Baptism By Tortilla And Other Thoughts On A First SXSW Read A SXSW Newbies Impressions Of Austin's Preeminent Festival
LOS ANGELES, CA- Third day in Austin, sitting at the bar at El Mercado, crushing breakfast tacos and slamming refills of coffee. It’s close to noon but very hard to imagine that much of anything has transpired during the morning hours on this particular Saturday. To be an early riser during South by Southwest is a fantastically ambitious proposition and largely counterproductive. The woman next to me is in a helluva good mood though. She orders pancakes. She wants them a certain way and the waiter is happy to oblige. Not high maintenance. That wouldn’t fly. At least it wouldn’t accomplish anything. No. She’s chill. Just very very specific. I respect that and I let her know. We get to talking and it turns out she’s the stage manager at a venue down the street. Been running shows at “SouthBy” for years. When the conversation bounces back to me and what I’m doing she gasps, leans back in her barstool and smiles: “Oh…you’ve never been to SouthBy before?!” She turns to her partner, a stoic Sam Elliot looking type who barely flinches an eyebrow as she whispers into his ear, “Hon, it’s his first time!” There’s the obvious suggestion in her voice that I’m a “SouthBy virgin”. It’s sweet. Kind of like Mrs. Garrett on The Facts of Life, if Mrs. Garrett ran a brothel and I was a new patron being taken under her wing. The Sam Elliot guy gives half a nod as he pushes a forkfull of hash browns past the baleen of his mustache. He’s not rude. He just has his priorities. “Your first time at SouthBy?” she again asks me. “Well then, let me be the first to say it…” She pulls in a full breath, tips her head back, and belts out:
“BLESS YOUR LITTLE HEART!”
Lady smacks me hard on the shoulder and almost falls off her own barstool from cackling so hard. The way she’s giggling, I’m afraid she’ll choke on that next bite of her flapjacks. I start laughing too. Almost snort coffee out my nose. Three days in Texas and no one had said that to me. It felt appropriate. Maybe even a little overdue. She made it feel like some sort of ritual, a rite of passage. I didn’t have to drop acid or do ayahuasca. There was no shaman or trial by fire. Just a happy old lady and a cup of coffee. She was my priest, pastor, and rabbi for this initiation. I take another tortilla filled with scrambled eggs and shove it in my mouth. Pleased to conclude one of several SouthBy baptisms that would occur throughout the week. But I’m glad this one happened when it did; 11:30 in the morning, at the counter of the El Mercado bar, surrounded by huevos rancheros and pancakes, coffee and tequila, and with Jamestown Revival already doing a soundcheck in the back room.
Of course, pancakes and backslaps all happened after I’d been around a couple days, after I’d gotten my sea legs at SouthBy and tuned in a little more to this town. And a fascinating town it is. There are moments when you’re acutely aware of being not just in Texas but in the capital of the Lonestar State. The capitol building itself is a massive 19th century domed temple, a structure so sublime it reminds you that Texas was once an independent republic, if even for just a hot minute; the epicenter of a mythology that centers the west as a bastion of rugged individualism and independence…an omnipresent irreverence and pride that makes the election – and reelection – of a massive pussy like Ted Cruz all the more baffling to an outsider like myself.
Then you get to the convention center and you’re less in Texas and more in a downtown as shitty and unremarkable as any other. Surrounded by the 80s/90s style of office building that seems intent on reminding you that you are on your way to a cubicle where you will die a long, slow, and unremarkable death, albeit a death with Starbucks in the lobby. But the beauty of Austin is that you don’t have to travel far to be reborn. 6th Street and the arteries that feed into and out of it are the heartbeat of a music scene that feels like it stretches for miles in almost every direction. From the fungible meeting rooms and carpeted hallways of the Convention Center, you need only step across the street to find a band in a park, a band in a bar, a band in a restaurant, a band on a street corner, a band in a crosswalk. It’s insane. Not a bouncing off the walls borderline riot level insanity. Instead, it’s an insanity born of raw volume.
THERE IS SIMPLY SO MUCH MUSIC!
To put it all in context and grasp the scale of SXSW, it helps to understand that it’s not a closed universe event. You don’t walk through a gate into a fairgrounds where your greatest existential dilemma is whether to go to the main stage, the second stage, the DJ tent, or just stay at the Vestal Village and pop a fistful of pills while you gram away your day on an inflatable swan. The city is the venue. The whole city. And beyond. Bands are playing in every bar, cafe, restaurant, and theater in a city that has an uncommonly bountiful offering of bars, cafes, restaurants, and theaters – all with live music. Being from Los Angeles, that’s what blows my mind. LA has spent the last three decades shutting down and eliminating music venues. The permitting process to host live music is Byzantine and Kafkaesque, shrinking and squeezing one of the world’s music Mecca’s into a handful of venues in Echo Park. So it’s a radical contrast to stand at the intersection of 6th Street and Red River Street. It is awesome. It fills you with awe. There are shows radiating out from that intersection in all directions. Bar after bar. Club after club. BBQ joints with music. Pizza joints with music. Erotica shops with music. Boats in the river, with music.
It’s a lot. You have to embrace it. You have to throw yourself into it. You have to let yourself get lost and wander around. Downtown is a pretty linear grid. Not a lot of curves or dead ends so it’s pretty easy to hold your bearings. Keep your ears open, wear comfortable shoes, and walk. Or – and this was a struggle for me to accept – it actually makes sense and is really helpful to use one of those death sleds they call electric scooters. Bird, Lime, and Jump Bike are everywhere. I would nerd out and bring a helmet though. Why not? Thousands of people drinking 12 hours a day stumbling, scooting, and driving around the city hopped up on Lonestar and Jack Daniels. What could possibly go wrong? I fear road rash and trust myself very little so, personally, I opted to hoof it. Prob clocked a solid 5 to 7 miles on foot each day. But keep in mind that when you get to where you’re going, you’re probably not gonna sit. It’s music. You’re standing all day. You’re standing all night. Blurred Culture’s chief photog Derrick Lee spoke for everyone over the age of 30 when he looked at me and said “Dude, I need new feet.”
So when I say SXSW is exhausting, I’m not talking about crawling into the bottom of a mezcal bottle to do fistfuls of coke off Robert Ellis’ keyboard. What I mean is that it is physically super exhausting. Party? I was too damn tired by one or two in the morning to do much more than eat a slice of pizza and pass out in an uber on my way back to bed. Because I’m old. And there’s so damn much to do. So much. It’s a lot. All that said, here’s the humble takeaways of my first year.
Did I mention it’s a lot?: In a meta-Texas kind of way, quantity of activity is never a concern at SXSW. Hence FOMO, the fear of missing out, can quickly pivot to FOME, the fear of missing everything. At first, it’s overwhelming. But it isn’t overwhelming in the Burning Man or even Coachella sense. You’re not stepping into some hallucinogenic multi-day bender of neo-pagan ritual and narcotic fueled fiesta. It could be that. If that’s what you want to make of it. Where there’s a will to wreck yourself, there’s certainly a way. But it’s a little more grown up. It’s ten days of conferences, panel discussions, networking, branding, marketing, and entertainment. With the 2020 election on the horizon, politicos who made it to Austin included Tulsi Gabard, Beto O’Rourke (Austin is big time Beto country), Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and Elizabeth Warren. Titans of new industry and celebrities of various ilk address a sprawling range of topics, most trying to read the tea leaves and spot the next trend, innovation, or artist that will make them a mint. Hundreds of speakers, hundreds of film and tv screenings — and I missed most of it. But I was never not doing anything. And there’s a beauty in that because the raw physical exhaustion I experienced from walking show to show for 4, 6, 12 hours a day, it beat the living FOMO out of me. You can’t fear missing the rad when you’re in the rad. It ends up being kinda zen.
First Half v. Second Half: By the time I got to Texas, the conference schedule was still in full effect but the topics were whittled down to focus mostly on blockchain and cannabis. Film, tv, politics, and new tech, a lot of those component parts of SXSW had already wrapped up. I point that out because regardless of what your focus is at SXSW, you shouldn’t take for granted how much happens in the opening days. “Officially” that time is committed to the film and new technology forums but “unofficially” a ton of other things are happening. Companies with something to sell are scrambling past one another to impress the early arrivals with unannounced events, musical performances, experiential marketing, and “activations”. If you’re there for music, it makes sense that Austin wouldn’t waste a weekend. It is a full time live music hub, the self-glossed and arguably worthy “Live Music Capital of the World”. So if you have the liberty to take the full 10 days, it would probably be worth it. But it’s good to know that a lot of bands play multiple gigs throughout the week and films have second and third screenings. So if you can’t shake that bad case of the FOMOs, you can relax a little knowing that you’ll probably have the chance to fill in some of the gaps later on. Also, the odds are high that you’ll make relationships early in the week that will open doors and create opportunities later in the week. Not in a Machiavellian strictly business sense. It’s an organic and curious environment, a Petri dish of minds looking to cross pollinate and grow something new. The city is a cerebral greenhouse where connections blossom and do so swiftly.
Weather: Texas in Springtime. One day 80 and sunny. Next day 50 and rain. No one seems at all preoccupied with the unpredictability of the weather and yet everyone looked appropriately dressed at all times. Still not sure how that works.
Lodging: A friend hooked me up with a place to stay. Otherwise I’d have been fucked. A lot of people there are on their employer’s dime, expensing their expenses. If you can’t pull that off, it’s gonna be steep. Plan early.
Transport: Uber is a godsend if you’re outside the city center. Surge pricing is a bitch. Scoot or Jump Bike at your own risk. Walk. Budget for a foot massage
Food: If you’re paying a lot for food, don’t. There should always be something affordable and good within a 2 block radius of wherever you are. Although there are some bourgeois options that are pretty rad. Had woodfired Italian pizza at Bufalina and it was phenomenal. That said, I didn’t pay. The founder of SAVEDx shoes, Todd Widell picked up the tab. Thank you Todd! Insert shameless plug for SAVEDx shoes…here. Breakfast tacos live up to the hype. And it’s Texas. They like their meat. But it’s also Austin. Eclectic and subtly cosmopolitan, there are some solid vegetarian and vegan options.
The Fashion: Not a lot. Austinites are pretty damn comfortable with themselves. Not a lot of peacocking. Another difference from Coachella and the Burn. There’s no uniform being marketed to you by Forever 21 or Free People. No one’s trying to assert the supremacy of their individuality by wearing the exact same pasties and ski goggles that everyone else is wearing. It’s a little more pragmatic. And a lot of the big money at SXSW is from tech and gamers. Not a demographic that gives a whole lot of fucks about how they look. So it’s refreshingly comfortable. Get to South Congress and you’ll see more felt Stetsons and medicine hats. It can be sexy. But otherwise, very chill.
The Music: Largely lived up to the hype. I’m writing up specific shows but here’s my general takeaway. It’s an amazing place to discover newer bands. But a lot gets lost in the insane shuffle of competing showcases and the geographic sprawl of the venues. I focused first on international artists. Hit and miss. Africa and Latin America mostly great. Spain was really weak. Didn’t even get a taste of the many artists from Japan, Taiwan, China, and Korea. The only band I caught at the Australia House was Brazilian and I don’t even know what was going on with Scandinavia and the rest of Europe.
The Music (contd): One thing I noticed at these shows – and this went for a lot of the lesser known American bands as well – is that bands who feed off the crowd are going to have trouble giving you their best at SXSW. Because their people aren’t there. The crowd is mostly the other bands in the lineup and a handful of geeks like me. Bands who cut their teeth on raucous live shows, the bands with fans who scream every word and go excessively apeshit, it’s gonna be tough for them to find their magic at a global showcase with such a diluted audience pool. Of course, the pro jocks transcend. They bring it regardless. And if there’s only five people in the room when they unleash, you look at the other four people in the room, shake your head and laugh at how absolutely unreal it is to be sharing the experience of such sublime artistry with so few other human beings. The middle ground – the best spots for bands who are good but still figuring it out – are the “Parties”. These are the events that sort of bridge the gap. Certain venues like the Hotel Vegas, build an all-day party that, if you have the stamina, allow you to stay in one place and let a fiesta of curated artists revolve around you. But who wants to stay in one place all day at SXSW? Dilemma. Choose your own adventure but don’t waste time on something that isn’t rad. Because no matter where you are, rad is probably a half block away. Sometimes, it’s just in the next room.
The music (contd contd): if you’ve busted ass tracking down new artists in small venues and late night showcases, it’s worth giving yourself a high five and going to a show that is a bona fide blowout. For this, there are generally two options: bigger names and local names. Ideally, both. My last day was back to back to back artists either from or based out of Texas and a few from Nashville who seemed very much at home in Austin. Jamestown Revival, Justin Townes Earle, Nikki Lane, White Denim, Annabelle Chairlegs, Robert Ellis, Paul Cauthert, Quaker City Nighthawks. Some I knew. Some I didn’t. All phenomenal.
Street Scene: A wise man once described 6th Street thusly: “it’s like Mardi Gras…without the boobs”. Yes and no. If you’re on 6th Street or Red River for a specific show, it’s awesome. The venues have good sound and you’re close to 50 other venues. If you’re just bouncing around, then yeah, kinda gross. But 6th Street is enormously long. Each block with its own identity, it’s own side streets and alleys. Rainey Street is another hub. Feels more new and a bit contrived. Because it is. Built from the dirt up over the last 10 years, it’s stylish but a little sterile. Either way, it has a lot going on. I was into the area more east of the city center by Hotel Vegas and the Scoot Inn – two epic old school venues in an otherwise rapidly developing downtown. I also found a lot of cheaper and better tasting food and drink on the east side. (Special shout to the crew at Revival Coffee. This place was my oasis amid the chaos. A place to recharge mind, body, and cellphone.)
Street scene Pt. 2: Overall, not a lot of chaos. SXSW did not correspond the way it normally does with spring break at the University of Texas. That probably chilled things out a little bit. Fewer coeds going berserker and fewer middle aged dudes trying to perv on said coeds. And I think there were some other efforts made to take the collective apeness down a notch. But as I age, I might be subconsciously steering myself away from the more reckless possibilities that present themselves at a 10 day global music fest. It certainly wasn’t a smooth ride for all and it’s probably toughest on the artists…
Outro: Near the end of his set at the Mohawk, the Texas Piano Man, aka Robert Ellis, leaned into the microphone and whispered loudly, “This week… is designed …to destroy us all.” You could hear in the feigned drama of his voice that SXSW had indeed been a nonstop bender for the man in the white tuxedo. The week demands a lot of the artists. And the artists demand a lot of the week. If Ellis was a candle burning at both ends, he’d be the first to admit that he lit both the wicks. But me? Like I said. I was just there for the tunes, the tacos, and a couple shots of tequila. My feet hurt. Otherwise, I came home in one piece. Overwhelmed by all the content but pretty stoked and with plenty to write about.
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THE IMAGES ARE LINKS TO THE DAYS OF MUSIC BLURRED CULTURE GOT TO EXPERIENCE AT SXSW 2019.
CLICK THE IMAGE AND CHECK OUT SOME OF THE MUSIC WE GOT TO CHECK OUT. YOU MAY LIKE SOME OF IT 😉