I’ve experienced SXSW in several different ways. This year, SXSW 2015, was my seventh year. I’ve been a delivery driver, a music fan, an official showcasing artist, and an unofficial artist. Last year, I got to a point where I hated it. I didn’t want to play music and didn’t want see music. I wanted to avoid the whole dang thing.
The first time I ever performed at SXSW was my fourth year. The Villettes played two unofficial shows. Our first was at noon, and hardly anyone was there, but we were terrified out of our minds. We drank too much just to keep our hands from trembling.
My fifth year I was in two bands, The Villettes and The Sour Notes, the latter of which was an official showcasing artist. Between both bands, I played around nine shows. At the end of that year’s festival, we went to a twenty-four-hour diner and had a huge meal. I remember sitting together and sipping on a coconut milkshake, completely exhausted but also completely content. I hadn’t gotten to see any other bands perform, but the week’s work made me feel like I’d accomplished something to be proud of.
The following year, last year, I didn’t play any shows. I didn’t have as much energy to go downtown and deal with swarms of people to see bands I liked. Then, early in the week, there was a horrible drunk driving accident right outside of one of the most popular Austin venues. Four people were killed and over twenty were injured. This shook my confidence. I also read articles about girls who’d been raped while walking or riding a bike at previous festivals. Again, this shook my confidence. The idea of going into all of that (usually I went alone) terrified me.
This year The Villettes didn’t play. About a month before SXSW, I started making plans to go out of town. I wanted to be away from everything. I had no reason to stay. I thought this was going to be the year of not giving a shit about SXSW, especially because a lot of Austin musician friends had been tossing around that exact sentiment. But Laura Marling announced that she’d be playing, and I couldn’t resist staying for her! And I thought, maybe I’ll have fun at the festival again…
My roommate Lindsey put on a secret show under a stone bridge on 6th Street. She’d set up tea light candles around the performance area, and my other roommate Anthony DaCosta performed first. Bats flitted above us, their shadows stretching and darting across the stone.
The best part of the night, though, was when someone arrived with a pizza while Anthony sang one of his songs. Each verse started out with the lyric, “I had a dream…” So when this guy walked by, Anthony noticed him and made a few alterations to his lyrics on the spot. “I had a dream there was pizza,” he sang. The crowd giggled. “And you gave some to me,” he continued. The crowd giggled louder. The guy didn’t offer any pizza to Anthony, but he sat down right in front of him while Anthony sang, “Better not sit in the middle of the crowd cuz there’s a lot more of them than of you.”
If you’ve never been to SXSW, one of the coolest things about it is the day parties. Most of the time these are free to get in if you are twenty-one and RSVP (though, half the time, no one makes sure you’ve RSVP’d before letting you in). On Wednesday, I went to the Billy Reid and Third Man Records showcase. Not only was Laura Marling closing out the gig, but there were a couple performers before her I was interested in—Hurray for the Riff Raff and Natalie Prass.
I arrived at Weather Up around 1:30 p.m. A solo performer soundchecked as I walked inside. His name was Gill Landry. A few minutes later, sipping on a vodka lemonade, I easily found my way to the front of the crowd.
At first Landry played a couple melancholy slow jams. But then, somebody in the audience yelled out, “Play a party song!” He sort of laughed and said, “Okay.” Then he began fingerpicking like crazy. It was a completely different sound. The laconic crowd came alive, and just like that, he transformed us.
He said something poignant that I’ve been pondering. He’d just finished playing and looked out to give us a nod of thanks. He said, “I don’t know how many of you are performers, but there’s always this sense of shame after finishing each song. You look up and make eye contact with someone, but then you both look away, pretending like it never happened.”
Hurray for the Riff Raff played next. The lead singer has an amazing voice. She introduced one song with vehemence. “It’s called Slow Walk, and it’s for everyone who doesn’t want to give up on a dream.” Amen.
After that was Olivia Jean. They were the loudest group of the bunch, and the lead singer wore a black knit dress, black stockings, and a hat. She was sweating buckets before the show even started, but thankfully, someone brought her some napkins to dab her face. Then she played guitar like a maniac!
Next was a fun band called Broncho. There were three guitar players and a bassist. They all lined up in a straight row at the front. The lead singer’s body vibrated and pulsed the whole time. I’m not sure how he sang so well, moving around like that, but he did. The last song they played called “Class Historian” involved tons of strange little arpeggio vocal notes, and he hit every single one.
Second to last was Natalie Prass. I’m writing about her for one of my upcoming Songs of the Week, so I won’t say too much except that not only does she have incredible vocals, she also has an adorable and endearing stage presence. At one point she came out to the front of the stage and said, “This is a mother*cking Disney Princess song,” and then she sang a motherf*cking Disney princess song.
Finally! Laura Marling took the stage. I’ve already talked about what her music means to me, and this was my fourth time to see her. Even after watching her so many times, she surprised me. I’d never seen her hips move so much. She threw her head back, exposing the alabaster expanse of her long neck. She yelled her words at us. She yelled them for us. She snarled, and she throttled the life from her guitar.
In one of her new songs, she refers to herself as “just a girl who can’t play guitar.” The opposite is true, though, and Laura Marling knows it. I’ve never seen her so confident and sure of herself.
Katie (my best friend and bandmate) had met up with me right before Natalie Prass took the stage, so after Marling finished, we meandered over to Liberty, a venue where her friend Patrick was playing. His band sounded like they came straight off the Louisiana bayou, and at the end of their show, they announced that their next performance was at a crawfish boil. Too perfect.
The group after them were three girls from Japan. They were insane. They completely won over the crowd. The drummer was incredible. The bassist did high kicks while wearing heels, and the lead singer thrashed and yelled with all the intensity she could muster. It was a perfect way to end the night. That’s one of the most fun things about SXSW, accidentally discovering amazing bands.
Day two of SXSW 2015 ended up being a pretty tame day for me. I rode the bus downtown this time and went to see a band called Dry the River. They’re British, and I’ve seen them once before. The lead singer has the most gorgeous, angelic voice, and they easily shift from punch-you-in-the-gut harmonies to loud, in-your-face rock music. They recognize that in themselves. After one particularly heavy song, the bassist said, “We like to pretend we’re a rock and roll band every once in a while. Once I catch my breath,” he added with a chuckle.
Four teenage girls stood front and center, unabashedly in love with the band. When one of their friends arrived late, they all squealed together. The newly arrived girl said, “I can’t believe we get to see them!” Another girl couldn’t even talk. She just nodded, panted like a lovesick puppy, then returned her full, adoring attention back to the band.
I am saying this with zero sarcasm or condescension. I love those girls. I love their enthusiasm, their passion, and their complete lack of shame. I remember feeling excited that way about bands and never allowing myself to let anyone see it. I didn’t want to be a “fangirl,” but now I realize I was way too concerned with what others thought. Because you know what, they were having the time of their lives. They were so happy. I gotta learn to let myself be silly and love-struck every once in a while.
I got out there early to attend the Free People showcase. However, when I arrived at the venue, it ended up being a coffee shop, and this was more of a “hang out with people and maybe watch some music” kind of show. Fun if you’re there with friends, not so fun if you’re there by yourself. I watched the first band, Taylor & the Wild Now (whom I later found out is an Austin band), and then left because it was about to rain and I had no one to talk to. The band was great though. They did a folksy cover of “No Diggity” that made me giggle.
Afterward, I drove a few blocks over to see my friend Hayley perform with her band, Dollie Barnes. She has the most incredible voice ever, high and sweet and pure. After she played the first song, she said, “I took a bite of something spicy, and now I feel hollow inside.”
Later that night, I couldn’t find a great parking spot and walked over a mile to a venue where Laura Marling was supposedly playing a show open to the public. It was at a church, and when I walked inside, a pastor was directing people to the correct area. She asked who I wanted to see, and when I told her, she told me they’d changed it at the last minute to only allow people with badges and wristbands. I refrained from cursing since she was a member of the clergy, but damn did that suck! C’est la vie when it comes to SX. I turned around and walked over a mile back to my car.
I didn’t do anything on Saturday or Sunday, but I think, for a year I hadn’t planned on doing anything, I accomplished a respectable amount. I feel more at peace now, too. Not so resentful and anxious about getting out there. Maybe next year I’ll actually play some shows again!
What do you think? Have you or would you ever attend SXSW? How do you feel about its huge scale and the overwhelming amount of things to do?