South by Southwest is complicated.
Even for a multimedia super-event that brings together gamers, filmmakers, music industry types, bands, designers, press, and what appears to be vacationing, scarf-clad bourgeois (on 80-degree days! slumming in the same food-truck lines as us hoi polloi!), the Austin festival’s complications are... excessive. Just registering for our SXSW passes online was a 45-minute process, and lines for shows — err, “showcases” — are unpredictable. Varying kinds of credentials are issued, and it’s rarely clear which lines you have to stand in and which you get to skip.
After 18 hours on the road, and the additional runaround of securing a photo pass, photographer Adam Bubolz and I arrived at some Austin bar just in time to stand in a “one in/one out” line to see Poliça play in a gravel courtyard. It was a big letdown and an even bigger education in the sheer difficulty of navigating the sprawl that people now insist (was there a memo?) on calling “South By.”
Twenty minutes passed, and we got in and caught most of Poliça’s set. If any band can completely capture your attention at a venue that looks like someone’s backyard barbecue, they can. But this year, Poliça — as “it” an act as Minnesota has produced in the last few years — weren’t diving into the fray as hard as they had in the past.
“We played just two shows this year at South by Southwest,” says Poliça bassist Chris Bierden. “We had the luxury of remaining very chill. We’ve done the insane hustle before and were fortunate this time around to be able to keep it minimal. I wasn’t overly ambitious with what I was going to try to do outside of performing and avoided the most irritating and claustrophobic elements of the festival.”
But the SXSW hype vortex is unavoidable, and it can pull in even the very chill. Poliça’s other Austin show was scheduled to follow a surprise reunion performance by El Paso emo/prog/punk legends At the Drive-In. Bierden and drummer Drew Christopherson made the mistake of going upstairs to get drinks, and security refused to let them rejoin their bandmates.
“Our pleas that we were the next band and needed to get to stage failed to sway them — though to be fair, we are not the most assertive gentlemen,” Bierden says. “So now we’re standing there with two whisky sodas and a beer stressed and wondering how the hell we are gonna get our drinks to stage.”
Thinking quickly, Bierden stowed the beverages in his jean jacket. “As we approach the back exit the security guard stops me,” he says. “A moment of blind panic — I am known to crumble under authority. But he just stops us to inform us that we won’t be able to get back in once we exit. Crisis averted.“
Many local bands, like 4OnTheFloor, followed Poliça’s lead and limited their number of SXSW shows. But some big Minnesota acts, including Lizzo and Hippo Campus, played at numerous official and unofficial showcases throughout the week, ranging from local clubs to dimly lit conference rooms in Austin’s Death Star-like Convention Center. It was there, surrounded by glorious, full-figured dancers in white, that Lizzo put on a consummately professional and passionate performance, even in a venue more suited for PowerPoints on market strategy.
But maybe no one hit SXSW as hard as Mike and Jim Blaha, best known as two-thirds of the Blind Shake. They approached the events with the disciplined intensity that marks all of their creative output, and between the Blind Shake and their two side projects — Jim & the French Vanilla, Shadow in the Cracks — they played nine shows, some official, some otherwise. After eight trips to the festival, they stick to venues that fit them and avoid most of the SXSW flow.
“If you find your scene, it’s cool, you see all the bands you know and tour with,” says Mike Blaha. “But if you want to get douchey, you can get there real fast.”
Adam and I closed our SXSW with a 1 a.m. Har Mar Superstar set outdoors at Cheer Up Charlies’s. It was Saturday night, and we were surrounded by exhausted SouthByErs packing in their final blowouts (and blow-ups). After Sean Tillmann and his R&B revue ripped through an hour of seamless grooves, dancers rushed the stage. Meanwhile the women slinging tacos from the food truck parked in the lot got drunk and rocked out to their junior-high Spotify list.
“The last two years have been scaled back from the insanity it was, like it got to be so insane, people playing in this machine,” Tillmann says of the event. “I think South by Southwest has done a great job of reeling it in and making it more accessible.”
Tillmann opted to play shows elsewhere in Texas between his SXSW gigs, and at one Dallas performance that week, he was struck by the sight of a young woman in the front row wearing a sterilization mask.
“Right during the last song, ‘Lady You Shot Me,’ I held her hand for a second and I got paranoid that she might have the flu,” he recalls. “I asked, ‘You aren’t contagious are you?’ She said, ‘No, I have cancer.’ And I broke down. It was during the last seconds of the song right before I kick back in and we had this crazy moment that put everything in perspective.”
Har Mar was wrapping up “Lady You Shot Me” as Adam and I left the club, trying to beat the rush of people trying to catch bicycle rickshaws through what Mike Blaha called “the human/zombie 2 a.m. thing.” As we were negotiating with our driver, Cheshire, I turned to see hundreds of people running full speed around the corner from what might have been shots fired. I grabbed Adam to say, “Get your camera,” but Cheshire shouted, “Get in now!” and we complied.
At least one person in Austin was making good decisions that week.