SXSW 2011: Friday Night Lights on Sixth Street
By the third day of SXSW, a grim fatigue sets in. The acts all start to melt into one weary memory and the corporate sponsorship starts to grate by the fourth time you're at a show sponsored by Sam's Club, Levi's, Cirrus Logic and Monster Energy Drink. Apparently, this is what The Killers meant when they once opined that it's "indie rock and roll for me."
Moreoever, a certain sense of banality encroaches when you're covering a festival like this. Exactly what is the utility of breathlessly reporting a bunch of "TOTALLY AWESOME STUFF" to people reading at home? At best, they're living vicariously through the experiences. At worst, they're muttering imprecations under their breath, aghast that so much collective brainpower can be siphoned off by a festival while Japan is in the midst of nuclear crisis and Libya has become one big no-fly zone, or [insert tragedy du jour here].
I won't tell you that none of this matters. Maybe a little of it does. Perhaps a previously unknown band or two will break out of anonymity with a transcendent show in front of the right set of tastemakers (even typing the word "tastemaker" gives me the hives -- not this kind.) Maybe you can attribute this to intractable cynicism, but how much free BBQ, Sweat Leaf iced teas and buzz bands can one person swallow? All in the name of hyperbolic blog posts, inane tweets and Radiohead rumors.
But beneath the anomie and frivolity lies a certain euphoria. Despite the corporate-backed, BBQ-besotted behemoth that it has become, a certain euphoric undercurrent will always flow. So on Friday night while fighting off a case of SXSW SARS, I walked down 6th Street searching for signs of life. And they were easy to find in the places that most people weren't searching. From the drum line 100 people deep that writhed through the chaos, led by Flint, Mich., rapper Jon Connor's street team, to the forlorn weirdo holding a placard that read "I'm Single, Call Me Baby."
There were menacing police offers, thugs with gold chains, a trio of hipsters standing on a street corner selling shirts that read "Trill City Kings." A band called Of Mice and Men blaring heavy hard rock to a crowd of kids with facial piercings listening from the outside, unable to get in but still going wild. There was a DJ named Chief Boima dressed in an African dashiki spinning weird dance-funk inside the almost empty Dutty Artz party. In another room, this could've been delirious fun, but still, in the empty space, two college kids did some wild jigs and hippie twirls and had the time of their life. There was the queue of well-groomed sensitives waiting for The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. None of these were trying to one-up anyone else or project some nebulous image of cool, they were just there because they loved music.
The oldest trope of SXSW reporting is the interview with the band of street buskers. It's the Austin equivalent of New York reporter interviewing a cab driver to gauge the temperature of the street. So I didn't ask a group of people busking on 6th any questions. Their sign said it all: We're Dastardly from Chicago. Donate what you want and then grab a CD. Accepting cash and whiskey. They were three beadeds guys and a girl, playing acoustic guitars and stand-up bass, and singing songs about sorrow and loss and old-time religion. They were conspiciously anachronistic and totally charming.
For someone whose immune system seemed on the verge of collapse, it was a hypodermic boost. They channeled a bone-weary spiritualism that was in short supply in the midst of drunken chaos. It was unpretentious and ancient and they didn't need anyone to tweet anything about them or write some sort of all-encompassing paean to their greatness. They just wanted people to watch them play and maybe get a few bucks to defray the cost of barnstorming to get them to Texas. They didn't know who Rebecca Black was and they didn't care. They earned at least a bottle of whiskey. Probably two.
-- Jeff Weiss