SXSW 2011 Music: 20 Disjointed Thoughts About a Disjointed Friday
Nerds (said with love, people; I am one, OK?) sometimes come back from nerd conventions talking about having caught "con crud," an unavoidable illness caught while in the company of so frakking many other people. I woke up on Friday with what I'll call "festival funk." I blame everyone, no one and my own late hours. Take your vitamins, SXSW campers. Or at least drink your vodka with orange juice. Festival funk will screw with your days.
I couldn't string a coherent sentence together for much of Friday, so here are a few disconnected thoughts from Day 16,239 — I mean, Day Eight — in Austin:
1. Apps someone should create and hope to make a killing on for next SXSW:
• An updater that tells you how packed each movie screening is.
• A map the entire function of which is to get you from place to place quickly while spending the least time ducking and bobbing around drunks on Sixth Street.
• A schedule that combines the official festival events with the countless day parties and nearby free shows. There was a website that got close to the latter, but it was still a little on the more-research-needed side. And I'm not just saying that because I forgot about it until Saturday.
2. Were there few people at the Writing About Music in the Twenty Tens panel because everyone was still hung over at 12:30 in the afternoon? Because everyone who wants to write about music is just doing it rather than wondering about it? Because people have figured out that panels aren’t going to give you a magical one-sentence key to how to become Chuck Klosterman? Regardless, once the panel got through its way-too-long personal introductions, it was a good reminder to embrace new technologies, be open to new ways of “thinking hard about music” (a phrase Ann Powers attributed to her husband, Eric Weisbard) and maintain your voice.
3. There’s a fashion/clothing show/sale during the music part of SXSW. There is nothing like this during the interactive part. Draw your own conclusions.
4. Was I underwhelmed by White Denim, the overcrowded venue in which they were playing, or both? If you're into that sort of '70s rock influenced, jammy-noodly, neither-here-nor-there rockish sound that feels like it's been making the rounds for a while now, you probably want to check them out.
5. It’s more than a little disheartening how few men attend any panel about women in the music business. Liz Phair tells stories about being treated like she’s selling sex, not music; Jenny Eliscu talks about the lack of female reviewers at Rolling Stone; Sarah Baer has tales from the Warped Tour and great advice about how to make yourself useful in the business; Maggie Vail talks about Kill Rock Stars' Slim Moon telling her that in her job, she can always tell anyone to fuck off; and Wanda Jackson is goddamn Wanda Jackson. These successful, smart women are sitting on stage saying that things are still changing slowly. Too slowly. And very few men are listening.
6. Shorts have really made a comeback in the hearts of twentysomethings who likely wouldn’t have been caught dead in them a year or two ago.
7. When you’re a little wary of seeing a band for reasons you can’t put a finger on, just skip it. There are a million other things to do and see. The thing about SXSW is, you have to be mercenary, whether you want to or not. Panel sucks? Go to another one. Band is running late/soundchecking for half their allotted set/not floating your boat? Ditch. It’s easy to get frustrated seeing a lot of things you don’t love, but the thing you do love might be less than a block away. It is also very easy to spend a lot of time wondering what you're missing. Stop wondering. Go find out. SXSW is exhausting. It is also amazing. It's a big, loud, drunken Choose Your Own Adventure book.
8. You must make it a rule not to eat anything in the convention center while you are at SXSW. Eat pancake-batter-dipped, deep-fried jalapeno sausages from the cart outside. Follow #SXSWFreeNoms on Twitter and find your way to free grilled cheeses and empanadas. Go to Progress Coffee (near the Fader Fort, for those inclined that way) and eat jalapeno-cheddar breakfast biscuits. One friend is addicted to Kebabalicious. Everyone will tell you to go to Jo's Coffee. Caffé Medici on Congress was reliably mellow. And did I mention East Side King? They make brussels sprouts delectable. I wouldn't joke about this. Honest.
9. Good earplugs are your friends. Ear-shaped earplugs. Not those useless yellow foam things. You can pick up decent ones in Gear Alley in the convention center.
10. People will wear boots with anything. Anything.
11. Seeing a bunch of actual kids at a Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls show is delightful in any city.
12. The mere sight of a person nibbling on a treat from the Hey Cupcake truck is enough to inspire intense cravings for cream cheese icing and rich, decadent cake.
13. You can keep your pounders of Lone Star (not that there's anything wrong with them). Why not give the local microbrews a shot? Live Oak’s hefeweizen tastes pretty damn good when you’re sweating.
14. Strangest sight downtown: One dude is in full I’m-gonna-vomit posture, kneeling on the street with his hands on the pavement. A second dude is enthusiastically punching the sky with both fists right behind the unwell dude. Next to them, a third dude has a giant wooden cross slung over one shoulder. Barely anyone bats an eyelash at any of this.
15. Bored security guys getting their groove on to the bass-heavy tunes coming from across the street can really brighten up your night.
16. A good heckle goes a long way.
17. The Ghost Room is still my favorite SXSW venue, and not just because it has the nicest bathrooms. But it does. It's also wood-paneled and comfortable and has nice corners for hiding in with your laptop.
18. I didn’t hear any journalists or other panelists taking digs at bloggers this year; instead, I heard a dude in a band bitching about them. What these cranky pissants fail to realize is that bloggers writing about the records they love (and hate) is the 21st century equivalent of music fans anywhere, anytime telling someone else about the things they've recently discovered. Blogging is a kid telling his friend at school about this new band he heard, or a record store clerk taking notice of a customer’s buying habits and recommending something new, or a big sister passing on cool records to her little brother. Bloggers are writing and thinking about music because they care. Anyone who writes about music — or visual art, or theater, or film, or dance — is doing it because he or she cares.
19. Said cranky pissant was Ben Foster (or Ben Weasel, if you prefer), of Screeching Weasel, who went on one hell of a tirade about SXSW, the venue his band was playing, what he was getting paid and how critics are "fucking parasites" and bloggers don't matter. Among other things. I missed the part where he got in an actual physical fight because I grew bored with his ranting during the fake encore break: the rest of the band left the stage, but Foster stayed front and center, mocking tattoos and generally being a cranky sonofabitch.
By then, it was pretty clear it wasn't worth taking anything he said seriously. Which was vaguely a shame, because there were probably some interesting questions in the middle of all the unfiltered bile. It is worth $250 (what Foster said they were paid) for a band like Screeching Weasel to play SXSW? How much do they spend on travel and lodging? Are they going to draw potential new fans or a crowd of distantly curious bystanders and the people who've liked them for ages and are willing to pay $20 for a ticket or fork out for a SXSW badge or wristband? (A small crowd stood on the sidewalk outside the Scoot Inn, watching over the fence.) What is the actual value of a SXSW showcase for a band that's been around too long to realistically expect a sudden turn in the spotlight?
It's all moot now, though. Foster may have apologized for the altercation with a female fan, but the rest of the band quit Wednesday. I guess it was a career-ending performance, as Spin's Charles Aaron described, after all.
20. Post-midnight show-hopping: The Bellrays, We Are Hex (I don't know what the hell was going on as I was watching from the street, but I need to know more), The Head and the Heart. I needed to end the night on a joyous, upbeat note, and TH&TH delivered, for as long as I could stay on my feet. They were smiling, dancing, brightening up the outdoor stage at Red 7, and working the necessary magic for both the late hour and the kind of band they are: You've got to find a way to stand out when you're a harmonizing, foot-stomping, hand-clapping, sorta old-timey kind of band, and they do, through bright songwriting and cheery stage presence (among other things). My companion said it would be good music for a Sunday morning. It would also be good music for late night at Sam Bond's. If they play in town? Go.