People laugh when you tell them attending the music portion of Austin's multi-tentacled festival, South by Southwest, is hard work. But you know that phrase "too much of a good thing"? After one full day of too much squealing feedback, too many ironic T-shirts, too many hucksters and way too many tacos, that phrase becomes more than just a cliché. And after four days, one finds oneself wishing everything—the music, the crowds—would stop awhile.
But amid this overexposure, amazing things happen: A great band transcends the pageantry and gimmickry of the festival; an unofficial street performer pulls a huge crowd; you meet someone from another country who is just as excited about your favorite band as you are.
Those are the moments we tried to capture in our diaries of the festival. From the day parties and after-parties (there are free, unofficial music festivals within the larger SXSW festival) to the holes-in-the-walls and big clubs, we wrote when we saw something we loved. OK, we also wrote when we were pissed off and tired. As they may or may not say in Texas, "When you fuck with the bull, you get the horns."
Wednesday, March 17
South by Southwest is just an abstraction until we see our first sign of it in the boarding line: Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell. The ticket-taker takes one look at his tight black attire and asks him the name of his group. He answers sweetly and boards. Later I hear her asking someone, "Are you in Wild Horses, too?" In 48 hours these guys will have a thousand screaming fans in front of them. Right now they're Wild Horses. CJ.
10:10 pm @ On top of a building
I don't really know where I am, but it's magic. San Francisco's Sleepy Sun is killing it with some psychedelic rock that wafts from the speakers so nicely it's like smelling bread back home at the Franz factory. The frontman looks like he just crawled out of a trailer park and found a patch of magic mushrooms in his backyard, but I forgive him for that because he sings quite well and his female co-vocalist is doing something that looks like Job's chicken dance from Arrested Development. This is the first band I've seen in Austin—hell, I'm not even drunk yet—and they're just perfect. CJ.
11 pm @ Buffalo Billiards
After watching about half of buzz band Javelin's set—which pretty much just consists of one dude singing off-key while the other bangs an electronic drum set and triggers video-game blips from a sequencer—I realize I've made my first screwup of SXSW: The band that just came on is Japanther, not Japandroids. Such a rookie mistake. After only a few hours I'm already realizing you really can't head into this music festival with any sort of expectation. MM.
Thursday, March 18
In the afternoon at SXSW, if you play your cards right, you don't have to pay for anything. A lot of the best shows are free showcases or parties, and most offer free tacos or drinks. Sometimes you get a solid beer, other times you get Mike's Hard Pomegranate Lemonade and wind up with a horrible sugar high. I feel like vomiting, but instead catch parts of the Living Sisters, three girls in cute dresses who sing solid harmonies and look like they walked straight off the set of
5 pm @ Kill Rock Stars Showcase
It's all Portland: The mustachioed kid from Wampire, Eric Phipps, is doing a crazy hippie dance to Explode Into Colors as they open up for Quasi. Rocky Tinder from Wampire tells us he's not sure how the band's tour is going to continue, as their van broke down in New Mexico and they had to hitch a ride just to get to Austin. "Everything has been working out at the last second," he says, reassuring himself. The smell of tacos drifts in and I lose concentration—Rocky's mouth is moving, but all I hear is, "Tacos tacos tacos! Tacos, tacos?" CJ.
6:30 pm @ Mess With Texas
I've heard nothing but good things about Austin band White Denim, but was sorta nonplussed by the record and missed the band's Portland show a few months ago. White Denim plays mean psychedelic garage rock, but the arrangements never feel too elaborate or gaudy. This is what SXSW is all about—little discoveries when you least expect them. MM.
Friday, March 19
In line for the PureVolume House. It's a slow line and the music sounds generic at the moment. It's also "fueled by Taco Bell" and I'm pretty sure the two meal times (3 and 6 pm) were referred to as "feedings" in the RSVP email. Why am I in this line, then? Chalk it up to morbid curiosity. CJ.
4:15 pm @ 6th and Red River
I'm trying to hurry over to Club de Ville to catch the Antlers at the Brooklyn Vegan showcase, and it's hard because I keep on running into wackos. Crossing the street in front of me is a dude in a squirrel costume, with a megaphone. He's yelling, "Lemme see those nuts!" MM.
4:30 pm @ Club de Ville
OK, first band of the day! And it's the Antlers, who released a great little tearjerker of a record called Hospice last year. Some of the Antlers' material is too slow and weepy for me; I wish I were watching something more upbeat. But when the band is on, it is on. Who knew songs about a terminally ill child could make such a perfect afternoon soundtrack? MM.
6:51 @ Mess With Texas Party
Billy Bragg is lecturing his audience about fighting the good fight. "Don't ask yourselves 20 years from now, 'What did I do to change things when we had our chance?'" he implores of the crowd. I look around. A few are watching, but most folks are checking schedules, texting or talking about which bands they've seen so far. Bragg goes into "I Keep Faith," and the words slide past. I'm disappointed in my generation's attention span. CJ.
9 pm @ Central Presbyterian Church
Band of Horses takes the stage, and frontman Ben Bridwell seems genuinely stoked to be performing in a smaller venue. Despite looking increasingly like Shane MacGowan, he has that incredible Perry Farrell-meets-Hank Williams voice that ties everything together and lends the familiar-sounding compositions some unpredictability. CJ.
10:30 pm @ Warehouse above Coyote Ugly
So many free drinks! They give you two at once! I'm finally getting drunk! Turns out all the alcohol is provided by the Austin Foosball Club. I have a new favorite sport. MM.
1:15 am @ La Zona Rosa
It's U.K.-based Alphabeat's U.S. debut, and the venue is so cavernous it looks completely empty even though we're all packed at the front of the stage. The minute the band launches into "The Spell," I forget everything that's bothering me and just dance my ass off. In a music festival and city where everyone is trying to out-cool each other, Alphabeat is the king of the nerds. There is nothing cool about this band. And that's why I love 'em. MM.
Saturday, March 20
Though the temperature took a sudden dip into the mid-40s, this place just got all kinds of naked. Rocky and Eric from Wampire strip off everything but their too-tight briefs, and jump and writhe over the small makeshift stage. People start out kind of skeptical about the band, but always end up loving it by the end. That's the power of almost seeing some junk. MM.
8:15 pm @ Mess With Texas Party
"GWAR! GWAR! GWAR! GWAR! GWAR! GWAR! GWAAAAARRR!" The band comes out, lumbering onstage with those gigantic foam costumes, and before long it's spurting blood and green slime all over the eager crowd. "Fuck health care!" the brutal-looking singer/monster shouts. Somewhere Billy Bragg cries a solitary tear. CJ.
1:57 am @ Club de Ville
DJ Quick says that back in the day, Eazy-E introduced him to some boys from Cleveland that E would bring around the studio. "Without further ado," he says, "can we bring to the stage the incomparable Bone Thugs-n-Harmony?" People go INSANE as Bone Thugs start in on "1st of tha Month." Every hand is in the air; everyone is jumping up and down like they just won the lottery. CJ.
2 am @ the Perez Hilton Party
After working for over an hour to find wristbands for the Perez party, and then using convenience-store scissors and tape to put them back together, we finally get in. First order of business: score some free drinks! Vodka and AriZona tea is a terrible combination, but I'm already buzzed and just want to see Hole. MM.
2:08 am @ Club de Ville
Now this improvised supergroup is running through songs from every fallen '90s hip-hop hero from E to Pac and Biggie Smalls. "Y'all that fuck with Eazy-E, y'all that fuck with Biggie, who y'all think is next?" they go into "Ride or Die." CJ.
2:24 am @ the Perez Hilton Party
Courtney just called us all cunts! Gawd the '90s were so angsty. And if you're wondering, she looks like a mess. A hot mess. She just made a terrible joke about being on her period. Run away, Frances Bean, before it's too late! MM.
3 am @ 8th and San Jacinto
We see what we think is a crazy person talking to the portable toilets and ask if we can interview him on camera. He says, "Sure, but y'all gon' get a lot more than you bargained for!" Once we start talking to the guy (see video at wweek.com), it turns out he's not so crazy after all: He's a sweet dude who's just a little drunk and really into collecting drumsticks. He introduces himself as "Wayne, the Drumstick King of Texas" and shows us a photo of an entire wall in his house that's plastered with autographed drumsticks. "Wow, this is at your house?" I ask. "It was," he replies. "But it burned down." CJ.
Read more SXSW diaries: check out photos and video at localcut.com.