[Matt Singer's SXSW diaries continue on Friday here.]
"I spend my whole life chasing buses." — Homeless guy at a North Austin bus stop, 1:50 pm, 3/14
After spending two days at South By Southwest, I can certainly empathize. He was talking to someone only he could see, and mostly complaining about how the "damn film festival" makes it impossible to know when a bus will actually arrive, but I choose to adopt a more metaphorical interpretation of his ramblings (even though I, too, have spent the last two nights eternally waiting on actual buses): SXSW is all about chasing down moments.
The annual music biz soiree has become too massive to view in widescreen. I should probably say that this isn't my first SXSW—I drove out with a friend of mine in 2007, when I lived in California—though it might as well be. In just those six years, the festival has grown exponentially. Lots that I remember being empty dirt fields last time I was here are now sites for venues. The program I received back then had every official showcase blocked out by time; now, there are so many shows happening that the only way to fit everything into a pocket-sized pamphlet is by venue, and with microscopic print. A guy I spoke with said it's expanded every year he's lived in Austin, which is about two and a half years. Unlike even the biggest outdoor music festivals, it's impossible to zoom out and try to put SXSW in a single context. Plenty try, of course—there is no lack of essays out there grumbling about how egregious the festival's corporate branding has become—but the only way to truly get a sense of what SXSW is like in 2013 is to strip it down into small parts. That's also, if I'm being honest, the only way to enjoy it: in the tiny, disconnected blips of time that make up one individual experience.
Here are the first one and a half days worth of my moments.
6:45 pm, on the SuperShuttle from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport
Heading toward the guest room I rented along with a hip young couple from Boston—the guy might be the singer from Spin Doctors, though that is unconfirmed—and a kindly old lady from Austin. I resist the urge to tell her to quit speaking in that bad Southern accent.
9:27 pm, bus stop at 4th and Guadalupe
I step off the bus downtown and inadvertently walk right into my first giant line, for something called Krewella at VEVO TV Control Room. I take a look at the crowd and make a decision that a good rule of thumb for enjoying SXSW is to avoid any show that'll attract college kids. No dubstep for me this year!
9:41 pm, Austin Convention Center
I spot comedian Eugene Mirman while on my way to get my press credentials. It's no Spin Doctors frontman, but it'll do.
10:13 pm, Red River Street between 6th and 7th
While wandering around, somewhat aimlessly, trying to figure out a show to go, a group of dudes walk past me and one quips in my direction, "Hey, look, it's Balki!" His bros all laugh. SXSW has gone to the shitbags, it appears. I suppose I should glad that my vaguely ethnic appearance allowed them to share such a great little moment, though.
10:15 pm, outside Red 7
I soon realize that, in the hierarchy of SXSW badges and wristbands, my media pass means little. I must wait like all the others.
10:22 pm, outside Red 7
Wait, this isn't the line for the Unknown Mortal Orchestra show? Drats.
10: 25 pm, food cart pod on 7th and Red River St.
Eating a gyro. Highlight of the night so far.
10: 54 pm, Hype Hotel
My first free beer of SXSW is a Miller Lite, my first show is in a giant warehouse with Taco Bell ads everywhere, and Phosphorescent is playing a psyched-up rendition of "Wicked Game." This is going well.
12:07 am, Hype Hotel
After an hour without any music, Foxygen is on. Singer Sam France is shuddering and ululating and kind of jacking Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls' drama-school swagger. Much of the audience is already bailing on them.
1:26 am, Hype Hotel
Jim James of My Morning Jacket is mind-blowingly awesome—he's bringing some real metaphysical soul to a room full of free Doritos Locos Tacos—but I'm pretty sure he's miming a sax solo right now.
1:34 am, Hype Hotel
"It's about time I've got a boner!" yells some industry fuck after a particularly long Jim James jam. He then high fives the other industry fucks around him.
2:20 am, 6th Street
As the bars and clubs let out, depending on your perspective SXSW's main drag either looks like Pleasure Island or 9/11. Everyone looks disoriented. Nobody can stand straight. Trash is everywhere. Groups of people in the street are randomly jumping in huddled masses. This is an epic shit-show—or, to use SXSW parlance, a shit-showcase.
2:35 am, 6th and Colorado
While waiting for the Night Owl bus with about 400 other people, one particularly drunk kid wanders into the street. Everyone cringes and gasps as a car comes within inches of hitting him. Seriously, timed slowed down long enough that I thought I was going to see some shit that would fuck up the rest of my week. He makes it to the other side and starts dancing to the bucket drummer on the corner. Then he grabs the sticks and starts drumming himself. I sort of wish he got hit by the car now.
2:45 am, Night Owl bus
I'm the oldest person here by at least eight years, and the most sober by several Hornitos shots. I'm waiting to see a fight and/or vomit. This bus driver has the patience of a saint. She pulls over and kicks the drunk kid off from earlier for being a loudmouth. People cheer. She is a hero. I promise myself I will be better at this tomorrow.
2:54 pm, No. 3 bus
Second best performance of the week so far: a possibly blind dude, wearing a red shirt, Kangol, a ton of necklaces and giant headphones, listening to his iPad and singing soul classics the entire 40 minute bus ride downtown.
4:02 pm, 5th and Waller St.
Jesus, the line for the Fader Fort is endless. Are they serving Salt & Straw in there or something?
4:10 pm, Converse/Thrasher Day Party at Scoot Inn
Hey, did you know your dad's at SXSW? He got into this day party. He's wearing a blue polo shirt and, man, is he ever rocking out to Thurston Moore's new band, Chelsea Light Moving. Your dad is into dissonant, cement-heavy guitars, apparently.
5:57 pm, Lustre Pearl
The line for the Filter/Dickies show I RSVP'd for is nearly as long as Fader Fort's. I inquire with the volunteer running the line. He tells me 20,000 people RSVP'd for the party. Then he sees I have a press badge and pulls me aside. "Don't pay me now, but I can get you in right now for $20," he whispers. He has severely overestimated my desire to see Icona Pop.
7:29 pm, Austin Convention Center Fourth Floor
While charging my phone, I overhear security talking that a certain "client" is trying to clear off multiple floors of the convention center. Who is the mystery artist? JT? Prince? Wyclef? It's Wyclef, right?
8:22 pm, Cedar Street Courtyard
Watching Brooklyn noise-pop band Hunters in the gloriously empty courtyard of an upscale bar which, weirdly, isn't anywhere near a "Cedar Street" as far as I can tell. Singer Isabel Almeida is a furious ball of pogoing energy, crawling over the monitors, collapsing to the ground and mugging for photos, over abrasive garage pop not unlike early Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
8:42 pm, random telephone pole
Showy, enigmatic pop-metal band Ghost really flyered the hell out of Austin. I'm seeing these everywhere—ingenious, though it'll certainly be less topical when the album drops next month.
9:27 pm, 1100 Warehouse
"Foo Fighters and David Bowie are playing down the street right now, and there's a ton of free beer," announces Pissed Jeans' Matt Korvette. I, for one, prefer to stick around for his band's nu-pigfuck hardcore. Korvette writhes, wails and sarcastically primps and preens through the group's roaringly brief set. He's kind of an asshole, and that's exactly what indie rock needs these days.
10:15 pm, Red 7
Suuns are dropping some heavy, groovy, vaguely ominous Canadian psych on an appreciatively undulating crowd. Only catch the last three songs. Wish I saw more.
10:38 pm, Red River and 6th St.
I'm leaning against a wall, resting my burning feet and eating a bratwurst, when I look up and see Public Enemy being projected against the side of a building. They're playing the Doritos Bold Stage. Nothing is sacred in Austin, apparently.
11:10 pm, Red Eyed Fly
I'm continuing to rest my feet while sitting on a red couch in the main bar area. I'm soon swarmed by a group of women in outfits suggesting they mistook SXSW for Burning Man.
11:32 pm, Red Eyed Fly
Shugo Tokumaru is playing a ukulele, kazoo and glockenspiel-intensive cover of "Video Killed the Radio Star." It is not endearing me to him.
12:12 am, Red Eyed Fly
Portland's Wampire look a bit tired—they've played quite a bit this wee so far—but it's not affecting their cover of Kraftwerk's "The Model," sung in its original German. Safe to say these guys are the next PDX psych-pop group to blow up once their new record comes out on Polyvinyl next month.
12:41 am, 6th Street
A topless woman with a look in her eyes that says someone dared her to do this walks past me. She's not wearing a unicycle or wearing a Chewbacca mask, though, so it's safe to say Portland is keeping it weirder.
12: 58 am, 5th and Colorado
I pass a posh club playing jungle, which I haven't heard coming out of a nightclub in years. The adjacent food cart playing a MIDI version of "Kids" has a bigger crowd.
1:18 am, TenOak
Ending the night with Death—the Rodriguez of Detroit all-black proto-punk bands resurrected from obscurity—and holy shit does it ever rule. The band sounds heavier and tighter than I would've imagined for a group of guys who I suspect never imagined they'd be playing music again. The crowd is small but appreciative.
1:50 am, 6th and Colorado
I narrowly miss the first northbound Night Owl bus.
2:05 am, 6th and Colorado
I miss the first Night Owl bus as a throng of people trying to force their way on.
3:10 am, 6th and Colorado
After standing in a huddled group with the rest of the left behind, hoping that each bus that rounds the corner will be the 481 that gets us home. Finally, it shows up, and I'm one of the first to get on, and it trumps any experience I've had all day. Now I really know what that homeless dude was talking about earlier. Is it too late to rent a bike or rollerblades or something?