South by Southwest played out much differently than I imagined it would, but largely in a good way. It didn’t follow the music festival schema I was used to, where there are maybe 4 or 5 stages within a contained space and a clear schedule mapping out which bands are playing when. South by Southwest was much more of a deranged Easter egg hunt with venues all over the city, secret shows, and really no way to outline when and where the hundreds of bands are playing (unless you’re crazy organized). There are a few things I regret about the week, such as not being able to get in to see Major Lazer and not having Justin Timberlake e-mail me the location of his secret show after I signed up for his precious New Myspace. In general, however, it was an amazing time. Below are a few of the bands that stood out to me, my favorite free events, and things I would do differently next year.
I originally had grand ambitions to see about 6 shows per day, but in reality I ended up seeing more like 2-3 per day, so I’m going to throw out the disclaimer that my list of favorite shows is not remotely representative of SXSW as a whole. These are just the free sets I stumbled across that either pleasantly surprised me or held up to the expectations that I had for the band.
Portugal. the Man was on my list for shows that I really wanted to see, and I was able to get in to see them at the Scoot Inn on 4th with relatively little difficulty. The band is definitely worth seeing live; I already really liked Portugal and especially their 2011 album In the Mountain In the Cloud, but their live set included lots of impressive guitar solos, a strong stage presence, and at one point the chorus of “Hey Jude” sandwiched into one of Portugal. the Man’s own songs. At the end of the show, bassist Zachary Scott Carothers said that the band hadn’t played a live show in a while because they’ve been recording a new album, but they certainly hadn’t lost their ability to put on a good show.
While I’m plugging Portugal. the Man, I also want to put in a good word for Bonaparte, a Berlin-based electronic punk solo project of Tobias Jundt. I’m going to level with you right now and say that Bonaparte’s music wasn’t all that memorable for me, but Jundt had amazing live energy, in part thanks to the German woman who danced around on stage in costumes that would make Lady Gaga jealous. Hopefully she’s getting at least half of Bonaparte’s paycheck.
Bastille, a synth pop quartet from London, was one of my favorite surprises of the week. I ended up at the venue they were playing because I was promised free barbecue (I was lied to) and ended up absolutely loving their charisma and catchy hooks. I’m a sucker for synthesizers, so I might be a little bit biased, but I’d highly recommend looking into this group. Also, they did a cover of City High’s “What Would You Do?”. It’s not every day you get to hear a (successful) synth cover of City High.
John McCauley, the frontman for alt-country group Deer Tick, did a solo set on the Red Bull stage which ended up being another great surprise. I hadn’t listened to Deer Tick much, but I loved McCauley’s incredibly distinctive gravelly voice and his ability to pull an audience in while somehow also looking like he didn’t give two f*cks.
The Free Shit
The Spotify House set up shop on east Cesar Chavez and provided concertgoers with a place to sit in the shade, drink at the open bar, cram their pockets and purses with free snacks for sustenance, and charge their phones (that last component was pretty key–I was constantly in search of places to power up my dying phone). I’m not really sure how Spotify was able to get away with purchasing a house and painting it neon green, but the garish building was a great place to set up base camp between shows.
The social media/photography-focused company Hipstamatic put on a daily brunch that was by far my favorite free event. I tried going to the brunch 3 times and was able to get in twice; the trick was to get there between 10-10:30 (doors opened at 11). Any later and it wasn’t worth trying for, but if you were able to drag yourself out of bed in time to get downtown for the brunch, you were rewarded with great food, free mimosas and Bloody Marys, and live shows on the house’s back porch.
The most memorable free event I attended during the week was a riverboat cruise put on by IndieMerchandise. I’d been wanting to go on a boat ride around Lady Bird Lake for awhile, so I jumped at the opportunity to go during SXSW, when I could also get free food and drinks. And as an added bonus, the riverboat cruise featured the musical stylings of death metal band Goat Whore. I was a little skeptical at first and didn’t really feel like I had enough tattoos to be a part of the event (it was very clear who was there for the band and who really just wanted to be on a boat), but even if death metal isn’t my jam, standing on the top deck and watching Goat Whore as we cruised under Lady Bird Lake’s bridges (and got a lot of stares from pedestrians) ended up being a lot of fun. Also, the cruise was around sunset and I was finally able to see the bats that live under Congress Bridge coming out (allowing me to cross another thing off my Austin bucket list).
What I Would Do Differently Next Year
- Attempt to make some kind of comprehensive schedule for each day, as painful as that sounds. This year I mostly just winged it and followed friends where they wanted to go, but I think I could have made it to a lot more shows if I’d done a little more research.
- Carry food or steal more snacks from free events. SXSW has some long days, and I kept getting so excited about everything that was going on that I would forget about meals. Don’t be like me, shamefully shoveling down brisket like a wild animal after getting home at 2 am.
- Talk to band members. This year I was too intimidated to go up to anyone who was in a band after their show, but in general band members seemed pretty friendly and approachable, especially if they were a smaller group trying to get their name out. And it’s got to be a confidence boost to have people telling you that your music meant something to them, right?
- Get to the popular shows really early. Doors for Major Lazer’s show opened at 8, and I got to the venue at 6:15 and was unable to get in (a couple of my friends who got there right at 6 just barely managed to get in). If there’s a show you really want to see, definitely commit to getting in line early. You can always sit or lie down in line if you’ve got a long wait. No one has any dignity left by the last couple days of South By.
So that’s my amateur coverage of South by Southwest 2013. If any of my readers were also in Austin this past week and have any thoughts on South By, feel free to leave a comment!