Hours before my fourth trip to South by Southwest Festival would take a decided turn for the Kerouackian, when I’d find myself sleeping among a sea of strangers thirty deep in what appeared to be a furniture-free detox safe house for strung-out teens with an elderly black man walking around smoking a cigarette preaching the Bible and talking from personal experience about the ills of intravenous heroin (but what was actually a Craigslist rental occupied by blog rappers and rock and roll bands on their last physical leg of energy), I was sitting in my car, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, in the heart of downtown Austin. I was exhausted and listening to a voice on the radio – that of a young KVRX DJ, with an intonation perfectly metered for spoken poetry and prose, who had turned 21 the night before.
“Last night being the first time in my life I’ve been able to legally partake in the chaos that is South by Southwest,” he began, “my evening was very memorable. Or, rather, unmemorable, I should say. But as I arrived home in the wee hours of the morning, I had the opportunity to witness the sunrise, mother Earth‘s waking yawn. As I stood there on the corner in front of my house, taking everything in – the public bus just getting started, its hydraulic sigh complemented by the echoes of factories in the distance – I had a thought.” After taking a deep breath for a somewhat lengthy pause (because, as I said, the kid could meter), he finished, “The morning cigarette of the American Empire. Just something to think about.”
Yeah, it was pretty pretentious, but maybe a little fitting nonetheless. Anyone who’s known me in the past twelve months also knows my unfavorable – even downright antagonistic – assessment of South by Southwest in 2011. As viewed through the lens of that festival, Austin is, on one end, way too inviting of bottom-line, Middle America mass consumerist culture (the kind that draws people in with wasteful amounts of free shwag like Frisbees, T-shirts, coozies, tote bags and polyurethane wristbands all paid for by the bottomless marketing pockets of corporations lacking a relation to music or the arts in any passable fashion) while on the other end embodying all that is annoying and repugnant about feigned intellectualism and musical elitism.
A year ago, I would have bashed in the entire radio console with my forehead, ripped out the pieces and flung them at oncoming bicyclists. Surprisingly though, I wasn’t bothered by any of what amounted to armchair political hyperbole as expressed from the heart of what conservative’s like to call “entitlement culture”; in fact I enjoyed it. The guy was a phenomenal speaker, and if he’s correct that America is indeed an “empire”, I can at least offer the perspective that empires aren’t built on gratuities and freeloading assholes, but hard work. And what I saw in Austin during SXSW this year was no less than the sum of people’s tireless, penniless, unapologetic physical labor.
Offering an oddly perfect dichotomy, the notion that artistic industry should yield some form of concrete payoff is lost on much of the New Orleans music community. It’s the reason our artists routinely give away their music for free, play for no cover, give all of a show’s profits to touring acts and have no problem working menial jobs to subsidize the entire lifestyle. So the idea of traveling all the way to Austin to play a string of no-pay shows is nothing new to the slew of local bands that made the trip this year. What was new, for me, was the opportunity to see the live prowess of NOLA artists knock the socks off of concertgoers on someone else’s turf and, in turn, find their own home court advantage in the backyards, communes and parking lot parties of Austin. For lack of a better phrase, New Orleans acts fucking killed it at South by Southwest.
No doubt Sun Hotel has become something of DIY royalty. The frequency with which they leave me awestruck is beyond punchline fodder at this point. But at SXSW, headlining a host of buddy-booked shows in the city’s outskirts, they presented yet another thrilling novelty by managing – right in front of my eyes – to continually foment new mini-followings of young music fans, the same way they did to me several years back. In the small string of performances I attended, I witnessed the band get broken up by the cops twice; I once observed them get invited to headline a house party immediately following a house party they had just headlined; I heard bassist John St.Cyr receive accolades specifically pertaining to his use of bass chords and reverb no less than two times; and I couldn’t even count the numbers of kids who absolutely lost their shit, attempted to glad hand all four members and stumbled to articulate their excitement over this band.
Louis Paul Bankston often finds himself, for the most part, under the radar of New Orleans’ underground youth culture nowadays, which is no surprise considering the unobtrusive demeanor of this short-statured, red-faced, badly self-groomed Bywater regular. To anyone not digging for the information, King Louie (as he’s better known) is just another lovable Crescent City kook. Take this man to Austin for South by Southwest though, and watch people fill a fucking room faster than he can pop his bowl-cut head in the building. At Spiderhouse on Saturday night, alongside the likes of heat-seeking young garage punk acts Barreracudas, Mean Jeans, White Mystery, Night Beats and Apache Dropout, King Louie’s Missing Monuments were the band of the evening. Packing the tiny, redlight-saturated off-ballroom bar to fire marshal levels, the double Gibson Flying V assault of Louie and Julien Fried emphatically gave a roaring third dimension to the band’s rock n’ roll punk roots, at which their debut record Painted White only hints. If there was ever an experience that offered insight to how the now-mostly-deceased Oregon-based tragic legends the Exploding Hearts (whom King Louie, like a garage rock Brian Eno, aided in the writing and recording of their sole album) sounded in person, this was it.
I have certainly not been quiet about Vox and the Hound‘s insane 20ROCKIN12 live prowess. In three short months, they’ve taken to New Orleans venues of every size and neighborhood, and humanity be damned if they haven’t destroyed every single one of them. In Austin, at Shiner Saloon on Saturday evening, the tale was the same and then some. A deep, airy, natural-lit barroom with a tiny stage that belies its overall size, Shiner was crowded to the gills with drunk-as-shit St. Patrick’s day revelers by 6pm. In one of those all-or-nothing situations where green beer revelry could quickly give way to unmanageable heckling, Vox seized the day and treated their audience to one of the most energetic performances they’d see all weekend. By the first chorus of “Mom’s Origami”, there was an overwhelming sense that the people who booked this “Future of Music Showcase” had stumbled upon what was either a group of serious up-and-comers or an established band of pros who accidentally arrived at a show many leagues beneath them. The performance itself was one of the best I’ve seen from Vox – and certainly the most fun. On stage right, D-Ray traded high fives with audience members after every keyboard solo and garnered raucous applause when he picked up his trombone; singer Leo DeJesus politely made room on stage for a number of drunk girls intent on dancing by his side and whispering sweet nothings in his ear; and too boot, bassist Andrew Jarman literally and unironically found himself signing autographs after the set had concluded.
The undisputed (though not technically New Orleanian) winners of the weekend, however, were Zac Traeger and Shmu, better known as Austin-based psyche electronic act Zorch. This duo is obviously known for its manic, odd-ball work ethic (an ethic that has somehow enabled them to reach the radar of nearly every major national media outlet with only six formally recorded songs since 2009), so to say that Zorch outdid themselves wouldn’t necessarily be an understatement but it nonetheless wouldn’t do their SXSW presence the justice it deserves.
I was party to the tail end of “Zorch by Zorch Mess“, an operation consisting of multiple performances each day for ten straight days, all over the city of Austin from the heart of downtown to the depths of its outskirts. Everywhere you walked, biked or drove – every place you visited or simply passed by – bore the footprint of Zorch; I myself visited no less than four venues they had already played by Thursday evening. Simply put, no one that weekend was a prolific or present than Zorch. So how, in the middle of all their calculated madness, they found the time and energy to singlehandedly (really “doublehandedly”, but still) organize and curate a massive, late night party on Friday is beyond me.
The 21st Street Co-Op, for live music purposes, might be the most absolutely sensational venue in the entire world, without exaggeration. Engineered with a construction resembling a dystopian frat house – complete with a mess hall, courtyard and individual apartment balconies overlooking all of it – the 21st Street Co-Op was host to the likes of Andrew W.K., Maps & Atlases, Japanther, Grimes, Dan Deacon, Caddywhompus, The Eastern Sea, Ava Luna, Netherfriends and, of course, Zorch. Beginning with Caddywhompus‘ phenomenal late-evening set onward, the place was sardine packed to its huge capacity with concertgoers (a good number of which were other musicians who simply wanted to take a night off and witness the bedlam for themselves) flooding the outdoor stage area courtyard for a de facto BYOB celebration and nearly splintering the floor of the sweaty, second story dance hall above with the massive weight of several hundred pairs of feet. Most amazing: this level of kinetic excitement was the rule, not the exception, of the evening until at least around 5:30am when Mr. W.K. finally brought the party to a close with an absonant finale.
I’ve attended South by Southwest three times before as a downtown touristy consumerist-type, but my first experience as a low-profile, backwoods house party concert jumper was a revelation. Though the symbiotic Texas-Louisiana connect is well known and deep-rooted, unofficial SXSW may be the one week each year that illuminates it above all others. Finding themselves in Texas playing with New Orleans bands were musicians from all over the country who could just as easily have been from New Orleans themselves, and vice versa. It’s a synergy built on mutual respect and a reciprocal work ethic, in which it’s understood that without backbreaking effort there will be no fun for anyone involved, if there is to be any at all. Certainly it doesn’t always work out for everyone. Most of the successes I bore witness to were the result of bands’ several years of experience at SXSW. Newcomers have no choice but to fly by the seat of their pants and hope they make it out alive because, for every Vox and the Hound whose first experience at the festival is a humble success, there is at least one Glish, all of whose bookings fall through practically while en route to Austin and who have to make do with nothing.
I myself was in the very same boat – attempting to see, hear and photograph everything I possibly could on virtually no sleep and even less nourishment – at times when I’d arrive at a show to find out it was cancelled, when a grouchy lead singer would wantonly chuck his microphone at me in an attempt to break my camera, or when I’d come to my place of rest to find a raging party and nowhere to sleep. Like just about every band I had occasion to see, my successes were modest and hard fought. But good lord, when you dig deep down to find the energy to keep going, South by Southwest is a fun fucking experience.