Music festival reporting can be physically and mentally exhausting: last summer Scotland’s T in the Park saw me haul-assing across a muddy wasteland to catch a very late and very crowded bus, and Latvia’s Positivus (though the accommodations were more comfortable) left my schedule in the hands of some seriously hard partiers. Then Edinburgh’s Fringe made August of 2015 the most hectic month of my life. But I’ve never, as a reporter, felt myself so spiritually and bodily taxed as I did on the last night of SxSW 2016, pondering giving up on a 3-hour queue to see The Roots, enduring unseasonably bitter winds, very aware of having been oversaturated in music and local craft beers for too many consecutive days.
Of course the endurance test was not only “worth it” – it was a privilege. Just taking a glance below at some of the incredible acts I saw in one packed week proves that. Each new day seemed to erase the previous, and only when I type the names out all together do I have any sense of the sheer volume of the good music I heard. You can check out my schedule, with links to my daily posts for The Skinny, below.
SxSW Tuesday 15 March: Thelma and the Sleaze, Gymshorts, Yonatan Gat, St. Lucia, Big Boi
SxSW Wednesday 16 March: WOMPS, Hinds, Mothers, Iggy Pop & Josh Homme
SxSW Thursday 17 March: CHVRCHES, Lucky Chops, Declan McKenna, KLOE, 2 Chainz, Earl Sweatshirt
SxSW Friday 18 March: Duncan Fellows, Joseph, Flo Rida, Charli XCX, Sylvan Esso, Santigold
SxSW Saturday 19 March: Sugarmen, Fizzy Blood, Demob Happy, The Roots
Any member of the music press I meet says the same thing about festivals: “They make me wish I could come back when this wasn’t going on.” I felt that then I was in Riga, and I felt that way in Austin. A festival (or a conference in the case of SxSW, which is too big to be so-called a festival), inevitably eclipses a city. It’s not only difficult to carve out time to visit local eateries and attractions; a festival actually alters the city it inhabits.
Austin was not entirely lost to me, in large part because I stayed with a friend, Erin, a native Buffalonian and an employee of C3, the events company responsible for Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, the White House Easter egg roll, and the NFL Draft, to name a few. So I saw stunning, gargantuan houses, some Tuscan and some indebted to Taliesin West, rising up between her place and downtown Austin on the Shoal Creek Bike Path; I shared a few Austin City Brewery Pearl Snaps with the local band Duncan Fellows after their Shiner’s Saloon rooftop show; and because of Erin I also saw a view of Austin not usually afforded to visiting journalists – namely the view from the 21st floor of 300 W. 6th St. on the night of the most dramatic thunderstorm of the conference. The sky was veined in purple-white as I ate guac and black bean dip, “Favored” up to the office by a friend, wondering if anything could be salvaged from that Friday night. (And Flo Rida, Charli XCX, Santigold, and Sylvan Esso were.)
Although my schedule prevented me from witnessing the famed bats of Austin, I was treated to Austinite cuisine: tacos from One Taco, succulent BBQ from Lambert’s, antelope and venison sausage at Banger’s on Rainey, breakfast tacos from Tacodeli, ice cream from the quirky Amy’s, brunch from the French-inflected Hopfields and the quintessentially “local” Cenote (which boasts avocado-topped breakfast nachos that’re worth stopping over for), and incredibly unctuous ramen from Tatsu-Ya, just south of the Colorado River.
Treated as I was to the culinary luxuries Austin had to offer those willing to venture beyond the downtown food trucks, I was also captivated by the legions of homeless who crowded the block between “Front Steps,” the shelter on E. 7th, and the Salvation Army on E 8th, both adjacent to Neches St. Upwards of 200 homeless people, predominantly African American, waited hiding from the sun outside both offices, under heavy police surveillance, which did not stop the dealers slinging crack and K2 from cars on any of these streets, but only ensured the undesirables did not cross into Sx territory. Only one block away (on Red River St.) people like myself queue to get into acts: everything from Thelma and the Sleaze and Yonatan Gat to Charli XCX and Big Boi, and even bigger superstars like Flo Rida, Nas, Leon Russell, and Drake.
In contrast with the homeless there were the tribes of vagabonds, drawn to Austin for the “conference.” These drifters are of a class seen in every major American city. They are predominantly white, universally garbed in faded army drab greens, often tattooed, and usually dreadlocked; they travel with pets in a ration of 1 dog to every 3 people. I have encountered them in New York, New Orleans, and Austin, but they are drawn mostly to the warm South and West. Evident in their air, unlike the homeless outside the shelters, is that they choose to be here, in this condition, in this city, at least for a week. By Wednesday their pairs and trios have formed larger clusters, and they hold torturous jam sessions on Congress, and the other streets subsumed in Sx. I haven’t been able to find anything substantive written on this American subculture, and it’s one I hope to explore in future travels.
These outsiders don’t define Austin, of course, though they do color the conference season. Austin is young, unabashedly hipster, avowedly music-oriented; it is a capital city passionately “open” while holding itself aloof from the Texas-love that infects the rest of the Lone Star State. It can be loud and messy though it cherishes its areas of calm; and above all Austin thrives on the notion that the “new” is ever being created there, somewhere between Lady Bird Lake and the UT Tower.
The moment that most typifies the city for me, however, came after the festival had begun to fade. It was Sunday morning and I was still heavy with disappointment from missing The Roots’ jam session the night before. We stopped for brunch at Hopfields just north of downtown Austin – we ordered mimosas and I ate a remarkable “Mondo Christo,” a Monte Christo with the addition of a burger patty. I’d been warned that Austinites were unusually chatty people, which made me reflect on Buffalo’s status as “the city of good neighbors.” We’re friendly; our hearts are warm and if our handshakes are cold, it’s probably because of the weather. But for many of us, a good neighbor is one who leaves well enough alone. So I was a bit surprised when the bartender started to chat me up about Sx (I was still wearing my badge). Thinking she just wanted to make small talk while we waited for my receipt to print, I asked her about her own experience – and I soon realized that her intention had never been to make “small talk,” but to engage in a genuine conversation. A Nor-easterner, I was pleasantly unsettled through our whole exchange, as we talked about Erykah Badu, Iggy Pop, and of course my disappointment in the queue for The Roots. The real surprise came about five minutes later, though, when the first Roots song playing in the brunch spot segued into another. And another. And another. The girl had put on a half-hour Roots playlist for a scruffy and unevenly suntanned outsider she’d never see again. And this, I think, is Austin. I felt I’d tapped the central vein of personality that runs through this city.
It’s only in Chicago Midway, at about 8:30 p.m., that I realized one of the more remarkable benefits of Sx. Steve and I were sitting under a TV displaying CNN’s round-robin interviews of “the final five” candidates; Wolf Blitzer was at that moment asking Donald Trump why he thought white supremacists like David Duke were drawn to him. “I am simply the least racist person you will meet,” Trump said over and over again. For whatever reason, Blitzer decided not to push him. It was Trump’s cutting tone, impossible to be blocked out as we sat side by side, reading the second volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, respectively, that drew us back into the moil of American politics. Initially absorbed in our reading, we soon realized we couldn’t concentrate; the absurdly twinned sirens of Blitzer and Trump, two voices we had, in different ways, grown up with, refused our inattention, prevented us from blocking up our ears. And so we fled to a “cafe” for bad airport coffee; when we returned Anderson Cooper was interviewing Hillary Clinton, and we were able to use an an antidote to this the classic video of Cooper being completely unable to handle Buffalo’s Dyngus Day rituals.
Reflecting on what had happened to us – the unpleasant feeling that had compelled us out of our seats and away from the noise of the television – we realized that we’d experienced the shock of reentry, of reacclimating our systems to the atmosphere of the 24 hour news cycle, and specifically the American presidential race. SxSW offered – or rather, demanded – immersion in an entirely different 24 hour news cycle. Music starts at noon – there are transportation arrangements to be made, queues to post up in, shows that can’t be missed – all this ends around Austin’s 2’oclock curfew – then there are Uber rides to catch – one wakes at 9, ideally, and bangs out the previous day’s dispatch and catch a ride back into the city center, trying to prioritize off the Sx app in the back of an Uber, paying out the nose for “Surge” prices. The last news that really registered was that Obama had nominated Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, and this was only because we were joined on Wednesday by another friend who’d spent Tuesday and Wednesday morning outside of the Sx bubble. The fact that we were able to use this name to get this friend into Iggy Pop and CHVRCHES shows without a ticket proved that we were not the only ones blissfully ignorant of the outside world. We heard about but did not really register Obama’s trip to Cuba; we heard that Marco Rubio dropped out of the presidential race but immediately forgot this; and we somehow missed the news that there was a shooting at Sx. I only heard this when my mother texted me that Sunday – when, coincidentally, I was standing beneath the UT Tower. So, Steve and I woke with a lurch to the sound of Donald Trump’s voice Monday night, and Tuesday morning woke in full to the news of the terrorist attacks in Brussels.
That morning there were emails to open and answer, I had papers to correct, bags to unpack, and friends to get in touch with. The news kept coming; I felt grimly compelled to “catch up.” But as soon as I had a free moment, I reached into the pile of unsorted Sx detritus and retrieved a little pink cassette I’d purchased after last Tuesday’s performance Thelma and the Sleaze. I popped it into the last functioning tape deck at my house, and tried for a few minutes to slip back into the past. It was pleasant to hear them again in a different context; I was wading in memories made new. But then the tape stopped; and then I’d exhausted both sides. It reminded me of what Bob Dylan once sang: You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.”