Our intrepid music writer thumbs his way to and from the legendary music fest
By Troy Farah
Published on 04/07/2011
Hitchhiking is easy; getting into certain shows at South by Southwest—not so much.
I got 11 free rides from good ol’ Flagstaff to Austin, Texas, for one of the biggest interactive, film and music festivals in the country, with well over 2,000 performers in more than 90 venues. It took four days on the road and along the way I met, among many others, a chatty truck driver from Poland who used to trade alcohol to Soviet soldiers for gasoline; a judge who saved me when I got kicked out of a truck stop; a survivalist who drove from Spokane to San Antonio without stopping or sleeping; and a chill lighting director who smokes pot, yet still strongly believes in Jesus and who dropped me off in the midst of downtown Austin.
The whole of Sixth Street was blocked off and flooded with people —college students, journalists, musicians and directors, agents, tourists and other bright-eyed, slightly drunk wanderers—all with one thing in mind: celebrating music, film and the general breadth of the entertainment industry. I was here just for the tunes, but first I got settled with a generous high school friend who I hadn’t seen in four years. Talk about hospitality.
Along with toting their “Keep Austin Weird” mantra, the Texas capital claims itself the live music capital of the world. And Austin has certainly earned that moniker, as the streets were wall to wall with bars and restaurants, barely a single venue without some combination of singer-songwriter, heavy metal outfit or classic rock group blasting tunes—not to mention the many buskers, street accordion players, guitarists and violinists, cases open and catching whatever change passing drunk folks tossed inside.
The first show I caught was gothic rock trio Esben and the Witch. Lead singer Rachel Davies is haunting with her deep, dark vocals and overwhelming ability to break down a song into barely some trancey drums and bass. She really got into “Marching Song,” the Brighton, England, band’s first haunting single, which builds and builds on abstract metaphors such as “your veins are my trenches” about rising above adversity.
The Strokes’ show, held for free at Ladybird Lake, was excellent and not too crowded despite the swarms flooding the huge, open- air venue. The band played classics like “Someday” and showcased “Under the Cover of Darkness” off their latest album, Angles. And the fireworks show was a nice touch.
In a small, upstairs bar New York trio Prince Rama played their signature bizarre religious experience, incorporating a classical Indian dancer dolled up in Hindu swag with the band’s tribal freak outs, some of which are based on Sanskrit chants. It makes sense, as the band grew up on a Hare Krishna commune in Florida. Their third member, Michael Collins, was mysteriously absent, leaving just the Larson sisters with their drums, synths and echoic chants, but they still performed vigorously with an energy that has attracted Animal Collective’s record label, Paw Tracks.
Most sets were barely an hour and performers played like they were being watched by packs of feral dogs. Which, in a way, they were. SXSW isn’t like other music festivals like Coachella or Bonnaroo— the focus on industry, from managing to producing an album to booking shows, takes a higher presence than the actual performances. This explains the high cost of SXSW badges, which gives you precedence when getting into shows.
For example, Bright Eyes held a secret show that leaked online. The queue stretched around two blocks, but those with badges got in first. Meaning not me, but not to worry; I met a band called Tigers that Talked while standing in line, who described themselves as Radiohead meets the Arcade Fire. Their rock is melodramatic, indie and very British, but its subtle undertones work well with lead singer Jamie Williams’ vocals.
Noah and the Whale and the Kills were also full, and while Austin locals the Black Angels had several shows, all of them were badge exclusive. In the alley, it still wasn’t bad listening to their neo- psychedelic riffs and their “drone machine,” inspired by the Velvet Underground and the Warlocks. And there’s always next year.
The thing I’m kicking myself the most for missing is the Death From Above 1979 secret show reunion that sort of turned into a riot, with people breaking down fences and throwing beer cans at police horses. Noise rock like this (think Sleigh Bells or HEALTH) tends to breed these kinds of things and it sucks to have missed out. But at the very least there’s a chance they’ll have a new album in the near future.
The week had plenty of failures, from the exclusive shows to getting harassed by the cops for trying to catch a ride home outside Ft. Worth. But the week had a lot more success and adventure, from being a lost, minor player in a huge festival to getting rescued from said cops by a stranger in a truck. South by Southwest is a unique experience for lovers of live music or lovers of getting wasted, and it’s definitely a perfect destination for any hitchhiker.