SXSW: assorted miscellany or a post-mortem

>> Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I'm back from SXSW, home recuperating before I go back into the office tomorrow. I'm also trying to get my thoughts in order, because I'd definitely like to review some of the shows I saw while I was there, and there were a lot of shows I saw while I was there, surprise, surprise, surprise.

There are maybe one or two things putting me off a little, though. Some of that itself is also the subject of a possible blog post that I thought about writing while I was in Austin, then I sort of started to write it today, and now I've decided, no, I'd hold off on that, too.

But I will share a few thoughts from my first South-By, for whatever they're worth.

•Is the badge worth it?

A lot of people go to SXSW unregistered. There's stuff going on everywhere, almost all the time, and you can see a helluva lot of music without paying the several hundred dollars to go as someone special. And a lot of the official events will let in the general public for a cover or ticket charge or if you RSVP, and RSVPing can apparently be as simple as going online or calling someone for a lot of events.

But the badge is fucking awesome.

Okay, first of all, just because a lot of the venues will (sort of) let anybody in, it doesn't mean they actually will. E.g. Jimmie Dale Gilmore's show was open to the public for fifteen bucks, but only after anyone with a badge or a wristband had been allowed in, if there was room; so when I got to the front of the line there was some guy arguing with the nice lady who was scanning badges (a lot of official venues had staff with handheld readers standing out front to scan badges to verify authenticity) because he had fifteen bucks and she was replying, as she scanned my badge and gestured me in, that she had to make sure anyone who had a badge or wristband could see the show. I even got waved into one venue that turned out not to be an official venue (it was in the same building, different door, as the one hosting the show I was actually trying to get to).

Second of all, are you a music geek? I didn't just want to hear bands, though that was a huge thing, obviously. I also wanted to go to a bunch of the seminars, panels and lectures, and I did. There was one about writing about music, one about music history (specifically about trying to track down the biography of Blind Willie Johnson), one about intellectual property issues applicable to Internet streaming of music, and a number of others. This isn't for everybody, but if you're a hardcore music geek--bring it on. There's stuff for musicians, for businesspeople in the music industry, for people who write about music, for tech people working with musicians or music, etc., etc., etc. And if you're interested on that level, it's fucking incredible.

•What did I think of Austin?

I loved Austin. Or I loved the Austin that I saw. You have to wonder, when you're at something like SXSW (if there's anything else quite like it) if you're really seeing a place or just what the place becomes. I was in a nice hotel downtown, I was eating at restaurants or from street vendors at every meal, I was spending every night at a show. I wasn't driving to work every morning five days a week or living in a nice, modestly affordable home wherever people who actually live in Austin live.

I heard that I35 was like what I saw on my one shuttle-ride down it every evening and not just during SXSW: what I saw was something along the lines of the freeway chase scene from The Matrix Reloaded if that scene had been directed by Andy Warhol and featured interminable gridlock (upon reconsideration, maybe it was more like that Doctor Who episode where they're stuck in traffic). And drivers on the unblocked-off streets of Austin were pretty terrifying, making the notoriously-terrible drivers of my own podunk hometown look like a bunch of grannies on their way to church. I didn't have to deal with any of that so much, except as a pedestrian, and only for six days.

So did I love Austin or did I love Fantasy-South-By-Southwest-Austin? That's a question I obviously can't answer, but if it was the latter, Austin is an awesome, awesome place to visit but I don't know if I'd want to live there.

Austin during SXSW also, sadly, pointed up how podunk my hometown, Charlotte, NC, is. I was walking around one evening, thinking that what Charlotte really needs is something like a SXSW--only to realize that recent attempts to revise Charlotte's noise ordinance (temporarily scrapped and sent back to the drawing board) show how ill-prepared Charlotte is to become even a second=tier city, much less the "world class city" that city leaders aspire to. Charlotte just couldn't handle giving itself over to the week of chaos that comes with a big downtown festival--Charlotte residents are too parochial and too many of Charlotte's leaders too buttoned-down--and without a willingness to be big and loud, Charlotte will never be more than a C-list city (at best).

•Austin wasn't as hard to navigate as I thought.

Well, I was downtown and everything I was doing was downtown. I'd heard that Austin was hard to get around on foot and even paid for a shuttle pass that I ended up not using after one trip--the trip I took to pick up the shuttle pass I'd paid for. Don't get me wrong: I was glad to have the pass and would've used it if it had rained or something.

Also, again, I was downtown and everything I was doing was downtown. There was at least one restaurant I didn't get to, recommended as having really good steaks by Kinky Friedman in a book he wrote about Austin, because it took a cab ride to get there and the cab companies' phone lines were all tied up when I wanted to go, and then later in the week I wasn't going to be bothered with taking a cab somewhere; anyway, I had a really good steak somewhere else and there was other stuff I wanted to eat.

But as for walking around downtown when you're staying downtown--that turns out to be a cinch, at least.

•Who did I see?

That would be a long list, and some of the bands are people I hadn't heard of (and you probably haven't either), but it would include Low, Emmylou Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Plastic Ono Band and The Strokes, among others.

The thing, though, is I've felt obligated to mention acts people might have heard of, when that's not really the cool thing for a music geek seeing bands at South-By; the cool thing is a sort of counting coup by seeing acts nobody has ever heard of so that if they do make a splash, next year you can say, "Oh yeah, We Are Animal, yeah I saw them at the Welsh showcase at South-By-Southwest last year." Sure, it'll be an annoying thing to do and I'll be a total asshole if I get to do it. Know what? I don't care. It'll still be awesome.

•What was the best show you saw?

The Dears were part of a showcase set up in a tent behind Lance Armstrong's bicycle shop and they tore the top off the fucking tent. Not literally, but pretty close. I found myself considering that any show in which the lead singer stage dives is a pretty good show, and any show in which the lead singer feels compelled to rip his clothes off is a pretty good show; Dears lead singer Murray Lightburn did both, for whatever that tells you. Plus the band just kicked ass that night.

Their set was pulled short, like a lot of bands' sets were throughout the festival--schedules tend to run behind more than they run on time (though there were instances of the latter)--and The Dears were told they were finished after only, if I remember rightly, four songs. The audience wasn't too happy about that, and somebody was appreciating the show enough (I don't know if it was someone from the next band or who) to give The Dears one more song. If it was someone from the next act who made the decision, it may have been a mistake--the band plugged back in super quick and fucking shredded their last song with a truly epic performance; I don't know how anybody followed it, and I didn't find out because there was another band playing elsewhere a few minutes later and I needed to perambulate. (Though I would have happily stayed for The Dears if they'd been given another song.)

•No pictures

I carted the Nikon all the way down there and didn't take it anywhere. I found out a bit late that taking a camera into events required a press pass and I hadn't bothered to get one. A friend of my sister's advised me that lots of people snuck in their cameras anyway and he didn't see too many people get hassled; I observed this, too, but didn't want the risk or the attendant anxiety. So I only took a few pictures with the cellphone or the Galaxy Tab, most of which went straight to Facebook and/or Twitter.

There was only one show where I saw someone get what I would consider hassled--I'll explain what I mean by that ungainly phrasing in a moment. Anyway, it was at Emmylou Harris' set at Antone's, and this guy near me starts pulling out a big DSLR when someone comes up from behind through the horribly-thick stew of a crowd and flashes a badge, yelling, "Is that a South-By-Southwest camera?" And when the guy with the camera said it wasn't, the official dude says put it away and that he's really supposed to confiscate it. Which is the kind of thing I didn't need, which is why I didn't bother. If I'm able to go back, I'll sign up for a press pass next time--hey, I did go as a blogger, remember.

Now, there were people approached about cell phones and cameras at the Plastic Ono gig, but here's the thing about that: there was a big announcement before the set telling the crowd, no cameras, no photos, no cellphones. And I'd wondered if there would be an announcement along those lines and wasn't surprised when it came, because I think it's pretty common knowledge that Yoko Ono is (whether you agree with her or hate her for it) pretty controlling of her image and has a thing about having her picture taken by strangers. Personally, I can't blame her--after what happened to her husband just a few feet from her, it's a wonder she appears in public at all, but besides that, she's somebody who has had the press and public turn on her pretty viciously at times. But, again, whether you think Ono was being overly uptight or you don't care, I don't think it can be called "hassling people with cameras" when those people were told, loudly, clearly, up-front to keep the cameras put away.

A sort of sad footnote to that is: after the Plastic Ono Band set, which was the headline (last) set of the evening (and the band didn't go onstage until one a.m., so this is close to two in the morning, though I didn't check my phone to see exactly what time it was), much of the crowd disappeared but a lot of people lingered, whether to let the exit clear (which was the main reason I stayed) or to see if something else would happen. And something else did happen: Ono and two of her bandmates, one of them her son, Sean Lennon, came back out and did a couple more songs for the remaining crowd. And during one of these songs, wouldn't you know that some jackasses would whip out their phones to take pictures--after the earlier announcements and after big burly guys came through the crowd during the Plastic Ono set to deal with photographers. And what was sort of sad was the look on Ono's face when she saw the cameras while she was singing, sort of a stricken look, as if to say, "This was supposed to be something special, and you had to go and do that."

Anyway, I didn't really take any pictures.

•The best purchases I made before the trip

One, the tablet, which I already raved about. I'll spare you the rehash, but I could not have had nearly as much fun without it.

Two, the manpurse of all fucking things. Second day, I just left my wallet in the hotel room. I feel like a little girl--no disrespect intended to powerful earth-mother sisters, etc., etc., etc., but, no, seriously, like a little girl. But man, that thing was fucking convenient.

Oh, three (speaking of my wussification): the earplugs. They were great. Comfy, didn't muffle the sound too much, and I could stand next to the amps, say during Kitten's set for instance, and not be any deafer than I already, sadly, am.

•I thought there was something else I wanted to include in this post...

...but if there was, I don't remember what it might have been. I plan on posting some music reviews and a comment about music reviews, I think, and eventually we'll get back to the usual routine of me posting music videos between cranky rants about that stupid conservative politician who's a total hypocrite, you know, that one who said something dumb and offensive the other day? And stuff. There'll definitely be posts about stuff.

Meanwhile, if you have a question about SXSW that can be answered by an idiot who's only been once, or about Austin that can be answered by a fool who spent six days there during a wild ride and only saw a few dozen blocks of it, or about my vacation from the moron who went on it--feel free, please. And thanks for your time and patience.


WendyB_09 Tuesday, March 22, 2011 at 8:54:00 PM EDT  

You'll be interested to know my boss is going to the LA area for Coachella next month.

Yes, that would be the gentleman you met at lunch the day you were here. He has a very eclectic taste in music...plays classical during the day at the office, very bluezy jazz if he thinks he's alone in the office. Nights & weekends, well that where the interesting stuff comes in.

Eric Tuesday, March 22, 2011 at 9:56:00 PM EDT  

That IS awesome, Wendy! Wish him a good time from me, would you?

Nathan Wednesday, March 23, 2011 at 11:17:00 AM EDT  

I'm glad you had such a great time.

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