SXSW 2023 – Post Pandemic 2-Step Starts Soft HOME PAGE: SXSW MUSIC FESTIVAL 2023
LOS ANGELES, CA- Let’s rip the bandaid off this hairy arm and say it. Covid. I’m so fatigued with the word, the phenomenon, the actual illness, the idiocracy across the full political spectrum that continues to weaponize it one direction or the other. But it’s a thing. And it’s so very relevant to assessing the landscape of SXSW in 2023, because if we travel back 3 years to a moment of near-unprecedented mass uncertainty, the canary in the coal mine that spelled “duuuuude (with five u’s) this shit is REAL” was SXSW shutting it down. And this is because the cozy little music fest had long ago evolved into an annual pilgrimage of elites, some actual and many perceived, that whether it be reality or well-orchestrated smoke and mirrors, exude the aura of privileged access and insider knowledge. So when those who “know things” pulled the plug at the 11th hour on a three week orgy of performance and presentation and hobnobbing and dealmaking that by conservative estimates has a nearly half billion dollar economic impact, we all knew shit was real and shit was going down. And it did.
[Insert 2020, 2021, and depending on where you live, most of 2022 here].
When the butterfly emerged from the chrysalis, the bear from its cave, me from my couch, what were the clearest signals that the winter of our forced hibernation was approaching a possible end? Live music. Shoulder to shoulder, whether the room be dank or halls be hallowed. Breathing, singing, dancing, drinking, sweating. Together. Live music was the harbinger of a return to life as we knew it and life as we need it. All this to say, SXSW Music 2023, the first SXSW where the c-word was not a primary, secondary, or even tertiary concern, was loaded with a collective emotional heft that largely went unspoken but was omnipresent nonetheless.
For me, the initial feels were unleashed before I even got there. My Uber to LAX was helmed by a driver who in 25 minutes of gravitas through rain-soaked Los Angeles, waxed philosophical about Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, and the intersection of talent, discipline, courage, joy, sacrifice, magic, audacity, and pain that result in the creation of musical genius. Me and my unexpected sensei went deep and I was surprised to find our conversation drifting more toward Marvin than Miles. His style, visual and sonic, his defiance of expectations, his groundbreaking, iconoclastic, and now immortal rendering of the national anthem at the 1983 NBA all star game. My dialogue with this gentleman had me so amped to see bands that by the time I got situated in Austin on a Monday night, I couldn’t wait to get in it.
But what “it” was, was not quite the “it” that I expected. Police outnumbered civilians 2 to 1, a ratio that locals later informed me far eclipsed the numbers of years past, and roadblocks and barricades made access to downtown a dance that one had to master without the aid of Google Maps or Waze. Thankfully my Uber driver was a late middle aged lady who looked like a librarian in the sheets but drove like a freak in the streets. Unfazed by traffic cones and street signs, she blew past a few road closures, offering a matronly smile and a faux-innocent shrug that kindly said “oopsie” to the bewildered traffic cops, and then weaved her way through a maze of one way alleys (usually the wrong way) until we were at the doorsteps to the convention center. She was fly. 5-star rating. Alas, the night was not.
It was late, cold, and gusty. A tumbleweed blowing down East Cesar Chavez would have been on brand for the moment. But I figured a run down 6th Street would still be worth the while, if nothing else, to get the toes wet on my first night at SXSW. I know 6th Street is considered the lowest hanging and often rotted fruit, a bit cliche and often dirty, but many still consider it the ground zero from which the universe of music venues in Austin radiates outward. The gnarled trunk from which far more elegant branches have grown. And I wanted to start at the source. So I started walking toward 6th but as I got closer and closer, the vibe remained … desolate. And when I turned the corner onto 6th Street proper, I was greeted by a mildly electric atmosphere of anticipation that was tempered by a more overwhelming and general sense of something I can only call sadness.
Empty bar after empty bar, famous venues unremarkable shitholes that looked equally depressing in the naked absence of people who would normally cover over floors that have seen an untold number of puking and passed out patrons. Floors now free to tell stories that don’t want to be told, stories blowing from fog machines machining fog in vain as the mist reflected strobes of blue and purple light. Heavy bass thumping with no bodies to dampen the echo or harness the otherwise aimless and untethered blasts of noise that tapered off into the quasi-apocalyptic doomscape of an Austin that was primed to pop off but felt more like a giant and abandoned vape shop than a global hub of musical celebration.
As I walked past open doors to beer-battered rooms where the smell of Clorox will never fully cover the fossilized stench of stale well-drinks, where the stink of adidas cologne or raw B.O. would’ve been welcome, if for no other reason than to let me know that I wasn’t alone, Monday night of SXSW 2023 epitomized the nadir of where I’d want to be at any point in my life. At best, I felt like I was trick or treating on October 30th. No one is gonna tell you that you’re doing it wrong. You might even get a few high fives. But the party you are looking for has most definitely not yet begun.
And yet… the handful of people I passed by seemed in good spirits. Perchance the emptiness was a projection of a void within because signs of life were there for those who chose to see them. Well dressed strippers were handing out discount entries to their place of employment. A guy with an albino python – because there’s always a guy with an albino python – offered up his snake for selfies. And a handful of heroes appeared more than happy to be the only one’s slamming discount shots in the aforementioned shitholes.
All were angels hiding in plain sight. All were heralds of good things to come…