South by Southwest is a ten-day arts/music conference and festival started in 1987. The music festival hosts upwards of 1400 bands over four days.
The official slogan dubs Austin “the Live Music Capitol of the World,” while the unofficial byline encourages you to “Keep Austin Weird.” The city was once an epicenter for outlaw country musicians and is now home to the women’s professional football team, the Austin Outlaws.
We definitely sensed the trans-legal vibration as we piled out of Mason’s ‘88 Southern Coach Wednesday afternoon in uptown Austin. We’d had a series of unpleasant encounters with the Border Patrol over the course of the almost 30-hour drive, which left us feeling both patronized and immortal.
First, at a checkpoint in Arizona, the BP tore apart the van in secondary while we made awkward small talk on the roadside. Upon returning to the van, we found someone’s forgotten stash of reefer sitting on the seat next to a ransacked piece of luggage.
Had our mind tricks worked or did the boys in green feel bad because their ecstatic Labrador had just pissed all over one of our pillows?
Then, in Texas: “You American citizens?” “Yep.” “Where you going?” “South by Southwest.” “What’s that?” “A music festival in Austin.” “What are you doing there?” “We’re music journalists.” “You’re what?” “We write about music.” “All of you?” “Yeah.” “Pull over into secondary.”
We hopped around and hugged to keep warm. “Are we being profiled?” Ryan asked an agent as a vanload of fellow festival-goers made the walk of shame to the interrogation office. “You’re just that lucky,” he responded. Eventually, an agent returned with the hapless bud in hand. He asked who it belonged to, and Jamie made a few statements regarding medical marijuana in California.
“I just saved you $600,” he said, crushing the bud in his glove. “Welcome to Texas.”
There were five of us: Mason, Lety, Jamie, Ryan, and myself. Most of us had just met less than 24 hours ago, but our group synergy was potent. Anything was possible.
We were just that lucky.
Wednesday, March 17, 4:10 p.m. San Diego Hoedown at Luster Pearl. Tape Deck Mountain plays “In the Dirt.” Free cups of Trumer Pils and Stone IPA. TDM covers Danzig’s “Mother.” A taco truck distributes the goods.
5:00 p.m. El Ten Eleven melts faces all around. Lightning Bolt meets Keller Williams goes to the disco.
5:40 p.m. Free beer runs out. In defiance of $4 cans of Tecate, I walk to a gas station for a six-pack.
8ish. We head north, to the belly of the beast. SXSW inhabits all corners of Austin, but the action reaches peak volume just east of Congress on Sixth Avenue. Buskers, jammers, and vendors are everywhere. Bands spill their guts from storefronts, coffee shops, the Pita Pit. Free hugs on the street. Mystery and madness in every direction.
9:33 p.m. Lety and I end up at One-2-One bar, where locals the Twalls strum the blues. We order up some whiskey and hit the dance floor. In no time, a quixotic old-timey mood possesses me and I propose to Lety, who I met about 44 hours ago. She does the sensible thing and tells me to ask again in the morning.
Midnight. We go to the top floor of the Hilton, where Steve Poltz gyrates around the stage. A dude who claims to be Poltz’s former manager tells me he had to let him go. He’s too wild. He’s 50 years old and broke his hand, and look at him strum the guitar anyway, while a band mate frets the thing. Look at him shake around, grinning like a circus clown.
“I can’t fucking dance!” Steve yells. “I’ve been holding a guitar my whole life!”
Thursday, March 18, noonish. We grab some legendary Austin breakfast tacos and head downtown. A gang of Segway people float past street poles wrapped in cellophane and spackled with event posters. Ryan and I head to La Condensa for a cocktail party.
“I register for 1000 events and end up where I end up,” local Jacob says. “It’s going to be awesome, no matter what.”
7 p.m. We head to Sixth to do some promo work for Nacional Records. A Latin soft-shoe dancer taps out a beat on a wooden box.
8:20 p.m. Latin icons Bomba Estereo, Bajofondo, Ozomatli, and Banda de Touristas play tonight, but somehow we end up at Darwin’s Pub, watching some shitty band from Nashville. The front man is clearly in love with himself, evoking both repugnance and drunken resignation from the crowd.
10 p.m. Back on top of the Hilton, the woman at the door tells us seven dollars. Moments later, she invites us in for free. In the distance, the Frost Bank building juts skyward like a science-fiction monument to Moloch. Ryan joins us as we hang around the upper crust bar, pretending we belong there. Music by Correatown and Julie Feeny.
11:41 p.m. Denko Jones. Like Motörhead, but Canadian. “This one’s for you, Texas,” Denko growls. “Fuck L.A.! This song’s for anybody who wants to give us a record contract. Even if you’re from L.A.”
And that pretty much sums up what SXSW is all about.
Friday, March 19, 1:50 p.m. I just miss Phantogram on South Congress. Instead, 17-year-old Dominique Young Unique from Tampa, Florida, lays down some old-skool hip-hop about war and her ass. N-bombs be droppin’.
4:15 p.m. Tobacco at the Onion A.V. Club party. Masters of stage non-presence, I don’t notice the third band member sitting on the floor fiddling knobs until the last song. Glitchy set. Mid ‘80s workout videos.
Midnight. Rumor has it the Broken Social Scene show is full, so we grab a case of Tecate and lurk outside the gates of Luster Pearl, where Broken Bells plays a wristband-and badges-only show. It’s, ya know, meh.
12:30 a.m. Across the street at a co-op house, a gang of kids crowd around a dude blasting Lady Gaga from a circuit-bent Game Boy. The salvo of overdriven sound effects goads us into dance. We reel around the lawn like zombies.