Money is for Nothing: A Review of an (almost) Free SXSW

sxsw-festival-09
Say what you will about our inability to beat a deadline, because we have an unparalleled skill for beating a dead horse like Chris Brown.  I only just received the review for SXSW from our temporarily disabled Austin, TX correspondent, Dr. Radical.  Based on what I’ve read, I’d like to believe that maybe this horse was prematurely buried alive and there’s still some breath in this massive beast.  Since Dr. Radical is an Austin local, his perspective on the festivities which took place is substantially different from everything else that I’ve read about the festival.  He also provides some information about maneuvering through the chaos and getting the most out of  time and money.  Don’t look at this like a review that’s a month late.  Rather, let’s look at this like an 11 month advance on the inside scoop for next year

-Dead C

SXSW 2009

I hobbled onto the bus, got my seat and looked over at a kid holding a box of cd’s. He was either going to ask what happened to my leg or see if I wanted to hear some “good” music.

An older lady missing her front teeth got on the bus after me. The bus started moving while she was getting situated. She caught her balance and looked over at the box of burned cd’s.  She sat down and asked kid, “What you got there?

They just hip hop cd’s for sale

OH…he he, I thought they was chocolate bars, he he he!

I nodded and smiled to myself, and thought, South by Southwest really is here!

Lots of bands come into town for SXSW. Great bands, alright bands, and really shitty bands.   By the end of the week I will have seen a good number of each.

There are day shows and night shows. Night shows usually cost money and day shows are always free.

I’ve been in Austin for 6 years, and that helps out a lot also. I don’t spend much money at SXSW. I usually rely on the day shows and personal hook ups.

WEDNESDAY MARCH 19TH

circle-jerks

I started my musical adventure at 3:00 on a friend’s porch, drinking a beer and watching the local pimp smoke a cigarette on the street corner, while a customer used his bed and prostitute. We were waiting for another friend to show up.  After he arrived, we rode our bikes down town.  At a red light, we joined a bike pack of burly girlies and continued on together.  This was the first time I had ridden my bike downtown since I got hit riding to work in December.

Day shows start around noon and go until 6:00pm.  They are free and usually all ages.  Badges and wristbands don’t really matter during the day.  Everyone has to wait in the same line.   There are also lots of unofficial  shows. These aren’t listed on the SXSW websiteShowlistaustin.com has most of the official and unofficial shows listed, and it will also tell you if there is anything being offered.  Such things as free beer, free bloody mary’s, free tacos, free pop tarts, and more.

After locking up, we went to get free beer.  They were out of the free beer, so we paid $4 for almost cold beer and watched Black Joe LewisBlack Joe Lewis and the Honey Bees are a local band I’d wanted to see for a while.  It was like going to a revival and getting healed, without having to hold a snake.  Soulful enough to raise your hands, and rocking enough to not feel like an asshole while doing it.  I was even able to tap my fucked up foot to the beat.  It was a miracle.  Superdrag was supposed to play next, but they had broken down, so we went inside to watch M.ward.  While waiting for him to start, a girl was taking pictures of her friends with her iPHONE.  As it got more crowded, her butt touched the back of my hand, and then her purse shifted my penis.  She walked by me to go to the bathroom and said, “Excuse me, mustache”.  I thanked her for giving me a name.  After a few songs, we left to see Deer Tick, but apparently, while I was making acquaintances with the purse girl, they were playing down the street.

We’d met up with a few other friends and continue on our way.  I wasn’t moving so fast, so everyone was a ways ahead of me.  We heard The Thermals playing a NIRVANA cover from the street.  Then we waited outside while the Akron family finished their set.  They weren’t letting anyone in because the day shows where almost over.  It was a shame because I kept getting texts about free High Life inside.

Night Shows are a little different.  There are some free night shows, but most of them require a badge, wristband, or a cover.  It is a little like the caste system.  Badges get priority over wristbands and wristbands get priority over all the other peasants.  I was given a wristband a few years ago and had a really frustrating time waiting to get into a show, while watching folks with badges walk in and out with ease .  There is another way to get into night shows: relying on hookups.  Most places that are “official” SXSW venues have VIP passes that get given out to their workers and the very special friends of their workers.  With one of these golden tickets you can walk in through the back entrance with a guest.  You end up feeling better than the Royal Badge Holders because you didn’t spend much money and you didn’t have to wait in any line.  You got to go in through the secret entrance!  Just like you were guest starring on ALIAS!

That night I met up with another friend who had a pass to one of the venues.  While we were waiting to see Circle Jerks, we wandered off to see someone make music with Tesla coils.  This was a free show in a dirt lot a few blocks away.   The mid-grade band, which played before the coils got fired up, scared us off.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TkuCtutDAw

I’d seen Circle Jerks when I was 16 (15 years ago) and I got my collarbone stomped on by a skinhead.  It left a big bruise and I was really happy to tell people my story.  Now I’m 31 and waiting to see Circle Jerks again.  Guess what I saw when I looked to my left?  A lot of skinheads!  I was expecting this to be a wild crowd.  Instead, the skinheads remained pretty calm and two SXSW “moms” showed up.  These were two older ladies wearing khaki cargo capri’s and drinking pretty heavily.  I’m almost positive they’d never even thought about having the world up their ass.

That is probably the worst part about this festival; people surround you that are only there to be a part of SXSW.  Most of them are wearing badges.  A lot times they are clueless and don’t even know what they are watching. Ignorance isn’t a great reason to hate anyone, but when you have to take their picture for them because they’ve lost interest in the show that you actually want to watch, it becomes a little easier to get irritated.  Luckily, they left before the encore.  I got to hear “Red Tape” followed by 3 Black Flag tunes, with little annoyance.

I could have stuck around to watch Echo and the Bunnymen, but my foot was pretty swollen.  I limped to my bike and rode it pretty confidently, until reaching a hill. Then I pushed it slowly to the top, and rode home.

THURSDAY MARCH 19TH

dinosaur_jr

Day two began with a slow walk from the bus stop to Daniel Johnston.  I work at a coffee shop that has a lot of homeless folk in the area.  To keep the drug use and unexpected urination to a minimum, there is a one-drink requirement.  I’d asked a homeless woman to leave the shop that morning that looked and talked a lot like Daniel Johnston.  It made me realize how lucky Daniel is that he didn’t become another homeless loiterer in Austin.  He was backed by Hymns, who played by themselves for a few songs before Daniel waddled up to the mic.

Listening to Daniel Johnston is great, but seeing him live adds a deeper level.  You see how broken he really is.  That night, someone told me “I don’t know… he kinda had a lisp, and he didn’t really play the guitar very well… I left after a few songs…” which was why I liked seeing him so much.  He has a lisp, he can’t play guitar very well, he showed up wearing his sweatpants, and made apologies for not practicing enough.  Seeing the reality of Johnston left me feeling, somewhat, emotionally drained, but still happy.

After Daniel Johnston and Hymns, I watched The Wrens while standing next to a lady and her bored boyfriend. Then I walked down to see Trail of Dead and finally found an open bar.  Four free High Life’s later and the day shows were over.  I bought a meat stick and walked back to the bus stop.  I had to pee as soon as I got there.  6th Street is Austin’s version of a Bourbon Street knock off.  It is usually a row of shitty bars that is a little more suited for tourists, but during SXSW, it becomes a row of shitty bars that are also music venues.  I walked behind the 6th Street bars to the ally, whicht smells like vomit and friend chicken.  This is normally a really great place to piss, but not this week.  There were bands loading equipment in through every back door, and police on every block.  I had to go inside one of the shitty bars and unload there.

That night, I found out from a friend that Dinosaur JR was playing a secret show at 12:45SXSW has a lot of these secret shows.  A few years ago (2006) The Flaming lips played one of them where they opened up with Bohemian Rhapsody.  I was waiting to see if I could get on the list, which would be pretty similar to the VIP treatment I’d gotten the night before.

In the mean time, I met up with some friends at a free night show.  This year’s big complaint was the expensive beer. Most venues were charging $4.00 for a $2.50 tall boy.  To get around the beer prices, we snuck beer in backpacks and avoided eye contact with any official looking folks.  After a while, it was pretty apparent that no one cared about outside beverages.  It seemed like everyone had their own outsourced 6 pack.

After getting a “you’re on the list!” text, I rode my bike downtown, told the back door man my name and walked inside in time to see the second half of the Akron Family’s set.  The crowd cleared out a bit and I walked pretty close to the front and watched the stage get loaded with J. MascisMarshall stacks.  There were a few guys in nicer shirts than mine at the front of the stage.  I figured that they were pretty big fans until I overheard them asking each other if they knew who was on next and expressing how they had hoped that it would be “something good”.   Behind them was a short excited guy who kept jumping up on their shoulders fscreaming,“DINOSAUR JR! Can you believe it?!”  After a while, one of the nice shirts turned around  and told him to calm down.

After the extensive loading, the original lineup walked on stage, J. Mascis, Lou Barlow with his taped up ears, and Murph. I’d always wondered what a stage full of speakers and three old guys could do.  One of those abilities is clearing out folks in nice shirts who aren’t fans.  It took half into their set, before I was surrounded by folks my age and older, singing along and pushing each other over.

The first thing that I ever remember hearing about J. Mascis was that he is a very lazy person.   It usually went hand in hand with how great a guitarist he is.  “He’s AMAZING! And he’s lazy!” I think I heard that said as many times as I’d heard that Neil Pert is the “3rd greatest drummer in the world“.  It was really interesting to see the band and put that paradox together.  I don’t really know if he’s “lazy”, but he plays really effortlessly.  He resembles a big witch that looks beyond everything in front of him.  Every note that he plays is like an afterthought.  A really hard-to-play afterthought.  Lou and Murph play like machines who were programmed to play with J.  To keep my foot from getting shitty from the crowd, I stood in front of the right speaker.  I left with my ears shaking and rode to the same hill I couldn’t ride up the night before and pushed my bike up again.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R5ddhYThwW8

FRIDAY MARCH 20TH

gza-black-lips

I woke up Friday and noticed my foot was still swollen.  I went and sat on my shower stool and rubbed around the scars for a while.  For the past two days, I’d been doing a lot of walking.  I had only gotten off my crutches the week before.  After a short period without them, I gently grazed my rocking chair and fell to the ground swearing in pain and convinced that I wasn’t going to be able to walk for a while.  I managed to make it to a bar and stayed until I dropped two drinks.  The next morning I was nauseous and puked through out the day.  I went back to crutches for a day and ate lots of ibuprofen.  I made a pact with myself that I would  not be bedridden by SXSW.

I took the bus to work and sat at the bar.  I looked over and saw Miles from Akron family walk in.  I told him that  I liked the show from the night before and bought him an espresso.  We talked for a while; we have a lot in common.  We both have family in Washington, we both like Ballard, and we both like making espresso.  I didn’t tell him this, but Miles is cool shit.

I took the bus down town to see The Thermals and The Hold Steady.  I’ve never really understood The Hold Steady.  Every time that I bitch about their spoken word approach to song writing, I get hit with, “Have you ever seen them live?!”  This was my week to see them.  They were playing every day and, I think, every night.  I had no excuse.  I now understand why people like them so much.  There are a lot of people in The Hold Steady.  Every one of them performs as if  they were playing in an arena instead of a crammed outdoor stage.   It’s clear that they all love what they are playing.  Most of the folks around me were singing along to every word, which is weird with their songs.  Its like listening to a lot of people reciting the same monologue.  I don’t like listening to fans sing at concerts, but with these guys it felt alright. I think it had something to do with the amount of fans singing, maybe also the heat.  However, my foot started hurting and there was a show on the other side of town that I wasn’t going to miss.  I hobbled to the bus stop, sat on a potted plant and spelled the alphabet with my ankle.

The Evaporators were playing at The Hazard HouseThe Hazard House is in West Campus; an area that is full of student housing, both fraternal and non.  Going to school in Olympia, I have probably seen The Evaporators over 10 times.  When I moved to Austin, I figured that I wouldn’t get to see them again.  I was pretty surprised when they played here in 2004.  I saw them with Comets on Fire at an Alternative Tentacles showcase.  Jello Biafra stood behind me for most of the show.  I looked at him and felt we both appreciated “Woof Woof I’m A Goof” for the same reasons.

When I heard that they were playing this year at The Hazard House, I was really happy.  The “venue” looks like it’s held together with sweat and rotten wood.  The stage was the front room.  You could watch from inside or from the porch.  It felt like Texas’ equivalent of seeing a concert in somebody’s moldy basement in Olympia.  I smiled for the whole set and noticed my friend who had the VIP pass had called.  The Sonics were playing, and I really wanted to see them.  My friend had promised her VIP pass to two other friends, which I was finally beginning to accept.  I had figured that I would return to my shower stool and call it a night.  She said that, if I still wanted to see The Sonics, I should get down town as quick as possible.  I had 10 minutes to get there.  By now I was walking very slowly; I could only take quarter steps.  I had just missed my bus and was failing at hailing a cab.  I got a “they’re about to play” text when the next bus finally showed up.  I was dropped off near 6th Street and I took a petty cab the rest of the way. I made it in time for most of their set.

The Sonics were the most well preserved band I’ve ever seen.  They stopped rock and rolling pretty early on, and it showed.  They had been frozen in time.  They looked older, but they still sounded young.  If I had to guess, I’d say they all became real estate or insurance agents.  Something that would have allowed them to raise families and play in cover bands on the weekends.  I was really happy to see how well they were received.  A guy wearing a badge and a nice hat stood next to me and told me that every band who is trying to play garage rock should go back and listen to The Sonics and study “those three chords and learn them well”. At  the end of the show, the lead singer, Gerry Roslie, (who had a music stand in front of his keyboard for the whole set), told us to “go over to the merchandise booth, buy a shirt, go home and tell your dad, I don’t care what you say! I’m wearing my Sonics shirt!’”

After they finished, the club cleared out.  I sat on a railing, took my shoe off, and waited for Black Lips.  I first saw them at SXSW 3 years ago during a day show.  They looked like crusty kids and they played like they had studied the right three chords.  The Black Lips are dirty and simple.  Their ugly, yet still in tune, voices always make me smile.
There were three bands between The Sonics and Black Lips, so it gave me plenty of time to look at how fat my foot had gotten.

They walked on stage and the lights went down.  I heard, “we got the Gza in the house.”  Then I heard “yeah yeah, black lips in the house.” And then the GZA joined them for a jam.  It was a great contrast between them. The GZA is very tall and black and Black Lips are short and white.  He apologized for them having not practiced, and kept telling the band to “drop it” and just play the drum and bass.  After doing that for a while, they played “Triumph” and everyone was really excited for the killer bees.  It was sloppy and last minute and I was a little annoyed.

I’m in full support of hip-hop folks getting together with rock and roll folks.  I even saw SUbSET in their hay day, (Sir Mix-a-Lot and The Presidents of the United States of America’s collaboration).  I would have liked to see them do something more intentional than just a jam.  My foot was also hurting and I wasn’t feeling very patient.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bsfpho7awtI

After 20 minutes, The Gza left the stage and Black Lips played a few songs and it was over.  I left feeling great about The Sonics and okay about Black Lips and The GZA.  On my way out, I heard Karp being played over the PA.  I frantically looked around to find the soundman and asked if it was he who was playing my favorite band.  He smiled and said, “all night long, nothing but.”  I gave him an enthusiastic “thank you so much!” and walked outside.  I bought a hot dog on the street and watched hipsters and industry people walk importantly in front of clubs. I hailed a cab and went home.

SUMUP

I worked at a wedding on Saturday, and that was alright.  I’d already had a fulfilling SXSW, even with being gimpy.  I didn’t get to see Kylesa, Jucifer, or The New York Dolls, but that’s how it goes.  Every year, something falls through the cracks and it could have been a lot worse.  I spent last year’s Saturday wetting my sheets with sweat and dirtying my toilet with puke, so I felt a little ahead of the curb.  Besides that, I was ready for everyone to leave.

Before the wedding, I went with a friend to a store down the block.  I wandered to the back of the shop and found more live music and more free beer.  You can’t escape it.  Everyone cashes in on SXSW, and they use the same tools.

Most festivals end up costing a good amount of loot.  Tickets, beer, and food add up pretty quickly.  I never spend much money at SXSW.  Taking the increased beer prices into consideration, I spent between 50 and 60 dollars for my three days of music. That was mainly on beer and food. Plus, it’s citywide. You aren’t gated and stuck in a park for three days.  You get to see the city; you can buy beer at a gas station and drink it on someone’s porch while waiting between shows.

Living in Austin and having access to a few VIP passes gave me a pretty big advantage, but even without the local hookups, I would have spent the same and still found a few free bottles of High Life. It’s a lot like the wave pool at the local water park.  Every year you go, you understand a little more of how it works, you have a better time and wind up a little less nauseous.

-Dr. Radical