10 Amazing Things About SXSW 2012

SXSW is amazing. Sure, “amazing” is a clichéd word, but it just fits when describing the overwhelming clusterf*** that is the four (now five!) days of music at SXSW. (Unfortunately, I found out about the 5th day a little late — I had already committed to seeing The Jesus and Mary Chain with my wife on Tuesday.) This is my fourth year in a row to go to SXSW, and I feel like I’m finally starting to get the hang of it. Here are ten amazing things about my trip to SXSW. Maybe you will identify with a few.

10. Finding a place to stay.
phew. I nearly didn’t have a place to rest my head this year. I usually stay with my uncle and aunt up in Round Rock, but it turned out they were hosting the grandkids on Spring Break this year. I was still welcome to a couch up there if I had no other place to go, but I decided to try to find other accommodations closer to the action. Thankfully, I found rooms at the houses of friends of my bandmates. Thank you so much; you know who you are.

9. I finally learned about the morning radio shows.
Probably because of that trek out from Round Rock each day, I’ve never known that there are shows going on as early as 6AM. I finally made it out to one of the radio shows this year. I saw a band called The Punch Brothers play at a KUT fundraiser. The Punch Brothers are known for being an excellent “progressive bluegrass” band — in other words, I suppose they’re the Rush and Yes of bluegrass music. Next year, I will try to make it a point of getting up early each day to see some more of the morning shows. But you’d think they would be easy to get into, right? No, they are also very crowded, just like everything else at SXSW!

8. My band finally played an unofficial show.
With the ever-expanding realm of SXSW, I think it’s getting a little easier to get an unofficial gig there. It’s still relentlessly difficult, but it’s getting a little easier. It’s like all the unofficial party gigs happen by magic. I told every band I know to be on the lookout for shows for Alkari, and it was only because a band cancelled that this show was offered to us. But play we did. The sound left a lot to be desired, and they had to scrounge up a single microphone cord to make it happen, but that’s show business. Special thanks to Gilbert for putting the show together and to Sarah Hirsch from Jealous Creatures for making the show run so smoothly while Gilbert was elsewhere playing a gig of his own!

7. Doing it all without a wristband.
I’ve done SXSW with and without a wristband. Each way is completely different from the other. This year I had fully intended on buying a wristband, because it allows you do get into so much stuff that you otherwise might not get to do, but I soon realized that I wouldn’t need it this year. Wednesday was the Alkari show, so I was pretty much occupied at unofficial stuff. Thursday was a film about Big Star, followed by an all-star tribute concert. That was a SXSW Film event, so I just had to buy a ticket to it. Friday was another unofficial party that paid tribute to Big Star. So Saturday was the only night I expected to do anything official.

6. Having friends with a can-do attitude.
One of the “official” showcases I had wanted to go to involved the music of Andy Hull and his solo project, called Right Away, Great Captain! Hull is the singer of Manchester Orchestra, who released my favorite album of 2011. If for no other reason, I wanted to go see him in person and try to say hello afterwards.

All this was happening the same night as the Alkari show, however, so I had put it out of my mind to actually go. A couple of bands after we played, my drummer and his lady-friend decided they wanted to go downtown and asked what I’d want to do if we did. They are not especially fans of Manchester Orchestra, but knowing how much it meant to me, when they heard how much I loved his music, they said “let’s do it!” Parking, of course, by that time was ridiculous. It cost us $15 and then a $25 pedicab ride. Obviously, we should have tried to park closer to where we were going, but the decisions happened quickly, and thankfully, I was not driving.

We finally get to the little club where Andy Hull would be playing, and it says on the door, “Badges and Wristbands only!” Marc, my drummer, asks me if I’ve been to the club before and I say yeah. “Is there a back way in?” he asks. I remember this was the place I saw and chatted with The Whigs several years ago, and yes, there is a back way. You can get up the stairs from the back where the restrooms are. We proceed to act like we’re going to the restroom and sneak up the stairs. Funny, they never tried to find us… The whole thing is run by volunteers, after all, not people who will get fired if someone sneaks into a show. We got to see Andy Hull, and indeed I did talk to him afterward and share my love for his album Simple Math! In the meantime, Marc and his lady-friend had snuck back out for a while and went across the street, where they were able to see Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers performing!

5. The Houston Showcase by Mark C. Austin.
Normally, SXSW is not the place I go to see Houston bands. I can (and do) see Houston bands anytime I want. But Mark C. Austin put together a party with bands that could likely sell out Warehouse Live (Ballroom and Studio), so I decided I’d start my Friday out with Houston acts. Unbelievably, the show next door, put on by Brooklyn Vegan (another hero of mine), was also one I wanted to go as well, so I was able for a few hours to shift back and forth between Houston groups like Bang Bangz, Tyagaraja, and The Wild Moccasins, and national acts like Polica, Youth Lagoon, and The Twilight Sad. Congratulations to Mark for putting on such a great showcase!

4. Running into people I know randomly.
SXSW always makes me feel very tiny and insignificant. I can’t help but get depressed about all the talent that goes barely noticed, while bands with already huge followings come in and steal the spotlight. In the four years I’ve been going, that kind of thing has happened each year, and it’s getting worse. Thankfully, that depressing feeling was squelched this year by the fact that I continuously ran into people I knew. There isn’t a much better feeling than to randomly run into some friends on jam-packed 6th Street in Austin and hear one of them say, “We were just talking about you!” I guess I’ve been getting to know a lot more people since I started doing photography. The best example of this was when I was talking to my friend Jay Dryden on the phone to find out what day shows he’d be attending, when we both started hearing sirens. We kept talking, and suddenly there was Jay walking down the street toward me. I thought that only happened on television.

3. My feet.
Oh, how I wanted to buy a bicycle this year. But once again, I was renting a small sedan to drive around (my wife and I share a car the rest of the year), so I was walking everywhere. My routine was to park on the east side near 1500 E. 6th and walk everywhere else. There was a bike rental place this year, but knowing how crazy prices have gotten on everything SXSW-related, I didn’t even ask what it cost to rent a bike. Funny — speaking of crazy prices nowadays, that bike rental place was in the parking lot near 6th and Red River where I parked for $5 a day in 2004. But it’s good to walk. And it only rained on me once, which gave me a little time to run into Starbucks, take a break, and enjoy a soy mocha. Now that I think of it, the Starbucks soy mocha probably deserve its own write-up.

2. Big Star and the other “old fogeys”.
As much as I rail against the bands that have large followings and take the attention away from the young talent trying to make their way in the music business, I have a soft spot in my heart for some of the older, lesser known musicians playing this year. Donovan, Eric Burdon, John Doe, Tommy Stinson, and The dB’s were all at SXSW this year, but topping the list is Jody Stephens of the 1970s “cult” band Big Star.

If you don’t yet know the music of Big Star, stop reading this post, go find some, then come back and thank me. A documentary film about Big Star premiered at SXSW this year, and I made sure to put it on my schedule. Big Star have been a favorite of mine since college (when their albums were finally released on CD), and I was able to see them in their reformed state at a rare show in 2000 in New Orleans — The PosiesKen Stringfellow and Jon Auer convinced Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens to reform in the ’90s. It was a highlight of my musical life to hear their songs come alive that night.

In 2010 they were slated to play SXSW, and I planned to go see them, but Alex Chilton passed away just days before the show. Of course, then it turned into a badges-only tribute, and I was left out. Last year Chris Stamey of The dB’s (another band you should check out as soon as possible) put together a tribute band (and string section) to play Big Star’s Third. He decided to bring that to SXSW to play after the documentary.

I have never cried so much at a concert. The songs on Third strike me as so sad, and for the most part I have avoided Big Star’s music since Alex Chilton’s death. Getting through the evening was a challenge, but I’m so glad I did. The fun of Big Star carried into Friday night, when I went to an unofficial showcase featuring members of The Plimsouls (joined by Peter Buck of R.E.M.), a solo set by Ken Stringfellow (joined by The Indigo GirlsAmy Ray), a solo set by Jon Auer, and the not-so-secret concert of Big Star music featuring a who’s who of stars like Peter Buck, members of Blitzen Trapper, Star & Micey, and of course, the main attraction, Jody Stephens himself. Someday maybe he’ll get his real due, which is a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

1. The Milk Carton Kids.
Every year at SXSW, one artist shines through to cast a spell on me. About a month ago, the music of The Milk Carton Kids showed up on my radar thanks to a website called www.operationeveryband.com. The people who write for the website listen to every artist playing official SXSW showcases and do a short review on each. When they mentioned Simon and Garfunkel as a parallel for The Milk Carton Kids, I smirked, rolled my eyes, and did a “yeah, right, I gotta hear this.”

Sure enough, though, they really do have the voices and the harmonies to match the sound of Simon and Garfunkel (The Posies would also be a good vocal comparison, too), and given the right support, someday they will also have the S&G hits to match. Leading up to SXSW, I found myself more and more looking forward to seeing The Milk Carton Kids. A 30-minute YouTube video live from Michigan tipped me off to their hilariously dry and endearing stage banter. I even started wanting them to introduce the songs on their albums, as they do live.

At first I saw their name on two separate showcases, but then they mentioned on their Facebook page they’d only be playing once, and that happened to be at the same time as the official Cotton Mather reunion, which I was also looking forward to. Then another thing got messed up (some kind of timing flip-flop I didn’t know about), and I missed the unofficial show Cotton Mather played in Wednesday, catching David Garza instead. I ended up skipping out altogether on Cotton Mather. It was a tear-evoking showcase — it seemed even shorter than the 25 minutes they allow in the acoustic shows — that ended with a standing ovation from the hundred that were there listening. I even talked to the guys after and made a point of telling them to get themselves to Houston as soon as possible. Discovering my camera and phone both out of batteries, I asked a nice woman with a Blackberry to take our photo as a souvenir of the evening. Since that Saturday night their music has been on repeat in my head. I’ve been telling my coworkers ad students to check them out, and now I pass them on to you.

I’m already looking forward to next year! END


 

(Photos [l to r from top left]: Band of Skulls; Bang Bangz; Big Star tribute; Big Star tribute with Peter Buck; SXSW crowd; Electric Attitude; Jason & Featherface; Foxy Shazam; Future of the Left; Ken Stringfellow; The Milk Carton Kids; The Milk Carton Kids; Jason & The Milk Carton Kids; The Plimsouls; Polica; The Punch Brothers; Tyagaraja. All photos by Jason Smith except photo of Jason & The Milk Carton Kids, which is by an unnamed person with a Blackberry.)

ADDENDUM:
Here’s the complete list of artists I saw at SXSW.


Interview by . Interview posted Tuesday, May 8th, 2012. Filed under Features, Interviews.

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