This was my first South by Southwest experience, and a relatively short one, consisting of only Thursday and Friday. Still, I feel that I succeeded in fitting in a great deal of fun, drunkenness, and of course, great live music into those two fleeting days.
My SXSW journey began when Ceasar and I arrived in Austin around 3:00 on Thursday afternoon. We were planning on spending the night at Chon’s apartment, about four miles from downtown, so we decided to go ahead and park there so we wouldn’t have to deal with the downtown parking situation. (This ended up being a good call.) We set off with every intention of hoofing it to Sixth Street, but as luck would have it, there was a bus stop just down the street from where we parked, and a bus headed for downtown Austin was boarding just as we walked by. We decided to take the bus instead and rode it down to 2nd and Congress, where we met up with Hang.
From there, the three of us hiked over to Auditorium Shores for the free M. Ward and Shins shows. With time to kill before the concert actually started, we pigged out on the typical festival food – sausage on a stick, funnel cake, chicken wings, Aussie Pie (whatever that is), and the like – and overpriced margaritas. Then M. Ward started. I’ll admit that, going in, I didn’t know much about the guy. I had heard his name and maybe a song or two along the way, but I didn’t know much of him or what to expect. I have to say, though, that I thoroughly enjoyed his show, and I’ll be downloading some of his music soon. Great stuff.
The Shins went on just as the sun was going down, and before I start talking about the concert, I have to comment on the venue itself. Auditorium Shores is amazing! With ample space and the Austin skyline providing the backdrop, I can imagine no better outdoor venue. The lights of the buildings of downtown Austin in the distance were absolutely stunning. Just a perfect setting to enjoy some music.
The Shins, of course, were fantastic. I’m a longtime fan and they were one of the bands I was most excited about seeing at SXSW. However, as great as they and the venue both are, I felt like the two didn’t do much to complement one another. I love the Shins, and they played well, but I feel like their sound just lends itself to a smaller, more intimate setting rather than a big park or arena like this one. Still, I got to see a great band on a gorgeous Austin night for free, so no complaints here.
After the show, it was time for another walk, this time to Hang’s car which was parked in a pretty nice residential area a mile or two from downtown. For reasons that are still a mystery to me, she felt that we should walk back to her car and then drive to find a parking space closer to Sixth Street (as if this was at all likely to happen at 10:00 on Thursday night during SXSW). So we did, and we drove around for the better part of an hour looking for close, free (or at least relatively cheap) parking – which surprisingly enough, we did eventually find.
Then it was time to hit up Sixth Street. As we walked, the phrase that kept coming to my mind was “sensory overload”. There were people and lights and music and food everywhere, all of it a hodge-podge of various cultures, ages, and styles. I’m a small-town girl at heart, and I am always a little overwhelmed (in a good way) when I’m downtown in a big city, but this brought it to a whole other level. Just walking down Sixth Street at that moment is honestly one of my favorite memories from SXSW. It was an amazing experience.
The plan was to see Oh No Oh My at the Whiskey Room, but seeing as we still had a couple of hours to kill before then, we decided to do some exploring. We poked our heads into a few different places before finally ending up at Pete’s Dueling Piano Bar. Now, my Austin experience is extremely limited (this was only my second trip there, ever), but Pete’s is the most fun place I’ve ever been or could imagine going in Austin. It was packed – standing room only – and the bar was virtually impossible to get to, but I was content to just stand there and take it all in. The guys at the pianos were as hilarious as they were talented, covering everything from “Bump ‘n’ Grind” to “The Road Goes on Forever (And The Party Never Ends)” to “Piano Man” to the Charlie Brown theme to Super Mario Brothers songs. At one point, some poor bastard’s friends announced that it was his birthday, and he was called to the stage while the guys played him a birthday song consisting of lines such as “This old man/He played five/He fucks things that aren’t alive.” Hilarious.
From there, we headed down to the Whiskey Room for Oh No Oh My. It was here that we met up with Aaron, fresh off his drive in from Houston. It was also here that I got royally and irredeemably smashed. After four vodka and Sprites (I’m a lightweight, okay?!) I was already pretty gone, but not so gone that I didn’t think it was a good idea to go up to the bar and ask the bartender to “surprise me” with a shot. Word of advice: NEVER tell a bartender at the Whiskey Room to “surprise you”. They will just give you a shot of Jameson. Which is great if you like Jameson – which, hey, I kind of do – but not after you’re already pretty decently shitfaced. I took the shot and the infamous Halestorm came out in full force. I don’t really remember the next couple of hours, but I do know that the next day I found some pictures on my camera of me hugging a girl I’d never met in my life like she was my best friend. I also know that Oh No Oh My was playing while all this was going on, but much to my shame, I don’t really remember their set. But Oh No Oh My never disappoints, and I’m sure they didn’t this time, either.
After the show, I apparently closed out my tab. I say “apparently” because I have no recollection of doing this whatsoever. But as we were all leaving the Whiskey Room – the point in the night where I start to remember things again – I grabbed Ceasar and said frantically, “Wait, I have to close out my tab!” Seeing as I could barely walk or speak, he sat me down at the bar and told me to wait while he took care of it. He went to find the bartender to give her my name and close my tab for me. Meanwhile, the room started spinning and I put my head down on the bar and focused all my energy on not crying, puking, or passing out. Apparently, the guy next to me took this as a sign that I would probably really like to be hit on at this moment, so that’s what he began to do. I vaguely remember lifting my head a couple of times, mumbling a few words, and then putting it back down. And homeboy just kept going. He was relentless. I also think I remember him being British, or possibly Australian, but there is a good chance that I am making that up.
After about fifteen minutes of Ceasar telling the bartender I still had a tab open, her assuring him that I’d closed it already, him asking me if that was true, and me telling him that I was POSITIVE my tab was still open, I reached into the pocket of my sweater and found my debit card. Oops. So after a few parting words to my possibly-British-or-Australian admirer (better luck next time, buddy), we left the Whiskey Room.
Back out on Sixth Street, we ran into Carson (I also only vaguely remember this occurring). The boys decided they wanted to hit up a taco cart before we headed home, but I was in no mood to eat or look at or smell or acknowledge the existence of food, so Hang took me across the street to sit on some steps in front of some office building or hotel or something. I’m not sure how long we sat there, but it felt like days. I ended up puking in a potted plant in front of this building. Classy, I know. But I did feel a lot better after that, although I’m sure the plant felt much worse.
The boys decided the line at the taco stand was too long and opted instead to hit up a Taco Cabana before heading to Chon’s for the night. I can only assume that someone carried me to Aaron’s car, because I don’t remember how I got there and I’m reasonably sure I wasn’t capable of walking several blocks at this point in time, but I woke up in his back seat some time later with tacos being thrown at me. I couldn’t muster the strength to ask questions, and all the hurling earlier had really worked up my appetite, so I ate my tacos in silence. We finally ended up back at Chon’s, where, after some confusion, we all eventually passed out in the various states of discomfort that only drunkenly crashing on the floor of someone else’s tiny apartment can bring.
We woke up Friday morning around 10:00, brushed our teeth, changed clothes, and headed back downtown for round two. This time, Ceasar and I decided to take his car, since it was early and thus it probably wouldn’t be as hard to find parking downtown. Wrong-o. We ended up parking by some apartments in a super adorable residential neighborhood that we thought was only a block or two from Waterloo Records (where we were headed), but ended up being about ten. Hung-over, dehydrated, and severely sleep-deprived, we made the hike to Waterloo, where we met up with Hang and Aaron and watched Say Anything. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this show. To borrow a phrase from Aaron, it really made me feel 16 again rocking out to this kind of music. It was a fun, perfect start to the day.
After Say Anything, Ceasar and I decided we were too hungry to stay for another show. Hang and Aaron didn’t want to eat, so we left them there while we went down to grab lunch at a Southwestern grill called Z Tejas. It was delicious. They had chips and guacamole and queso that were particularly awesome, and anyone who knows me knows this is basically all I look for in a restaurant.
We had leftovers, so we decided to take our doggy bags back to the car. It was another long hike, but the newfound energy from our lunch gave us strength. After dropping off our food, we turned around and headed back up to Sixth Street. It was about 2:00 by this time, and I wanted to see Trampled By Turtles at 4:30. I decided to go ahead and head to the venue – the Swan Dive all the way down at 6th and Red River – just so I could be sure that I would get in on time. Everyone else wanted to stay at Waterloo for the rest of their showcase, which consisted of such acts as Of Montreal and Gary Clark Jr., so I set off alone down Sixth Street for what shall henceforth be known as Leslie’s Big Adventure.
Like I said, I’m not familiar with Austin, and I’m a shitty navigator anyway, so I was not entirely confident in my ability to find the place. I had been informed previously that Red River was far, but as I headed farther and farther east down Sixth Street, I began to wonder if I’d already passed it by mistake. I just kept thinking, “There’s no way it’s THIS far.” My hangover headache was beginning to come back in full force. I’d already emptied the bottle of water in my purse. Just as I was about to give up and possibly die, I saw it – the Red River street sign looming overhead, about ten yards ahead of me, like a beacon of hope and justice. Or something. I was happy to see it, is what I’m saying.
Then I had to figure out where the Swan Dive was, which was a tricky endeavor, seeing as the place DOESN’T HAVE A SIGN. I might not have found it at all if I hadn’t heard some people in front of me talking about going to see Doomtree. I knew that Doomtree was playing the same showcase as Trampled, so I decided to follow them. Sure enough, they took me right where I needed to be.
The Swan Dive is huge, dank, dark, and excruciatingly hot. It is a godforsaken hellhole of a music venue. But I love my Trampled – they were one of the main reasons I even wanted to come to SXSW – so I toughed it out. But seeing as I had a few hours until their show started, I had to tough it out while listening to a couple of hip hop groups – a prospect I was not all that thrilled about. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I hate hip hop, but I am not an enthusiast by any means, and the idea of seeing hip hop live just never appealed to me. But I went with an open mind, and I am so glad I did. The first artist I saw was Brother Ali, a white rapper (though you wouldn’t know it by listening to him) backed by a full band of horns and steel drums. The sound was so fresh and unique, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Next up was Doomtree, who I enjoyed even more. I had heard some of their stuff before and had even considered going to their Lubbock show a while back. Still, I didn’t really know what to expect. One word: WOW. They killed it! Their passion and energy onstage was amazing, and the crowd was equally enthusiastic. Even though I was exhausted and sweating so much at this point I felt like I had taken a shower, I enjoyed it immensely.
Next, it was time for Trampled by Turtles, and as they began to set up, I shoved my way up to the front, right by the stage. As I watched the hip hop fans begin to exit and the bluegrass/country/folk fans file in, I began to wonder how TBT ended up on a bill with acts like Brother Ali and Doomtree. It wasn’t until later that I found out that the showcase consisted entirely of artists from Minnesota.
While we’re on the subject, let me take a moment to say a few words about people from Minnesota. People from Minnesota are PROUD of being from Minnesota. I am just always astonished to meet people who aren’t from Texas who are proud of their state. I met a few Minnesotians (is that what they’re called?) who had come all the way down from Austin JUST for this showcase. I saw at least four people – including one member of Trampled By Turtles – with the outline of the state of Minnesota tattooed on their arms. Can you imagine? A state other than Texas tattooed on someone’s arm! How quaint!
I also learned that Trampled By Turtles evidently has a Dave Matthews-esque following of unshaven hippie girls in homemade sundresses who follow them around from state to state on tour. I met a couple of these girls who, despite the aforementioned unshavenness, were extremely sweet. And I am duly impressed with their devotion to the band.
When TBT finally started playing, I was blown away. Just absolutely floored. I have seen good live bluegrass before, but nothing like this. These guys are incredibly technically skilled musicians, but what’s even more impressive is their passion and the way they read and feed off of one another. It was a marvelous thing to behold. Not only were they the highlight of my SXSW experience, it was probably one of my top five shows EVER. Even though they failed to play my favorite song (“Nowhere to Hide”, duh no duh), the show was so good I almost cried. They finished with “Wait So Long”, and the entire crowd was singing along. Just perfect.
And I almost forgot about a funny anecdote that happened during this show. A song or two into the set, while a couple of the guys were re-tuning their instruments, a drunk girl standing next to me reached up, tugged on the bass player’s sleeve and began screaming, “Play ‘Angel Eyes’! PLAY ‘ANGEL EYES’!” The bass player gave her a blank look and said, “Uh… which song?” She repeats, “’ANGEL EYES’!!!” He just stares at her, confused, and shakes his head. She starts drunkenly singing, “Come closer, angel eyes…” He starts laughing. “That song is called ‘Blue Sky and the Devil’.” Drunk Girl goes, “Yeah, yeah! That one! It’s my favorite!” to which Bass Player replies, “Um, we’re saying ‘Angeline’ in that song, not ‘Angel Eyes’.” Drunk girl sheepishly apologizes and shuts up. Funniest thing ever.
When the show was over, I walked out, still heavily under the influence of my bluegrass high, and waited on a street corner for Hang and Ceasar to pick me up. They did, and we went to meet up with Aaron in Barton Heights, where he was attending a house show featuring the Thrift Store Cowboys among other bands. By the time we got there, Thrift Store was done playing, so we just hung out for a bit and recuperated from the day. The place was seriously gorgeous, though – a two-story recording studio with an enormous deck and swimming pool out back, along with a beautifully landscaped courtyard with swings, benches, and little walkways. It’s almost enough to make me want to start a band just so I can record there.
Finally, we ended the day with burgers at Fran’s, everyone recounting their experiences and trying not to just straight-up pass out in our fries. We tossed around the idea of hitting up Sixth Street one more time, but talked ourselves out of it almost as quickly as it was brought up. So we finished up our meal, and Hang headed home to Pflugerville while Ceasar and I followed Aaron back down to Houston.
Those two days are a blur, but I am so glad I ended up going to SXSW. It was an experience I won’t soon forget, and one I hope to have again next year. Although next time, I think I’ll try not to puke in a plant.