Dazed and Confused at South by Southwest

Why didn't anyone warn me that the lobsters in Austin have boobs?

It dawns on me at this show that everyone is friendlier at SXSW. Musicians deign to speak to publicists, critics and label flacks get along swimmingly, Minneapolis people who don't greet me when I see them out at home give me enthusiastic hellos. Could be the camaraderie, could be the booze, probably both. I do much running around and check out several more bands this night, but the most memorable art I see is an illustration of revelers by Marcos Chin brightening up a bathroom stall. It's personal art for me this evening, as I, myself, am reveling in a bathroom stall.

Saturday brings another assortment of daytime parties. The Yuppie Pricks frontman had handed me a flyer with a picture of a topless woman the night before and said, "Hey, we're having a pool party." Later examination revealed that there was a swimsuit contest planned between bands. The flyer for another party, where TV on the Radio would headline, also featured breasts--I think. These were located on some kind of sombrero-wearing lobster/alien creature that had about 10 pairs of them. I believe we made the right decision on which gig to attend.

The setting, alongside a set of railroad tracks, is perfect: A punk squat that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. It's an outdoor space surrounded by buildings and shacks, one of which contains an actual clean, flushing toilet. Occasional trains speed by sounding horns that are loud enough to drown out the music, causing grins all around under the canopy of trees. After Parts and Labor and Fakers have stepped off the stage, which is decorated with old mirrors and a pink lawn flamingo, a noise begins from behind the audience.

"Ya'll better act like this is a rap show!": Jean Grae
Tony Nelson
"Ya'll better act like this is a rap show!": Jean Grae

For a moment it had looked like Coachwhips might actually play onstage, but no. Which is just as well, because the ground's loose gravel seems to help frontman John Dwyer with his moonwalk-on-meth dance steps. The raw, fast songs are punctuated with firecrackers thrown by audience members, and Dwyer even evinces concern for the crowd. "You guys okay on beer?" he asks. "I know how to do a few things," he adds. "Beer's one, oral sex is the other."

The group garnering the most media attention of the week, though, does so not through music, but the old-fashioned way: They get themselves arrested. Latin rockers Ozomatli apparently end every show by forming a conga line with the audience and leading it outside. In this case, the plan runs afoul of an Austin noise ordinance. Getting into the communal spirit, the police share some pepper spray, and an officer claims to have been assaulted with a drum. The band's manager is also arrested--she claims for trying to find out where the two detained band members were to end up. The next morning there's already a local newspaper photo of a guy modeling a "Free the Ozo 3" T-shirt and one of the great headlines of recent ages: "SXSW Conga Line Leads to Jail."

And then, after five days and some three dozen bands and perhaps three times that many drinks, the gig was up. On the car ride home, I ran through a mental mix-CD of all that had transpired: the endless lines and guest-list confusion, the wasted musicians and drunken obnoxiousness, the hand-drawn crustacean mammaries and the complimentary sushi of questionable hygiene. Twenty hours and 1,200 miles later, I still had a hangover.

I get to go again next year, right?

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