Day Four. Austin, Texas. SXSW 2013.
It's midnight. I haven't eaten a meal since the four breakfast tacos and 32 oz. PBR I slammed at a janky bodega 12 hours ago. My backpack contains a bus schedule, a bottle of sunscreen and a phone with a dead battery. I'm wearing a straw fedora and cowboy boots. It's in this moment that I realize I'm on hipster spring break.
Sam Beam, aka Iron and Wine—one of my all-time favorite folk songwriters—takes the stage under the vaulted ceilings of the Presbyterian Church. The pews all are occupied by a crowd that looks like extras from central casting for Portlandia. Beam is singing one of his standards, which includes profanity. "Fuck the man," he sings and then takes a slow double take at the 30-foot crucifix behind him.
I know how Beam feels. The cross has been looming over me as well, silently judging all of the small-time sinning I've been doing for the last four days in Texas. But really, I can't feel ashamed. I'm having the time of my life.
SXSW is about big names—like Prince, Justin Timberlake and Dave Grohl—but it is also about the up-and-comers who play on tiny stages in converted transmission shops and parking lots, or set up their gear in a busy, dirty alley to rock for any willing listener (hopefully a record label owner who will sign them). Over the past 30 years, SXSW has become one of the best-known music festivals in the world. Film festivals and a popular tech convention has glommed onto the annual springtime event, but it is the week's worth of music, featuring dozens of bands, that is still the beating heart of SXSW; for seven days, fans, musicians and industry folk descend on the city, turning it into a paradise for all things cooler than thou.
For five days, I wandered up and down—and back again, and again—6th Street, Austin's downtown thoroughfare that serves as the festival's main artery. No sleep, no sobriety, no problem. I waded through garbage and expired show flyers, hoping to discover the next Jack White or catch a secret appearance from Bruce Springsteen. And, I'm happy to report that my first trip to Austin was a complete success—mostly because I didn't die on a public bus, but also because I saw more intoxicating live music in five days than the average citizen sees in a year.
Five Essential Moments at SXSW
1.Third Eye Blind
Standing in the converted parking lot waiting for these '90s-pop-rock darlings, I met an enormous tattooed bouncer, the kind of guy I would guess listens to strictly Pantera. He had gotten into the show by breaking up a fight. He told me he had seen Third Eye Blind in 1994 in San Francisco, and said that it was one of the best shows of his life. Go figure.
Twenty years after writing "Semi-Charmed Kind of Life," a cloyingly sweet song that has stuck in the collective consciousness of pop music since it's radio debut, Third Eye Blind is still making music. What's more, they have maintained a dedicated following. Some of the audience might have actually been graduating high school when "Graduate" came out in 1998, and some might have been in diapers. The crowd for the show overflowed into the street and into four stories of a nearby parking garage from which the stage was visible—and about 40 minutes into the set, the Austin Police showed up to clear the streets and unplug the band, giving them due street cred.
2. Charles Bradley
Praise Charles Bradley, Otis Redding reincarnate. The ex-James Brown impersonator has lived a hard-knock life, which has earned him two albums of deeply honest and soulful songs that sound that embody '70s R&B. Bradley started his career more than 40 years ago, and remained largely off-the-radar—bouncing between homelessness, menial jobs and occasional gigs—until Daptone Records released an album of 10 of his songs two years ago.
Bradley had the whole crowd on its feet within moments and, after his set, the 65-year-old hopped off stage into the crowd to show his appreciation and love, giving hugs and blessings to the audience. No BS here, Charles Bradley is the real deal.
3. Cold War Kids
Being the stage manager for a (fairly) big band at SXSW would be rough. You've got to worry about the entire setup, equipment and sound in a 10 to 15 minute turnover. T's still no excuse for the shabbily dressed stage manager from the indie rockers Cold War Kids to THROW MY FULL BEER ON THE GROUND as I was trying to move it off of the stage for him to get set up. Dick move, man. (Post-beer loss, the Cold War Kids played a great set.)
4. The Flaming Lips
During their free show at Auditorium Shores (a 20,000-person outdoor amphitheater), The Lips did what they do best: made everyone in their audience uncomfortable and confused. Front man Wayne Coyne wore a rope suit that made him resemble an octopus with LED-lit tentacles. For most of the set he held a plastic baby that seemed to be attached to the suit. I think it was a metaphor, but I'm not sure for what.
5. The Balconies
Buzzed, exhausted and starving, I stumbled upon an open window through where a wild-eyed Canadian with oversized hair was shredding a guitar solo. Turns out, it was Jacquie Neville of the Balconies, and I am convinced that she is the next Joan Jet. That is what SXSW is all about.
Top Five things I missed atSXSW 2013
(and how I made up for missing them)
Sound City Players
Dave Grohl went big for SXSW 2013. He and a crew of celebrities including members of Nirvana, Foo Fighters and Rage Against the Machine, Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty and Rick Springfield, rocked one of the most famous venues in Austin, Stubbs BBQ. The big bummers here are missing Grohl play drums, Nicks singing "Landslide" and Springfield's "Jessie's Girl." To compensate: I watched Dave Grohl's keynote speech at npr.org and his new documentary Sound City, from which all of these collaborations are derived.
My #1 childhood crush! EEEK! According to a drunk guy I met in a parking lot, confirmed later by more reliable sources on the interwebs, Justin Timberlake bought the crashed-and-burned social media network Myspace in November, moments before it emitted its final death rattle. To get a ticket for the Timberlake gig you had to register for a "new" Myspace, because it's the next big thing, again, or scalp one for about 600 bucks. To compensate: I watched the "Bye Bye Bye" video on YouTube, scrolled to 1:56 and pretended that über-young Timberlake was winking directly at me.
Seeing a non-arena Prince show is as rare as spotting Sasquatch in a purple suit and a gold earring. At SX, 300 fans enjoyed the artist formerly known as awesome's funk-fest until well past 3 in the morning. To compensate: I download the 2011 Dance 4 Me Remixes and had a dance party with my mirror.
That band that does the Harlem Shake song. Yeah, they were there.
To compensate: Watched 15 versions of the Harlem Shake as recommended by Billboard.com and realized that the best parties have people in animal costumes.
Smashing Pumpkins get the award for longest line at SXSW. I wasn't willing to wait for five hours to see the only remaining member, Billy Corgan, pretend he's still relevant to anyone other than his diehard fans. To compensate: Listened to "Tonight, Tonight" from 2012's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and pretended it is as good as "1979."
Five most common sights
Girls walking in the closed-off, grime-covered, poster-plastered, garbage-filled streets without shoes.
Ridiculously dressed pedicab drivers. My favorite costumes included a sweaty pink spandex onesie and khaki shorts police uniform; let's call it the Dangle from Reno 911.
Taco Trucks. (Burritos are strangely nonexistent in Texas.)
Guys who look like they might be in a kind of famous band: i.e. fedora, vest, skinny jeans, shiny shoes, and an American Spirit cigarette sometimes lugging equipment, sometimes hitting on girls in American Apparel dresses.
Public buses with 250 sweaty, fleshy, face-sucking Texans packed on board.
Top 5 things Austin heard from Austin bus drivers
Get in, sit down, shut up and hang on.
HEY, GET OFF (to crack heads on the bus at 3 a.m.).
(After I asked about the bus route) I don't know. Get on so I can smoke a cigarette.
That ain't no service dog.
I hate SXSW.
Top 5 things Texans think about Oregonians
The only city in Oregon is Portland.
PBR is the Lone Star of Oregon.
Everyone in Oregon is rich because of Nike.
Portland and Austin are the same city.
Oregon is REALLY far away from Texas (this one is pretty true).
Top 5 Tweets: #briatsxsw
Hecho en Mexico Pepsi and 32oz PBR with my breakfast tacos.
I think I walked about 10 miles today. I looked real good, but cowboy boots were a bad choice.
Wayne of Flaming Lips is playing a baby. I love my life.
Heard rumors of Daft Punk at the capitol. No go, but still pretty.
The Orwells just effed some s up on stage at Sxsw...What can't I say on this twitter?
Top 5 bands I made sure to see
Phosphorescent—Haunting vocals over folk genius
Local Natives—Percussion-driven, catchy indie rock
Devendra Banhart— Folk weirdo and ex-Natialie Portman beaux
Iron and Wine— Down-tempo acoustic magic
Third Eye Blind—'90s pop-rock post AA influence
My SXSW discoveries
Charles Bradley, NYC — Otis Redding incarnate
The Skaters, NYC— Extras from Jay and Silent Bob films who don't skate, but play punk rock
Milk Carton Kids, Los Angeles— Folk duo with a sense of humor
Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Auckland, New Zealand— 1960s style reverb rock
The Orwells, Elmhurst, Illinois—18-year-olds with an attitude
Foxygen, Westlake Village, California—Funky psych-rock
Royal Canoe, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada—High-energy synthy-pop
The Balconies, Ottawa/Toronto, Canada—The Yeah Yeah Yeahs five years ago
Lucius, NYC—Harmony-heavy chick-pop
Missed it? Here are SXSW bands that have upcoming dates in Portland
Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Aladdin Theatre-April 5
Alt-J, Roseland-April 8
Phosphorescent, Doug Fir Lounge-April 8
Prince, Roseland-April 21
The Skaters, Bunk Bar-April 26
Dawes with Dr. Dog, Crystal Ballroom- April 28
Jim James, Crystal Ballroom -May 14
Devendra Banhart, Crystal Ballroom- May 23<
Fitz and the Tantrums and Wake Owl, Portland Rose Festival at Tom McCall Park- May 26