By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
I am as overstimulated as a field mouse dropped into a pinball machine. Live music shoots at me from every ordinal point on the compass—and possibly even from dimensions not yet charted by science—as I stand in the middle of Sixth Street, surrounded by neon and rootless taco vendors.
This is the heart of Austin, Texas's annual music industry festival, South By Southwest. And to celebrate, I am wearing around my neck the most expensive piece of jewelry I've ever owned: a fluorescent green ribbon with a badge at the bottom that will grant me access to the festival's 1,400 shows.
This first night, the chaos of the festival freezes me. But as the weekend progresses, I will first grow acclimated to drunken, high-decibel cacophony, then feel entirely at home with it. I will contemplate legal action against David Cross, and I will take a moment to consider, really consider, what it would be like to have Iggy Pop as my dog. Finally, I will come to demand 'round-the-clock access to rocking debauchery and rolling high times as if it were a natural state—an inalienable right on par with refusing to quarter a militia in my home.
In my initial search for direction and clarity, I wander through a point of entry in a randomly chosen stretch of fence, and find myself in some sort of outdoor amphitheater, where little service bars offer mind-calming vodka tonics.
And there in front of me is a for-real rock show. Lit up by piercing white flashes of stage light, New York's The Bravery look as cool and angular as their bass lines. With synth riffs scattering down spines like ice cubes slipped under shirt collars, the faux-Anglo dance-punk washes over the audience. We jostle and bounce to the arcade beats, a cloudy night sky canopying us. And, because this is a corporate-sponsored event, a glowing Verizon Wireless screen canopies the band.
The next day, I seek out familiar faces: Minnesota Public Radio's indie-music station, the Current, has taken over the second floor of an Austin billiards hall, and there I watch rapper El-P and his band perform for a live broadcast. With his red hair and stocky build, El-Producto is bricklike, and, thick as a brick, he lets slip a swear word. The cussing keeps his set off the FCC-regulated-airwaves, but the party goes on anyway, with El-P's commanding flow pounding the crowd with the aim and intensity of a pool shark's stick hitting a cue ball.
Afterward, I attach myself to Current publicist Christina Schmitt. "Take me to a show with you," I plead. In what may well be an attempt to fatigue and then abandon me, she leads me on a long walk to the far boundary of the festival, a highway overpass. We are soon underneath it and hiking up a hill, toward an old, white, ramshackle house covered in graffiti letters that spell the word "Snake Eyes."
This is Snake Eyes Vinyl, a little record store where Minneapolis's own garage-punk duo Birthday Suits will soon be playing. The scene here is authentic Austin—no badges, no bullshit, just a gracious proprietress handing out free beers to neighborhood punks. As the orange glow of twilight covers the lawn and the black metal drone of the previous band dissolves into the evening sky, we watch Hideo and Matthew set off firecracker drumbeats and grindhouse guitar shrieks that tear at the edges of SXSW.
We are exultant on our stroll back into town. After seeing a band you love in Minneapolis, your night may end in freezing-cold walks; if you're driving home, you may even be sober. But not at rock 'n' roll summer camp. Everyone is on foot and on the sauce, grabbing 3:00 a.m. slices of pizza from loudly decorated sidewalk storefronts and trickling back to hotel rooms like bats aiming to make sunrise curfew.
Laminates are the dope of SXSW. Money and a fancy badge will only take you so far: To enter some of the best parties, you need a hard plastic laminate invitation, and only a personal connection will get you the hook-up. The previous night, intrepid Christina handed me one for the Spin day party at Stubb's BBQ. I'm really excited to see Scottish buzz band the Fratellis (you'd recognize them in a heartbeat; they're in an iPod commercial), plus the Buzzcocks are headlining.
But after standing outside in the afternoon humidity for less than an hour, I lose interest and head inside to stuff my face with pulled pork and fried okra. Either I haven't yet found a way to appreciate rock music in the daytime, or my laminate gave me the munchies.
Later in the day, as fading sunlight and ambient street noise trickle into the windows of an Irish pub, Portland's Swan Island crowd into a tight corner stage. The four of them are dressed in royal blue, and singer Brisa Gonzales displays a princess's sense of prerogative as she orders the televisions turned off. Then she plants her feet apart and bends in half—long, dark hair swinging to touch the floorboards—flips her head back up again, and repeats. Her band begins an electric set of body-moving apocalypse-metal, and Gonzales's deep, melodic howl lures a sidewalk Swan Island fan club to assemble at the windows.
Am I going to have to take out a restraining order against David Cross? I ask myself as the Mr. Show star walks into a venue soon after me for the second evening in a row. Last night, I saw him at a solo show by Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr. Tonight, we're watching Sloan, graying sons of Canada, who release endless albums of catchy, melodic power pop. As the whole crowd sings along to "Ill-Placed Trust," I send clumsy text messages over my phone, trying to find a friend in the throng.
I'm one of several people who are taking their first steps at texting down here, where meet-ups are always welcome but audio communication is often impossible. "Got 2 shake cross wiher r u?"
Sharon Jones is soul in control. Backed by the mathematically precise Dap-Kings, Jones gets onstage in a tent outside Emo's, and I feel my tendons and bones get so excited I worry my skeleton may hop right out of my skin. When she starts singing and her band starts Motown swinging, everything becomes bursting brass and shaking shoulders, sweaty hips and shouting horns. Her cool, sweet voice rides over all.
Is that what my dancing tendons and bones would've looked like if they'd broke free?, I wonder when I see Iggy Pop at Stubb's. The Stooges frontman seems to be a creature of leather and sinew, bare-chested and springing all over the stage as the seminal punk band starts in with perennial crowd-pleaser "I Wanna Be Your Dog." This is the sound that provided the raw material for half the bands at the festival, a living moment of history, and the entire audience cheers in gratitude to see the legacy alive and...and...his pants are about to slide down entirely, aren't they?
The last chord of the last official set of Saturday night is echoing in the air, but I'm not ready to give up the ghost just yet. As we head back to hotel beds and midmorning flights, I mentally draw up plans to re-create the SXSW experience back at home. It's a complicated endeavor requiring blocks of Nicollet Mall to be covered by weather-buffering plastic domes, the gutting and repurposing of the downtown Macy's, and the relaxation (or complete repeal) of open-container laws.
But first, Kinko's. We're going to need laminates, and lots of them.