South By Southwest 2009 has come and gone in a frenzy, and has predictably left many Austin residents with a sort of post-partum malaise. That and an Advil-resistant hangover. But one question arises in the Lone Star soaked afterglow of SXSW: do we Austinites love it or hate it?
For four full days in the middle of March, droves of celebrities, struggling bands and industry types descend on Austin for the music portion of SXSW and transform it into a hive of buzz-worthy activity. The scene is one of endless, free sponsored parties; music, extraordinary and unbearable, blaring from every street corner; and crowds for everything from your favorite BBQ joint to your highway exit and local bar. As a New York City native, I am accustomed to crowding, but as an Austin resident of three years, I am on the fence about whether I want those kind of sardine can conditions in my new home base. All that said, the festival lends itself to nonstop day- and nightlife, unique opportunities, and more free tacos than you can shake a stick at.
If you're trying to decide whether to join in the mayhem in 2010, here are my highlights from this year. (The downside includes a high dose of industry attitude and the standard shitshow that ensues whenever a small city is overcrowded, so let's focus on the positive):
For the past two years during SXSW, the Felice Brothers band has come to crash at my apartment. The string of events that led them to my couches in particular is supremely random and surprisingly innocent, but I always look forward to hosting them. While here, they play various showcases, mill about Austin, catch up on laundry, hear some music and, inevitably, talk about how all good artists are dead. But I prefer my Felices alive; if you have ever seen them perform live, chances are you too are an evangelist. The point is, whether you want to catch a rare performance or meet a band you love, it's completely possible at SXSW.
In addition to the Penny Lane angle, this year a good friend of mine who works at SPIN was in town, giving me access to some uber hip events and the feeling that if I couldn't do everything, at least I would do a few things top-notch. Ironically, some of the most enjoyable hours of the festival were spent with said friend, slurping margaritas at out-of-dodge restaurants rather than at fabulous magazine parties. But I firmly believe that when your gut says "I will freak out if I have to stand in another crowd right now", it's important to listen.
I did, however, make it to the SPIN party on Friday afternoon, and it was well worth the hype. Among several bands and DJs, I saw the Black Lips, an act known for their high voltage performances and spouting thick gobs of saliva into the air. Rock and roll? Yes. Disgusting? Absolutely. Four skinny white boys, one in a pilgrim hat and poncho and another with a full mouth golden grill. The spectacle, brain rattling volume and vibrating energy of the show are still with me.
One phenomenal Felice Brothers' show, two Emergen-C's, three free cocktails and one taco later, I headed to a pizza parlor in North Austin to see the New York indie folk-rock band Motel Motel. It's great fun to see group in the zygote stage of their musical career giving it all they got. Motel Motel was starry eyed and exhausted from their whirlwind week and definitely worth the trek. I enjoyed the show so much I bought a CD, a simple pleasure as it's an awesome souvenir and infinitely more gratifying to sponsor the beer in the band's hand than to pad record label pockets.
Next stop was through Perez Hilton's "One Night in Austin" party, and a bit to my chagrin, I had a great time. I find Perez to be a somewhat odious character, but if throwing a soirée catering to all pop loving chicks and gay men in Austin is the mission, he nailed it. Plus, the drinks were free.
I arrived home at 3am Sunday morning and uneasiness of the end began to set in.
That morning at brunch with two girlfriends, we reminisced on the blur that was weekend and how to deal with our mild to mid level cases of the coulda-woulda-shouldas. We concluded there are millions of ways to do the festival, but my advice for SXSW survival is this: you can't do everything. Pick your battles and be proactive about your industry connections for access to the best music. Err on the side of day parties over night, as they are usually less of a cluster. Take a break when you need one. Capitalize on the opportunities that can only be had in these few days. If you hang in there, the hassle of the crowd and lines for the bathrooms will surely lead to at least few legendary moments.
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