SXSWhatever Day 1: A Wristbandless Approach to SXSW

Categorised as FEATURES., MUSIC.

I’m sure all of you have been enjoying the reports from Marcus about SXSW, that internationally renowned gathering of music makers, players and hangers on, held in Austin, Texas on a yearly basis.  Supposedly it’s the place to find the next best thing and watch the old best thing wring out as much excitement and mercy, or as my auto correct says mercy, money before inevitable death of either self or career.  Reading his reports and of course chatting to him over the last few days I can’t help but wonder if we were in the same city.  Having travelled across the Atlantic to get here and suffered at the hands of stony faced immigration officials you can’t help but feel the demarcation of classes haunts you. 

You’ve got your First Class, the Badge Holders, who have paid $700 plus each to look like an under 12 on a domestic flight to Aberdeen to vista Grandma. Multi-coloured lanyards holding plastic pouches showing shocked faces and Helvetica typed credentials mark out clearly who you are.  This will probably help the morning after all that free Southern Comfort at Perez Hilton’s Personal Palace of Putrid Pop, although it will probably not help explaining how the underage and thus illegal groupie magically appeared in your bed at the Howard Johnson. Even First Class has its walls of separation. The ones who are here to network, sign bands, make deals etc. These guys are identified through sensible shoes, multiple mobile devices and paleness. They are working hard to overexpose and exploit 18 year old boys from Wisconsin who are like a surf rock The Libertines without the crack addiction with just enough overtones of Weezer to make two guaranteed stellar hits.  Then there are the overenthusiastic non-industry civilians who really want to see Bruce Springsteen for the umpteenth  time, as this is the show to end all shows, even though this involves waiting in line for 5 hours with 500 other Carpet Warehouse managers from Iowa who also paid $700 for a piece of paper in plastic. And finally, there are those who I’m sure have some sort of business to attend but I’m not sure chasing 19 year old co-eds and trying out the latest designer drug can be classed as corporate activity for a man in his mid 40s, unless you are Charlie Sheen and I doubt you can get that wrap under “entertainment” on your IRS form. What in hell’s name is MDMC anyway? These vile creatures are best to be avoided, which is easy for me, considering my age, my looks and my lack of doe eyes. I must remind them of their wives back home, I represent guilt, although at times a desperate few (hideously ugly and probably between pre-nups) will tell me they are from some band in the 80s and hope that I may remember their signature hand jive movement, I do not. I rarely remember my own hand jive movements from the 80s which was probably to a Mel & Kim song.

Then we have people like Marcus, the Press, he’s riding Business Class with his wristband, which is apt as he’s meant to be working, telling all you fine folks about what bands to have on your radar before your less well read friends or whose gig ticket will increase 300% on Seatwave once the show reviews on Pitchfork come in.  Actually I would probably class Wristbands as being Premium Economy who think they are travelling Business.  Wristbands get pissed with Badge Holders as they get served first, although they believe that the press are the most important of all “professional attendees” as without their coverage the bands are nothing, but Badge Holder supremacy runs on.  At times they can even be as important as a standby passenger on an Ethiad flight bound for Mecca for the big shows, The Boss, The Jesus and the Mary Chain, the leg ends, sorry Legends. But if they are patient and willing to put up with a little discomfort they get to experience a fair amount of whatever they want.

Mere mortals can purchase a wristband for just shy of $200 when accompanied by a Badge Holder, which I have the option to do but decide that once again I’d subject myself to Turkmenistan National Airway’s level of Economy, affectionately known as The Wristbandless. Wristbandless isn’t akin to being hopeless, it means using your smarts and planning to get the best out of your limited options, knowing the best place to sit and trading pillows for blankets with fellow passengers depending on need. But you know what, I’m sure sometimes that Mushroom Parpadelle in Economy can be tastier than the hand served Lobster Bisque they have in First Class. I wouldn’t know for sure as I’ve never travelled that way but you can’t miss whatever you didn’t have in the first place, can you?  And if you put all those thoughts of free Swag and Booze, catching Best Coast and Keane out of your mind then you should have a top time. I’m relying on free shows, RSVPs and knowing some people who are nice enough to want me to be around and have the power to make it happen.

Of course there is another class of citizen at the festival, the VIP, the 1%, the super artists who can pretty much wander wherever the heck they want as long as they don’t mind being gawked at, pestered for pictures with Dwayne from South Caroline here on Springbreak, but even this VIP status is eclipsed by one man and one man alone, Bill Murray. The man has become as important to SXSW as Stubbs BBQs and Stubby Sleeves.  Sightings are rare but fascinating. Last time I caught him hanging with professional Asian women, and I’m not talking about doctors or lawyers, outside a Korean restaurant with the Gza and various less identifiable Wu-Tang Clan members. That year he tended bar, sang in bands, mischief making to the extreme. This time he appeared to me on the phone of my friend after signing her breasts at the Jack White gig the night before. But nothing about Bill Murray is predictable, he signed them Bruce Springsteen. I’m not sure she has hit earth yet after that. I never dream of being a Badge Holder at SXSW but one day, in my most fanciful dreams, I think how amazing it would be to be Bill Murray.

Day 1

I’m flying in from an overnight stay in Chicago where I fuelled myself on enough comfort to get me through the no frills days ahead, Champagne cocktails and divine Wisconsin cheese churd tempura at ‘Pops for Champagne’ for roughly the same price as a tasteless Korma and Cobra beer on Brick lane. I managed to catch a quick walk around this no nonsense city and vow to return before boarding a plane rammed to the hilt with fellow festival attendees.  Everyone checking out who’s who and whether it’s too early to lay some CDs in some unwilling stranger’s hand. I get hit on in the toilet line which is a bit disconcerting at 34,000 ft in the air, I’m dressed in all black and obviously look like someone from a goth band to the untrained eye. Making out is the last time thing on my mind; making it out alive is all I care about.  I had been offered a $500 travel voucher to switch to a later plane but I promised Marcus, Mint editor, to pick him up at the airport and ride into town. Now that’s what I call duty. His plane arrives a ridiculous 2 minutes ahead of mine but I easily spot him before baggage claim. He too is dressed in black and looking far too sartorial to be with the faux western lot I’ve been surrounded by. We drop our bags off at White Heat/Lexington HQ, start on a 1 litre of Jameson’s I’ve been lugging around and look at the tattoed torsos of band members of grunge groups in the hot tub.

Our first stop is to brand him with his wristband at the convention centre and put a tag on his camera that seemed to me like a beacon to any petty thief. I bump into my hospitality host for the evening, a great guy called Michael Zakes who runs a bike shop in the north of the city who puts on his own SXSW side event called SxS Waterloo. I met Michael in what must be the polar opposite to this festival. I was managing entrance for the premium Indie pop festival called Indietracks, I was drowning in cardigans, ukuleles and shouty girls in tuneless bands and he seemed like a lifesaver, we may not like the same music but we certainly have a lot in common when it comes to ale. I drop him off a fine selection of Redchurch Brewery’s range and in exchange he passes me a key to where my futon awaits.

I introduce mein editor to the hub of the action, Sixth Street. Imagine if Dalston, Clapham, Brixton, Camden and Bury St. Edmonds linked up like a human centipede, this would be the ultimate clusterfuck of effluent that would spill out at closing time.  Rockers, hipsters, urban kids and someone who looks like your Auntie Janice.

Knowing the lay of the land I point out the main venues and decide to head to the soon to be closed Beauty Bar where some friends, Chapter 24, are playing their official Showcase for SXSW hosted by their bookers Panache. As I am without anything of note, no wristband, no badge or any intention to stand in line or consult the piss awful schedule of free shows I listed sometime, I decide to stay thanks to the guest list and get settled in with the first of many Lone Star beers, akin to Red Stripe, far from desirable but cheap and drinkable.  Marcus goes off and does whatever he said he does, I meet up with some more wristbandless friends from London, Chapter 24’s Tour momma Gemma and the Papillion girls, and get stuck in with my first band Turbo Fruits, a personal fave I’ve seen before here, who are the garage rock embodiment of Speed Fix, blitzing their way through their set. I feel I’m finally here, watching bands I rarely hear beyond my own various listening devices.

Chapter 24 do their business (more on them over the next few entries) and I went off to man their merch stall while having unofficial tequila shots with the very official SXSW staff.  Other bands at the Panache show are Football, Pujol, Bleached and the mighty Thee Oh Sees. Football have been noted as future must see again although I hope they change their name by then.  Thee Oh Sees are great as ever but, as I’m beginning to realise, official showcases are high on brow and low on fun.  Moshpits are not a viable option for these Music PRs. They might disrupt the perfect balance of ego and bullshit most of them carry around. I’m sorry, some of my closest friends are in Music PR and they do a great honest job but this is the breed at its worst.  A Yorkshire Terrier frenzied to Rottweiller level as they elbow out their colleagues.

On yet another blag, I’m dividing time between the Panache and Transgressive/Rockfeedback showcases, one of my favourite and long term clients.  Or shall I say people who trust me to stamp people with permanent ink and be the one who says no when they can’t do it themselves to, well, Music PRs, aka the Door Whore, the Bitch with the List etc. etc.  It’s at capacity and Badge Holders only and I piss off all my superior classes by hitching a ride on the guest list with the ever enthusiastic and amazingly fantastic Toby. Dry the River are playing and although not a band for me, I can observe how bombastic and together they’ve become since I saw them years ago at the Luminaire.  The lovely Jen Long is DJing, she plays Pavement, we raise cans of Lone Star and feel lucky to be here. I do, I really do.  Doing exactly the same thing you do in London with people you know from London with bands you see in London but it’s completely different, somewhere where you can watch outside without fear of rain, temperature drops and noise restrictions. Unknown Mortal Orchestra are next. After 4 shows in one day the singer is obviously knackered if not proper ill.  They do a fine set of 3 songs, 2 of which are covers, to play something that won’t permanently ruin this bands promising future or his voice.  They are the only band who can do a more than passable Can cover; they play that so I’m happy.  I’m drunk enough to sleep but not fall over, my sign to leave, and I hike all the way up to 54th, being I’m on 7th you can imagine my sobriety on arrival.


Grace O’Byrne

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