What a blue-sky Friday we are having here in Austin, Texas; what a day for sitting on a porch with a beer and some friends to hear a band. Just returned from an excursion down South Congress to the Home Slice pizza parlor, where a respectful crowd of mozzerella-loving Jason Isbell fans heard the former Drive-By Trucker and his new band, the 400 Unit (pictured, right), work unceremoniously through several songs off their recent self-titled and kinda hypnotic first album. Stood in the backyard space, surrounded by toddlers, locals, hipsters on bikes, and the occasional pizza waitress walking through, pie held high. Had my first festival cry of 2009 during “The Blue,” somewhere around the line “I’d never know I touched you if you didn’t let me see,” and cracked up at their Talking Heads-by-way-of Muscle Shoals cover of “Psycho Killer.” Tilted my face happily into the sun.
Prior to that, I’d spent the lion’s share of my day — when not picking up a credential for the show at Stubbs tonight where Metallica is by no means playing — at the Onion A.V. Club/Canvas Media “par-TAY” at some bar on 6th Street. There, I enjoyed curiosity-piquing sets from Mexico City rockers Chikita Violenta and the Canadian folk-pop of Gentleman Reg, and introduced Third Eye Blind frontman and occasional online radio DJ Stephan Jenkins to the adorable live charms of Ra Ra Riot, a band he’d recently added to his station’s playlist. (Stay tuned to the Music Mix for more on Jenkins, who is here attending his first SXSW, and seems to have a lot going on at the moment.) “SXSW is overwhelming,” said Riot singer Wes Miles from the stage. “To see you were all not overwhelmed by choice and could make a decision is impressive. But that you chose to come see us? It’s very nice. Thank you.”
It was nice, the whole afternoon — and thank jeebus, because my Thursday night was one of those death marches that reminded me of how much it sucks to try and hear music at SXSW sometimes. After the jump, a serious question: Given the ever-dominant scenster aspects of this festival and the crippling effects of alcohol on respect and concentration skills in humans, have the day parties at SXSW become the place for real music lovers to see bands?
So, yeah. That’s my thesis: Sometimes, it is very hard to hear music at SXSW. I don’t mean “be in the same room with music” — hell, a two-minute loiter on any street corner will cuisinart your brain into a sonic casserole — I mean listen to music, as in “stand comfortably and appreciate the character and craft of the band you have come there to see.” I have lately been espousing the theory that the best you can hope for here is to catch one glimpse of something that makes you want to seek out an artist when they come to your town and play a “real” show, but after the simple pleasures of my trot through the day parties this afternoon, I think I’ve actually isolated the problem, and it’s got nothing to do with the bands or the festival at all. What it breaks down to is my crazy old lady wish that more of the people who made the trip to Austin for these four extraordinary days of limitless discovery and musical possibility shared some degree of my naive reverence for the art of live performance. Or, more simply, I wish people would shut up and listen, already.
I’m a strange test subject, of course, the girl toting $5000 of electronic equipment in her backpack at any given time (hi, muggers!), who doesn’t have the luxury of ditching her mobile media center to stand down center and tune out everything but the band in front of her. Plus, it’s hard to take notes when you’re too penned in to move your arms. So I stand on the fringes and get distracted by the journalism-unencumbered folks swirling around, people who could afford to pay big $$ for badges but who are focused solely on finding the free beer/bbq, yakking with their friends, and bouncing from venue to venue in hopes of catching the next better thing that they won’t listen to, either, because they are screaming at the top of their lungs to their drunk buddy about how awesome the house party they’re hitting later is going to be.
The day parties, meanwhile, seem to be populated by three types of people: 1) kids who couldn’t afford badges taking advantage of the free chance to see bands they truly love, 2) anyone who stayed sober enough the night before to handle early set times and bright sunlight, and 3) people who fully intend to get drunk later, but are still putting on some pretense of the festival being about the music. And now I know who I’d rather watch shows with.
So while I’d love to bring you the minutia of the Delta Spirit and the Sam Roberts Band at BlackBerry’s Cedar Street Courtyard showcase Thursday night (Sam is also pictured above), challenging sightlines and muddy acoustics tragically intervened, leaving me with nothing to report on but the fact that cigars are apparently back in fashion among the untucked oxford shirt corporate dude set, and those thoroughly impractical halo headbands are still in vogue for the ladies. And then my heart was broken even further when Here We Go Magic ended up — through no fault of their own — being nearly unlistenable, stuck as they were in a crap venue housed in an out-of-business bar with all the charm of a municipal bus terminal, situated next door to a louder venue that was hosting what sounded like C+C Music Factory’s bass section transported through time from 1992. HWGM’s sound check was high comedy itself (sample dialogue: “The drummer’s monitor. There’s nothing coming out of it. No. His monitor. The drummer’s moni — yeah. No. There’s nothing coming out of it.”), and when they started their 1 a.m. set, the mix was so wretched and the room so full of people not paying attention that I lasted for exactly two songs before crabbily bolting for home. Because I would rather not see HWGM at all than see them like that. And because I really can’t afford another rage blackout right now.
What do you think, Mixers? Am I being unnecessarily harsh on the SXSW scene, or do you, like me, wish people would STFU and listen to the music already? Is there something wrong with me that my favorite venue at this thing is invariably Stubbs, with its excellent sound and visibility — and do you think the fact that Stubbs sells tickets to non-badge-holders has anything to do with the generally engrossed fans who populate the yard? Does anyone have tips for dealing with disrespectful concertgoers, both here and at home? Am I being a total senior citizen right now? Should I just get a rifle and a rocking chair and tell the kids to get off my lawn?
Photo Credit: Whitney Pastorek/EW.com