SXSW, Austin. Music week. Last year I tagged along as an observer with only one pair of sneakers and one pair of jeans and few t shirts, and was given the rare opportunity to stand onstage at Antone's alongside The Posies and Evan Dando and members of Big Star to honor the late great Alex Chilton, having caught a ride to Austin with some friends and a manager who didn't think I should go, thought I should stay home, take the week off, as I didn't have an official showcase, and I argued with him, "sometimes you just show up and magic happens." Sadly, magic happened only because the world lost a great talent. This year, I had reason to be there. A new record, an official showcase, my Nashville band in tow. Into the swirling sea that is SXSW.
I heard there were 30% more people this year. Makes sense. I've been going to SXSW since 2005 with a year or two off in between. It was crazy then, and I've watched it grow, but it was corporate and big in 2005. Its bigger and more corporate now, but there's still reason to go. Still little moments of indie magic and moments of indie crap. And moments of corporate crap and moments of corporate righteousness. Its all there, a big swirling mardi gras of the best and worst of the business of art.
The darkside first, just cause its fun and gross like a carwreck like Snooky: drunken craziness, parades of spring-break like kids with beads around their neck, no official wristbands ($165) or badges ($500), just a swarm of kids who come for the party, to walk up and down 6th street and eat street tacos and drink margaritas till they pass out on the San Jacinto Sidewalk. Girls gone wild madness where my maternal instinct went on overdrive as I saw way too many drunk scantily clad bombshells held up by equally drunk boys, worried about their safety, their choices, wanting to tell them all that drinking until you pass out in the street is a recipe for danger. I saw a few disturbing things: a girl bent over while a boy behind her held her up, she was digging in her short-shorts trying to pull her thongs out of her shorts without taking anything off and the boy was laughing. Ick. And in line at a ladies room bathroom with 10 other women who were hopping from foot to foot, the need to urinate a kinetic urge, and a couple emerge from the handicapped stall, the girl--head down, hiding; the boy, head up, proud. A few snaps in a circle and an exclamations: "Oh yeah. Believe it." I'll leave the darkside with one more image that encapsulates this shadow edge of it all. 3am. Driving the van to the hotel through sidestreets the headlights shine on a possum in the middle of the road, standing in a pile of puke, dining on this, looking up at the approaching van, looking directly at us inside as if to say "Dudes. I'm not moving. This is good shit" and then going right back to lapping the puddle up. And we have to go around the possum because he is not moving. Its nasty, I know, but then, SXSW has the nasty side.
The magic: Driving through the downtown mess of bumpertobumper traffic in the van with the band, trying to get to a gig, filled with anxiety of honking horns and garage rock bands echoing off the tall hotel buildings, we are stuck in a jam out in front of the doors to the Hilton Hotel, where a beautiful wisp of a girl is strumming a classical guitar through an amp, another girl is playing brushes on a cookie sheet snare on her lap, one microphone is amplified through a tiny beat up amp. They've set up there on the corner like buskers. And the girl is singing in french, this lovely melody and its like Edith Piaf right there, and its so different and quiet and REAL and TRUE and something from the depths of her heart, unlike the throngs of skinnyjeans-chains hanging from the left pocket-long sideburns/handlebar mustaches-boybands punkrocking along 6th Street (god bless anyone with a dream and I love music, but I heard the same band about a thousand times, whether it was the 5 piece rockband breaking down the last chorus to its bland emotional center or the acoustic pileup in the center of the room thwarting the soundsystem like every Mumford & Sons follower, but regardless of the sameness, god bless those who follow their passion and at least throw their dream into the wind to see what catches...I'd hate to be an A&R person these days. I'm content in my little world just trying to write something real from what moves me, just me, not everyone, but me). So this girl, our car stopped, Neilson rolls down the window and wants to leap out and get her CD, wants to record her right there, in front of the Hilton, and just as we are about to all do a Chinese FireDrill out of the car, the traffic opens up and we have to go and we lose that one bit of magic. We don't even know who she was. But I hope some jaded record label person wandered by, his or her ears buzzing with distortion, and heard her in her quiet little shadow space, and stopped and was as moved as we were.
I saw great shows. Flogging Molly playing their set as the clock struck midnight on the early morning of St. Patrick's Day as if every song was an encore. Apache Relay's lead singer stands on the monitor and has an exultant rocknroll moment of in the middle of the song calling out "one, two, onetwothreefour" and jumps up and the drums crash and the band kicks into an even higher gear and my skin shivers. Ben Sollee with Tracey Bonham and Phoebe from Belleville Outfit on strings, improvised jam of beautiful songs, a soulful voice, full drum kit rock but layered with classical strings and cello in a 20th Century musical mezcla of Benjamin Britten meets Copeland meets Ray LaMontagne meets The Carter Family...not even sure what it was, but Ben moved me more than anyone this weekend. Watching the Ron Sexsmith documentary, being brought to sobbing tears as his parents' watch the television set in their home of wood-panelled walls lined with baseball caps and lazyboy recliners to cheer their son's win of a Juno (Canadian Grammy) award.
I had great drinks. The Bloody Mary to die for with Joan and Tamara and Jeni on South Congress at Enoteca. The late-night-escape margarita at the Driskoll Bark with Chuck E. Costa. Some local vodka concoction at the Thirty Tigers 10th Anniversary Party at Swan Dive.
I ate well enough. I've mentioned the street tacos. There was duck at Boticelli's with Cary and David. There were enchiladas somewhere with the band.
My own official set was satisfying. I was happy to get through it, to not fuck it up too much, to just relax and play the songs and feel like I was grounded enough to be true and real. And to have good sound and to be able to follow Josh Ritter and be followed by Ron Sexsmith - well, a girl couldn't ask for anything better.
Its fun, this circus, walking up and down the streets looking for good music, hoping to be moved. Because that's what I really believe is at the heart of it all. Sure the execs are worried about sales and placements and money. But what we are looking for, in the end, is something, One Thing, that moves us.
And to be able to hear that in a quiet french song by a girl strumming a nylon string guitar on a loud, loud street in the heart of a mayhem mob is what moves us.