Sunday, March 16, 2014

South by Southwest, Introduction & Day 1

Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 1
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 11 March 2014

Introduction: Maybe you've heard of SXSW. Maybe you haven't. But since it keeps getting bigger and bigger each year, and this year had a couple particularly notable incidents, chances are, you probably have. I'm not really sure how it got to where it is now. I know it started in 1987 as a purely musical endeavor, later adding film and interactive media components, but now it is quite likely the place to be to find new developments in music. It also features several other sideline events focused on subjects like education, gaming, and comedy. And because thousands of official concerts weren't enough, thousands of other unofficial shows happen around the same time. It's very confusing and quite nearly completely overwhelming, and I don't think I understood it until I was already well in the thick of it.

Part of the confusion stems from the lack of clarity about how to get into the various conference and concert activities. Conferences can only be attended by those who purchase badges, which are very expensive ($795). Those badges also grant the holder to priority access to all official concerts. Then there are wristbands, intended for local residents only, as a way to give them a chance to see the bands. Wristbands are cheaper ($189) and allow priority access to the official shows after the badge-holders get in. After that, many (but not all) venues will allow anyone else in for a relatively low price ($10-20).

As for the unofficial activities, the vast majority are free and open to all, but the lines sometimes stretch down multiple blocks. Sometimes you can walk right in. It's awfully hard to predict. Some events, official or otherwise, have free drinks or even free food. Obviously, those events tend to be popular and thus more crowded and difficult to get in to. It's also worth noting that almost all the sets are only 30-40 minutes long, although a few lucky ones are allotted 50 or more minutes. Hence, the goal is breadth and variety, not depth and singular focus.

The other factor is that the events are spread across town. The majority are located in the main music district around 6th Street and Red River Street, but plenty stretch across the wider downtown and East Austin landscape. A few reach out even further. Transportation is a challenge, because car traffic can hardly move in these areas, but relying solely on your feet may limit you to how far you can go and how fast you can get there.

All of this is a long way to explain my plan of attack. Being a local resident, I was able to get a wristband, and I decided to make the most of it. I saw something like 20 or 30 bands across the five main days of the music festival portion of SXSW. There was plenty more I could have done, but even I have my limits. For me, careful planning and constant usage of my bicycle was essential. There is most likely no other way I could have hopped from venue to venue as I did any other way. (For the record, even motorbikes and pedicabs moved slower through the city than I did on my bicycle.)

So for my first night, I decided I would just check out a couple things to see how it all worked. I wasn't sure what to expect, and I couldn't be out too late since I had to work the next day, so I just went with an open mind.

Mozes and the Firstborn (at Bar 96): A Dutch band gaining some attention for their intense playing and their rather catchy tunes. I would call them class A stoner rock. They sound like Brian Jonestown Massacre with a little less intellectualism and a little more thrash. While their single "I Got Skills" has got all the hooks, I'm still not really sure how to feel about them and their intentions. Their stage presence didn't hold up as well as their studio work; the songs just didn't feel as together or quite as catchy. The stage banter made them come across a little too weird and rude. The performance was still entertaining, but perhaps not quite up to the high expectations I had set based on other reports.

Mister and Mississippi (at Bar 96): Another Dutch band; the whole night at Bar 96 was a Dutch showcase. I hadn't heard of them, but I stuck around because they seemed interesting. They sound a little folky and a little spacey. The band is two guitarists and two vocalist/percussionists. The lack of bass contributed to a general feeling that sometimes they floated a little too far adrift. I liked the xylophone bits and I thought their general delay-laden sound was cool.

Arc Iris (at the Central Presbyterian Church): I knew the venue was hosting a showcase for Bella Union Records, started by former Cocteau Twins members and home to a bunch of good bands (including Midlake). I just showed up to see if there would be a line. (There had been a rather convoluted one at Bar 96.) There wasn't. I got in in time to see half of a set by Arc Iris. They are a weird sort of seven-piece country/folk band. I couldn't understand any of the words and I had trouble making much sense of the music. I wanted to like it but found it hard to put a handle on it. The most notable things were probably as follows: 1. the venue has awesome stained glass and what seemed like could be very good acoustics; 2. the entire band was dressed in silver outfits, except the frontwoman, who was in a gold jumpsuit; 3. I think Andrew Bird was standing off to the side just in front of me. (He's also on the same record label.)

Scores:
Mozes and the Firsborn: C+
Mister and Mississippi: B
Arc Iris: C-

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