South by Southwest: Pandemonium in Austin

SXSW came, saw and conquered

Steve Vanica of Call of the Void
Photo by David Accomazzo

Put tech nerds, gear expos, independent film buffs and musicians of every conceivable genre into a blender and press mix, pour the resulting slurry into the one city just tolerant enough to put up with it, and you get an approximation of what it’s like to be at South By Southwest (SXSW).

The last night of the festival, I was talking with drummer phenom Gordon Koch of Boulder hardcore band Call of the Void (COTV), and he related an experience that encapsulates the frantic, unorthodox juxtaposition of genres that becomes commonplace during SXSW.

The band was to play a showcase at Six Lounge, a chic club full of dark-red wooden paneling, black leather couches and a thumping, four-on-the-floor dance soundtrack. A showcase of hardcore bands was scheduled for the club’s rooftop that night, quite different music from the dance party happening the two floors below. Someone watching the band scheduled before COTV hurled something into a giant, expensive LCD screen and broke it. Call of the Void almost didn’t get to play.

Across the street, on an opposing rooftop, a whole other scene with different music raged on. That sort of thing is typical at SXSW. Walk down Sixth Street, the main artery of music during the festival, and you can hear the sounds of multiple bands from multiple bars pouring onto the streets.

SXSW is not your average festival. There are the obvious differences, of course — the film and interactive components (tech conferences, expos and the like) fill the 10-day event with more than what you’d see at Bonnaroo or Coachella. But unlike these festivals that take place in more or less a giant field, packing tens of thousands of people in to see a show, SXSW scoops up thousands of creative and technologically minded people and spits them out into every nook and cranny of downtown Austin. (Of course, SXSW has those giant field shows as well, The Flaming Lips’ free show at Auditorium Gardens being a prime example.) Thousands of bands from all corners of the world come to play, making it paradise for lovers of just about any genre.

Vincent Ellwood of West Water Outlaws | photo by David Accomazzo

One of SXSW’s best aspects is that on any given night you can see a top-shelf act that usually draws thousands of fans playing next to an up-and-comer, sometimes inside the same venue. The high-profile events require that you enter a lottery for tickets. I was able to score a wristband to the NPR Music Showcase at Stubb’s BBQ, and got to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds blow the faces off of those assembled for the show. Right after Nick Cave, inside the restaurant, Waxahatchee (singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield) played a lower-key set to a few hundred people. Outside, hip-hop, rock, folk, pop and DJ shows were just blocks away.

Austin is famous for being the sole splotch of blue on the red canvas of Texas, but what’s most striking is the city’s collective permissiveness of everything that happens during SXSW. The festival takes over the city’s downtown. Tens of thousands of people congest the city, and I’d imagine that conducting anything remotely resembling regular business during the 10-day festival becomes exceedingly difficult, at best. There’s an addictive quality to the city, especially for music lovers. As one local put it to me, “It seems like after SXSW, a third of you guys seem to stay.” That’s certainly borne out in the city’s population, which, according to U.S. Census data, has grown 25 percent, to more than 800,000, since 2000.

Colorado acts represented well at SXSW. I counted just four Boulder acts on the bill, but they seemed to make a big impression. West Water Outlaws, who might be the successors to Rose Hill Drive’s rock throne, thrashed the rooftop at The 512 as part of a showcase of Colorado bands put on by SpokesBUZZ Fort Collins. The stage overlooked Sixth Street, and singer/guitarist Blake Rooker kept propping a foot on the ledge and playing guitar to the masses. People had packed the rooftop seemingly to capacity by the end of the group’s second song.

Sallie Ford of Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside | photo by David Accomazzo

The band soaked up the energy of the crowd and delivered a high-powered set. Everyone in the crowd loved it. The sound guys even told the guitarists to turn their amps up. (Up! The band was giddy at the rare occurrence.) The band kept knocking amps down; a falling microphone stand almost fell onto my head. West Water’s brand of nouveau-Zeppelin rock crashed onto the crowd like a tidal wave, and their filthy grooves and nasty riffs never sounded better. The band played much longer than scheduled, busting out covers of Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” and Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” to close out the set.

“The rock [scene] here is so much bigger, so much so than any other city,” drummer Andrew Oakley said after the show.

It’s a sentiment shared by other members of the band. Boulder can be a tough place for a rock band to break out, given that most smaller venues that bands need to play at the beginning of their careers are bars or coffee shops that frown upon the high volume levels desired by rock musicians. Against all odds, West Water Outlaws bucked this trend, though not without paying their dues first.

“Back in the day, Will [Buck, lead guitarist] and Blake would just walk into The Sink and ask if they could play,” bassist Vince Ellwood said.

Later that night, I walked into Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room — a room adorned with framed guitars and other rock memorabilia — to catch Gregory Alan Isakov and the most unlikely power trio I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t guitar-bass-drums but rather guitar-celloviolin, yet the three certainly electrified the audience.

South By Southwest is a giant party, mini-festivals within festivals, and most people bounce skittishly from one venue to another in a futile attempt to see everything happening at once. People often stand around, chug a Lone Star (Austin’s equivalent of Pabst Blue Ribbon) and leave for greener grass. But not at Isakov’s show. At least 50 people sat down and gave Isakov and Co. their undivided attention. A different type of energy ran through the crowd as Isakov played his pensive, low-key folk.

Now, I’m a guy used to moving around when I’m at a show. I prefer music that gets your adrenaline flowing and your heart pounding. So observing Isakov’s show made me feel like a Jane Goodall-like outsider, but I couldn’t help but notice the spell Isakov’s music seemed to cast on everyone there, me included. There was a staff door behind the stage that kept opening during the set, allowing the noise of the more raucous scene happening on the patio to drift in, but no one seemed to pay much mind.

When Isakov’s set ended, the three musicians played an encore — the first I had seen during an official SXSW showcase. After the show, Isakov commented on how much the audience hung onto every note of his music.

“It feels like they were into it; they don’t need to say anything or scream,” Isakov said. “We’re all just sharing a moment.”

The blissful, calming effects of Isakov’s music lingered on me for awhile as I walked toward the next show on my schedule, the hard-rock band Clutch, playing in a cavernous, hangar-like venue called the 1100 Warehouse. The tattoos in the crowd had a lot more black ink and tribal barbs than the bright and colorful ones at Isakov’s show; it was a different crowd, to say the least. But it was a marvel to sit back and watch a veteran rock band blast to what must have been thousands of people after seeing Isakov’s intimate show.

The final Saturday of SXSW, enthusiasm ran high around town, but energy was low. I caught a documentary called Downloaded (about the history of Napster), and the guy who introduced it said something like, “If you’re not tired and hung over by this point, you’re not doing it right.”

Phantogram’s Sarah Barthel and Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips | photo by David Accomazzo

Denver’s In The Whale felt this lack of energy at one point, shouting things like, “Wake the fuck up, Austin!” to the heavy-eyed crowd during their Saturday afternoon set at The Dirty Dog. Later that night, folk duo The Milk Carton Kids played a show at the Central Presbyterian Church, and despite their tight, highly entertaining set, there were a select few in the pews who were slumped over, unable to stay awake after multiple long nights of music and booze.

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It’s hard to imagine Boulder shutting down blocks of downtown for 10 days and welcoming tens of thousands of outsiders for an event. Boulder’s cultural events tend to be of the intellectual (Conference of World Affairs) or athletic (Bolder Boulder) variety, not the party-with-your-pants-down insanity that marks so much of SXSW.

Boulder County’s music scene is small enough to limit the opportunities for bands of certain genres. Hardcore, hard rock and metal bands don’t have anywhere to play. Take Call of the Void, for instance. The band has talent to spare, has been signed to a major hardcore label in Relapse Records, and boasts two Boulder-area high school grads as members, but the band hardly ever gigs in its hometown. The band, in various incarnations, has played the occasional Boulder show during the past few years, but the music has proven to be too loud and too abrasive for the People’s Republic. When the band launched its most recent tour, the opening date was not in Boulder but in Denver’s Aqualung Community Music Space.

Powered by Boulder-made Atlas speaker cabinets, the band kicked off the Relapse Records showcase in Austin, and the music was deafening and powerful. Call of the Void and label-mates played on the patio at Red 7; inside, a showcase featuring rappers Antwon and Big Freedia would soon rage on. It was the best of SXSW: chaos, loud music, and an incredible variety of music at your fingertips. I have high hopes for next year.