Thank God It’s Over! SXSW 2015 Music Weekend
That moon is hanging fat and low in the sky. There’s little I can do here from the computer, deep in the heart of Texas. I aim to give you a story, believe it or don’t, makes little difference. This will be part the first, with more to come later. I want you to know, dear reader, I don’t normally write from the first person point of view, but I could think of no better medium. I apologize for the narrative dissolving, the spiral will unwind. It may not be the best, but it’s the best I can do, so follow me through Music Weekend at the annual carnival of flesh called South by Southwest.
As far as the festival circuit is concerned South by Southwest needs no introduction. For just shy of 30 years now it has been a stalwart for fans, industriosos, lowly writers, and creatives of every type, stripe, and denomination. It predates the paint by number events you see seeping across every region of this great nation like a biblical plague. Say what you will for the children: Lollapalooza, Coachella, or the very recent Firefly. They are imposters, the lot, organized under agendas rather than love of craft, and likely wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for the signature Austin event and select others like it.
If one were to match like to like, then the only festivals that meet SXSW in either spirit or duration would be the Newport Folk Fest et al, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage, Burning Man, or Woodstock. The latter of course hasn’t been staged consistently and shouldn’t rightly be included if it weren’t for its historical relevance.
It seems these days every corner of America has some type of mega-event featuring hundreds of acts spaced out over a long weekend of fine weather. These McFestivals are staged in aging city sectors, fields gone fallow, or else NASCAR racing grounds where advertisers are guaranteed maximum visibility from a captive audience. It is an occasion for maximum profitability by corporate organizers. Crowds are herded like cattle between opposing stages where sound bleed ensures those with the biggest bullhorn win out in the screaming match that has become popular music. Much like a variety pack of single serving potato chips these events cater to a casual fan base with a mere passing interest in the product. Only a select few of the included groups are actually desired, what remains has been lumped in under the guise of choice.
Despite its air of authenticity and history of breaking the next big names in music, SXSW had recently begun backsliding into generic territory to become almost a parody of itself. What had once been a proving ground became increasingly thinly veiled pandering. Like MTV or the Catholic Church before it, SXSW had reached a critical mass from which its influence could only wane. The high water year was undoubtedly 2014. Tragedies like the carnage of a motorist drunkenly plowing through a pedestrian street along with unfortunate big name acts like Kanye West, Justin Bieber, and Lady Gaga meant the festival wasn’t so much hip anymore as obvious.
The issue was probably best said and most quoted by NPR writer Andrea Swensson in her wonderfully titled article from 2013: ‘Why I’m Not Going to SXSW This Year:’ “I can’t help but feel that it has strayed far away from its original premise as a grassroots gathering place for new, undiscovered talent and increasingly feels like a big ol’ Times Square billboard-sized commercial.”
It seems as though the good people behind SXSW learned their lesson though, as this year a main comment from passerby’s when asked how it was stacking up against previous years seemed to be along the lines of, “It’s not as busy as usual.” Whether that was a predetermined strategy chosen by careful consideration or in response to greater competition from those newer events previously described remains to be seen. Hard numbers haven’t been established in the festival’s fallout so quantification is a wash, but what was measurable was the lack of unnecessary big name musicians who neither need the attention nor contribute anything culturally to modern music. With the exception of fille de pute and second generation ass clown Miley Cyrus the single biggest name to be found this year might have been Jimmy Kimmel. For his sake, at least Kimmel was actually working, hosting five of his syndicated night shows from the Long Center.
With the glut of cash cows largely alleviated, a crisis of choice remained. Indeed, proper planning prevents poor performance, but that’s easier said than done during SXSW. Due to personal obligations, performances during the week leading up to Music Weekend were not an option, but of the 12 acts planned for coverage during that weekend I’m not overly proud to say I only made maybe two shows.
Such is the atmosphere, and acts that fit nicely within the No Depression platform, say the beautiful Ms. Lilly Hiatt, the promising Cale Tyson, or the publication’s favorite son Sturgill Simpson were regrettably missed. The situation on the ground was largely to blame. But every dark cloud has a silver lining, and as is often the case, something wonderful and unknown was discovered at every missed opportunity.
After escaping the rush hour traffic of one fine Southern Texan city for the festival traffic of Austin, fierce competition for parking, and then bustling to gain bearing amongst the carnival of flesh clogging Sixth Street like so much arterial plaque I found myself in the relative calm of Esther’s Follies. It’s a comedy club well known for outrageous stage shows and national stand up acts. Coordinating by phone with the photographer, along with other various contacts it was odd to run into so many familiar TV faces from the comedy world. The show in the theatre proper was hosted by the good people from Fleshlight, and between playing around with the free gadgets they handed out amongst the crowd I spotted up and comer Hannibal Buress and film veteran Chris Rock.
Music is a demanding mistress, and there was little time to yuck it up with the funnymen. The timing was tight but if I really fought I would be able to make the last half of country rockers Sons of Bill. Fate would not have it, and the congestion combined with my own confusion meant I walked into the Thirty Tigers showcase at Lucky Lounge as the feedback from the last chords were fading out.
It was a wash. But it was there I ran into the unmistakable face of Bad Mountain. Known to friends and collaborators as Jesse Anderson this picker is well versed in string folk and grassroots medley. I was invited across town to the Brass House to partake in a bit of last century hedonism. A fine show was met by a raucous crowd of the mature sort. Of course I came for the music, but I might have stayed for the barrage of older ladies in town for [insert conference here] looking for the perfect two step partner at their after work happy hour gone long.
I tarried, but it was to my own benefit when the beautiful Ms. Angela Perley and her Howling Moons took the stage. Their brand of nostalgic hick rock complimented by dripping guitar leads and pouty lyrics was the main course to Bad Mountain’s aperitif. There was dancing, much dancing. And there was drinking, much too much drinking.
When my senses returned during a set break I realized the photographer who’d flown in from New York was waiting for me back at Lucky Lounge where I had originally sent him. Though I was late and stinking of flask whiskey and margaritas timing had worked in my favor for the first since arriving. I entered to find radical rights activist and social commentator Chadwick Stokes playing a solo set in support of his excellent recent release, ‘The Horse Comanche.’ Stokes can do more with his own homemade guitar than most people can do with a full band. Despite its recent release fans were in force and singing along.
Of course the photographer had his own agenda, and between Austin’s peerless foodtrucks and an additional liberal dose of alcohol we closed the night out at some hotel party. Photos exist, but they have little or nothing to do with music and provide my memory the only evidence of about six hours of lost time. I hear the X-Files are coming back though.
Some mornings are meant for a productive day. Other mornings you wake up around noon in a stranger’s rented bed to a face for the life of you you cannot place, happy your heart still beats if only to complete the assignment you’d promised your editors. Snaking out through the lobby one prays for sunshine after the worst winter in modern memory to find only dark skies and rain. As the water seeps through boots and the stench of last night’s clothes, sweat and smoke greet the senses you begin to wonder how everything in your life could go horribly right.
Hours pass, phones charge and errant photographers are discovered in off Sixth bars slurring words at an hour most respectable people would normally reserve for polite conversation. Perhaps your idols have contributed something meaningful to the world, but for two youths lost in the onslaught of SXSW Mojo Nixon acted as the only guiding force.
Part II, Saturday to follow soon…