Well, we tried. After hitting up a yearly cavalcade of free parties, in-stores, shows, and events at SXSW here in Austin for the last decade and a half, we (your fine friends at Joup) thought we would try to get actual credentials, to get in the middle of things, to groove, and to get me square up the ass of this annual Texas music festival/circus/shit-storm. I was ready to cozy up to corporate sponsors. I was ready to meet and interview all the rocking kids out there that make me feel old. I was ready to drink. I was ready to schmooze. Well, we tried.
And we failed.
But failure to procure a press badge will not dissuade me goddammit! Sure, maybe I won’t get to hang out with Bill Murray and discuss our mutual affinity for all things Wu-Tang, but I can still shoot the shit with Arcade Fire’s Win Butler in the middle of the street for a few minutes. Maybe there’s no VIP section for me to get up close to see all of the mega-hyped acts of the festival, but I can still watch the Texas debut (and I believe the second ever US performance) of Madrid garage rock four-piece Hinds up close and personal in a small bar with a crowd of maybe 50 people. So you can keep your press pass SXSW. I don’t need it anyway.
It feels like the parade of parties and shows starts earlier and earlier every year, and it does. Through a combination of the festival getting larger and incorporating more elements (interactive, education, etc.), the increased corporate sponsorship, and the desire of more businesses, venues, and people to capitalize on the main event, you end up with virtually two weeks of different things to check out. Now that I’m on the downward slope towards 40, and have the obligations that go along with having a job and a family, I just can’t do that anymore. I mean, I probably could, but it would kill me. And I guess I’m just not ready to die yet. Going full steam ahead from a day party to a night show, and all the alcohol that entails, can be an awesome, rewarding, and exhausting thing to do…for one day, but I’m just too damn tired to keep it up for a week or more.
Man, when did I become so lame?
So, here is my recap of SXSW 2015, with all the highs and lows from a week’s worth of day parties I attended, that one evening show I made it to, and a severe lack of free beer to be found.
I skipped all kinds of cool free stuff on Saturday and Sunday (Swervedriver!) to spend Sunday afternoon out in the country at a brewery instead. After drinking Jester King’s Ol’ Oi, a delicious barrel-aged sour brown ale, a beer not available anywhere but the brewery, I knew that my decision was good and pure. The atmosphere at Jester King was a lovely one too, like hanging out on a farm on a beautiful day…albeit, a farm with multiple bars and a slew of beers on tap. So, no music for me on opening weekend, but an awesome and relaxing afternoon sipping on beers out in the central Texas hill country was probably the better route to take anyway.
I ventured out and about early on Monday…earlier than I really should have being that the majority of bars, venues, and establishments over on East 6th St. had not even opened their doors yet. But I got a primo parking spot, less than a block away from Hotel Vegas where something called the Strange Brew 4 was going to take place that afternoon. With some time on my hands and only a meager little line beginning to form at the club’s entrance, I found myself walking around gentrified east Austin, taking in some sun and people watching as the area prepared for the oncoming onslaught of tourists and foot traffic. Eventually I found an open bar called Wonderland, bought myself a beer, and sat on their front patio alone…the calm before the coming storm.
So many areas of Austin are going through this weird period of flux right now. Old neighborhoods are being bought up and developed, and then those same recently developed areas are then being bought up again and redeveloped. And it’s all happening so fast. What once was a warehouse or Tejano bar becomes a restaurant or hipster bar, only to be torn down two years later and turned into condos or a high-end hotel. It’s the gentrification of the gentrifiers!
I really try to go with the flow with all this change and construction, but it can be hard. While some of these areas are “safer” now (a good thing), the character of the neighborhoods have been virtually destroyed and the poor are continuously displaced (a bad thing). Austin real estate being what it is, there appears to be no stop to this trend. Hmm.
But, let’s get off this bummer train and check out some bands instead. I am not a social warrior.
My first band of the festival was one I had never heard of, Seattle two-piece Iska Dhaaf, a sweet and melodic mix of garage rock, psych pop, and doo-wop stripped down to its skeletal core, all crunchy guitar licks and stomping feet. I followed their set with some jams from psych garage rocker Michael Rault, New York indie band Cymbals Eat Guitars, and finally some experimental, krautrock-infused, electric ambience from Vision Fortune. I also saw a large group of what appeared to be well armed Black Panthers marching down the street that afternoon. Alright!
After a couple of hours of music, and after the realization hit me that there would be no free beer, I decided to head home early…missing too many awesome acts to even mention here. But again, non-free beer is expensive at SXSW.
They did have free iced coffee drinks though…and I drank the shit out of them.
Tuesday found me on the east side of town again, this time at a party on 12th St. at a bar that hadn’t even opened yet. The place was still being remodeled, the smell of fresh paint lingering in the room. Apparently the bar that used to be in the same location had booked a whole bunch of bands to play a show during SXSW, but then went under before the date arrived. Being a bunch of hip dudes, the new owners and operators decided to honor the bookings, and a whole mess of a party ensued. So here’s to The Annex. You guys are all right.
The afternoon’s offering of bands included The Kickstand Band, a sing-songy two-piece, the warped and hazy pop rock of Homeshake, reunited 60’s garage rock band The Sloths, and two bouncy garage acts from Madrid, Spain, The Parrots and Hinds. With the amount of hype behind the all girl quartet Hinds, I was surprised that there was only about 50 or 60 people there to see the band. They killed it. All that hype is deserved. Get on the bandwagon now.
From there, I made my way over to The Highball where a pop-up record store operated by the folks at Mondo Tees and Death Waltz Records had opened for the day. Every year during SXSW my vinyl consumption seems to double, so why not pad it with some bitchin’ movie scores.
On a non-music related note, I saw a Winnebago commit a hit and run.
It’s a bummer to realize that you’re getting older, but waiting in a line to get into a club, surrounded by kids 20 years your minor, a whole army of Justin Bieber clones bobbing their cocky heads and dramatically smoking their cigarettes is going to do just that. I stood alone in a vast sea of hipster kids and little assholes. Sure, at one point I was probably the mid-90’s equivalent, but ugh.
Once the gates opened and the crowd began to move forward, I tried to put my age reflection behind me and focus on the reason I was at Pitchfork’s day party at The Mohawk: Viet Cong. The band has quickly become one of my favorites, based on their two solid albums, and I wanted to see if the live show could hold up. Before I could get to my main attraction, I watched a pretty excellent set from Torres, living proof that the 90’s alt-rock revival is flourishing, and when done right, is actually kind of awesome. I’m very interested to see what her album sounds like in May. Following Torres, I saw some dreamy synth-pop from Lydia Ainsworth and then more 90’s alt-rock revival from Speedy Ortiz. Comedian Hannibal Buress even took to the drums during the latter’s set, but I missed that since I was upstairs stuffing my sweaty face with a hotdog. Up next was the Americana guitar noodlings of Steve Gunn, a performance that left me surprised at how polite all the teenagers in the crowd were through its duration. I can’t imagine Steve Gunn was their main draw, but who knows? There was a lot of weed in the air.
And then came Viet Cong…and their one-armed drummer. Fresh off of a broken wrist, drummer Mike Wallace played with intensity and precision with his good hand, the other bandaged and held close to his body in a sling. He never missed a beat. And though his band mates expressed their worry before the set began, there really was no need. Viet Cong came into this SXSW as the group I was most excited to see (it will take a masterpiece to knock their self-titled effort from by best-album-of-the-year list). They nailed it. I left The Mohawk with a delighted smirk on my face and my ears ringing bloody murder. What a great show.
As I made my way to pick up my son from his Grandma’s, I drove by Waterloo Records and noticed that there was an empty parking space right there across the street. So, I stopped to poke my head into their in-store party and caught the last few minutes of psych rock act Moon Duo, who deserved a much larger crowd than the one that they had. I then wandered around for a few minutes, bought a record, and headed out, my ears still slightly ringing from Viet Cong.
I may be old, but I still dig a good, loud show.
Thursday brought my wife into the melee, and back to The Mohawk we went for more Pitchfork and more teenagers. The day was fairly uneventful, though I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the set from Nashville rockers Bully. I had heard some of their stuff online, but hadn’t really given it much thought or attention, but their live sound is fantastic. If they can capture that on a studio release, I’m sold.
We rounded out our day at the Pitchfork party with some icy, mellow dreampop from Hundred Waters, some jangly, sunshiny pop from Alvvays (who arrived at the venue by taxi), poppy post-punk from Makthaverskan, and a pretty fun rock & roll set from Arcade Fire’s Will Butler.
Being that you can’t throw a rock in Austin during SXSW without hitting some kind of party, we ended up next door at Cheer Up Charlie’s to drink some more beer, hang out with some friends, and listen to more music. Longtime indie rock band The Velvet Teen sounded tight, though I had no idea they were even still around. Terry Malts brought the punk jams on the inside stage, and then we wrapped up our afternoon with the always interesting Deerhoof.
We went home tired and sweaty. And then the rain came.
SXSWet! Fighting the rainstorms off and on all day, we ended up at Cheer Up Charlie’s again for their Friday day party. The scene there was so much more laid back than most other joints up and down Red River – no lines to get in, no lines for beer, manageable crowds for performances. Honestly, after standing and waiting and squeezing through and standing and waiting some more, it was an excellent change of pace. The music followed suit with dreamy, electronic, and atmospheric sets from Montreal’s French-Canadian chanteuse Marie Davidson, Brooklyn’s otherworldly GABI, and more Canadian magic from Lydia Ainsworth.
During a break from the rain, the wife and I wandered around downtown Austin for a little while to people watch and see what we could see. Everything seemed less chaotic than in years past. I don’t know if that was an effect from the rainy day or from the city’s stricter permit codes this time around after the drunk-driving/hit-and-run tragedy that occurred last year, but the evidence was all around. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Free beer isn’t everything you know.
We also realized that “dirty” 6th, the shot bar filled, college kid trolling, tourist trap section of 6th St. downtown is no longer our scene. We left that all behind a long time ago. So, we headed back to Cheer Up Charlie’s to have our socks rocked off by the noisy, intense, no-wave indebted, punk rock of Downtown Boys. They had a saxophone. I love the saxophone. Following their raucous set, we then watched the pretentious art-school drama kids of Prince Rama (a band I enjoy way more than I probably should), the folky, melancholy Americana of Weyes Blood, and Denmark’s Lust For Youth, the trio working the wares on icy synths and danceable post-punk. And I was done.
My wife, on the other hand, was not. We decided to each take a night out while the other stayed home to be the parent, and she took Friday to go see Elijah Wood deejay on the roof of Whole Foods. Still no word on when Huey Lewis is going to do that.
On Saturday, the rain continued to fall in the early afternoon, but we went out anyway, toddler in tow, to the annual South by San Jose party at the San Jose Hotel on South Congress Ave. It’s the kind of place you can feel okay taking your kids to…despite all the fucks and shits bellowing from the stage. The boy didn’t seem to mind, as he shook and bobbed and weaved to the stripped down pub rock of Peter Bibby and the slam-poetry-meets-club-ready-hip-hop of Kate Tempest. One of my favorites of the week, England’s Tempest brought a fierce and feminine mystique to her story based rap jams, each song more impressive than the last. She won over the predominantly local crowd pretty quickly.
And then the boy crashed. I understood. SXSW can be a trying endeavor.
Saturday was my night to go out and get stupid, so I hit up the second annual Spiderhouse Rager at the Spiderhouse Coffee Shop with a friend for several hours of the world’s best garage rock and psych pop. And indeed we got stupid. Fueled by a seemingly endless supply of Lone Star tallboys (thanks Scott!), our parade of bands included Ultimate Painting, Delicate Steve, Happyness, Meatbodies, La Luz, Thee Oh Sees (always a pleasure to see these guys), Jacco Gardner, Dent May, Total Abuse, and The Blind Shake. The venue was pretty open and laid back, with two stages of music that never got too crowded or out of control…the notable exception being the frenetic set by Thee Oh Sees.
Sated on beer and music, we went home, another SXSW in the can…
…Or was it?
On Sunday, we just had to see one more band. While I would have loved to have gone to some of the SXSW hangover parties taking place all over town, many of which had lineups culled from the coffee house rager the night before, instead we went family friendly and headed out to Mueller Park in East Austin for the Mad Tiger Fest…and Peelander Z. Because you haven’t really completed your music festival experience until you’ve seen a bunch of Japanese punks dressed up like Power Rangers playing ridiculous songs about tigers, steaks, and people named Mike.
If you’ve never had the good fortune to bear witness to a Peelander Z show, then brother, you are haven’t lived.
Man, writing this article was almost as exhausting as SXSW itself, but I learned something while I was out there. I may be getting too old for this shit, but I’m going to keep on doing it as long as my mind, body, and soul (and family) will allow me. Turns out having fun is pretty awesome.
Until next year.
From a bunker somewhere in Central Texas, Thomas H. Williams spends most of his time with his wife, his two sons, and his increasingly neurotic dog. He listens to a lot of music, drinks a lot of excellent beers, and gets out from time to time. For even more shenanigans, visit heavenisanincubator.blogspot.com.