SXSW is a music festival unlike any other. Set in the wondrous, sideways city of Austin, Texas; SXSW is the mecca of music. Bands play on street corners, coffee shops, bars, rooftops, parking lots, parks, etc. It is almost a full-time job just deciding what music acts and parties to go and check out.
After getting my wristband I was handed a program brochure. Over 100 official venues were listed with scheduled music. This is not including all of the countless unofficial activities that take place during the day, in and around Austin. I was admittedly taken aback when I realized how large this event really was. Camping is also a viable option for this festival. I took up residence at McKinney Falls State Park for the week and that was one of the best decisions I could have made. Nothing compares to camping at a music festival, especially in the gorgeous city of Austin. I was able to find a campsite close enough that when things started happening in the city, I could easily park and join the madness. Unlike most other festivals, SXSW places a strong emphasis on bringing “new.” New music in all of its forms, incarnations, and genres. Bands that have been around for more than a decade mainly play music off of their new record. Looking for hits when you go see a band at SXSW is a fool’s errand. SXSW is a showcase that looks forwards and never back. This is both exciting and worrying, since everything has to be a new experience. The Flaming Lips for example, put on a free official show in the Auditorium Shores Park where they played almost exclusively songs off their upcoming album, The Terror. Getting rid of several stage props I had grown used to at many previous Lips’ shows, they decided to put on a new live experience as well. On this particular night, Wayne Coyne decided to hold a plastic baby doll and drape himself in wires that shot lights in electrical currents through the whole stage. But the Flaming Lips weren’t the only veterans jumping head first into the future. The Cold War Kids also played a full show featuring none of their past hits. Instead they focused on their own upcoming album.
If you go to any show at SXSW, chances are you will see a band you have never heard of before. But many times, the band you had never heard of becomes your new favorite band for the next few months! I found myself in this situation with singer-songwriter Mac Demarco. After going to Scoot Inn to see the surf rock band, Wavves, I was blown away by his charismatic, cheesy alt-rock. Besides him there were many other groups at various showcases that grabbed people’s attention. Cloud Nothings put on my personal favorite show of the week at Mohawk Bar. Chaos ensued for about an hour as Cloud Nothings tore through tracks off their recently released Attack on Memory, along with plenty of brand new songs. Dylan Baldi’s band was heavy, grungy and out for blood. Aggressive yells and guitars perfectly complimented the angsty songwriting. SXSW doesn’t just offer the best in new music but also tons of free stuff as well! People stand outside venues giving away t-shirts, bags and anything else you can think of, all repping some brand or label.
The scene walking down 6th street, is essentially an infinite number of mini-scenes mashed together. One person might be handing out free burritos on one side of the street, while a traditional Japanese group performs an acoustic set on the other side. During the week I saw about 60 different bands at about 10 different venues. It’s not hard to get swept up in the SXSW tide and never want to leave. After going with three of my friends, it was clear that each of us had a unique experience of the festival. There is something for everyone, and something different and exciting behind every corner. This was hammered home for me as I walked back from a metal showcase and was captured by an antique store that was showcasing a local opera ensemble. When going to this festival, you have to expect the unexpected. Teeming with joy and life, SXSW is certainly the place to be during Spring Break.
By Zac Turner
(Zac Turner photo credit: Zac Turner)