It took us a while to recuperate from this year's SXSW and we might have some mild PTSD after last week, because in short: Austin owned us. The Live Music Capital made us northerners long for the relaxation of our respective booming metropolises (Boston and New York), where grabbing a cab isn’t like extracting a tooth, great music doesn’t play at the exact same time as other great music (so stressful!), and free drinks are unheard of (believe us, this can become a bad thing).
Don’t get us wrong – we had a blast. In fact, we almost feel like boasting, because SXSW is kind of like the Mt. Everest of music fests. You’re on a mission that you can’t possibly fulfill unless you’re a magician or a monster, you still try your hand at attempting the impossible, you are exhausted, but exhilarated and proud of your effort, but then – even if you make it to the top – you’re eventually ready to just go home.
In our unofficial official guide to the 28th iteration of this annual festival, we mentioned that SXSW had grown exponentially since its inception in 1987. And we had already heard the chatter about it being “too big for it's britches,” with mass commercial appeal and a keynote speaker in the form of Lady Gaga, but we still wanted to take on the behemoth for ourselves. So we did. We entered the week like warriors with our schedules planned, our pristine feet ready to carry us far (in fabulous footwear of course), our heads held high, our livers squeaky clean – and this is what we learned:
1) Reggie Watts really can beatbox on the spot, like a boss.
We witnessed improvising comedian-musician Reggie Watts and music technology hard at work at “The Mobile Movement” c/o AT&T and VICE Motherboard. He made up lyrics on the spot, sang like an angel, and swung his enviable curls around while stomping on a life-sized Keezy board. It was hilarious, entertaining, impressive, and very reminiscent of Tom Hanks in Big.
2) Tove Lo might be America’s new Swedish Sweetheart.
We got an early preview of the indie pop songstress at the xoJane “25 Most Shameless People On The Web” event before her official SXSW showcases ensued. She said our energy was a welcome surprise from the solemnity of Swedish audiences. Welcome to America, girlfriend, where concert-going involves wild gyration and flailing of limbs whilst storming the stage. Her energy definitely helped upped the ante, though, as she was jumping around on the relatively small North Door performance platform and passionately singing songs (“Habits” and “Not on Drugs” to name a few) off of her debut EP Truth Serum.
We also got to sit down with her a few days later and chat about the one guy who inspired the tracks, her early influences, and how sometimes it’s easier to sing things than to say them (look out for the full feature in the coming days). She’s an angel in a screen tee, pain splattered jeans and Docs.
Also sighted was the infallible Betty Who (unfortunately we missed her at the Nylon Party), who we snapped an #xoshameless selfie with just to remember the moment. We were certainly a fan of hers, and she was definitely a fan of EARMILK as well!
Tove Lo on the xoJane red carpet (photo c/o Roger Kisby/Getty)
3) It’s okay to ditch the schedule and follow the locals.
Tuesday night, we decided to go our own separate ways with our band-less and badge-less friends who lived in Austin and didn’t have (or care to have) access to the more formal SXSW activities. We had a blast getting to see music that was free. A 6th street bar, Maggie Mae’s became the place for a slew of Texan country (they were adamant that Texan country is different from other country) artists to take the stage. Curtis Grimes seemed to be a crowd favorite, with his dashing good looks and NBC’s The Voice stint solidifying his fandom.
Curtis Grimes at Maggie Mae's
We also dipped into a dark and smoky EDM club called Kingdom with a mile-long roster of hardcore DJs, where a music badge (or even an RSVP) wasn't necessary. In fact, our RSVP didn't go through on their site, so they waved aside our music badge, forfeited our $10 cover, and let us walk right in anonymously (although we did have to pay for drinks).
This was a club void of names and faces, where it was almost better to just lose yourself in the anonymity of it all and remember the feel (if not the exact order) of the musical acts. After that, it was a fairly long walk to a club called The North Door on the East side of Austin, where local groups Zorch, Sorne, and The Octopus Project were playing their own version of SXSW (and music in general). It was a show filled with local offbeat artists and musicians, and even included some live performance art onstage (infinitely better than Lady Gaga's spin, but we'll get to that later).
In fact, we liked the local scene so much that we even went all DIY fan girl and bought a t-shirt printed and designed by the tall and dark lead singer of Sorne himself. The only issue we found here is that even with a strong flash it was almost too dark for photos, but the performances were so memorable that it completely made up for it.
4) In Austin, you can pass your favorite artists on the street and meet them in a tiny bar.
SXSW is a good equalizer. There are so many artists that none of them can really afford to peacock too much (unless you are Lady Gaga and as noted, that is a different story for Part 2 of this wild adventure – it only gets better). While strolling the streets of Austin, we passed Buffalo Billiards in the middle of the day and heard familiar tunes drifting outside. Could it be? Why, yes it was! Magic Man performing an acoustic set for Next Radio, so we threw out our schedules and swung by and said hi.
Later, the same thing happened with Jessica Lea Mayfield at Cheer Up Charlie’s. There, we found out that the songstress is far less indie folk than some of her songs suggest, skewing more toward '90s rockstar (she was clad in a velvet slip dress, sparkly combat books, topped off by a cotton candy colored pink bob). We suspected an at-home Manic Panic dye job and that made her hairdo all the more fabulous. And to cap it off, we passed The 1975 casually strolling down 6th street – UK music royalty just hanging with the commoners.
Magic Man at Buffalo Billiards
Jessica Lea Mayfield rocking out among rocks at Cheer Up Charlie's
5) There were some sound problems, but no one really sounded off.
Bad Suns played The Blackheart, and their set was at 11 p.m., so it’s doubtful the very-lubricated crowd heard anything other than great music. The outdoor venue was cool, the Austin air was cool, and even after attesting that the sound was bad, the boys kept their cool. We told them we didn’t even notice, and it wasn’t a lie. Their hit “Cardiac Arrest” is making waves, and we were just happy to see the band in more intimate action before they hit the big leagues touring circuit with The 1975 this spring.
Bad Suns at The Blackheart
American Authors had a similar experience at Stubb’s, when sound problems greatly delayed all sets Thursday night. Divas would have walked off stage, but these guys made the best of it – stripping down their regular program (and laid-back tank tops, ow ow!), and played acoustified versions of their songs. Despite the man in front of us waving a massive glowstick that obstructed our view, the show was fantastic, and the sound was supplemented by the the crowd boisterously singing along to “Best Day of My Life” – clearly pleased that the band had rolled with the punches, and some of them actually experiencing the best day of their lives.
Brooklyn three-piece Wet played (what we thought was) a great set at The Naked Grape’s showcase, “The Music Box” at The Cedar Door, but after it was finished, there were grumblings from lead vox about the worst “sound” or “crowd” (still debating what exactly was said) – and subsequently, everyone was a little perplexed at the sign-off. We imagine it’s frustrating, but that’s kind of the nature of festivals, right? Either way, we loved listening to them live while sipping the newest offerings of boxed wine care of The Naked Grape.
When the next act, Nabiha, took the stage, we were mesmerized by this Danish dame’s soulpop appeal. Her energy was infectious, and even though we didn’t know the songs, we found ourselves singing along. She was rocking long braids, a plaid shirt, reflective sunnies and sexy hip-dips comparable to Queen Bey.
We also found the Surefire official SXSW showcase with Machinedrum headlining (who we'd missed at the VICE party, to our disappointment), as well as Addison Groove, Ikonika, Natasha Kmeto, Knxledge, and Jaw Jam, at the tiny but always-packed 6th street club Barcelona. There, we were really able to let loose (and dance slightly dirty) for hours on end. It was so loud (and intense), with tremendous throw-down and wild dance moves all illuminated by the deep red lighting, that we couldn't help but allow ourselves to be seduced by the music. Yes, some of the more hardcore fans were slightly embarrassing, banging on the DJ booth and begging for additional sets from an already-exhausted performer, but it was all in good fun, really. When we looked at our photos the morning after, it was all a blur, but in the best way possible.
6) Complex and Green Label will be throwing our next backyard BBQ
We actually didn't have this day party on our schedules (even the best slip through the cracks), but when we heard the music coming out of the backyard of an East 3rd Street bungalow, we just had to be part of the house party. And thank God we were, as there was a cell phone charging station where our precious babies were left with a sitter while their mommies went and sipped Mountain Dew-inspired cocktails, visited a lab where Mountain Dew was being made into caffeinated candy bites, swung by a live art exhibition, and then twerked in the grass while SNDCLSH (DJ Lupe Fiasco and Sky Gellatly) and MSSL CMMND (Chad Hugo and Daniel Biltmore) entertained us with their energetic production prowess and sick, sick beats. The crowd was diverse, but the common denominator was that everyone wanted to dance. Only downside? We had to leave at 8 p.m.
Inside the Complex complex
7) Alternatively, Ryan Montbleau and Young Summer made us stand still and listen.
Bostonian singer-songwriter Ryan Montbleau had a show that wasn’t nearly crowded enough for his level of talent. It’s probably because of the sheer amount of music going on: a man playing an acoustic guitar solo is not topping the list of a wild week of music, but for us, it was the perfect soul food to resuscitate us for the night ahead.
Montbleau is a talented lyricist and storyteller, and his track “75 and Sunny” talks about how he’d rather be old and contented than “29 with a chance of showers all the time.” He possesses Jason Mraz’s jazzy swinging vocal style, accentuating his sense of humor akin to another great solo artist, Mike Errico. He was a small guy with a guitar, but he packed a big punch to the patrons -- who all looked so... normal. As if they had stepped out the Boston suburbs, not an Austin bar. It was oddly refreshing to be among khaki pants and sensible shoes.
Similarly, young indie electropop singer Young Summer played at Iron Bear, a small venue that made it easy to waltz up to the front row. We’ve premiered/posted tracks of hers before, so briefly chatted with her afterwards and realized that unlike her music, with its brooding BANKS-like quality, and her performance, which involves close-eyed intensity, Bobbie Allen in person is a spritely girl with bright eyes and a gracious personality.
8) Late nights at the SoundCloud Clubhouse made us hit the snooze button a few more times.
Rainey Street became a favorite hangout spot – a little off the beaten path with venues and acts worth noting. It also made “the mornings after” a little less fun and called for an added shot of espresso in our a.m. coffee. This is the first time the clubhouse was named an official venue, which was certainly cause to celebrate, with performers Ryan Hemsworth and Zed’s Dead. Added bonus? The sound guy in the back let us charge our phones while we enjoyed the outdoor sets in the crisp night air.
9) Pedi cabs are the best form of public transportation
Although phone-charging wasn’t a problem, getting around after our feet had quit certainly was. There are no cabs. And if you catch a cab, it’s a pretty penny. To get downtown, we learned to navigate the public bus system, but that wasn't really realistic while in the thick of things. So when we needed to get from the Vegas Hotel to Austin Music Hall? Pedi cab was the way to go. Also, it felt a bit like a chariot meets a convertible, the drivers were always friendly, and a ride is about $10. Take note for next year, people.
Phew. So that's part one. And since the week just continued to escalate until Saturday night's shenanigans, you're going to want to hurry back.