I’m having a beer with a priest in Texas. This is South by Southwest, undeniably the world’s biggest and probably its best music festival.
It’s my first night in Austin and I am waiting outside a venue called the Hype Hotel. Next to me in the line is a well-dressed man. He explains he is a speaker at one of the panels at the festival. An Episcopal priest for 23 years and a convenor of music nights, he will speak on the topic “Secular music as a quest for more.” I’m deeply, deeply non-religious, but this priest and I agree on the power of live music. At its best, it does more than occupy your full attention. It becomes a moment where you forget yourself. You get swept up and away. The minister is garrulous and friendly, and we grab a free drink – Miller Lite - before watching the first act of the festival. The “Hype Hotel” is in the converted basement of a new hotel/apartment complex in central Austin. The act is Ivan and Alyosha, an American indie group from Seattle, Washington. It is only 8pm. They are far better than the opening act of any night of music has a right to be. Young men on top of their game. But they would be bettered and bested as the night went on. The priest enthuses about the quality of the line-ups across the festival, before shooting off across town to catch another act.
South by South West is a huge festival. It takes over the city of Austin, population 1.7 million. It’s also a conference and trade show. Unlike a Big Day Out or a Glastonbury, the show is urban, nobody is camping. Every bar, restaurant, park and car park in town is converted into a venue for the 2000-odd bands who show up. The festival was originally a music festival, but now also incorporates a technology and interactive conference. The technology side has turned into a behemoth, attracting even more people than the music side, but it finishes the day before the music began. Even without checking the lanyards (technology orange, music green) you could tell what conference people were there for - the best signal was the cleanliness of their band t-shirts.
I felt very very lucky to be at South by Southwest, or just “South by” as they call it in Texas. It has been running since 1987, but I first heard about it around ten years ago. I devoured every drop of coverage I could get my hands on, scouring street press and music websites for the stories of the big names, the epic sets and the breakthrough performances that had everyone picking the next big thing. It felt like the furnace from which Rock and Roll emerged. Like the Oscars or the UN General assembly, it was big, important, foreign. The idea of being in attendance never crossed my mind, until March 2010. I was waiting in the customs line to come back into Australia after a holiday. The guy in front of me looked just like me. Young, normal, nobody famous. But he had a guitar and said he had just come back from the festival. The seed was planted.
Day two: The spring climate is that of a childhood storybook. Every day, a warm sun sails uninterrupted across a royal blue sky. Gentle breezes prevail as temperatures hit 27, then cool to 10 at night. Weather can make you happy.
Night two. I stand in line outside a building, the windows of which are broken or covered in plywood. The plywood is grey and disintegrating, peeling off in vertical strips. I have been standing in front of a big plywood board for about 90 minutes, long enough for the sun to drop behind the Austin skyline. I’ve stared at the plywood, touched it, leaned on it as I talk to this people waiting in front of me. I am lining up (Americans get confused if you say queueing) outside Stubbs BBQ, to see bands play on the second night of the South by Southwest music festival. When the sky darkens, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds will take the stage in the dusty backyard of this rib restaurant in the capital of Texas. Later, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are playing. The line seemed long when I joined it - down the block and round the corner. But the line behind has shrunk the one in front by comparison. Looking over my shoulder I see perhaps a thousand people, standing on gravelly dust beside chain link fences and on concrete riven by weeds poking through. The edge of downtown Austin is blighted. Economically, I cannot explain why 500 metres away it makes sense for gleaming high-rises to cluster together, but here, single story buildings have their roofs caved in and the sense of poverty persists even as the crowds take over.
In the line for Nick Cave, presented by America’s National Public Radio, I soak up the atmosphere. The city motto is Keep Austin Weird, and it is achieving that easily by hosting SXSW.
Despite the passing parade, the divine weather, the hotdog with pickle and sauerkraut that I just ate, two concerns nag me. The primary concern is that I won’t make it into this show. I’ve been lining up since 6pm, it’s 7.30pm, show time is 7.45, and the queue is not moving. But it’s the second concern I’ll still be worrying about later. On the other side of the road is another line. Just as long. Just as excited looking. They are waiting to See Iggy and the Stooges at the Mohawk Bar, on the other side of the street. Should I be in that line instead? Iggy’s a lot older than Nick. I can see Nick Cave play again, sometime, somewhere. He is an Aussie, after all. What if Iggy - punk icon - is about to hang up his skinny pants? This was the pattern I came to expect from South by Southwest. Many many high notes, punctuated by a barely audible bassline of doubt and regret. There are 2000 bands and only six nights. You will be lucky to catch five percent of the acts. What are the chances what you see will be the best choice? The best night of your life could be happening tonight, somewhere you aren’t. The more you hope to get from the performances, the more doubt and regret thump in your chest. I made it into see Nick Cave just in time. He cast his gothic spells across the crowd, bringing out the hits and giving it everything. It made me happy. While the roadies set up the next band – a Mexican outfit called Cafe Tacvba - I ordered barbecue meats and Lone star beers.
Night 3: I walked down sixth street to Flamingo Cantina. Sixth street is for partying. Like in medieval cities where butchers clustered together in one area, fruit sellers in another, sixth street was a single-purpose district. There’s a couple of blocks where you can’t even buy food, can’t get a tattoo, can’t find a souvenir, every single shopfront is a bar. In SXSW, that means every outlet is a venue. The street is traffic-free for the week, and if the venues seem crowded, that’s nothing compared to stepping outside into Austin proper. There must be thousands of Austinites for whom SXSW simply means hanging out on Sixth. Black and white, the city came to Sixth to see the party, to be the party. It was almost all friendly, although very late one night I saw a police car surrounded by a heaving mob, only the flashing red and blue visible above their angry heads. I elected not to find out what was happening. As I walked away mounted reinforcements came galloping through the clouds of pot smoke, scattering the buskers and glowstick vendors. Flamingo Cantina was perfect. A grubby club with an undersea mural painted on a raw brick wall. I perched on some steps at the back as the place filled for a line-up of funky soul and ska. The bar kept rum and coke flowing and people brought plates of pulled pork in from an outlet somewhere out the back or upstairs. An Ethiopian Israeli singer impressed, an old US soul ensemble called Bernie Worrell Orchestra got the place going, and then the roof nearly came off when a Jamaican ska band the Skatalites came on at 1.30am. It was a once-in-a-lifetime line-up, in a place intimate and totally authentic. I was delighted, satisfied and happy as I spent the hours around 3am seeking that rarest thing, an Austin taxi.
Until the next day.
“Dave Grohl took the stage last night at Stubbs,” the internet informed me. “Along with the Foo Fighters, Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater revival, Rick Springfield, part of Rage against the Machine and the sole surviving other member of Nirvana, Krist Novoselic.”
Needless to say I spent hours ruing my choices.
British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips talks about “unlived lives” -
“We believe that they were open to us; but for some reason – and we might spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason – they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives.
Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live.”
This is a first world problem, exacerbated by affluence, information. We know too much about what could have been. What we could have been. We struggle not to wallow in all the other possibilities.
Prince came to SXSW. A secret show, but the worst kept secret in all of Texas. Justin Timberlake was there too. Green Day. These were just some of the acts I didn’t see.
I have no idea how to manage a festival like this. Do you try to see the big names? Or is that a conservative strategy, wasting time that should be spend uncovering some young group with more left to offer?
My days we’re not filled only with regret. Austin breakfasts are terrific. I used AirBnB to hire a room in Hyde Park, a suburb just north of the University of Texas, which was itself just north of the Austin Downtown. When the taxi arrived in Hyde Park late at night, pulling up outside the address where I rented a granny flat via AirBnB, it looked like the sort of neighbourhood you might see in the TV show COPS. Single story weatherboards. Cars in front yards. It wasn’t til the bright light of day that reality was revealed. The cars were Volkswagens with Obama stickers, the houses were freshly painted in pastels and the local service station had been converted to a place selling Organic coffee. The shops down the street included two outlets dedicated to locally made artisan cheese. There was public transport within walking distance. Austin was cool. Fixed gear bikes and tattoos. I was glad I brought my least daggy clothes to SXSW. I had packed a red and blue checked shirt I had got at Myer a couple of days after Christmas. I wore it most days. I didn’t trim my beard. In that crowd, I didn’t want to look like a swivel chair rube.
While I was in Austin I received a message from friend. “It is a pretty cool city - perhaps because it doesn’t feel like the rest of Texas? Enjoy!!” I didn’t see a McDonalds while we were there and just a single Starbucks. I walked the city by day, our $625 lanyards round our necks. If it felt like the whole town was full of performers, that’s because it was. Every second person carried a guitar, or a bass drum, or was unloading a van. People following their dreams not with a holiday, but with their whole lives. I stared at them. Couldn’t help imagining myself in their shoes. Most bands had one gig at the festival. One shot to impress the music industry. One shot to make or break. They were very young, mainly. Young and with hairstyles I’d never even attempt.
I was never musical. Was politely asked to leave the Grade 6 recorder ensemble. But still.
When I looked up at the stages, part of me was thinking about the view from behind the microphones, looking out over the sea of heads.
It made me wonder. Was I happiest working for a company, packing my annual leave with as much distraction as I could?
“The ways we miss our lives are life,” Randall Jarrell, A girl in a library. 1951.
My last night at the festival I joined about 20,000 others to watch the Flaming Lips do a free show on the riverbanks. Lead Singer Wayne Coyne spent the first half of the set debuting new songs and a new stage show. It featured a fake baby that had tubes coming out of it, which lit up. He cradled that child devotedly for the entire set. The crowd was somewhat skeptical. I loved it.
Late that night I went back to the Hype Hotel. I saw two great UK acts, Laura Mvula and Rudimental. But exhaustion had me in its grip. The app said the last act of the night would be Solange. Not having heard of Solange, I left before they started. Not long after I found out Solange is in fact Beyonce’s little sister.
I’m going to have to go back to South by Southwest, somehow.