I would like to think I know my way around a music festival–how to navigate a crowd, a lineup, a schedule. Music festivals, not unlike music, require a keen sense of timing.
Though I tried to map out the ins and outs of the festival through extensive research online before attending, I definitely picked up some knowledge on the ground. Unlike most festivals, the bulk of SXSW mobilizes during the week, with little to nothing happening on Sunday. Arriving late Wednesday afternoon, I had already missed a few of the bands I wanted to see, such as Aztec Death or Suburban Living.
In hindsight, SXSW could easily be summed up by Ferris Bueller’s famous one liner: “SXSW moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around, you might miss it.” Of course, extensive planning is key with an event of this size. Many bands play multiple shows a day, so (unlike many of their contemporaries) this festival allows for error; if you miss a band they’re probably going on later down the street.
Showcases are often organized by theme, genre or booking agency, taking the guesswork out of the equation. Finding a bill with bands you enjoy might mean discovering new species of artists of the same genus. During the week of the festival, every space larger than 10’ x 10’ will host events. There were performances in the street, in bars, venues, restaurants, even in my hotel lobby. Fueled by spontaneous whim, these off-hand, low-key appearances are where you can stumble upon artists you would have never known you never knew.
I suppose the main SXSW “hack” I discovered was the fact that an official pass to the festival is essentially a moot point. There were so many free or unofficial shows that it rendered the pricey ticket obsolete. I essentially spent the entire weekend camped out at a dual stage venue called The Sidewinder, whose shows were free with an RSVP at night and just plain no-strings-attached free during the day. Furthermore, due to the decentralized nature of the festival, the venues had complete autonomy over who to let in. That’s not to say they were abusing this power, cherrypicking the hippest to cut the line like in a tired TV movie cliché, but for instance, Beerland had a sign that declared “your badge doesn’t mean shit” thus nullifying the advertised front of the line privileges. Who knew Austin could be so socialist punk rock?
It was a special treat to watch Bay Area bands out of their element in a new city. Jay Som, Plush, Pardoner, and one I had never heard of, but enjoyed nonetheless, Ice Cream. There was also a showcase Saturday at The Sidewinder of Los Angeles and surrounding area bands: Current Joys, BOYO, Moaning, and Jurassic Shark. Nick Rattigan (Current Joys) summed up the day in a joke before his set, “I’m from LA and most of you are too.” BOYO ended their set with a fantastic Heatmiser cover of “Christian Brothers,” modeled after the take on the Elliott Smith documentary, Heaven Adores You. Slow Hollows, also made an appearance, opening for Surf Curse.
A dark cloud hung over the festival due to the absence of international bands unable to attend due to legal complications. As I watched Tiger! Shit! Tiger! Tiger! at the Italian artist showcase, I couldn’t help but place Soviet Soviet on the bill. After trudging to Hotel Vegas to watch Chilean band Trementina, I noticed they were not on the lineup posted outside. I checked their Facebook page and they had posted a note to their fans about the retroactive denial of their American touring visa.
It was an incredible privilege to attend the festival and take in the staggering talent and creativity of the bands that were able to perform. However, in the future, I hope SXSW can do more to ensure international artists will not be denied entry to the United States.
Article and photos by Ally Mason