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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

SXSW, March 2010

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SXSW

SXSW is a sprawling annual film/tech/music conference-cum-festival in Austin, Texas. The Music part of SXSW (which is the only part I’ve ever attended, so don’t ask me about all those “Web Two-Point-Who-Gives-A-Shit?” panel discussions, or the keynote speech by the Twitter guy) is now in its 24th year. Every March, during SXSW Music, something close to 2,000 acts perform on 80 stages scattered around beautiful downtown Austin (or so claims the SXSW website).

Although some big names (Spoon, R.E.M., Motörhead) do appear, SXSW is geared more toward independent artists and music biz folks, all hoping to exploit every possible networking opportunity. When you purchase a badge (as opposed to a wristband, which is for losers and not even worth discussing) for SXSW Music, you are asked to enter the name of your company; “the fifi organization,” for example. That company name is then printed on your badge and in the conference guide, and, thereafter, everyone at SXSW assumes that you are a legit member of the entertainment industry cognoscenti. Walk through the Trade Show area fronting as a rep for, say, an up-and-coming reggaeton label based out of Nova Scotia, and your official SXSW goodie bag will be magically filled with CDs, t-shirts, ear plugs, vinyl cleaning chamois, waterproof first-aid kits, posters, pens, condoms, lighters, guitar picks, and just about any other variety of promotional trinket you can imagine – all completely gratis. RSVP for enough of the country- or label-specific “showcase” parties, and you can live for the duration of the festival on free food and drink. Don’t fancy the toad-in-the-hole and Guinness at the Yorkshire showcase? Head on over to the Sounds of Spain party, where the menu of the day includes ceviche and sangria. Wash, rinse, repeat. If you pay for food or booze at any time during SXSW Music, you’re doing it wrong.

Of course, all of this free stuff comes at a price.

  • Cost of a three-day pass for Coachella: $269
  • Cost of a five-day pass for SXSW Music (plus official t-shirt): $615

Two Stories About SXSW Schmoozing,
Which I Previously Posted to Facebook

  1. March 18 at 4:37pm – Had a conversation with a sweet and friendly guy named Eric. He handed me a flier for a metal band, Ceremony of Darkness. It took me a second to realize that Eric was the demonically grimacing lead singer, “Sin.”
  2. March 19 at 5:44pm – This drunk douchebag (gelled hair, gradient tint sunglasses, greasy mustache, overly familiar, high-fiving every guy and leering at every woman, kept calling me “bro”) told me in conspiratorial tones that if I “you know, needed anything” I should give him a call. He slipped me his business card, which had his name, followed by the words “Attorney at Law.”

Cool Bands You’ve Never Heard of Before,
And Your Personal Access to Same

Apart from the free swag and free grub, SXSW Music is an ear-boggling opportunity to see a wide swath of performers from every conceivable genre, all up-close and smelly in small, friendly venues. Many of the performers make themselves accessible after the show, so you might find yourself swapping concert stories with the cute bass player from that Netherland-ian power-pop trio, or sharing a pint with the mumbling lead singer of that Scottish shoegazer band. Then they’ll probably give you a free t-shirt and their personal email address, and ask if you want to split the cost of a cab back to the Convention Center.

The Lowdown

SXSW Music starts slowly on a Wednesday, with registration and a few parties. Thursday through Saturday, there’s music playing all over town from noon to past 3AM, an embarrassment of riches. Sunday is a day of relative rest, with a softball game (everyone’s invited!), one last (free) BBQ buffet blow-out, and a few scattered shows (including some shows not officially part of SXSW, like the High Times Party with special guest B-Real). You can easily see 40 or more bands during SXSW Music if your arches don’t give out, and if you keep yourself so dehydrated that you never have to urinate.

For each Music show, folks with Platinum Badges get in first, followed by those Music Badge holders who got in line at 9AM for the SXXpress Pass, followed by Music Badge holders without SXXpress Passes. If there’s any room left in the venue, they start letting in the common rabble: U. Texas Liberal Arts students, raving street lunatics, and losers who bought wristbands. For the most popular shows, a SXSW staff member will generally post a hand-lettered sign reading “Badges ONLY,” after which the wristband brigade will sigh with resignation and shuffle off, directionless, into the Austin night, weeping silently.

I Never Go Far Without a Little Big Star

For me, one of the biggest draws this year was a scheduled appearance by the current incarnation of Big Star. Big Star have been among my most beloved bands ever since the Posies released a 45 (on PopLlama) with their cover of “Feel” in 1991. On the b-side was a cover of Chris Bell’s “I Am The Cosmos,” and the words “we miss you Chris” were scratched into the inner grooves. Chris died in 1978 at the age of 27, Andy Hummel quit, and Big Star imploded long before I heard any of their music. When I finally caught up with their three albums, they were a revelation to me: gorgeous vocal harmonies and monster riffs next to fragile deconstructed country songs, meticulously orchestrated pop giving way to frightening dissonance, swaggering bravado coupled with crippling self-doubt, teenage sexual desire pushed right up against adult existential crisis, and, most importantly: melodies that I could not stop humming. Those three albums, all recorded before I was ten, were the headwaters which led to a large percentage of my music collection.

Since 1993, Big Star has consisted of original members Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens, plus Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. They were scheduled to perform on Saturday night at legendary Austin venue Antone’s (which, coincidentally, opened in 1975, the year that the original Big Star lineup recorded their final album). On Thursday night, during a set by Here We Go Magic, I received the news via text message: Alex Chilton had died. I felt deflated and heavy with grief. I texted my ex-wife and a couple of other friends who I thought might understand. I couldn’t stop myself from cataloging all the moments of my life that had been soundtracked by the music of Big Star, and I wasn’t the only one. For the next 24 hours, nobody seemed to know if the show would be canceled or re-purposed as some kind of memorial. On Friday, we got confirmation that a yet-to-be-revealed list of guests would be joining Jody, Jon and Ken for a Big Star/Alex Chilton tribute show (in fact, they also played one Chris Bell solo song), and the excitement among fellow SXSW attendees was palpable.

The tribute show was scheduled to begin at half past midnight. Five other bands were still set to play at Antone’s beforehand, beginning at 7:30PM. At 5PM, I walked over to the venue, prepared to get in line and stay there. Before I could do that, someone official-looking came out of the venue, shaking his head and waving his arms. “Don’t bother lining up,” he told me. “Platinum Badges only.” Fuck! I turned around and almost resigned myself to seeing that Netherland-ian power-pop trio with the cute bass player for a third time, but then decided I’d better perform some due diligence; if that guy was wrong, and I found out later… just the thought filled me with (theoretical) rage. I went around to the back door of Antone’s and – finding it unlocked and having no plan – sauntered inside. Ken Stringfellow was on stage fiddling with some wiring. I tried to get his attention, but he was busy (and probably dealing with his own grief, now that I think about it) and didn’t hear me. I asked the bartender, the sound guy, the woman selling Antone’s t-shirts and a janitor, but nobody knew anything. In the end, I decided to just get in line and see what happened. As soon as I stood outside next to the front door, a crowd gathered. After relentlessly badgering every single person that went in to or out of the building, we finally received assurance from a harried SXSW staff person that anyone with a badge of any kind would be allowed into the show (space permitting, Platinum badges first, blah blah blah). So I stood in the cold, desperately needing to pee, for the next 2 hours, then stood in front of the stage for another 5 hours, through all of the opening acts… and it was absolutely worth it.

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One Comment

  1. Looks like an amazing time…I’ve wanted to go check it out for some time (I also have a friend who owns a bar in Austin so I’d love to see his place.)

    Plus, never been to Coachella (but again…wanted to go for some time.) I think the next show I am going to will be the reunion show of the Crash Test Dummies in Chicago in a few months.

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