SXSW Via Sixth St.

Last Friday, after years of anticipation,  I had my first taste of South by Southwest in Austin, TX.
The opportunity to hear 40 bands in a day, all headliners in their own right- That is SXSW.
This is the largest festival of its kind in the world, featuring film and multimedia expos, and college kids dressed in their hippie-fest best. They wander barefoot in the open air, out in the hill country sunshine, or under the Texas starlight. That is SXSW.
An event so epic, Dave Grohl was the keynote speaker. That is SXSW.
A chance for some, still unknown to the much of the world, to get out and share their passion for music, and live out that rock star dream. That is also SXSW.

 

All over Austin, while people were lining up to hear Dave Grohl speak or catch the Flaming Lips show, firefighters, college students, engineers, dads, moms, teachers, and all kinds of other workaday Joes and Janes were on the little stages, in the little venues, playing with everything they had. Their careers, ages, and lifestyles, dividing them on ordinary days into demographic classes, became irrelevant and transcended ordinary perceptions in the face of that all powerful unifying force: The love of music.

It was here that I decided to have my first SXSW Experience. I had one evening to go and experience it, something I have wanted to do for years, and I thought long and hard about what I wanted to see and where I wanted to be. To go to some of the larger venues and get in on the action everyone talks about in Rolling Stone, it takes a bit of planning. My schedule tends to be hectic and planned day to day in my little domestic kingdom, so when the opportunity finally presented itself, it was on the last night in the last few hours. I could have found tickets for many of the bigger shows, I suppose, but I wasn’t entirely certain I wanted to do that. After listening to my hubby’s description of the scene on Sixth Street all week, I was seriously debating which experience I wanted to have.

In the end it was a no brainer. The big guys have made it. They will be back next year, maybe on a different day or with a different special guest, but, meh. They will be there. The hopefuls? The guys in the little clubs? They may never play again. They may break up and regroup with people they met at the festival to form new bands and new sounds. They may give up. Or they may make it, and I can have the opportunity to be THAT person, walking around bragging that “I saw them before they were famous” during their stadium tour.  It also presented the opportunity to see some of the people who haven’t quite made it to stadium status, but are successful in their own right, all in one place. My mind made up, I headed to the train station and got a ticket for downtown Austin.

I stepped off of the train at the downtown station that balmy spring evening into an atmosphere that was part street carnival and part college town Friday night, with a splash of tailgate party at a flea market thrown in for good measure. I headed toward Sixth Street and the sound of hundreds of bands blending together in the night air. After two city blocks, a few old men in ill-fitting Texas flag banana hammocks, and a scary moment where my stiletto heel got stuck really tight in a sidewalk crack very close to one of said scary old men, I was suddenly there.

The first thing I absolutely have to talk about here: Street performers. Yes, we have all seen really talented individuals beating on five gallon buckets and water cooler bottles in the streets and producing some seriously awesome beats. There were plenty of those, and plenty of hippie chicks sitting on the sidewalk, collecting money in their guitar or cello cases, singing about world peace and animal rights. One young lady sounded a LOT like Joan Baez. Which, of course, my hippie ass loved. Folk yeah!

But there were a few experiences that really made me question if it really was too loud, and if I was therefore in fact too old.

Hipster boys that looked to be about fourteen years old were particularly prevalent. Of course, that in and of itself is not so strange. The strange part? The boom boxes they were carrying around on their shoulders.

Blaring from these 80’s dinosaurs were beats that were a bit of Dubstep, a bit of Ska. No melody, just base lines. I have to be honest. I wasn’t entirely certain what the purpose was. Were these tracks something that the boom box bearers had created, and were now playing them in the hopes of being discovered? Were the simply sounds they liked, and they were just doing what hipsters do and choosing some relic from the not-too-distant past to accessorize with, and thus appear “ironic”? Or where they works that some unseen artist put together and entrusted these little agents in Buddy Holly spectacles and cardigans to promote? It was cool, but I was afraid to ask for fear I would appear, you guessed it, too old.

There were DJ’s in scary, free candy-type vans that were blending beats and looking oh, so serious with their oversized headphones hanging uselessly around their necks. Granted, I support the art form, and there are just as many people out there that appreciate a talented DJ in an exclusive club as there are people that appreciate good ol’ rock and roll. The strange part for me was their absolute disinterest in the crowd of admirers that were gathering and dispersing at semi-regular intervals. I casually sauntered my way into the crowds a couple of times, looked for the most approachable person (no easy thing to find) and tried to get the low down on what was going on. Why is this particular person different or more talented than the guy a block away doing the same thing? I honestly couldn’t answer that question on my own. In my skinny jeans, heels, and sequined tube top, I felt that I was doing a pretty good job of looking good and on trend. But everyone I tried to speak to seemed pretty closed off and I got the “Seriously? You have to ask what the appeal is? Yuck.…” look every time. I am sure I heard one of the boys mutter under his breath that maybe I should go back to my Pat Benatar concert. Yikes. At this point I decided to just stick with what I knew: A good guitar, some kick-ass vocals, and lyrics that reach me at my most primal levels. Off I went on my search for the perfect unknown (or sorta-known) band.

After a few hours rushing around Sixth Street, hoping to find that one good band, that one unique sound that moved me to tears and made my hair stand on end even before the lyrics started, I decided a needed a break. I stopped at the corner of Sixth and Trinity and pulled a Parliament Light out of my pack. I seriously considered throwing them away, since every nasty hipster kid I had encountered had been smoking them as well. The need for nicotine won out, and I lit up as I took in the ebb and flow of foot traffic around me. I realized, in my tipsy little mind, that my night in many ways paralleled the journey of the very musicians I was looking for. I had one shot, one night, and I was on a mission that would succeed or fail largely due to chance and luck. With my new found epiphany, I finished my cigarette and continued on the hunt.

I was starting to become disappointed, and I seriously considered heading home empty handed, And then I heard it: An actual guitar, played by someone with actual talent. I walked as quickly as I could toward it. I arrived at a club called Cowgirls, and a band comprised of college aged boys stood on the stage in front of a giant American Flag made up of incandescent light bulbs. It was a sound that was part The Guess Who and part The Grateful Dead. And they were GOOD.  Dea, 1, Hipsters, 0.

As I sat listening to the music, I took a casual look around the bar. The crowd was demographically diverse, and I made a note to look for this in future searches. The band finished their current song, a nice, slow, jam band-style grove, and started up with something a little faster. I asked around and discovered that the band is Bushrod Washington, out of New Hampshire. Worth taking a second look at, I thought. I ordered a beer at the bar as they were finishing up their last song, and I was more than a little disappointed that I hadn’t arrived earlier in the set. I found a spot in the crowd in front of the stage and settled in to wait for the next band.

The next artist to take the stage was Griffin House. His opening tune was Tom Petty meets U2 in style, but with each song he played, the Springsteen influence stood out to me more and more. It was hard to pinpoint a specific genre for this guy, which I like. Musically, I am all over the charts in taste, and I like a good mix of epic ballads and folk rock sound. Singer/songwriters of the 70’s are my go to choice of music for just about anything. This guy was pretty impressive, and I left there feeling that he definitely earned a place on my playlist between Neil Young and Dan Fogelberg. I was sad to see his set end, and rest assured I will be looking out for more of this guy in the future.

The next band to take the stage was pretty forgettable, so I left the bar and headed across the street, where I could hear the telltale sounds of an alt rock band. Ladies and gentlemen, I had stumbled upon LazerSnake.

If you haven’t heard of these guys, let me give you the low down. They are talented. They hail from Nashville. They sound like many of the other rock bands out there, Nickelback, Staind, Puddle of Mudd, etc. They sounded good. Really good, for the venue they were in. The catch? They are an absolute tongue-in-cheek satire on all of those bands, complete with Ed Hardy shirts, distressed jeans from Buckle, and wigs. And they are funny. Really funny. (Look them up on You Tube; front man Dusty Forsythe never breaks character.) It was awesome, and the perfect end to the evening.

I reluctantly left for home, not wanting to stop the search, but realizing that my duties in Kingdom Domestica must be tended to early the next day. So I had one last beer, looked at the crowd one last time before I headed off, and reminded myself that Austin is a music town. There’s always another Friday night, another opportunity to stumble upon my new favorite band. It’s a city full of promise, and I look forward to each adventure I have here. Maybe we all get more than one shot, after all.

My final thought before I went to bed was, “I wonder how many people actually missed the joke with LazerSnake?” I should have taken a count of preppy college kids in t-shirts emblazoned with skulls and crosses at the door. I probably would have had my answer.