SXSW Festival Wrap-Up: The End.
I hesitated, spun around on the spot and snapped a couple quick photos. Almost immediately his focus changed as he stared into the camera lens, the slightest smirk hardly visible under his hedge-like beard.
“Do you want a hug?”
I lowered the camera, “Absolutely” I grinned.
He was a good hugger, surely from experience, and with a hearty chuckle and a couple pats on the back I felt the loneliness wash away, if only for a moment.
It was at this point I realized I’d spent the entire festival taking shots of artists and venues, while completely ignoring the most quintessential element of SXSW. The people. The majority of my time was spent people watching and navigating the massive crowds. Groups of friends stood on every street corner, laughing and slapping shoulders, retelling the events of the night before. Old friends stumbled into one another, eager to share their experiences and compare them to previous years. Droves of fantastical lunatics dressed like peacocks wore vibrant displays of colors and clothes, desperate to attract the attention of a suitable mate. While street performers garnered small crowds as they put on eclectic pop-up shows. The streets were constantly abuzz with life, laughter, and of course, music, and the city of Austin was undoubtedly alive.
I decided on the final day to drink in the atmosphere and turn my lens to the people and places of Austin. As such this post wound up being something a little different, and is more akin to a photojournal than a blog post.
Despite the clouds, it was another warm day at South By, and everyone was in good spirits in the early afternoon, eagerly anticipating the inebriated evening events that were only hours away. This was the scene at East 6th, the heart of SXSW.
The city of Austin was bursting at the seams, and high-end apartment complexes were in construction all over downtown. This particular high-rise was on the west end, on my way to the Quantum Collective Day Party on top of Whole Foods.
At first I had no idea who this woman was, until she played the iconic song “Tom’s Diner”. It was none other than singer/songwriting legend and the “Mother of the MP3” Suzanne Vega. The song she wrote back in ’81 was about Tom’s Restaurant in New York, famously known as ‘Monks’, the frequent meeting place of Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer on Seinfeld. It was a bit of an eerie moment for me as she shot a look into my eyes.
Suzanne Vega – Tom’s Diner
The scene atop the Whole Foods was very mellow; kids ran about in the background while soccer mom’s mingled with the peaceful, yet strinkingly alternative music crowd. There was free soda pop and coconut water abound, and it was the most serene moment of the festival. Eventually, by will of the sheer good vibrations, the sun poked out of the clouds, and as I sat in the mulch behind the stage I began to deal with another wave of nostalgia from my time at the Calgary Folk Fest last August. This was the closest atmosphere to the Folk Fest, and a much needed afternoon of calm, musical therapy.
From Suzanne Vega in ’81 to electro-vets from 2001, the scene suddenly jumped twenty years as Dirty Vegas showed up to play an energetic set consisting of old hits and new material. Once again, I wasn’t even sure I recognized the English duo until they busted out their smash-hit “Days Go By”, a song that garnered a huge following more than a decade earlier.
Dirty Vegas – Days Go By
The feature performance of the Quantum Collective Day Party was one of my favorites, We Were Promised Jetpacks. After missing the first few songs of their set the other day, I elected to go out of my way to catch them play in their entirety. I also took the opportunity to approach Adam Thompson, shake his hand, and introduce myself as equal-parts blogger and rabid fan.
We Were Promised Jetpacks – Moving Clocks Run Slow
We Were Promised Jetpacks – Roll Up Your Sleeves
It was an energetic set in front of the free-spirited, peaceful afternoon crowd. Kids bounced on their parents shoulders and late-twenty-somethings stood misty-eyed as they recalled their infatuation with indie-rock before their iPod’s took a dramatic turn towards Jack Johnson and the like. The performance was capped off by a rare, yet hilarious mistake, as Adam fumbled his chords several times and proclaimed “Whoops” mid-verse. The band was still busting a gut as the song ended, mouthing “Whoops” to one-another and enjoying a full-bodied chuckle.
The sun began to sink as I started the long walk back to the heart of SXSW.
One thing I noticed about the street culture of South By was that it was very difficult to discern between the homeless man and the street performer. This gentleman was accepting donations in the form of phone numbers, and surely had stable housing considering his twitter account.
The value of social networking was very evident, as street performers often broadcasted their twitter and instagram profiles. Charles drew a modest crowd as he plucked the neck of his guitar with great finesse.
The crowds became much more viscous as the sun began to set on Austin, one last time. Although the majority of festival-goers weren’t stumbling just yet, there was certainly a buzz that proliferated throughout the crowd.
I caught this gentleman in the middle of a very intense “guitar” solo. He actually had a pretty sizable stack of cash in his “tip box”, and was generous enough to pose as I strolled by.
Surprisingly, not every show in the middle of the street was allowed to continue. Officer Beck shakes hands with these unknown artists as they are forced to pack up their performance. In all fairness, they had a full band playing in the middle of the road, but the attitudes of the police were still quite accommodating throughout the run of the festival. I took note of the artist wristband on the bearded gentleman, and wondered who they were.
Pedicabs were the only logical way to get around town. For a modest fee of ten dollars, you could enjoy the serenity of a quick ride from one end of town to the other. The driver’s themselves were often quite eclectic, and at times would wear outlandish costumes and dress up their cabs with flashing lights and booming speakers in order to attract potential clients. The few pedicab drivers I spoke to were quite annoyed with this practice, and although business was booming for South By, both Manny and Ian had informed me that it was extremely difficult to make money due to the sheer volume of pedicab drivers.
They would park at the end of Red River Street near Rainey, and wait upwards to an hour to catch a fare. Despite appearances, the pedicabbies were quite organized, and fare’s would be doled out based on which driver had been waiting the longest.
This was my home away from home, The Art of Tacos on Rainey Street. I ate here every day, sometimes twice, and was always greeted with a smile and a laugh from the people running the small food truck. They were very hospitable during my stay, and served up a generous amount of meat and toppings every time I ordered. I absolutely loved these guys, and I made sure to shake some hands and say goodbye before they packed up in the morning.
I went back to my hotel for one final recharge before heading out into the night. Lady Bird Lake was a most gracious host, and I sat in the park overlooking the water on several occasions throughout the week. I was always struck by the juxtaposition between the madness of the festival and the park I had to walk through to head home.
The garbage, much like every festival I’d ever attended, had reached a critical mass in the evening. However, as a testament to the spirit of SXSW, people did whatever they could to avoid actually littering, including precariously setting their garbage on the edge of the bin. Although I made note of the ecological impact, when I awoke the next morning I rather shockingly discovered that every trace of the festival had been removed. Apparently, teams of garbage disposal men are sent out on the last night around 4 in the morning and they swept the streets from top to bottom. It was quite incredible, and aside from the odd poster here and there, it was a completely different city only a few hours after the last artist played the last set.
My other second home, The Hype Hotel, played host to an extremely bizarre performance by Sophie and A.G Cook. It was a strange piece to witness after the show by UK’s Miley Cyrus, Chloe Howl. Their unique electro-set nearly tore the roof down while a hired model stood in a blow-up pool full of beach balls. With each song she moved on to another menial activity, playing with her hair, laying down and reading a magazine, or simply staring off into the crowd in no particular direction. I exchanged a lot of “What the fucks” with at least ten different attendees, and scribbled frantically in my notepad as I awaited for the final show of the festival.
This was not the bedroom chillwave I fell in love with. Ernest Greene took the stage sometime around one, and my curiosity about his live performance was immediately quashed upon the first song. It was upbeat, energetic, and every bit at place with a summer festival. I was completely blown away. The presence of actual instruments had a massive influence of the sheer sound and relentless positivity erupting from the stage. Ernest was flanked by a handful of talented musicians, including his wife, and his performance was one of the most energetic and exciting shows of the entire week.
Washed Out – All I Know
I first heard “Feel It All Around” back in July of 2009. It was the start of my beautiful relationship with The Hype Machine just after I signed up for an account, and an inspiration for me to open up my world to the ever-expanding universe of new music. “Feel It All Around” was the definition of chillwave, an emerging subgenre of tranquilized synthetic bedroom pop, and audio-therapy for anyone prone to stress and anxiety. In many ways, my musical career is the result of this song, and even five years later it sits atop my “Most Played List”, still as fresh and as poignant as ever. To hear it live on this day, at the Hype Hotel, was poetic justice, and although the pace was quickened and the sound wasn’t the same song I’d heard over 250 times, hot, fierce emotion pumped through my veins. In that moment, I lost myself. I was music.
Washed Out – Feel It All Around
“I hope you’re not all sick of live music” an out-of-breath Ernest Greene quipped to the crowd.
After seeing somewhere between 30-50 bands (I lost count quickly), in many ways, I was becoming a bit jaded with the performances. However, Washed Out was at the top of my “Must-see” bucket-list, and despite the exhaustion of a week-long beer and taco binge, I was bouncing on my heels the whole set. Seeing an artist live can yield a number of different results, but sometimes, the live set transcends the music you know and love, and becomes something wholly larger than the mp3’s you loop in your iPod. This was one of those shows, and Washed Out had uncorked pure, emotional bliss.
It was the only performance I’d seen all week that had an encore, and unfortunately one of the negatives of being at the very front-and-center of a set is that you have access to the set-list taped to the floor in front of each musician. Although I wasn’t surprised, I was thrilled at the opportunity to enjoy an elongated performance by one of my favorite bands. Ernest was constantly working at his craft, and throughout the night he delved into every EP and LP he ever released, adding new layers and fine-tuning instrumental elements of some of his oldest songs. It was as if his music was constantly evolving, and the emotional peak of the performance hit with his last song, “Eyes Be Closed” from 2011’s widely successful album, “Within and Without”. It was a full-blown sensory overload, and I let the atmosphere completely overwhelm me.
Washed Out – Eyes Be Closed
The walk home was a high like I’d never experienced. The drunkards were in great spirits as they wandered back to their hotels, and the entire week began to flash through my memory. From the nervous first few hours and the conflict with the hotel, to the Mel Gibson look-a-like and the tragedy only a few days ago; it was all capped off with one of the most energetic, emphatic shows of the festival. The feeling was bittersweet; my time at South By had come to an end, and I was met with mixed emotions as the reality began to set in. I had one more full day in Austin before my flight back home, and I knew the view from the very top had come to an end. Until next time Austin, you were a most gracious host.
(Much love to the volunteers and festival organizers who surely endured more stress than they deserved. Thanks to Elizabeth Derczo and the Press team for the opportunity, thanks to Anthony V of the Hype Machine for the last-minute VIP ticket, and a special thanks to all the people I met, and those who may or may not have read my massive wrap-ups.
And of course, thanks to James and Damon, without whom none of this would have been possible)
Stay tuned for my final word, coming up in the SXSW Epilogue.