SXSW Festival takes over Austin, Texas

At any other time, in any other place, it might seem odd for me to find myself sitting in a room at 4 a.m. with a legendary punk rocker sitting on the chair to my left, two-thirds of one of the more influential bands for me during my younger years on my right, my hosts, one of whom is one of the top 20 female bloggers in the country sitting across from me, as we engage in political debates, music scene gossip, and all the other happenings that take place when you host an after-hours party. This is South By Southwest though, so this seems perfectly normal.

Every year, I look forward to the third week of March, the one right before the U of I spring break, because it’s the one chance I get all year to go on a real vacation. So, I make the most of it: I pack my bags full, since I have to be prepared for both cold and warm weather, though I hope for the warm weather that has pushed any memories of cold weather from my brain. My sights are set for Austin, Texas, for the mother of all music festivals. CMJ, Coachella, Lollapawarphordelilli-stock have (and had) their charms (especially for people who like to ride in taxis or play in the mud), but South By Southwest is the benchmark conference that sets the bar which competitors must try to reach.

Downtown Austin is simply overrun for five days. New bars open up specifically for the event, tents are erected, and bars that never feature live music during the rest of the year suddenly find themselves housing rock shows. The streets teem with people, though, since the University of Texas is on spring break, the hordes of bleach-blonde, silicon-chested, unnaturally tanned women and the frat boys who are on a mission to get them into bed are replaced with tattooed, gender-bending, impossibly hip-looking musicians and the industry types who are on a mission to lick their assholes clean.

What does this mean for your average visitor to the Texas state capital during these five days in March? Some of the most amazing musicians in the world, together in one place and in venues that are no more than a 20 minute walk away. For a music-loving geek such as myself, heaven could be no sweeter.

For those of you that have not been fortunate enough to make the pilgrimage, let me explain how SXSW works. Bands are selected to play (mainly) in two ways. One, the selection committee hears a submitted CD, likes it and invites the band to play at the conference. Two, labels big and small, booking companies and other industry conglomerations have showcases. When this happens, the companies are free to choose whomever they’d like to play their night. There are a select few artists who are pursued to play SXSW, but these are names like Elvis Costello or Erykah Badu, so most bands won’t enter this way.

In order to gain admission to the show, there are three ways you can go about it. On the day of the show, you can pay to get into any show that is offering tickets. This is used by Austinites mostly, for people that really just want to see one show. Next, there are wristbands. This is the most popular option, and the best way to see a lot of music without paying an exorbitant amount of money. You get access to all shows, but you must wait in line behind badge holders. There are a few batches released, the first one about a month before the festival priced at $110. As those sell out, the price jumps about $20 with each batch, until they reach $150. Once those are gone, wristbands are sold out.

Far and away the best route to see as much as you can at SXSW is getting a badge. In September, the first batch of badges goes on sale. These are priced at $325 and include admission to all the shows, inclusion in the registrants’ directory, the SXSW big bag and admission to all the music panels. Also, you can cut to the front of any line in front of wristband holders, and there are all sorts of giveaways (cigarettes! beer! food!) that are for badge holders only. There are even a few shows that are strictly for badge holders. Badges are on sale until March, but they shoot up in price about $50 a month, until they reach $525. Buy early if this is going to be your option.

Once you get to Austin, it’s best to pace oneself. There is so much going on, with day showcases, night showcases, and after-hours parties, that it’s really easy to burn out after a day or two. Remember, this is a marathon not a sprint, and endurance is a key. After two years of being completely exhausted by Saturday, I still managed to forget this and found myself breathing pretty heavy once Friday rolled around. Regardless, I still checked out some fantastic music.

Elvis Costello-For me, the concert of the conference, and it happened on the first night. Declan McManus (as his mother calls him) is the consummate musician and was gracious enough to do an interview earlier in the day at the Austin Convention Center. Among stories about him and George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Count Basie and others, Elvis showed himself to be a very intelligent, soft spoken, and articulate man. He has a brilliant grasp of where he stands in the music industry, especially as one of very few men who as been able to make a career last 30 years and still be relevant. He also sees the impending downfall of the independent record store, but also the big five record labels. Besides all this, his concert was amazing, two hours of pure energy at La Zona Rosa, a hall that fits about 1200 people.

Sleater-Kinney-Another show that happened on the first night of SXSW. They played mostly songs from their upcoming release, which will be their debut album for Sub Pop. These women are the vanguard of indie rock, and their new record, which will be out in May, promises to be more of what propelled them to legendary status among riot grrrls and boys that wear cardigan sweaters and horn rimmed glasses.

Watchers-This Chicago-based quintet has produced two records for Gern Blandston, with funky grooves delicately balanced with no wave sensibilities. They’ve already done one stint as the backing band for James Chance, and they are set to do another this summer. Their frontman, Michael, is a force to be reckoned with, with hot dance moves on stage and off; although, be careful if you’re shy and in the front row because he likes to shatter the barrier between band and audience.

Plastilina Mosh-Monterrey, Mexico, is bursting with talent at the moment, and among the cream of the crop is this duo that appears live as a sextet. Ponder for a moment Trans Am, the Beastie Boys and Manu Chao collaborating to form one super-robot, the likes of which has never been seen in this galaxy before, and you’ve got a beginning of a grasp of Plastilina Mosh. They’re on Astralwerks, and you can check out a few tracks on the Web site. I recommend starting out with “Human Disco Ball.” It’s in English, unlike most of their songs, which are written in their native tongue, and its got accessible hooks to grab even the most undiscerning listener.

LCD Soundsystem-DFA Records co-owner James Murphy doesn’t just produce music, he programs and sings for himself as well. The recently released self-titled album by his project, LCD Soundsystem is cowbell heavy and laden with beats so danceable, even my drunk ass was shaking at their late-night Thursday show. While the record is a little spotty, interchanging moments of brilliance with patches of … adequacy, live, Murphy knows what he’s doing. The crowd flowed and ebbed at his whim, even though the level of inebriation that he was in would’ve felled a lesser man. I hereby dub this the drunkest show of the conference. All hail Johnny Powers, my official whiskey for SXSW.

Son Volt-They never really broke up, they just stopped making records for five years. After putting in his time with Jeff Tweedy in the seminal alt-country band Uncle Tupelo, Jay Farrar decided to stick with the country sound that Tweedy has been trying to escape since forming Wilco. While I had to sit through the worst half hour of my life waiting for the Wallflowers to finish up (Jakob Dylan brought his band out half an hour late, completely lousing up my plans for the evening), Son Volt made it all worth while, playing songs from the album that they recorded this winter just outside of St. Louis, along with plenty of familiar tunes from their earlier records.

Brian Wilson-He didn’t play but, he was gracious enough to do a panel on SMiLE, the album that took 37 years to complete. After Wilson had a nervous breakdown in 1967, it took until Nov. 16, 2003, for him to get started on the project. After The Beatles released Rubber Soul, Wilson created Pet Sounds, which in turn led to the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. SMiLE was to be Wilson’s answer to that record, although with the delay it has become so mired in legend and myth that it seems to have eclipsed itself as a testament to Wilson’s genius.

Other bands worth mentioning: local boys American Minor, the Living Blue and Rob McColley all had showcases at this year’s festival, all well attended, and the Living Blue even got a write-up in the Chicago Reader. Austin bands galore played, some of the better ones were Amplified Heat, three brothers from Mexico that play so fast that their fingers blur as I watch them; Migas, who are so fast and loud that the drummer tried to quit halfway through their show; and Yuppie Pricks, who will be releasing their first album on Alternative Tentacles this year.

You can be sure that their cold black capitalist hearts can’t wait until the royalty checks from the hard earned cash that you spend on it gets to their pockets.

Hot Hot Heat, Louis XIV, The Futureheads, Doves and Bloc Party played what had to have been the most crowded showcase: the line stretched from the doors of La Zona Rosa in either direction as far as the eye could see. Badge holders waited in line for two hours to get into this show, held by BBC 1 Radio. And that is merely one-tenth of 1 percent of the bands that played at SXSW this year. Check out the web site: to see a list of all the bands that played, and you can listen online to mp3s that many of the bands have posted.

With all the music, the beautiful weather that stayed in the mid 60’s or higher all week, the delicious food that varies from greasy burger joints at three in the morning to breakfast tacos at Amaya’s to (my favorite) BBQ, to the best bar food ever at Casino El Camino, great friends that graciously granted me use of their guest room (until I was usurped by the aforementioned punk rock legend), I find it a little surprising that I even got on the plane back to Champaign, although now that I’m back it does feel like home, especially because of the people I had waiting for me. SXSW is maybe the most fun you can have in a week, so I’m glad it only happens once a year. Otherwise I’d have had cirrhosis of the liver five years ago, and I’d be so jaded about rock shows that I’d have to start writing for Pitchfork.

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