SXSW 2003: The Rest of the Story

Saturday, March 29, 2003
@ the dorm room | 7:37 PM
SXSW 2003: The Rest

I slacked in posting my South by Southwest experiences. I’d been planning to post them daily as it went on, but I found that each morning, as I awoke from the drunken, harmonic haze of the night before, I needed to be downtown again for more music. And so, I never put aside enough time to actually sit down and write up reports from the front. I was too busy finding parking, talking to people, glancing at my Austin Chronicle-pullout SXSW schedule, saying, “I have a tab,” and worrying about the slur in my speech affecting my ability to accurately convey my thoughts to whatever person I happened to be speaking to at the time the wave of alcohol finally broke and pulled me under.

The lasting image of those five days would probably be, for me, the sight of the Woodward and S. Congress traffic light as, each morning around eleven, I left my home and took a right, heading north on Congress toward Sixth Street, the epicenter of SXSW. The weather was beautiful with a clear blue sky and warm temperatures throughout the week. Warm enough, indeed, to have baked my car enough by that hour of the morning to make slipping into it like slipping inside the womb of my bed or, if I hadn’t slept well the night before (which was often during that alcohol-sleep week) and was still waking up and possibly a bit cranky, entering an oven that immediately caused the sweat glands to shift into high gear. But each day I made it out to the clubs in an effort to figure out those who attend the festival.

I learned that when you call something a festival, no matter what sort of festival it may be, people will treat it as a party. People are expected to mingle at most parties. I found it was rather easy to strike up conversations with those standing near me. I’m probably the least out-going of people I know (well, save for New Orleans John), so this statement carries some weight, I think.

I told a few people that I was working freelance on a piece about SXSW-goers. “I’m writing about the people who attend South by Southwest. Everyone writes about the bands. I want to explore the people.” I really wanted to talk to those affiliated with record labels or publications that shelled out $500+ for a badge to give them first dibs on all shows. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I mainly met locals. Indeed, the greeting of the week was, “Are you local?” I did meet a group of fans from Los Angeles, though. We discussed mass transit.

On Thursday night, I went to Tequila Rock on Sixth Street, a new club, to see the Aisler’s Set and talk to people. I ended up talking to a girl smoking Parliaments. Her name was Rachel. She has a fiancee in Washington, D.C. and sings in the local band, W.T. Special and the Tallboys. She critiqued the other bands that played between Winslow and the Aisler’s Set. She talked of Star Trek, even going so far as to mention episodes (that, suprisingly, I’d seen) and professed her love of Jean Luc Picard. She blasted Bush and the war (that hadn’t started yet). I was forced by her music tastes, her politics, her nerdy love of sci-fi, and her trained opera wails to ask if she had any female friends to whom she might introduce me. Of course, she doesn’t. That’s why she’s so cool. At the end of the night, after inviting me to her show later in the week, she commended me for not hitting on her. Little did she know I was hitting on her in my own low-key, nice guy sorta way. That’s to say, weak-kneed and insecurely.

Friday morning I jumped out of bed, grabbed a shower, and headed to Caritas, a local soup kitchen, where Soup by Southwest was being put on by ComboPlate Booking. The Decemberists, who never tour were to play a set there. I secured a sweet parking space on 7th Street half a block from Lovejoy’s and a block and a half from Caritas and Emo’s, where a free Barsuk/Post-Parlo Records Party was happening later in the day that I wanted to attend. Shortly after I arrived, a fight broke out between two homeless guys who were eating at the kitchen. The security guard and four other guys jumped on them and threw them out onto the street. The Decemberists played three songs (after Matt the Electrician, a local guy, and some New Zealanders) and I was very happy. The lady who runs ComboPlate, Matt the Electrician’s booking agent, invited me to a party that afternoon.

At about 12:30 PM, I headed over to Emo’s. I left my car at the meter and judged that, even if I received a $25 ticket, for the number of bands I was about to see for free at Emo’s it was worth it. I was able to get in without a problem (and free) and immediately got a fully-stocked Bloody Mary to wash away the last vestiges of the night before’s carelessness. I talked to various people: A girl who attends SEU, Melody (friend), Dana (an old punk rocker from Dallas), the three people from LA, a girl from San Marcos, Andra and Andrea (friends), and found Joe Williams (a friend from Iowa who I never would have found had he not been working the merchandise table and John Vanderslice thanked him from the stage). I also got sufficiently drunk without having eaten all day. So, after seeing The Long Winters, Death Cab for Cutie, Quasi, John Vanderslice, and many, many other bands (for free), I went out and ate. Later that night, I went to The Hideout and saw the Extra Glenns, who are, essentially, The Mountain Goats (who also rarely tour). Then I repaired to Lovejoy’s for night-ending drinks where I ran into JoAnna, who used to work at Halcyon’s smokeshop before it all went to shit, and partied with her group.

After flying solo throughout the week, I was a bit worried about taking Leah and Brian (Chad, another friend, joined us later in the night) along with me on Saturday night. I was worried they wouldn’t like whatever music we were hearing, that they’d want to leave early, and/or that, while groupthink allows one to give up some amount of responsibility as to the outcome (especially if negative), it can also slow down necessary actions. Fortunately, none of those worries became realities. We started at Cucharacha to see Rachel’s (from Thursday night) band. We enjoyed that and stayed on for the Hotrod Hillbillies. I once again ran into Andra and some other friends. Afterward, we tried a couple of clubs and found that Tequila Rock was, once again, our best bet. We saw about four or five bands there, ending with I Am The World Trade Center and VHS or BETA. It was a good show, though I judged it to be, probably, the worst showcase I’d attended all week. At the end of the evening, Chad played Leah and me a couple of songs at his place. He was probably the best band we’d seen all night.

So that’s a short synopsis of my SXSW week. In the middle of the Extra Glenns’ show, I was sitting among the crowd in The Hideout’s theater (I believe local music writer and deejay Andy Langer was sitting next to me (had I known for sure, I would’ve clocked him once in the jaw and bolted for the door — his show on 101X, The Next Big Thing, is shocking and awing in its last yearness in regards to promoting new, good bands)), I glanced from the stage to the SXSW banner hanging over the musicians’ backs and was, suddenly, a SXSW convert. Call it good marketing to have those banners in each venue or call it my own gullibility in finally buying into this industry-driven music fest or, even, call me a part of the problem for enjoying having all the out-of-towners come in to see bands that can’t be seen any time in Austin. By the end of the week, I was wishing it would continue. Not only because I’d seen probably thirty great bands for as many dollars (not counting the cruise missile’s worth I’d spent on alcohol), but because the friendliness of the people at the shows and the sheer quality, quantity and diversity of the acts were befitting a southern town that calls itself the Live Music Capital of the World.

There are those who are still against SXSW. I talked to some of them immediately after it ended. I asked them, “Have you ever attended?” Invariably, the answer was no. It was then that I remembered my own ignorant assessment of the festival prior to actually attending. In fact, the festival opened my eyes to the fact that I often (mis)judge things (people, places, events) of which I have no direct personal experience, as if I believed having an opinion, no matter how nominal my understanding, was desirable (as long as I left it open to revision). Instead, I’ve now decided, it’s much better to take a reasoned stance and approach to most everything, and I’m certainly making a hearty attempt at this new mode of thought. This might be good, especially if I really do have the body language of a critic, as Carla, a friend, said last night at Molly Ivins’ party.

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