn’t mind. This group truly loves playing together. A couple weeks prior, I ran into Jonathan Horne at the No Idea Festival4 just beaming with excitement about getting this show together and playing with TYM again so soon after their tour. Their new album released the same week as the show so this would be their album release party. Frank Rosaly would fly down to play. It’d all work out… until snow walloped Chicago that morning. Rosaly’s flight, which initially would have had the extremely tight window of landing in Austin a mere two hours before The Young Mothers were set to play, was delayed. Then it was cancelled. I admittedly freaked out a bit when Ingebrigt told me the news that morning as everyone was setting up but I tried to come up with some sort of solutions. Soon enough, Jonathan arrived (he played in the first nine-piece set, if you’ll recall) reassuring me that the show would go on. The Young Mothers has two percussionists– Rosaly and Stefan Gonzalez, who also plays vibraphone. For their SXSW shows, the band would just have to play with Gonzalez on drums the whole time and not include the vibraphone which he would usually play off of Horne in a dual tone style of play. This change would give their set more of a heavy metal vibe that still worked quite well. It wasn’t the show everyone expected, but it was still pretty damn good.
All the dudes in Brad Walker’s band are really cool. They’ve got a confidence in their kind of spacey cool music that carries over well in their personalities. There’s a chill expressiveness in their music that has an easy appeal. There was a slight mix up we had before their set when the keyboard we originally planned on having to rent for BADBADNOTGOOD, then learned we didn’t have to rent since they would have one on hand themselves, left us without a keyboard, a pivotal role at the start of Walker’s ethereal set, until we had to scramble back to Breeze House and borrow a crappy little Yamaha with no warning, able enough to do the trick in a pinch and true to the DIY nature that this show has encompassed. The guys took it all in stride and it was really fun hanging out with them as the sun set and the hang wore on as afternoon turned to evening. They were the perfect act to close out our day.
On Alcoholism and Stamina
I don’t fully get alcoholism. Or really, I don’t understand how people have the stamina for binge drinking. I find this odd because I live in San Antonio, a city that typically ranks high in alcoholism. I have a family history of it. I’m a writer (and we know how those stereotypes go). I was even at a festival in another city known even more for its alcoholism. Nevertheless, like GJ on Top of the Lake, I trust that there is no match for the tremendous intelligence of the human body– eventually I’ll usually drink too much to the point that I just fall asleep entirely too early. Hopefully, vomiting doesn’t happen along the way, but if my body must get this harmful drink out of me because I put too much of it in me, I will have to expel it in my body’s search for balance. It knows that it’s doing, I’m just here as part of the process.
Generally, I can have a couple drinks, rehydrate, and stave off the sandman. It particularly easy when I’m paying for these drinks. However, I’m a music journalist– I can run into numerous opportunities to find free drinks. My meticulous SXSW planning involves finding free drinks. The appeal I have in modern art now and the weirdo artists who make them was originally rooted in my seeking out free drinks. The source of any generally messy night for me is one where I lose check of myself when free drinks are around. It’s something I’m still working out.
The Jazz for the Masses party was one of those free drink occasions. Seriously, thanks to the sponsors Ranger Creek and Branchline Brewery who provided beer to the bands and quite a few to me. San Antonio has some mad decent microbreweries. Part of the reason this year’s party was so much more relaxed than last year wasn’t just because most things ran pretty smoothly once everything was in place but also because once the drink tickets were dispensed, I was pretty much buzzing the whole day. To put things mildly and to make a long story short (too late), I ended up falling asleep Wednesday night at the home base, Breeze House, at around 10. I felt bad as this was happening, squandering a precious night of SXSW but I was wiped out. The day had gone well and the stresses of the day lifting combined with numerous beers impressed quite strongly upon me that this day was through and no intellectual protests will change that. I was out at 10:30. Now who would binge drink when that’s the side effect– all that wasted day?
However, maybe it was for the best this time around.
Everybody Got the Same Text
I’m a morning person. I always have been. Part of the reason why I turned in at 10 that Wednesday night wasn’t just because I redeemed all five of the drink tickets given to me that day but also because it’s hard to trick my body into staying awake past 12:30 anyway, even if I’m on a working vacation at one of the world’s largest music festivals. Yet even if I am up until 4am, my body wakes up by 8. Even if I don’t do anything throughout it, my body doesn’t waste day. There are few things I abhor more than wasted time, apparently it’s imprinted into my circadian rhythms.
So I awoke at around 7am, mildly hungover but knowing the feeling would pass in an hour or so, reassessing the last day, tackling my largely unchecked RSS reader, glancing at but not responding to numerous emails5, scrolling through Instagram & Twitter, and the rest of my usual messing about online when I got a text at around 7:30 from my mother asking if I was okay.
At around 12:30am Wednesday night, Rashad Charjuan Owens in a stolen Toyota Prius attempted to evade a police officer who pulled him over since he had been drinking some that night and he had warrants in Alaska(?!) by bursting through a barricade, sped down the blocked off and ever busy Red River St. before plowing through 27 pedestrians (one of whom died from her injuries the following Tuesday) and ultimately striking two riding a scooter who died on the scene.6 I had read about much of this (what the world knew at the time at least) shortly before the text. I was steadily amassing information, acquiring data and recollecting myself like I would any other morning as part of my routine, yet with the chilling thought on my mind that I could have been part of that data. In Pitchfork photographer Colin Kerrigan’s report, he included the lineups of performers that night at the famed Mohawk and the newly relocated Cheer Up Charlie’s on Red River St. that night– Cloud Nothings, X, Tyler, the Creator, and others. Kurt Vile was playing at the outdoor stage of Cheer Up Charlie’s while the calamity was happening just past the cement wall, unwittingly “[soundtracking] the whole scene without ever knowing what all the flashing lights were about” as Kerrigan reported. That’s what made it so chilling– I love Kurt Vile. I clearly came onto him late but Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze was one of my favorite albums of last year and I still keep it in rotation. Cloud Nothings was one of the best acts I saw two SXSWs ago and I would have wanted to see them again with their new lineup and see if their new material maintains the eardrum-pulverizing metal-tinged sound of their previous album, Attack on Memory. I still have yet to see Tyler, the Creator perform. It was entirely possible that had I not been passed out in a drunken stupor on my friends’ couch on the East Side, I could very well have been on that street that bloody Wednesday night. It could have been me. It could have been anyone I know.
So to have my mother text me asking if I’m alright, which is generally a little irritating as most “are you alright?” texts from moms are, was actually the reasonable response to something so universally jarring. Asking a loved one who you know to be in Austin at the time if they’re alright is only natural. I was able to set her mind at ease because I could answer back immediately letting her know I was fine. Yet, I wasn’t alone in this. My travel companion got a text that morning from his mom. All the men of Breeze House got texts from their friends and family. Facebook statuses and tweets were replete with “made it home okay”s and “fuck drunk drivers” and “all is well here”s. In a moment of tragedy like this one, everyone reaches out the same. Austin was out and Austin is mourning, but Austin, and everyone attached to it, is still loved.
On the Virtues and Vices of the Small Venue
The next three days of the festival were much more conventional. My travel companion and I crisscrossed the city of Austin, mostly cleaving to East 6th St. and getting lost often, and seeing whatever free shows we (re: the both of us, since I was still official and he was most certainly not) could find, at least during the daylight hours. However, we did part ways that Thursday night so I could see Kurt Vile & Cody ChesnuTT’s sets at Clive Bar off Rainey St. Rainey and its surrounding streets not too far from Austin’s 2nd Street is a relatively new offshoot of bars converted from homes, which would make these particularly small spaces to have shows. Thus, it’s not really a surprise that the line to get into many of the clubs on this street are so long considering what one must consider the strict fire code to be to have so many people packed into what is essentially a residential home that just had a bar and fairly decent sound system put in just a couple years ago. One can clearly see the benefit of being mere feet away from Kurt Vile strumming away solo on his guitar and letting his lazy drawl carry away into the night air, however, God help you if you tried to do so just ten minutes before his set began. This is but a mere sampling of the line chaos for which SXSW is legendary. Avoiding waiting in line is possible with only the best of planning, attending the most low profile of shows (hint hint– anyone who wanted to see BBNG last week, you honestly couldn’t get a better, more chill show than the Nextbop party; wandering up to El Sapo is a hell of a lot easier than trying to get into Red 7), or recognizing that you’re probably going to be missing stuff (a reality for SXSW from the jump). Yet once you’re in, you’re probably not going to see shows more intimate than these and with this kind of variety (unless maybe you’re in New York, and let’s just face it, we’re not all in fucking New York). Cody ChesnuTT can put on a great show, but can you say you saw him play in some backyard and see every nook and cranny of that interesting helmet of his? Or every facial expression of the hardest working stage manager I’ve ever seen? Or the calm hiding the concern on his manager’s face? Or the assurance of his totally legit pro band?
Such is the case with Austin– a relatively small town with a multitude of small clubs. The best group to navigate this large draw/small room dichotomy had to be hardcore punk group Trash Talk, a group whose reputation of insane live shows precede them. A couple SouthBys ago, I was speaking with Nathan Williams, a.k.a. Wavves, after he played the Workaholics party at Icenhauer’, yet another house converted into a club on Rainey St. where I had to wait in line three hours to get in, wherein he spoke of a tour he had done with Trash Talk. I was intrigued and kept them on my radar, making sure I’d see one of their numerous performances that the rambunctious group always seems to play during this festival, continuing their love/hate tradition of overextending themselves and making sure all who can get to see them that week have ample opportunity to do so. What followed at their Saturday set at Empire Automotive was most certainly disorienting for this relatively straight-laced, non-healthcare having7 jazz critic. The layout for Empire Automotive is essentially a large car garage which was converted into a music venue. Just outside this garage is a large tent holding screen printing areas, assorted vendors, and a bar run out of a food truck. Almost immediately after Trash Talk’s set began did the whole crowd rush out of the garage into the tent outside, rapidly migrating mosh pit and all, immediately thwarting my once-thought foolproof plan of staying in the back and checking out the action. No moshing in the back, that’s why people are in the back. There are rules and decorum about these things, y’know? Such an immediate shift in… well… venue throws the entire performance off kilter. Anything can happen. After a few songs, the entire crowd — wall tender, bartender, and vendor alike — was entirely invested in this show (though when lead singer Lee Spielman near the end of the set forced everyone to sit down, especially the people in the back who “aren’t special”, that will definitely make sure everyone’s skin is in the game). Song after song, seemingly in random order, spewed forth. A modest, jangling mosh pit circled the tent with dudes stomping about like T-rexes and at one point two dudes did The Carlton. After a while, Spielman said, “Okay, now we can go back inside,” and ran back into the garage as the band played the next song, which led to most everyone following. He immediately stopped and turned around, explaining that we were all trying to avoid going over the fire code capacity for the venue. The motive for this move revealed an utter stroke of genius. Trash Talk are SXSW vets, talented performers and able to not only bring about such a raucous good time for their fans but very insistently transfer that same sort of energy to the uninitiated waiting in the wings. SXSW, being a sort of musical mecca, brings in all sorts of walks of life; that’s a lot of uninitiated all trying to cram into so many small spaces. So many people like me who just sort of want to check this out because they heard good things, crowding out the true fans waiting outside. If there ever was a more innovative way to subvert a rule and oh, so many expectations, I haven’t seen it. Very punk.
Only during a week when everyone is in town is the balance of pop power more evenly distributed (unless you’re Lady GaGa). Everybody waits in line for the same tacos. Everybody is probably clamouring to get into Stubb’s for something or other. There may be the platinum badge holders reigning on high and cutting lines left and right but the fire code is the fire code and a small room will still be a small room. Few things equalize like space.
Am I Out of the Loop or Is Synthpop A Thing?
As I looked through my notes for the last week, I realized there were quite a few bands that I described as “synthpop”. I’m not sure if this is an actual thing. I don’t know if I heard this term somewhere and some poor music writer isn’t getting his or her due attribution. However, I am a music writer– I describe what I hear and experience with words and present it in a hopefully helpful, informative, and entertaining context to an audience. PAPA at the Paste party at Swan Dive on Thursday sounded synthy and pop-y. Rey Pila at Wonderland on Friday afternoon sounded synthy and pop-y. I didn’t have very many notes about these folks. There were likely others around that I probably didn’t even take the effort to remember. It’s a kind of sound that must undoubtedly be aspirational somewhere to some audience, I just haven’t seen it yet. I’m unmoved.
On Parking Spots, Proximity, and An Ongoing Problem
As I walked out of Clive Bar after seeing Kurt Vile & Cody ChesnuTT on Thursday night, I got a text message from my travel companion– “i am where i thought i parked. Car is not here”. We’d been towed. Parking is damn near impossible in the City of Austin just about any day of the week. In what has consistently become the fastest growing city in America (two years in a row on the Forbes list), trying to park a car during SXSW is an arduous process. And after years of assurance that our little parking lot where we had parked for years that totally has towing signs but never before followed through, here we were recognizing our dire straits as I realized that I had just paid $214.95 to watch Cody ChesnuTT up close, which was odd because I’ll be doing the same thing next month in Durham at the Art of Cool Festival.8
There’s only so much one can do when your car is towed. One can gripe and grumble when riding the bus at 8am across the Colorado River to some remote tow yard in the forgotten recesses of South Austin or you can make jokes about how menial an adventure this is, but an adventure nonetheless. It only seemed right that I pay the fee myself since I was the best positioned to do so (it’s SXSW, I’m on vacation, I’m ballin’ out of control paying for cheap beers, equipment rentals, and tow truck fees). Yet when rides on Uber are hundreds of dollars, there’s not a parking spot in sight anywhere near downtown, and the aforementioned hazards of drunken driving & overly dense traffic are reasons enough to cause native Austinites to bury their head in the sand in their backyards for the week. A couple of broke dudes from San Antonio have to keep their eyes peeled for a spot.
Yet in a week of people gathering from the world over jockeying for status, one can do so through two different means– one’s credentials and one’s parking spot. Once our car was reclaimed (and I stopped fretting about the state of my bank account, I weathered the storm), the last few days of the festival involved us regrouping, seeking out a new, tried and true place to park that was still close enough to the action that walking isn’t some insurmountable distance to dread by the end of the evening. There was a moment of accomplishment finding a decent parking spot in a new location, to have a new secret of Austin, and even to have it not far from where most of our scheduled action was set. However, this was more a result of necessary shrewdness overcoming a major inherent flaw in Austin’s outsized growth. Yes, we found a decent parking spot in the midst of this chaos, but this does not in the least diminish said chaos. Every thinkpiece in the last couple weeks that I have encountered has had more to say about the flaws of SXSW — its excessive corporate kowtowing, its inability to accommodate its crowds, its glutenous bacchanal, its ultimate disposable nature — and the inability to get from one location to another without sacrificing safety or coming up off some serious coin is very problematic and shows no signs yet of improvement. It’s all part and parcel of SXSW, but even worse, it’s all part and parcel of Austin.
Standouts and Surprises
This was maybe the first year where I didn’t also do ongoing coverage throughout the week of SXSW for the KRTU Indie blog, leaving my SXSW coverage to this sprawling, multi-sectioned piece and casting aside more conventional coverage involving assorted blurbs on acts that I saw. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t sing high praise on acts like Weaves led by the off kilter, fascinating Jasmyn Burke who has a Regina Spektor lilt in her delivery. They’re quite a fascinating act who played a show at Wonderland on E. 6th that was in Marijuana Deathsquads’ time slot but was so great that no one seemed to mind.
I also finally got to see The Black Lips perform live, something I somehow never got around to doing the whole time I was in Atlanta for college, but finally got the pleasure of doing on Saturday at the Palm Door on Sixth, and it was about time. The Georgia natives have quite the following and managed to rile the very packed main room of the venue, formerly The Stages on Sixth9, and pull just as much energy from the crowd with their new material from their upcoming album, Underneath the Rainbow, as they did from the older songs that had many singing along. It was a set made for partying (and featured a song all about whiskey, which is definitely a good thing).
While I never did connect much with their latest release, Oh My Sexy Lord, I was still intrigued by Marijuana Deathsquads that I tried to see them multiple times throughout the week while only ultimately seeing their last performance of the festival at The Liberty on the far end of E. 6th. It’s an absolute marvel to see this seven piece band — four on assorted electronics & distorted vocals, two drummers, and one keyboardist — forming like Voltron to make these scratchy, scrambled, thumping tunes. These guys can build a moment and ruminate in it for a good little minute. All these moving parts, even as they claimed half their gear on the table was broken, makes one appreciate the end product– a damn fine, headnodding bunch of songs. I’ll be revisiting Oh My Sexy Lord again and truly delve into it, better understanding the greatness I had missed before.
Finally, I saw Adam Schatz’ Landlady perform twice during the week of SXSW (three times if you include their improvised set with Killer Bob & Jonathan Horne at the Jazz for the Masses Party) and it’s incredibly inspiring to see Schatz in this different though still entirely the same context. Landlady still encompasses his aural weirdness and this group’s impeccable chops. There are still songs requiring three drummers. Ad libbing between everyone on stage keeps the whimsy alive that one would expect from this fun-loving group. Yet, they’re more straightforward in their song approach than these folks would be were they playing jazz (which is certainly in each of these musicians’ wheelhouse). There’s broader appeal going on with this group and with Schatz & Co.’s infectious charm, they’re bound to get it.
I ended my week belabored, but chipper. Poorer than expected, but not all that upset about it (never gamble what you aren’t willing to lose). Happy to be back at home but preemptively irritated at the prospects of real life coming the next day. I was disappointed that I didn’t see enough, that so many of my nights seemed to stop around 9 as if I were still back home in San Antonio, constrained by the horrid bus system (ask any of my friends how often I say “I’m not out at night”). Still, I felt I had enough experiences to say I’d gone through a decent enough South by Southwest.
In a week lamenting a change in culture and the loss of actual lives, there seems to be so many who felt this was the tipping point for this festival. However, I didn’t exactly see it that way. Perhaps I stayed with a quieter crowd. Perhaps I scheduled around most of the nauseating (both figuratively and, apparently, literally) parts. Perhaps I slept right through it. They say no one ever has the same SouthBy experience– it’s all so massive, so chaotic, so unable to be reproduced (hell, even the giant Doritos vending machine stage just ain’t what it used to be). I’m still up to the challenge of tweaking my schedule, of allotting my resources, of preparing just so to get the SXSW right. My own musical press toward the mark of a somewhat lesser calling. Annuit Coeptis over the unfinished pyramid and all that. I’m still in for the next one, but I thought this was was still alright.
Thank Yous and Shout Outs
Thanks again to Nick, Scott, & Matt of Breeze House for taking me in once again. I always appreciate your open door policy and I really enjoy finding a good beer to bring with me. By the way, I may need to drop by again the next couple weekends.
Thanks to Andrew, my travel companion. We’ve really got to get our navigation skills down. Also, find a way to keep making stuff. Always find a way to keep making stuff.
Thanks to Adam, one of my favorite weirdos in the whole wide world. I’m serious, though, next time we’re in the same place, we have to find some barbecue and/or chicken & waffles.
Thanks to Jonathan for playing double duty.
Shout out to Jonathan’s mom for his amazing pants.
Thanks to BBNG for playing this again. I was much more chill this time, right? Also, my offer still stands.
Shout out to Cliff Hines. Congrats on that thing. Wish you could make it to Durham.
Shout out to Dean & Audrey at Hometapes. I’m loving where this label is going.
Shout out to Lucas Gillan. Thanks for coming by.
Thanks to Miles Terracina, aka @PunkSoda. Glad we’ve finally met.
Thanks to Michael for keeping the wheels on the track for me once again. We’ll keep getting smoother at this. It’s all about solving problems.
Thanks to Cicely for the support. Hope you enjoyed your 18-hour vacation. I’ll see you next month in Durham for AoC Fest (tickets still available now, the lineup is bananas).
Shout out to electrical sockets for being where I need them.
Shout out to pizza places that sell by the slice for coming through every time in the clutch.
Shout out to Anthony Fantano at The Needle Drop– I’m still hella embarrassed I didn’t realize I was at your thing.
Thanks to my parents for not worrying too much, and particularly to my mom for texting right when one expectantly should while still remembering God keeps a hedge around me.
Thanks to Sandy for keeping things together and for being at work the other day.
Thanks to Scott for letting me yoink your picture and for hanging around. You still owe me a beer, though.
Thanks to everyone at El Sapo. You’ve been great hosts once again and I hope the new place turns out great.
Thanks to you, dear reader, if you read this whole thing.
1. Normally, I would try to avoid mentioning such a fact in a piece such as this, it would seem somewhat improper. However, I realize it’s far too difficult to navigate around the weaving narrative of this week and its holes in time without addressing this.↩
2. However, in our scramble to put this day together, we didn’t have any way to record any of the day’s sets. I wish we could hear everything from that Wednesday in March again but we can’t. With this set in particular, a big, weird, amazing thing was made that will never be seen or heard from again– the true feeling of bittersweet. ↩
3. Not a joke, I very closely followed the advice of our sound guy’s 12-year-old daughter. She has six years of experience and has worked with Esperanza Spalding. In fact, she didn’t even name drop Esperanza, so from then on, I trusted her implicitly. After a while, she said I was doing fine, so I’m quite pleased with myself.↩
4. This is right after Horne played a magnificent improvised duo set that Saturday, February 21 with Misha Marks, who was playing a guitar made out of a lunch box, who he had never played with before at the Museum of Human Achievement, a venue in a location I’m not supposed to talk about.↩
5. Seriously, if you emailed me between March 11th and 16th (or any music journalist that week, really), that may have not been your best move. The week after where I spent much of my energy writing this piece? Not much better.↩
6. The breakdown & map from the Austin American-Statesman is some particularly great coverage on this. ↩
7. Thanks, Governor Perry. ↩
8. And to get a good night’s sleep; I don’t mess with my sleep. ↩
9. This large space apparently sees no use throughout the year, only getting bought out for SXSW, which is honestly a shame because it’s such a great venue with good sightlines and general vibe that ought to be great year round. ↩
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.