For those who are not familiar with the fantastic phenomenon known as South By Southwest (or SXSW), it's an annual conference / festival in Austin, TX that has three concentrations: Interactive, Film, and Music. It has come a long way since it's inception in 1987, and each year it seems to get bigger and bigger. In 2013, it has become an absolute behemoth. This year marks my ninth South By... A mark which I'm very privileged to have achieved.
For the fan, the festival is a dream come true. Free day parties with free food and alcohol is common place, and music fills the air for miles and miles. Choice of more than 2,200 "official" performers and bands playing in more than 100 venues over the course of 5 days is a good reason to shell out the $600 for a badge, but a badge is not completely necessary... Only to access the major showcases in the evening.
I was fortunate enough to see over 20 bands this year which is actually a major decrease from 2012. This is due to the fact that I had more meetings during the day (one day I had a meeting every half hour from 9am to 6pm) and also attended more panels, all of which were very informative. If I had followed my plans from 2012, I would have seen 50 or more bands.
So, let's get into the bands... First, the surprises.
I had never even heard of Big Black Delta (pictured right) before seeing them this year. This is one of the beauties of SX, that is, discovering new good music. This is the original intent of the SX founders and it's nice to experience the sentiment. Anyway, consisting of two girls (drummer, bass) and two guys (sampler/vocals, drummer), the band produces an eerie driving electro-pop-rock. Normally, this isn't my thing, but I really enjoyed it. Front man Jonathan Bates moved around a lot and pulled the audience in.
For the uninitiated, SX can be an overwhelming prospect to negotiate. Not only are there panels, showcases, and workshops but also day parties and a zillion other events all happening simultaneously. As a veteran, I have learned to plan well, rest my feet when needed, and not start drinking too early in the day. It sounds easy enough, but I assure you it's easier said then done.
Then, for professionals attending, there are also a never-ending stream of meetings. Since virtually everyone in their respective industries attends, it's an incredible opportunity to get a lot of business done in a small amount of time. This however is not without complications / challenges... Traffic, schedule conflicts, massive hangovers, etc.
Surfer Blood was a surprise because I hadn't heard their new songs yet and they were really awesome. I mean, I liked their first record, and I saw them play at SX two years ago, but the new stuff is more driving, upbeat, and rocking. Their set at the Rolling Stone day party was an intimate affair, and at one point lead man John Paul Pitts was roaming around the audience with the mic while singing "Take It Easy". Check out the video of this...
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Another nice surprise was Hounds Below. They were opening for Death at the Detroit Metro Times showcase. They play a fierce brand of emotive indie rock, with lots of guitar action. Also worthy of mention Toro y Moi, Lovely Bad Things, Black Pistol Fire, Broncho.
Now, the disappointments...
I was very happy to have won the lottery to see Depeche Mode in the small venue of Brazos Hall. However, I was soon regretting my decision. First of all, they suggested that priority wristband holders get in line before 8pm... The Mode would not take the stage until 10pm. So, that meant sitting through two pretty dreadful acts: Feathers and The Neighbourhood. Once Depeche Mode finally hit the stage, I was pretty buzzed and feeling gnarly (due to the opening acts). I just wasn't that impressed with the band, but I'm not a super fan either... More of a casual fan.
Then, there were the SXSW legends...
I often opt to see older bands that I have never seen before instead of catching the new up and coming acts. Such was the case with The Zombies who were playing the PASTE / HGTV day party. They sounded fresh as ever and really nailed classic tunes like "Time of the Season" and "She's Not There". This is the kind of thing I really enjoy.
Check out the video...
Every year I like to check out Roky Erickson's Psychedelic Ice Cream Social. Aside from the man himself, there's a host of other great bands joining him and this year I got to see the Meat Puppets and Peelander-Z. But anyway, Roky seems to be getting better and better (check on video on the right). His story is amazing and it's a miracle that he's even alive!
This year, I was also privileged to see the legendary Death from Detroit. They took quite a while to take the stage, but it was an amazing show because the room was so small. The crowd was into it and the band sounded amazing.
Aside from bands, films, and parties, there's a shitload of marketing in action. Every party / showcase is sponsored by one or more companies and display a ton o' signage. My favorite promotion of this year was Chevrolet’s "Catch A Chevy". Outside of the Convention Center, you could wait in line for a brand new Chevy to come in and they would take you anywhere you wanted to go, up to 3 miles. you could also flag them down if you saw one unoccupied. The purpose is to show off the car and it's features. I have seen this previous years, but never used it until this year, and I ended up using it several times. The first time I only waited 5 minutes for a ride at least 30 blocks, that would have cost me around $15 in a cab. Kudos to Chevy!
After 4-5 days of all of this, you're ready to bail. There's just thousands of people on the streets, in the bars, and in the eateries, surrounding you at all times. It's even difficult to get around via car... Too much traffic. Pedicabs serve as an affordable alternative method of transit if you have to go further than a walk will take you.
Post SX follow up will keep me busy with upcoming projects, new business developments, etc for the next few weeks to months. I return home rejuvenated, and with a renewed passion for music and for my profession. That alone is worth the price of admission, and I look forward to it all again at SXSW 2014.