For today's musician, almost regardless of genre, the pilgrimage to South by Southwest has become a rite of passage. SXSW, now in its 27th year, is the biggest music festival in the world. During a period of 10 days, the city of Austin is transformed into an overcrowded human zoo, with tens of thousands of visitors swelling the downtown streets and nonstop music (or at least sound) on every corner.
What's that old saying…less is more? It only partly applies to this imperfect and increasingly corporate festival, which has a clear hierarchy.
Thousands of musicians, including famous headliners, are chosen to play the "official" showcases. These are generally sponsored by corporations or big names in the music and media industries, and require expensive badges (meaning $450-$1,595).
Many more thousands of musicians play shows that fall into the "unofficial" category. These also take place in bars and venues, as well as everywhere else possible: in warehouses, basements, vacant lots, under bridges, etc., resulting in a full-on sonic assault that temporarily transforms/deafens the city.
Whether this more plebeian level of entry to the festival is any more or less enjoyable is debatable.
The endless treks up and down 6th Street, combined with the grittiness and abrasiveness of rubbing against strange bodies all day (for several days), is exhausting. But discovering a few acts each day that stand out from the general roar of white noise makes this spectacle of excess worth experiencing at least once.
Though I've been to the festival (two years ago, driving through the night in a car full of smelly Johnny friends, with little money to spend and no place to stay—maybe explaining some of my cynicism), I've never played there. So, I spoke with two singer songwriters from Santa Fe who are making the Austin odyssey.
Liv Lombardi is excited to be going for the first time, where she "will be playing 'Wondersale,' which is an art walk/outdoor gallery/garage sale/music festival that takes place in downtown Austin." That show is a part of the "Unofficial SXSW Fest," and afterward, the indie-folk songstress plans on "busking as much as possible around the city."
Acoustic artist David Berkeley has been to Austin several times. This year, he was invited back for "a handful of shows and showcases" including one "at a recording studio/performance venue on this amazing estate in the Hill Country called Blue Rock."
"Truth be told," he says, "I'd go just for that one show alone."
When asked who he is looking forward to seeing, Berkeley offers a long list of friends and bands with names he likes:
"Leif Vollebekk, Ron Sexsmith, Iron and Wine, the Milk Carton Kids, Erin McKeown, Dan Bern, Andy Statman, David Wax Museum, Talib Kweli, Ben Kweller, Ian Moore, Sharon Jones, Paul Oakenfold, Budos Band, Said the Whale, Watch the Duck..."
He also gives a shout-out to Will Courtney from Santa Fe and Max Gomez from Taos.
Lombardi's list is more succinct: "The Sun Parade from Northampton, Mass., and Bike Thief from Portland, Ore."
Though representing only a tiny fraction of what's available, these names inspire plenty of jealousy in those who are stuck at home. Fortunately, it is possible to get a taste of the musical samplings without even leaving town.
On March 11, Stats plays host to a pre-SXSW sendoff party for local and touring acts.
Jared Garcia, of Thieves & Gypsys, puts on the show with the support of David Mitchell, of Bay Area record label 20 Sided Records.
The 20 Sided musicians are snowballing their way from San Francisco, Garcia explains, traveling in "like a 15-passenger van, collecting bands as they go. [San Francisco's] Couches is picking up Ash Reiter in Oakland, then they get Li Xi and head to Arizona to pick up Former Friends of Young Americans." The Stats lineup boasts six bands besides those listed above (Treemotel and Thieves & Gypsys are also performing).
Not bad for Santa Fe, but nothing compared to Austin.
It's the meager cover charge ($6) however, that makes it kind of hard to justify the thousand bucks one might spend on a pass that gives access to the official SXSW headliners.
Headliners like…Green Day.
20 Sided Records pre-SXSW Bash
8 pm Monday, March 11. $6
Stats, 135 W Palace Ave., 982-7265