Wrapping up South by Southwest, as if that’s possible
For all that South by Southwest is – jampacked roaming hipsters and college kids on 6th St., suits at the convention center, artists kicking into gear sometime after midday, BBQ and tacos and the pervasive availability of Shiner Bock and Lone Star (the National Beer of Texas) – it’s also a place where people of all kinds gather around one simple idea: music matters (to borrow a phrase from our friends at KEXP). Amidst all the absolute mayhem and crowds and often overwhelming cacophony pouring from every open door and window, there’s little friction here. People move around each other carefully and considerately. They smack high-fives with passersby who are drunk or friendly enough to oblige. Should a marching band show up and pass through the crowd, they follow behind, clapping and dancing with strangers, laughing.
The band stops somewhere in the middle of the street, and now there’s a crowd encircling them – folks who have just come from watching metal, hip-hop, indie rock, bluegrass, now pile in ten deep on all sides to listen together as an odd troupe of dancers in skeleton suits, with silver pom poms and flags, breaks into a number. Cameras flash, feet stomp. The tuba puffs its groovy bass line.
It’s 2:30 am on a Friday. This has already happened countless times on other weekdays; but this time I join in.
We’ve just come from a sticky-floored dive bar called Red 7, where Seattle’s own Head and the Heart played their final set of the festival to a packed-shoulder-to-shoulder crowd on the back patio. Hands down one of the best sets I saw all week, this troupe is more than just a buzz word on the lips of fans and critics. They’ve got the real thing going on – the thing music does, where it moves you off your feet, floating you for a time above the fray of the workaday world, exposing you to some more timeless truth.
Earlier the same day, I sat by the river with Abigail Washburn, where she talked about trusting the process, trusting the music itself (more from that interview to come). Now, here in the street at 2:30 am, though, the idea of trusting the music itself is beginning to make better sense.
After all, outside this bubble, in the real world, it can feel a bit like the wheels are falling off the bus. A few artists have called to Japan and Wisconsin (and beyond) from the stage this week, recognizing the dire nature of our current world. This morning, the people of Egypt voted for a new constitution, even as radiation showed up in Japan’s milk and spinach; Libyans, Yemenis, Bahrainians determinedly persevered for change in their countries. A judge in Wisconsin put a union-busting bill on hold, as states around the country continued their pursuit of similar ends.
There’s a lot of shit going down – tumult, struggle, fear, desperation, people everywhere grasping to be heard, grasping to hear. For one solid week in Austin, Tex., these thousands of people are listening, though. Maybe not to the talking heads on the news or to their politicians, but to each other. They’re applauding each other’s need to improvise a melody, to follow each other’s voices across the terrain of a harmony. When the sound cuts out, they hop on a bench (as Washburn did at Mi Casa) and get the crowd to gather close together, sing without amplification – just a handful of voices and some tools that bend sound. They’re trusting the music.
They bounce from dive bar to coffee house to parking lot and rooftop deck – dancing to the beats the DJs lay down, standing rapt as some kid lights into an unexpected guitar solo, throwing their hands up when the music goes there, stopping in the middle of the street for some troupe of breakdancers or an unknown band whose name nobody’s quite sure of, but who’s got something to share. When a gathering of activists marches into Threadgill’s Saturday afternoon, led by a marching band with guys on stilts, the audience and the band who was setting up (in this case, Hoots & Hellmouth) join in for several choruses of “Down by the Riverside.”
The other day, across town in a parking lot on the south end, someone set up a stage and a couple of booths with beer and snacks. Austin darling Alejandro Escovedo gathered ten or so of his friends to blow away a crowd of several hundred, perhaps a thousand or more. (I’m never good with estimating numbers of people.) But, in this case, the assembly spilled onto the sidewalks and the street. The sound bounced off buildings in three different directions, echoing no doubt blocks away. Before him, North Mississippi All Stars unleashed their funk and soul. A short walk from there, Gurf Morlix delivered the way only he can, then Band of Heathens rocked it out. A cupcake truck a little further south hosted bands for a rousing afternoon.
In the morning, the industry gathered at the Four Seasons for a brunch hosted by BMI, and some live acoustic music. Others headed to panels at the convention center about being an indie artist, leveraging your social network, surviving the many transitions of media by learning to adapt to the ever-evolving needs and interests of your readers. Gear companies and publishing houses manned their booths and handed out swag. A stage hosted by KCRW – upstairs at the convention center – presented remarkable sets with some of the best sound of the festival. (Kyla and I caught James Vincent McMorrow there early in the week; as things wound down, we both agreed that was the best set of the festival).
The sky cleared off, the birds chased each other to the river.
It could almost sound idyllic, if not for the dirt and the sweat, the hangovers, the traffic. But even in that, there’s always the music.
It’s easy to get caught up in the bullshit, as is true everywhere. Easy to focus on the politics of the situation, and forget about the people. Easy to be distracted by the woman in the yellow and black herringbone unitard, or the a capella troupe with their matching polos – wandering around as they are, looking so clean and unrisky. As Amy Ray said in that talk on Cayamo, everyone loves image. But there’s just more to it than that. This is, after all, an industry built around the right to get on a stage and say how you feel. For real – face to face.
During that set at the KCRW Radio Day Stage I mentioned, James Vincent McMorrow talked of a show he’d played during SXSWi (the interactive conference focused on technology). There, everyone was focused on their laptops – as they should be, he admitted. After all, they’re tech people. But this week, when the music industry is in town, he was pleased to play a show replete with eye contact.
It may have seemed a simple and off-the-cuff statement, but he had a point. The world being as it is – and I’m not talking just about the tumult here; I’m talking about the disconnection facilitated by technology – music is not only entertainment, but an excuse and an opportunity for eye contact. For the force of breath which follows a trail from his mouth to your ear. In this case, McMorrow’s music is all about heartbreak – recovering and resigning to the notion that individual love is not always forever, while keeping the faith that Love (with a capital L) is the greatest thing.
I know perhaps you were expecting some industry jargon dissecting individual sets. I could roll call the names of artists whose sets will stick with me – in addition to the above, there was Dry the River, Washburn, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, Nicole Atkins & the Black Sea, Matthew and the Atlas, Fences, and on and on. But this year’s conference and festival felt so colored by world events – so close to the tragedy in Japan, and whatever it is that’s unfolding in Libya as I write this from the plane back to Asheville. I struggled all week with my attention span, trying to care as much about the music industry as the people whose lives have – in the past week – been changed forever. Trying to trust in what I believe music can do.
I’m not going to say something like SXSW changes the world, but it’s certainly a necessity. A reminder that we can and will do this – together. We agree on many things, and we have all this in common.