Will & bikesFor me, Austin fell somewhere between the Mecca and the Promised Land. I’m not exaggerating when I say it met every expectation I had from a pool of hopes built up slowly after learning about SXSW one afternoon on the Internet in 2010. I met journalists and PR representatives from Scotland and England, I jammed with the general manager of a New York college radio station and I saw concerts in every place I could have imagined.

Coolest place to see a venue: the roof of a parking garage. No wait, a bike shop…. Or a house party? Maybe the 1800s church? This is one of the most mythical aspects of SXSW. Venues spring up from shacks, houses become temporary bars and storage warehouses transform into meeting places.  Not to mention the actual Austin venues and bars remain packed all week with show after show. Our car arrived in Austin on Monday, the day before the music portion of the festival officially began but the city still delivered. A Twitter lead coaxed us to aparking garage on the corner of somewhere and someplace where a woman with a clipboard peered at the RSVP email receipt on the screen of our smartphones before allowing us entrance. We shuffled up one, two, three ramps and we were met by a thrashing set from Thee Oh Sees. A stage was set up with professional lights and a tented sound board.  I stretched my arms into bracing position to catch a stage diver who peeled off a ten-foot concert light post and looked around, surrounded by the tops of sleepily illuminated skyscrapers. Unlimited Shiner beer also made an appearance.  Your dreams couldn’t draw this. Best Monday night of my life.

KEXP booked Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop for an impressive handful of bands to broadcast from the showroom during business hours. Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Bleeding Rainbow, Palma Violets and Texas-natives Iron & Wine all had afternoon shifts with audiences filled out by two-wheelers and trikes. On the last afternoon of SXSW, I caught the Zombies who brought out a huge crowd. We spilled over into the racing gear and witnessed the Zombies truly still having at it. Argent has kept every ounce of clarity in his vocal range. The band punctuated crowd favorites with some tracks from their newer album. It was wild to hear songs like “Time of the Season” when I could so easily imagine hearing it in a stadium. The bike shop is not built like a venue, so it was hard to see more than occasional glimpses of the members’ faces between the bobbing lip-singers in the crowd. It prompted a sort of existential conversation in my head about what the necessary components of live music are. Decidedly, the good /passionate crowd, the well-picked set list and the quality of the music made the show excellent without leaning too much on visual aid. It was such a unique show, broad daylight shining through the full length windows, a great place to be.

If you are thinking about going to SXSW, I would highly recommend bringing a bike if you can swing it. Austin is extremely bike-friendly – the bike lanes are generously wide and cars consistently yielded to me so I could merge. Many of the major streets with venues like 6th street get barricaded during the festival and it’s an indulgent little pleasure to slip through those bright orange blockades to get to your next show. Some of the shows I was catching were dangerously far away from one another and I wouldn’t have been able to make it across town in time without my spoken steed. I’m particularly proud of the time I hustled from Savages at old Emo’s downtown about 14 blocks to the Rainey Street area to see Akron/Family in a span of about fifteen minutes. Biking also gave me the illusion of feeling like a local. I even got my brakes fixed at Mellow Johnny’s.

Keeping Austin Weird: I didn’t find Austinites to be as weird as much as I found them to be nice. I felt generally looked after by everyone; even in the urban setting, the familial spirit of festivals reigned supreme.  Of course, in a festival setting you don’t have your day-to-dayers out and about but aside from some topless partners’ yoga in the park, things stayed pretty normal. A UTexas student told me about a late-night weekly bike ride that happens every Thursday that sounded pretty weird but I think Athenians would find themselves right at home. As a foodie, I did make time to sample the Austin food-cart scene which brought about some weirdness in its own right. Twitter could not stop buzzing about Chi’lantro – a Korean Mexican fusion cuisine. Boasting a banner of “Korean BBQ Tacos,” I went big and tried a Tofu Kimchi Fries Burrito. It had caramelized Kimchi (spicy pickled cabbage,) Korean BBQ tofu, cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, cilantro, “magic sauce,” sriracha and sesame seeds with fries all wrapped up in a Tortilla. To be honest, I think I went a little too big ordering the weirdest thing on the menu, the fries were a little much.  However the magic orange-flavored sauce was awesome with the cilantro and BBQ flavors, and was such a unique flavor.  Would eat again.

I’m sunburned, sore and having the fantasy comedown of a lifetime. See you next year.

By Andrea Amszynski

(Will w/ bikes photo credit: Andrea Amszynski)