I’ve been to South by Southwest a few times in the past several years, the experiences of which have been experiments in the cause and effect of not planning for something that requires concise preparation. Results have been varied, the luck of the draw sometimes providing me with posh hotel accommodations and free drinking, and other times leaving me broke and homeless. In many ways, entering SXSW unprepared is like traveling Europe without a set plan: it ultimately transcends “good” or “bad”; rather, the inarticulable thrill of the unknown and the extreme isolation of knowing you’re an outsider combine to form a singular memorable experience.
For me, SXSW 2011 was a different experience in many ways. This year I decided to actually prepare and took control of the planning for my group of four friends: I typed out schedules, heavily researched as many bands as I could, and RSVP’ed to literally everything I came across. It was my belief that where I’d been turned down from shows and left out in the cold too many times in previous years, this year I’d at least have backup plans – places to go where I can drink and hear some noteworthy live music, avoiding the frills of aimlessly wandering 6th street until the early hours of the morning. Simply put, I’d be an insider.
In this respect, my experience at 2011’s South by Southwest Festival was an unmitigated success. For every hour that I and my group were awake, we had someplace to be, something to do, or someone to see; and – exponentially more so than in years past – we went to, did, and saw everything we wanted to.
Yet In spite of all the moral victories and personal successes that I enjoyed that weekend, I feel empty from the entire experience. It’s a different emptiness than I’ve felt in the past – when I’d be left wanting simply because I didn’t “get to see what I wanted to see”; instead this emptiness is born of what I did get to see. Though in reality I’m probably just a textbook ungrateful shit, in my mind SXSW 2011 was an experience that lifted the wool from my eyes, demystifying both the music I love and the festival that hosted it.
Midway through the day on Saturday, March 19, I was enjoying the dry, soul-healing Texas sun in a practical dustbowl of a mini-festival called Mess With Texas, preparing to experience my first live taste of young fireballs Surfer Blood, a band that, the previous year, had drummed up so much SXSW buzz that it was literally impossible to see any of their eight or so performances.
When the band finally took the stage, I was immediately floored by their live perfection, a tribute to both the brilliance of MWTX’s sound team and Surfer Blood’s own quickly-learned physical dexterity. For most of the set I was thoroughly charmed by lead singer John Paul Pitts’ youthful confidence, which provided him with the stage presence of someone twice his age. It was only upon putting down his guitar for “Take It Easy” and breaking into Bono-esque grandiose onstage gimmickry – tangling himself up in his microphone cord, spinning around in circles and feebly pointing out into the audience – that I was quickly yanked from my complete captivation of this young man. After looking around at some friends to see if they were as off-put as I was and commenting that it was “kind of weird”, I again suspended my disbelief and went back to enjoying the flawless performance of “Anchorage” that was to follow.
If I was only a little confused by Pitts’ momentary grandstanding, I was altogether confounded by the shopworn stage antics of !!! lead singer Nic Offer, whose nauseating pseudo-sexual showboating began within moments of their first song. After six or seven minutes of crotch thrusting and baiting the crowd with his hands, Offer said, in true Mick Jagger form, “Ladies, I don’t kiss on the first song!” This went on for twenty-five more minutes of upbeat, dance-inducing selections from the latter half of !!!’s career. But without a single sweat-drenched note of hard funk from their landmark self-titled album or its follow up Louden Up Now, the performance felt, at least to me, a purely put-on affair.
“This has to be a joke,” I continually kept telling myself. And maybe it was; or rather, maybe guys like Offer know something that I don’t – something that guys like Pitts are beginning to pick up on. After all, these guys sell records and play to packed-to-capacity shows at massively successful music festivals like SXSW. Though I am a huge fan of both !!! and Surfer Blood, they know that I’m unlikely to be their bankable audience; or, at the very least, they both know that they can thoroughly disgust someone like me with any amount of broken home, pop princess stage garbage, and I’ll still readily admit that they were fucking awesome live, moving the crowd, creating an infectious excitement throughout the sprawl of Austin’s premiere Spring music festival.
Ultimately, I may have been biased by what I’d already seen at SXSW. On Thursday, I’d seen a humble solo set by Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis, who managed to sooth the crowd with his acoustic guitar before shaking the entire inside room of the Stage on Sixth with his classic walls of noise. Immediately after, I’d attended an outdoor performance by the Strokes, who, for all the unfortunately – though valid – negative things people have had to say about them of late, couldn’t have given a shit if they were playing for 20,000 people or 20 people (for the record though, the crowd must have contained at least 20,000 people, filling Auditorium Shores to capacity, crowding the balconies and stairways on the buildings nearly half a mile across the street, congesting the nearby bridge with casual onlookers, and clogging the river behind the stage with vessels of all shapes and sizes). And on Friday I’d attended the Onion A.V. Club’s day party that featured performances by such unpretentious rockers and power pop acts as Ted Leo, Maritime, Wye Oak, and Sharon Van Etten: artists whose stage demeanor was so organic as to be enlightening.
However, Friday night I’d fallen into a familiar trap, one which I last experienced during SXSW 2009, when, after attempting to see a show at Cedar Street Courtyard and finding out that – in addition to being a badge-only affair – it was crowded by 300 people outside the door, I’d wander into the seemingly inviting Fado’s Irish Pub, and be treated to the worst kind of tribute band: one that pays tribute to U2, goes so far as to sport the band’s traditional garb and finds its Bono-impersonating lead singer climbing to the top of the venue to sing “Vertigo”. This year, I’d found myself in an identical situation.
From that moment, no one else I’d see that weekend would have a chance. At the first, slightest glimpses of pretension, I’d roll my eyes, sigh, and walk away from the stage to stand in a quarter-mile long line to get a five dollar tallboy.