Baby’s First South by Southwest: An Introduction

I’m staring at a computer screen, my eyes bleary, my bones aching. We’ve stopped in a hotel in someplace called Arkadelphia at 3AM to get a few hours rest before continuing our drive. It’s Sunday, and South by Southwest has just ended, queuing our departure from Austin, Texas. Tomorrow we’ll continue the journey to Ohio, where I’ll spend a few days doing absolutely nothing with my parents, and it will feel great after the glut of free shows, free beer, free food, and general debauchery that made up my first year at SXSW.

For now, I’m just trying to wrap my head around the whole of it. After having decided I would have to miss it again this year, things kept falling into place and suddenly there I was, standing on Texas soil, a balmy breeze ruffling my hair, wild with curls in the humidity. The week flew by in a blur and now all that remains is a sore throat and indelible tinnitus, a few LPS and some free beer cozies.
I can’t say that I didn’t have expectations for the week. Some of them held up and some of them didn’t. I knew I wouldn’t get to see all of the showcases I had initially planned to attend, though all told I probably wound up missing only a few acts I really would have loved to see. I found myself constantly having to choose – do I go to Club DeVille for Pictureplane or Flamingo Cantina for Tennis? – and making decisions based on whether I’d already seen the bands in NYC, how epic I thought the performances would be, if the RSVP policy would be lax enough to sneak past the gate, whether I’d have to brave the morass of 6th Ave, and how many points I’d get on FourSquare for checking into a new venue. Oh, and whether or not I could drink for free once I got there.
I didn’t really get the hang of it until midweek, by which time I was cramming in at least seven performances a day, catching free Chevys and dodging pedicab drivers like I was born to do it. But some of the best moments came early in the week, when my lack of SXSW know-how introduced me to the whole shebang in a more relaxed manner and I let everything come to me instead of breaking my neck to take in all I could. Those moments included a jamboree with some neighbors who sang Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” by my request, a family BBQ way East of the action (I had to ride in the back of a pickup truck full of gear to get downtown afterward), learning to throw knives, peacock spotting, and three very random conversations I had as I juiced my phone at the Whole Foods solar charging station.
meeting the locals
During one of those conversations, I pondered with a fellow blogger as to whether SXSW could really happen in any other city. The answer we came up with was an unequivocal NO. It’s not a big town, but its size is to its advantage; it makes it walkable, bikeable, accessible. The weather is gorgeous (or at least was the week I was in town) and its residents incredibly accommodating and personable. But the feature of Austin that really makes it uniquely suited to a festival like SXSW is that it pulses – practically every bar has a patio, which means practically every bar has the potential to host two and sometimes three bands at once. You can walk through almost any part of town and hear music happening all around you, coming from every direction. As you walk down the street, there are buskers, puppeteers, old men with fiddles and accordions and bongos performing in the middle of the street, school buses converted into mobile venues, storefronts housing DJs, and on and on and on. Literally everywhere you look, someone is vying for the chance to entertain you. While it seems like this would be overwhelming, the energy is intoxicating. It carries you as if caught in a current, and it’s difficult not to be swept away.
In between the bands I made a point to see and the bands I knew I was doomed to miss, there were a handful of bands I saw inadvertently, many of which blew me away. Some of these performances were among my favorite. Therein lies the beauty of a thing like SXSW – it’s easy to make a mile-long list of bands that are familiar but hard to see everyone on it, and while scurrying from one end of town to the next or waiting in line for admittance into a venue that’s already at capacity it’s easy to forget that the opportunity is there to be introduced to completely new acts. But that potential for discovery is what SXSW is all about, is why this festival draws acts from all over the globe and thousands upon thousands of fans.
warriors beneath dusky skies
So what follows, dear readers, is my SXSW diary, a chronological account of everything that made the week so memorable. I think if there’s anything this blog truly showcases, it’s a passion for existing in the thick of musical experience. For the fuzzy areas of my memory, there are videos and pictures to fill in the gaps, and my hope is that the amalgamation of the three will somehow communicate every thrill, every joy, every moment that made the week worth documenting.
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