A collection of disparate thoughts from 2015’s South By SouthWest Music Festival in Austin, Texas
On the Day Of…
On Bicycle Infrastructure
Ending the Boycott
The Resources You Never Think Of
Art and Commerce
The Wonder That is Trailer Space Records
Part of the Show
Bill Murray Moment
The Rain or The Mood?
Thank Yous and Shout Outs
It hadn’t hit yet. One would have thought I would have had some sense of excitement about a trip to Austin. The music aspect of the annual South by SouthWest festival is typically a source of excitement for me, and a chance for me to engage my semi-regular fish out of genre waters swim once more. I’d be making schedules and plotting routes and divining timelines, turning maps into plots and plots into schemes. Yet my heart just wasn’t in it as the event grew nearer. My attentions were divided between the new, exciting, and money-sapping adventure of finally living out on my own, overcoming my own personal burnout with jazz music journalism, helping my friends and finding fulfillment through manual labor like in painting the ceiling and walls of an art gallery or working in a garden, and actually putting on an event so focused on the music community while feeling estranged from it (to a good degree by my own doing, most likely). As the days passed, there it loomed. Here’s a week where I’m coming out of pocket yet again to put on an event that even though I’m not sure why I still do what I do, I do believe someone ought to be doing it, where I’m thinking about how I’ll get through the week and pay my bills for the month, where I have no press credentials this time around, and where it is forecast to rain for much of the week. Understandably, my heart wasn’t in it. Yet as I scrambled on buses that Tuesday, leaving my day job (lackadaisically highlighting bands I’d never heard and hardly heard of when I wasn’t helping students) staying late to make up for the time I would be losing, I went from getting a late lunch to connecting DJ equipment for Quantic’s set to transportation to a Megabus to a CapMetro bus to my friends’ house, the Breeze House once more, already feeling like a resource monster, but even moreso, a mechanical one. We are the Borg; you’re biological and technological resources will be assimilated into this SXSW mess that is our own. Resistance is futile. But as I wandered down the street and through the yard to see my friend Nick on the patio, breaking Lent by drinking a beer, we talked about how things have been. Small talk quickly turning to big talk, as our talks always seem to go. It felt good. It felt really good, for a guy who appreciates good conversations. This stay would be alright. This week will be alright. Perhaps the goal of the week is to focus on who I’d meet this week. Run into friends I hadn’t seen in months, or years. Perhaps I had to actually put my heart in it.
On The Day Of…
I felt under prepared. Wednesday was the day of the Jazz for the Masses Party, the day party I had spent the last few months putting together. This process generally involved checking the list of jazz bands playing the festival officially and sending an email with a little bit of prayer that a yes will appear. After that comes the added horror of seeing what additional equipment we’ll need to track down on top of the backline — the assorted amps, monitors, and the drum kit — we’d have on hand. The background of this process involved a lot of juggling, waiting, disappointment, and last minute additions that turns into a party everyone seems to enjoy and I have so much fun and get so drunk that I temporarily forget how much money I spent and effort I put in for it all to happen. I’m also immensely confused every time that a single person ever shows up. People agreed to be here, chose to, because I asked them. That’s crazy to me.
However, I felt so underprepared because I was still putting together a rather involving event while I have been (and still am, to a certain degree) working my way through burnout with music journalism. I had to promote a show when I felt enthusiasm had little meaning. I had to spread the word when I had doubts about promotion altogether, feeling as though my words were endless chatter in a constant din of SouthBy. I felt I was booking too late, informing my partners in this production at Music for Listeners too late, solidifying and announcing my lineup too late, gathering equipment too late, making travel arrangements too late, and probably numerous other tasks at some woefully insufficient pace. Yet as planets aligned and puzzle pieces fell into place, for the third year in a row it all came together more smoothly than ever before on the day of.
Horace Bray has attended this party before. He and his friends at Denton’s University of North Texas music department came through last year because an all ages free day party full of jazz music during SXSW has “this was practically made for music students” written all over it. He told me this when we met months later at a Tigran show, again in Austin. The hang was serious and super fun and went late. I asked for a ride back to my friend’s house and they said there was only room in the back of their hatchback. I, always wont to actually get excited to ride in the trunk if it is the indeed last option, rode back from downtown to the east side, laughing and joking with these kids all the way. I kept Bray on my radar, I friended him on Facebook. When it can time to start booking this event this year, I asked him if he was coming to SXSW again, then I asked if he’d like to play. Later, when I had some holes in my schedule, he recommended another group in which he plays, Sky Window. I had them play at noon, Horace said he could play at 3.
I am constantly amazed at the quality of musician coming out of UNT. Both Sky Window and Bray’s group exhibited great energy, interesting ideas, adventurous approach, but accessibility that’s truly moving. Both groups had talent that strike immediately. From the first few notes this group played, I felt suddenly reassured that I had booked a much better band than I had ever even planned. By the end of the set, I was actually a little upset the group had yet to record an album yet for me to play constantly and share with others. I was totally sold on this group and was already beginning the mental work of figuring out how to spread the gospel. This party was just the beginning.
Years ago, my friend Nicholas Bouier, now a filmmaker in Los Angeles, sent me an album with very little explanation or fanfare, just that I would love it. The album was Quantic and His Combo Barbaro’s Tradition in Transition, a rich collection of Latin jazz that sounded forty years old and ahead of its time. It was released in 2009. I continuously thank Nich for my entry point into Will Holland’s numerous musical inclinations, so I was kind of amazed he, or his team or whomever, agreed to play a DJ set for this party. What was most astounding about this arrangement was the litany of label people I emailed for just one calm, cool man to show up with everything he needed just under his arm– a small box of albums as a sort of retrospective of his soulful musical output and a mixer. He managed his meal arrangements before my getting to him. He plotted out his staging setup simply enough. His set was so cool it was hard not to feel entirely relaxed for an hour. We all wished he could spin records all day. He couldn’t; he had another gig at 2:30. There were more chill vibes for him to spread.
In the middle of Quantic’s set, I was greeted by a charmingly upfront yet amiable guy also named Anthony who was Twin Danger‘s sound guy. He arrived ahead of the band to prepare. Their equipment truck was out back. I began to worry. A week prior, I came up to Austin with Michael & Orly of Music for Listeners to meet at El Sapo to ensure all arrangements for the day parties were in order. On the return trip to San Antonio, as we left downtown Austin along Interstate Highway 35, we passed a huge billboard advertising Twin Danger’s official SXSW showcase performances. This band has some major backing. This band is a big deal. They have Sade’s musical director/saxophonist and Paul Bley’s daughter. The rest of the band arrived soon after in a huge van. They emerged in matching black outfits that seemed so not like they were playing anything close to jazz but seemed perfect for the attention-getting of SXSW. Emailing them was a long shot with admittedly little primer and now I was wondering if I was getting in way over my head. However, both Anthony and Quantic reassured me that this would work out; Quantic would DJ at the bar off to the side while the band could set up in the staging area. There was just enough time to remain just behind schedule; that’s nothing if not a SXSW event. What transpired when it was all said and done was a moody, trippy, swinging set that sounded great and needed the van of nine people in matching outfits and separate equipment truck. I very well could have been in over my head but this was an incredibly kind group of people, not just musicians, but people, who I’m still glad they agreed to do this. The East Side got some droppings of a major label for a moment, and it was sort of surreal and completely amazing.
I’ve wanted Butcher Brown to play this party since last year. Ever since I heard this group, I knew they’d be perfect for this event. Austin had to see this and I knew it had to happen eventually. So a year later, I probably couldn’t have emailed them faster the moment I saw they were one of the hundreds of bands set to play the festival. They didn’t disappoint. Running into them felt like running into old friends by now. They fulfilled every high expectation I had for them and wowed the crowd the way I knew they would.
There are times in music journalism when I feel exhausted being so excited about things, like I truly have tapped the depths of enthusiasm. There are times when I feel like the joy I feel about things just can’t be translated in that same way, if what I feel can be a truth that relates to others or is it really all in my head. When I hear Butcher Brown, I truly do love these guys and the music they make, and I’m just not sure if the rest of the world is hearing what I hear in this quartet from Richmond, but experiencing that hour and hearing the response from those around me that afternoon, maybe I’m not too far off.
I didn’t know anything about Sidewalk Chalk. The Chicago-based octet were never on my radar before. Their intermingling of hip hop, soul, and jazz meant I would typically cast them aside unless there was a serious voucher behind them, and I would still likely hold their sound at arm’s length. I was reticent to bring them on, but as it goes with booking for SXSW, you do what works. When a hole in my schedule appeared and these guys who are set to perform next month in Durham, NC, at Art of Cool Fest were asking to get on the bill through AoC president Cicely Mitchell’s passing the word along, that seemed like a voucher enough. Upon hearing them perform, I probably shouldn’t have doubted. They’re a crowd pleasing large group with great chops, but when stripped down to trio format of Charlie Coffeen on keys, Garrett McGinn on bass, and Tyler Berg on drums, real work goes down. In the whole set, Coffeen’s style on the keyboards was the most eye opening and what ultimately turned me around. These guys weren’t even on my radar, admittedly, when I booked them but I’m so glad I did. They’ll definitely be on my radar next month in Durham.
The day closed with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a large group whose blaring, swinging half hour set was the right way to shut the day down. After a full day of hanging out and such awesome musicianship, it was just as satisfying hearing the music these guys made as it was to hang with them after the show.
After months of preparation, a bunch of bands showed up and had a great time. Friends who I hadn’t seen in a while rolled through. People scheduled their day around these sets. There may be more people aware of Nextbop and Art of Cool and the talents that we all put on. It was a fulfilling moment in a long day that was tiring without being exhausting. It was a beautiful day where the sunlight was as bright as the day’s vibe. I couldn’t have started the week off any better. In a week where I found value in personal connections, I couldn’t have gotten more personal that what went down that Wednesday afternoon.
On Bicycle Infrastructure
Somewhere around three-quarters up the height of many of the CapMetro buses of Austin juts out a rod of some say 18 inches in length. I noticed this early on in my first encounters with the city. I asked every native I knew about it. Many never noticed they were there. None had any idea its purpose was. It had perplexed me for years.
I was borrowing my friend Nick’s Bianchi Timber Wolf, Wolfgang was her name, for the rest of the week. I was a like regular Austinite, riding around the city, hitting up all the spots I’ve trod quite well before. The bicycle culture of Austin is pretty well known and clear throughout it any time of year, but the experience of actually riding a bicycle in Austin really cements how culture and infrastructure collide. The delight of hopping on a bicycle seemed so much a part of what was met with the realization of how many of the city’s streets have bike lanes, including some stretches of IH-35. It was a marvel to see good design in action, how a citizenry values transit in such a way that it built these things into the city. There were still the arduous moments of climbing the myriad cumbersome hills all around, because Austin is a hilly labyrinth made of mostly of one-way streets, but speeding back down them again were an exhilarating thrill.
However, when I became part of the bike culture of Austin for the week, I had forgotten that it’s also a significantly large culture. The issue of parking, for a major example, was now a concern I had. Parking a car during SXSW is well known to be a pretty damn arduous task. This hassle is diminished somewhat on a bicycle but not eliminated. Most bike racks downtown were already full to the brim of bikes double and triple locked on stands. Spare street signs, railings, and fences become stable beams which are the new vacant lots. It didn’t take long for me to feel like any other reveler, arriving on time to some club or bar to see an anticipated act, then suddenly realizing I had to search for a parking spot. Various fences and barricades had signs posted “No Bike Parking”. Clearly, this has been a bit of a problem around here. The city has an infrastructure where bikes can be, though it also has established infrastructure for where they can’t.
There came a moment early Friday afternoon as I rode up down a busy street where the bike lane and bus lane converged into one where I found myself behind a bus for a stretch. I kept a fair pace with it for a while when the bus stopped to pick up some passengers; I had to pass it. I carefully veered around the left side of the bus when I noticed I’d have to veer a little further so as to avoid hitting the aforementioned rod jutting out the bus’ left side, just at the height of my forehead. I veered a little further and forged ahead. The rod is positioned so cyclists can pass buses and stay out of the driver’s blind spot. Bicycles are so prevalent that this was a necessary feature interwoven into Austin’s infrastructure.
The culture is so large that it creates these things out of necessity. Oh, the things a culture can do!
Ending the Boycott
For years, I had boycotted Fader Fort. “Fuck Fader Fort!”, I harped every year when conversations of who to see where at SouthBy each year came up. A tent constructed out of nowhere in a lot typically unused for the rest of the year composed of insanely long lines to get into insanely long lines. It’s a horrible place and I generally avoid it for these reasons. Yes, the shows there are the most popular of the week and the drinks are free, but at the cost of my time and sanity, I feel it’s just not worth it trying to get in. But when BADBADNOTGOOD got me on the expedited entry list, I’m awed at how quickly these qualms went out the window. Oh, yes, I hemmed and hawed about sixty seconds but it’s uncomfortable seeing exactly how short my response time was in a Twitter DM.
As I arrived super early and caught the two sets before them, I enjoyed myself in an acceptance of all popular culture sort of way. Yet as I found my phone dead, my ability to contact anyone or gain data rendered inert, my run-in with BBNG to say hey/thanks/let’s get stoned still unaccomplished, I began to see the evils of this place once more– the ceaseless corporatization, the too cleverly-crafted nooks and crannies made from temporary artifice all about with photo booths, lounges, picnic tables, arcades, but so few electrical sockets. I wandered through, slightly sick. This is a horrible place. I know what sour grapes taste like– I really do wish I were in New York and closer to the jazz community even though I know that comes to the detriment of the rest of the world or I do really think all these new smartphones are super sleek and I want one but I really really am attached to typing on physical keys on my phone, like some 21st century miniature typewriter. I’ve also still got my reasons for things. I don’t know if I can be as vocal about a “boycott” of a free event in the midst of free events, but I know my feelings haven’t changed much.
A couple days later, I rode past Fader Fort on a whim. I still had a wristband, I’m still swaying with the breeze schedule-wise. Perhaps I’d happen upon some act on the day’s schedule that might draw me inside despite my internal grief. It was just past noon and the gates were yet to open. The staff, mostly black from one of the numerous event companies in town that is the underlying lifeblood of this town at functions like these, were still setting up. Gospel music is blaring through the speakers. I thought back to my time there earlier, the riffing I did with the all black staff as I wandered too close to VIP sections or meandered about with increasing intensity looking for wall sockets to charge my phone, many of them hovering around bemused and annoyed but seemingly somewhat relieved that at least there was code switching involved. Every year in a lot in East Austin, a corporate event happens that despite it choking it with money and branding still can’t fight being East Austin. I can’t be that mad at it.
Thursday, March 19 – 6:00pm – BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Fader Fort presented by Converse
I don’t give a damn what the jazz cognoscenti say, these guys have chops. The band that’s controversial in jazz circles and the dudes one should definitely know by now in hip hop are talented musicians. Their integration of saxophonist/guitarist Leland Whitty on Sour Soul puts them on a whole other level. However, they started their set with “Triangle”. They didn’t kill the murmur until they kicked it in high gear. They took it for a walk. They turned corners. They played it at 1 1/2 time. Holy fuck! This is a jazz set at Fader Fort and they know how to play at Fader Fort. It’s a SouthBy show, which means half the crowd is naturally disengaged, and a major pop culture event. Winning people en masse is a different beast that these guys are entirely capable of tackling. In this regard, it must be said that they are a group who exist in a pocket. It is specific, if not recognizable when compared to other accessible acts. They with constantly building skill and craft, and with shrewd management and apt collaborators, appeal to a wide audience. They make music many people enjoy, myself included. The smooth jazz pocket gets the same hate, but when something in that pocket is done well, one just can’t be mad at it because of its pocket. In the philosophy of “do what works”, they’re certainly doing what works quite well.
So why do these guys work so well? They certainly work hard. These guys are sweating. They’re playing for real and they’re playing for keeps. They’re really sweating, and it’s not just because they’re playing a tent in Texas at six in the afternoon. They sweat like this all. The. Time (Alex Sowinski on the drum kit, especially).
Nevertheless, after two songs, the crowd was already saying “Where’s Ghost?” And like a very appropriately-named apparition, there he appeared. The murmurs gave way to cheers and arms were raised with phones and the Wu symbol; there they remained.
Saturday, March 21 – 4:50pm – BADBADNOTGOOD & Ghostface Killah – Mohawk
They’ve been playing all week. Sudden, unexpected shows would pop up at random. It’s a fun kind of exhaustion . It’s what they’re here for, and considering this success, it’s understandable why they’re getting called for so much work. They’re called because they’re talented and have chops. They’re called because they honestly love the music they’re playing and are honored to be able to do it. Yet they’re called because these are the guys you call when someone on a poppier end needs that little extra razzle dazzle in the moments when the groove doesn’t exactly need to be maintained. In essence, you can’t have these guys here without some soloing, but the construction of this set allow for less room for it. This set is leaner. It’s a closing stretch Saturday show. Though, would the House of Vans/Fun Fun Fun Fest Party be any less appropriate for a dash more jazz than Fader Fort? Or any of the other places they’ve played this week? Instead, a medley of 90s hip hop seems like the better move.
The communal aspect is probably the most important part about Wu Tang. One of the best things about a Mohawk show is seeing the whole street outside still grasping the experience. It’s well known in the streets that Wu Tang Clain ain’t nothin’ to fuck with. One can see it mouthed through all the lips of those on Red River Street beyond the wall of the musical fortress that is Mohawk. One can see it in the waves on the balconies of the condos across the street. Everyone is involved in this show, the initiated and uninitiated alike, not just because of the powerful grasp and cultural cache of the Wu but also because Matt, Chester, Alex, and Leland can recreate that feeling and more. It’s another extension of their pocket.
The Resources You Never Think Of
Who are the people who manufacture ponchos on the fly? What company is that does this? When the rains started to fall on Austin midday Friday, it didn’t take long for blue Comedy Central and white Esurance ponchos to adorn 6th Street revelers who clearly didn’t check the weather before going on their four-day excursion of straight-up stunting. But were these ponchos ready beforehand? Were these companies’ SXSW event teams constantly checking the weather, thinking of branding opportunities? Were the ponchos made in advance and flown into Texas or manufactured here? If here, is there one company that handles fast printed ponchos? Or are there competing companies? Do they trash talk one another? When one company got that Comedy Central account on Monday when the forecast for thunderstorms to trail the week got more and more solid, did the other company start to fight to get that Esurance account? Are Yelp or Monster Energy Drink or the woefully bereft of its giant, invasive vending machine Doritos kicking themselves for missing the opportunity to synergize precipitation and brand management?
While hanging at Rio Rita one evening, charging my phone after its temporary death at Fader Fort on Thursday, I shared a back table and collection of electrical sockets with a group of cosmonauts from a business that manages open spaces for events in Austin and San Antonio (this is what they’ve called their team in this very “we’ve got a presence at SXSW” kind of company, to that degree, it’s understandable why the name of said company escapes me). They were on a mission to find an ATM for a food truck village they had to put together later. The only leads they had were themselves. SXSW brings up questions like these– where you do even go to find and ATM? Who do I know with some decent turntables? Does anybody have any twine? Where can someone get replacement cables, since these have died. There’s always something. My stay at Breeze House this year involved me staying in a spare room, asking to store cases of beer randomly, borrowing a bicycle, and likely numerous other requests that escape me. Last year, I borrowed a keyboard for a set with ten minutes warning. I felt like a resource monster, sweeping into town and gobbling up what I can. It would feel gross if it didn’t somehow turn out productive (as long as good karma is all around), but even then it still feels pretty gross.
However, in the spectacle that is producing this festival, in official and unofficial capacities, there are so many elements that must be made. There are banners everywhere, signs to print, furniture and temporary structures to build. Somebody has to make those cheap sunglasses and drawstring bags. Comedy Central has a poncho guy. A small town is reproduced, resources and all, and plopped down directly on a small town. It is planned with just the same oversight intermingled with individual fortitude that any town would have. Its pains for its accoutrements just as detailed. Somebody had to think of everything, and someone else had to produce it.
Art and Commerce
I was wandering. The rains were heavy. I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I wasn’t committed to what I had in my schedule and there was a large block of empty time in the middle of it. I hadn’t run into anyone I knew all that Friday. I was riding the bike in circles trying to find someplace interesting to be. Eventually, it just became a search for shelter. I meandered to Rainey Street, aghast at the real life Neal Pollack joke— they tore half the bars down and are building mixed-use condo developments. Some of the bars converted from houses on the small street still remained. Icenhauer’s, where I had attended the Workaholics party what is now four years ago (geez!), still remained, so I decided to just stop a moment and pay too much for a beer. I locked the bike, wandered up the stairs like a weary traveler lowering my hood just before reaching the awning of the front porch, fumbled finding my wallet to show my ID to the very cute young black woman at the door, and walked in, only suddenly realizing this was the press area for Revolt, Diddy’s television channel. I just noticed this because the moment I was fumbling with my wallet was the moment I noticed I was standing next to Himanshu Suri, a.k.a. Heems, whose set I had watched hours earlier at Empire Control Room (he rapped over his iPhone, he wanted to be there and he didn’t want to be there, he wore this really dope cowl-neck T-shirt he designed himself that I asked him about afterwards). He was talking to the woman, sort of milling about like the few others on the porch either with a real purpose for being here or merely seeking shelter like I was. But I definitely caught, “You making money out here?” And she said, yeah. That’s the business. I struck up conversations with strangers, making Palahnuikian single-serving SouthBy friends and noticing that so many people were part of some company, part of the industry. It’s hard not to see the money that fuels the machine but I had inherently forgotten about the individuals actually receiving it. This is the industry at work. This is the economic impact of an event. I am part of a monetary infusion into a city like the rest of this. A statistic.
I wasn’t paid to come here. I represent various publications; I am the public face of what can be considered corporate sponsors who did indeed put on an event during a music festival, that is if one considers a couple broke dudes on the internet and a small nonprofit on the rise but still fighting (as all non-profits are) “corporate sponsors”. Half the audio production costs of the Jazz for the Masses Party came personally out of my pocket. It’s inherently understood that I’m not getting anything back, I wanted to throw a party and get our name out there (yeah, I’m playing the game, too). I still had to eat the rest of the week. I am not being paid for writing this piece, which is essentially the length of a small book that I write every year. I’m essentially paying for the experience of writing a book that I am in essence not selling. I am creating a significant work for major public consumption. If that doesn’t sound like the plight of many of many of the artists of SXSW, I don’t know what does.
When considering the pains of artistry and what this festival is, it would make sense that this is the plight I’ve taken on each year. There are those to travel to Austin each March in search of being seen. I have taken on that same ordeal, and even further, to be seen in the context of the event after it has ended. I have made my work before the festival and after it and I, too, am trying to create work that is appreciated by the masses. I’m as much a part of SXSW as a writer as the rest of the industry in my own distinct way. Those who attend it in any capacity are part of the larger event, though some are reaping benefits that most of us haven’t been able to tap quite yet. Perhaps this is something that comes with more time, more experience, more information and access, more attempts to see behind the curtain.
Year after year, I embark for Austin set for an adventure and forget that there are others who do the same thing for the sake of the job. Even in their adventures, they’re heading out set for a paycheck. Maybe that’ll come to me at some point. It’s never been my focus, though it would be a pleasant little addition to what transpires each year. In the midst of a year of personal transition, it’s hard not to have money on my mind with a festival like this. In a year of constant corporate flux, it’s hard for most others not to have money on the mind with this festival altogether.
The Wonder That is Trailer Space Records
I love Trailer Space Records on Rosewood Avenue. It’s one of my local haunts that I just can’t express enough how much I love it. I first encountered it years ago with my friend Matt Ostrowski, catching San Antonio local act The Rich Hands play an in-store gig. The little east side record store next to the pizza shop, East Side Pies, is one of the chillest spots I’ve ever encountered. It hosts in-store shows almost every night and a full slate of shows all through SXSW for the undercover realness that if you’re cool, feels like a place you’d hang out at all the time. It’s the perfect record store for East Austin.
Three years ago, one crazy arrival in Austin resulted in my taking a photograph with Nardwuar the Human Serviette, meandering into a random stand up comedy show in someone’s backyard, and then into Trailer Space hanging out while Sun Ra Arkestra was playing over the speakers, borrowing a Rahsaan Roland Kirk album from Spot the manager for six months just because I had an incredulous look on my face that this was a Tuesday night in Austin. That was the moment for me that I knew I’d return to this place like a swallow to Capistrano. It’s a grimy place with a great selection, interesting characters, and a DIY ethos that always seems to pull at me.
Thursday night, during a surprise set announced last minuted via Instagram from Nashville rock & rollers Natural Child, someone threw firecrackers in the middle of the store. It was startling and awesome and unexpectedly expected, the way things go around here. A rather effete guy complained to Spot, calling the act juvenile. Spot told the dude he’s the one to gave out the fireworks. When he regaled me of this story later after the set ended and everyone was smoking and milling about, I told Spot, “It’s a record store on the East Side– if you don’t know what you’re getting into, then you don’t know what you’re getting into!” He gave me a T-shirt. I fucking love this place.
Thursday, March 19 – 11:40pm – Natural Child – Trailer Space Records
I really like this band. I at first thought of Parquet Courts, then The Blank Tapes. These guys are good and they remind me of all the musicianship and qualities of good rock that just plain work. They’re too loud and this place is too small for the murmur to thrive. This place is too packed for that fight nevertheless. But it’s packed, though.
These guys have understated chops. Even the dude on keys is decent. Their style of play is not overly expansive, they’re not jazz guys in disguise or anything, but they’re influenced by all the right people. They shift gears in cool, interesting ways. They’re playing all the right, different notes. They’re making good, hearty, modern, but not too modern rock music that’s fucking good. I want to hear “Blind Owl Speaks” a hell of a lot more than just tonight. A lot of the songs followed this theme and they’re awesome. It was the perfect show to pop up out of nowhere on an Instagram post. This was my favorite band to discover of the week.
Saturday, March 21 – 9:20pm – Diamond Age – Trailer Space Records
A fitful electronic set– it’s difficult to refer to the electronic genre as filled with ostinatos. This would seem painfully apparent, for the course. However, it seems more apt a descriptor here than usual.
It’s head nodding stuff that would be great for dancing to with the right provocation. There’s just the right amount of everything– it’s not too busy or too minimalist, the beats are simple but not simplistic, there are left turns but no winding roads. It’s well-made music. Yet its simple, well-made nature eventually meant the murmur would creep in. Five songs in and there it appeared. We were lucky to last this long.
Part of the Show
Saturday, March 21 – 2:45pm – Palma Violets – Empire Garage
I walked into this set uninitiated. I knew nothing of this band, not genre direction, tone, I didn’t even know if they were male or female. I knew absolutely nothing about this band. It’s not like this was some set that I saw on accident waiting for something later. I didn’t wander into this. I came here specifically because this name sounded familiar. I had heard it somewhere. I didn’t even know where. Nevertheless, here I was specifically to see Palma Violets, a band I knew nothing about. I got way more into this show than I ever intended.
The soundcheck felt particularly loud. The kick drum was turned up to a bone-rattling volume. Something more is going down here. However, if the music doesn’t jostle action, some in this crowd certainly will, for I’m not certain who exactly the big dude in the floral-patterned shirt is or if he’s at all affiliated with the London quartet of hard rockers, but this man leapt on stage in the first song, nudged himself over into a microphone to steal the spotlight from vocalist/guitarist Samuel Fryer and vocalist/bassist Chilli Jesson, and sang at first with them, then over them, pushing them aside. This moment was brief, however, for he was soon in the crowd, pulling people in… such are the ingredients necessary for a mosh pit.
There is indeed a kind of pure joy in this extra loud music, cleansed of its quietness leaving only an existence conveyed through the connection it makes in the crowd. At least, this is what I could tell from the pit. It didn’t take long for me to get that look in the eye from this guy– I was going in. I mean… I could have not… but I was going in. It is at this time that I should remind you, dear reader, that I spend much of the time listening to jazz music. I listen to many kinds of music and enjoy them for well-crafted expression and just plain interesting sounds, but much of the time, especially lately when seeing live performances, I’m usually seeing jazz shows. There aren’t any mosh pits at jazz shows. There should be mosh pits at jazz shows. The last two Donny McCaslin albums seem perfectly fit for mosh pits. If Jason Moran can make people dance and improvise with skateboarders, how can he continue to reframe jazz as Taurus Mateen crowd surfs and plays the bass at the same time (aaaaand now that image is in some folks’ heads)? Moshing already happens at some BADBADNOTGOOD shows. It’s good to appreciate the music, to catch quotes and riffs, to applaud at the solos, but ungh, this jazz writer rarely gets the chance to just shove people. It’s fuuuuuuuuuuuucking awesome and I need more of this in my life. Song after song, I was almost one with this group front and center by the stage, all of us wrapping ourselves in these songs, determining the right energy to jump into action and into one another again. The raucous tunes and the somewhat softer almost ballads still had their moments when this group of dudes and either one gal who was into it or swept into it for a while rallied about in this makeshift circle, tracking up the confetti on the ground from Rubblebucket’s previous set into colorfully-speckled clumps of goo. There was a different universe in the pit. The signs of the weather outside, determining if the rains were stopping, thoughts of whatever set you’re missing, where your other friends are, your cell battery life, were afterthoughts. All that mattered was this music and maybe physical exhaustion.
Consider it the show, its loudness, the crowd of people who really knew these songs and the folks like me who just got swept up in the mood of it all, or maybe it was all just the effort of that one dude who can make a completely different experience into something amazing just by putting his all into it but this show was so engrossing in its own sense. I could easily be pulled back into this energy again.
After two days of rain, I didn’t fully notice until some point Saturday evening as I tried to watch Peelander-Z play a short set closing a bill they put together at The Grackle deep on E. 6th St., bobbing and weaving through people’s umbrellas like a prizefighter attempting to grasp some sort of view, that an umbrella at a music festival is a total dick move. Yes, you want to be dry, we all want to be dry, but wear a poncho. Corporate sponsors are salivating at the chance to let you adorn yourself with their brand speckled all about you with a water-resistant coating, but at least they aren’t literally in my fucking way. Sure, they’re pouncing on the opportunity of weather, but they have a heart. Or at least a sense of logistics.
I was initially concerned when I forgot my umbrella in San Antonio when I was packing for this trip. I was compulsively checking the weather. I knew it was going to rain this week. I packed my rain jacket with its detachable hood and it fared me well for the week, riding around on a bicycle half the time and having a proclivity for seeing shows at outdoor venues. It hadn’t fully dawned on me until just then that I planned just right, because it’s a total dick move to bring an umbrella to a music festival.
Bill Murray Moment
What is the proper procedure when Bill Murray is standing behind you? Do you take a picture? Do you ask first? Do you just leave him alone and let him enjoy Ghostface Killah in peace? If you do that, the moment isn’t documented. It’s a story, and a story can be good, but is it enough? Does Bill Murray make us question the nature of satisfaction? Does Bill Murray make us question the nature of our character?
What do you do in your Bill Murray scenario, when the opportunity is presented in front of you? What does it say about you if shoot that photo, seemingly unnoticed but definitely noticed? Are you the type to go for the encounter? Is it classy to do nothing at all, leaving the man be as assuredly most people would generally like to be left alone as opposed to constantly gawked at? Or is it cowardice, fear of making an encounter that could have been? What makes this Bill Murray moment unlike some other moments, other passed opportunities, the grand and the mundane?
Or is this some sort of holiday, where all the wackiness in the world can happen and maybe Bill Murray was waiting for that right interaction to break from his stolid shell, stonefaced watching Ghostface. Maybe someone should have chatted him up instead of constantly craning his neck. Maybe he was totally game. The smile he gave in the picture for the event staff at Mohawk looked sincere enough. He seemed to have a good time. Bill Murray seems to usually do at a SouthBy show. So do the people blessed enough to be around him in those magical weeks in March, all sharing a moment with Bill Murray together.
The Rain or The Mood?
There was less clamour this year than last year. When asked if this year’s SXSW was better than last year’s, one doesn’t hesitate in saying yes wholeheartedly, but it’s hard to say why. It rained and poured for two days straight. For more than half of Friday, I didn’t even catch any music, just riding around on a bicycle getting soaked. Others’ opinions on the week felt the more subdued atmosphere of this year’s festival was an immense improvement, that everyone — reveler, musician, and sponsor alike — found a reason for which to turn down and it all turned out much for the better. But was the rain part of the factor? Did the hand of God reach down on Austin and say “Maybe it’s best thou shalt chill out some”? Some of the activity and high energy of the week may have washed away in the waters, but it also tempered a week that has over the years gotten just a little too crazy. It may have rained on our parade but we ended up with a wet parade, for all its good and ills.
Saturday, March 21 – 6:30pm – Peelander-Z – Grackle
It’s impossible to find a vantage point through so many umbrellas (let alone write on a notepad). It’s even harder to get into so many antics in the rain. It’s hard to get into antics when one booked the whole day. It’s hard to get into antics when you can only play a twenty minute set because this is SouthBy and of course there just isn’t enough time. It’s hard to get into antics when this is still a marathon and you still have one show left tomorrow. There were antics and this crowd felt the set– this is deep East 6th St, folks don’t head all the way down here if they don’t know what’s up — but it’s still all the reality of logistics.
I left Austin at around 3 in the afternoon. My friends John & Brett offered to give me a ride back to San Antonio, sparing me the $25 Megabus ticket. I got back home at around 4ish, dropped my bags, showered and changed, and hopped on my trusty Benotto Modelo 800 that I missed dearly, and made my way to my friend Jake’s glass shop, Zollie Glass Studio, for a party as part of San Antonio’s Contemporary Art Month slate of events. Even a city away, I had a Fear Of Missing Out and a desire for free drinks. But more than this, the philosophy of the week pressed on when I arrived, seeing so many of my friends and finding myself in such a blissful moment — San Antonio on such a beautiful day enjoying itself — is such an awesome thing.
That weekend, the new music venue Paper Tiger, the former White Rabbit, opened in San Antonio featuring a slate of free shows made up of a mix of local and SXSW spillover acts. A city away, there was still something awesome I was missing. I came back to town just in time for this party at ZGS, immensely happy, realizing no description I could give, no photograph one could take, no video one could shoot could perfectly capture the perfectness of this weather, these people at play, these artists at work, this community. This past week, my heart initially wasn’t in this year’s festival. When I reshifted my focus, everything found a better purpose. By week’s end, at that moment, the personal connections — the friends I hadn’t seen in a while, the interesting folks I encountered at shows the way you encounter folks at shows, the closeness I feel to what have become my usual haunts of Austin — are just as a part of this week as the ones I feel at home in San Antonio. In keeping this feeling going, this was the best place I could be for all the right reasons. It’s been a week in late March in South Central Texas, in all its temperamental ways. My heart’s in it.
Thank Yous and Shout Outs
Thank to Michael Thomas & Orlando Torres of Music for Listeners— I couldn’t have put on this party without you, yet again, and this was an awesome week. We put on an amazing thing together and I’m just glad you all keep me around.
Thanks to Bryan, Orlando, and everyone at El Sapo– It’s amazing that each year, I put on this party and I don’t have to worry about anything. I’m well taken care of, the bands are taken care of, and everyone one of your customers are taken care of with an amazing meal each time. El Sapo is an amazing spot and it’s so cool that you continue to support this.
Thanks to Kevin– I know nothing about sound. I know music I like and I know how to judge decisions made in the moment, but what you are able to put together for that day is so far beyond my capability and I’m in awe and debt to your ability to make these days work.
Shout out to Trailer Space– for being the amazing place that you are that I’ll praise continuously. This is my favorite record store on Earth, and I went to college in Atlanta and its Criminal Records. Yep, you’re better than that. It’s not just a record store, it’s the hang, and you have no idea how much I value a good hang.
Shout out to Rio Rita Cantina— for being the best damn bar in Austin. I spend entirely too much time hanging out there whenver I’m in town and especially in the last week. It’s the place I can depend on and where I can always charge my phone. You’re a bar so cool and so in the cut, it’s probably made for San Antonio (and I mean that as a compliment).
Thanks to Nick, Matt, and Kendall of Breeze House– I can never thank you enough each time I’m there. I swoop in year after year and you’re the best of hosts. I appreciate your hospitality, your kindness, your generosity, and as always being awesome people. And I will hear Zettajoule live eventually.
Shout out to J.D. Swerzenski– Man, it was so awesome seeing you again! Until next time!
Shout out to Matt Jones– Knowing you’re creating again makes me so immensely happy, you have no idea. You at SXSW shooting Sam Dew is like the most natural thing in the world. May you continue to have awesome adventures where you make stuff and are confused but cheerful and totally dominate.
Thanks to Pedro– for the turntables, Wednesday was so chill and it couldn’t have been without your help
Thanks to Cicely and Art of Cool– You helped out in ways you don’t even know. Wednesday was great and we did something awesome together, and that was just a taste of what next month has to offer.
Thanks to BADBADNOTGOOD– for still looking out for me while you all were hella busy. We need to hang, seriously. Next month, maybe?
Thanks to everyone who played the Jazz for the Masses Party– we all made something awesome together and folks are saying this was the best year yet. Man, last week was fun!
Thanks to any single-serving friend I ran into last week– any music festival is about these one-off moments and if we made any together, know you’re a part of that.
Thanks to you, dear reader– for reading this far, supporting what we do here at Nextbop, and maybe for thinking this could be the kind of adventure you’d like to get into next year.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.