SXSW: Music’s March Madness

Trombonist on the roof, SXSW 2007

In just a few weeks central Texas will once again become the hipster capital of the world, attracting thousands of music fans, old guys, posers and wannabes for the big bacchanal called South by Southwest.  Officially SXSW is a conference for people in the music bidness with a bunch of “official” events supposedly showcasing new and emerging talent for record label types, radio station types, music writer types and so on.

But let’s face it – the week that usually coincides with Spring Break in Austin, Texas, is about the stuff that goes on beyond the “official” confines of SXSW.  I believe this festival stopped being about showcasing emerging new talent a few years ago, now it’s a massive tourist draw for the city of Austin.  Don’t get me wrong – the event does manage to preview some breaking new talent but more and more that task falls to the unofficial shows, which have exploded to eclipse the main event.

Allen Oldies Band take to South Congress, 2006

Let me try to explain – officially SXSW sponsors conferences and “showcases,” short (around 30-40 minutes apiece) sets in a number of venues around town where acts can play.  (In addition to the music festival, there is also an interactive event and a film festival, but we’re not talking about that here.)  There is usually a mix of new stuff, established artists with a new album coming out and big names who just want to drop in and  share the vibe.  This year, about 2,000 musical acts will play in 80 spots around Austin.

Typically these shows are open only to people who have purchased all-access badges or music-only wristbands, but SXSW has some free open-to-the-public stuff.  They’ve booked three nights at Auditorium Shores with headliners including Cheap Trick, Ozomatli and She & Him (here’s the full schedule).

Then there are “day parties,” which aren’t official but the general public can usually attend if they are willing to line up early or get an RSVP.  Some of this year’s buzz bands, like Surfer Blood and the xx are playing these parties in addition to their official showcases.  Established acts play these parties, too: Roky Erickson and Okkervil River (with a new album on the horizon), Courtney Love’s new version of Hole, She and Him (with M.

She & Him, 2008

Ward and Hollywood actress Zooey Deschanel) and the Low Anthem, among many others, will be appearing.  The best places to keep track of these parties are the Austin American Statesman‘s music blog and Showlist Austin.

Beyond that, there are a couple of really great scenes if you are into “free” like me.  South Congress has a really happenin’ thing going during SXSW, as establishments like Jo’s Coffee Shop, Guero’s Taco Bar and Home Slice Pizza set up stages in their parking lots and patios and rock the weekend.  These are great – some years ago an up-and-coming Norah Jones played in a parking lot, in 2007 we saw Texas singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham (now nominated for an Academy Award) in the Jo’s Coffee Shop parking lot and last year’s Friday night show with Alejandro Escovedo literally attracted thousands of people.  And it’s all free!

Don’t forget Austin’s record stores, which also get into the act by sponsoring free in-store performances.  Waterloo Records hosted a wild in-store with the Stooges in 2007, and they always have top-of-the-line talent which makes the store very crowded.  Other places like Antone’s Records, Cheapo Discs, End of An Ear and Back Spin Records have also hosted in-stores, again all free (Waterloo has free beer, too!).  And finally there’s always an off-the-wall oddball thing, usually something you hear about in passing that turns out to be great.   We went to one of those last year, where the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones (apparently up way too early) sleepwalked through the first half of a public promo appearance but warmed up with the help of a white electric guitar and buddies Michael and Pamela Des Barres for a wild, rockin’ punk-rock karaoke session.

One thing about SXSW: rumors fly like South Texas mosquitoes, and you’re

Priestess, 2006

gonna hear all kinds of names tossed around.  I believe the SXSW bigwigs are afraid the outside parties and events are stealing some of the official festival’s thunder, so for the past few years they have signed up really big acts and toss their names out just a few weeks before the festival.  Last year Metallica showed up and played metal thunder at Stubb’s, this year the rumored acts include Soundgarden, Motley Crue or maybe even AC/DC (c’mon, really?).  Who knows?  The Kinks’ Ray Davies has made no secret he plans to play Thursday night (March 18) for an acoustic set then backed by Los Angeles’ The 88 for Kinks rockers.  Stone Temple Pilots, with Scott Weiland back on vocals, will open their U.S. tour the same night at the Austin Music Hall.  And Big Star and Moby Grape !!!

If you plan to go to Austin for SXSW, here are some general rules (especially if you don’t have an official badge or wristband):

1.  Go with the flow.  Always have a bail-out plan or two.

2.  You aren’t going to see some of the shows you want to see.  Get used to it.  The ones you wind up seeing may be even better.

3.  Please don’t whine.  Please don’t be rude.  And please, don’t mess with Texas.  Thank you.

Telekinesis at Home Slice Pizza, 2009

4. Take advantage of the free breakfast in your hotel every morning.  That’s your lunch and sometimes your dinner, too.  (What, your hotel doesn’t have a free breakfast?  Sorry, Mr. Important!)

5. Wear comfortable shoes.  SXSW is all about walking.

So that’s it.  Lots to do in Austin the week of March 15-20.   If you don’t hear music you aren’t in Texas.  We don’t have official passes, but we’re still going.  We wouldn’t miss it for the world.

SXSW official website

MP3: “So You Want To Be A Rock n’ Roll Star” (live) by the Byrds

MP3: “Come Dancing” (live) by the Kinks

One Response to “SXSW: Music’s March Madness”

  1. Thanks for the preview of what San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival will soon become. The saving grace of our event is that it is free, and expected to remain so (and the corollary is that attendees are free to fuck off if they don’t feel comfortable with the caveats which you mention about SXSW.)

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