You already know South by Southwest doesn’t lend itself to peaceful contemplation. It’s an endurance test for all involved, that reverberates long after you leave. Yes, it’s a crowded mess—overlapping with St. Patrick’s green-stained idiocy doesn’t help. But it can also be oddly intimate: You see bands in small clubs, carrying their own instruments, playing countless shows as their sanity wavers. In the best moments, you’re reminded of the elemental equation between musician and audience. It’s an attraction renewed in real time, one that outlasts clueless corporate sponsorships, new media gambits and apocalyptic meditations about the future of the recording industry.
Some bands that made an impression: Trust (misanthropic dance via Toronto pictured above); We Were Promised Jetpacks (Scotland’s swirling power rockers); Widowspeak (Hope Sandoval-inspired crooning from Brooklyn); Blouse (magnetic dream pop from Portland). Yes, SXSW breeds genre invention, here are some more impressionistic takeaways from five days on the march in the Texas heat:
Number One Contender: Sharon Van Etten
We’ve celebrated Van Etten before, and why not? She wields her talent with precision and unvarnished emotion. Her new record, Tramp, alternates between the searing and the elegant, and her live act is just as good. By the time you know what hit you it’s too late, you’re already addicted.
Worst Venue: Treasure Island
Visitors here are used to improvised bars and tolerate of shoddy sound and makeshift stages. But there’s always one venue that proves unusually ill-suited to music and compounds it with an epic lack of planning. Congratulations, Treasure Island. A themed-bar you wouldn’t patronize if it opened in a dry town, they chose to install the bands in the window in front of an ATM machine. The bar took up most of the viewing area, whiskey barrel décor took up more. Cleveland’s Mr. Gnome sounded impressively fierce, though, like the rest of the enthusiasts, we couldn’t see a thing.
The Power of Understatement: Exitmusic
This dreamy pop band from Brooklyn stayed under the radar despite the fact that their lovely female vocalist is Aleksa Palladino, the actress who plays the lesbian wife on Boardwalk Empire. She didn’t draw needless attention to herself, content to let the band’s ethereal tracks make the case. Layered with swirling guitars and assured beats, Exitmusic was a welcome sound.
Upland Retreat: The Urban Woodsman
Last year it was unsettling to see bearded men in heavy flannel pretend they weren’t suffering the Austin humidity. Twelve months later there’s nary a sighting of the Urban Woodsman. Perhaps he’s in hibernation, or has merely shaved his beard down to mustache, which we saw all over town, in various stages of irony.
Destination Dining: Elizabeth St. Café
Even a trencherman cannot survive on BBQ and Mexican alone—we know because we’ve tried. Smart money beat a retreat to Elizabeth St. Café, a Vietnamese joint that is casual and ambitious at the same time. Do right by the curry of the day, on our visit it was mussels (from Prince Edward Island, naturally), chicken meatballs, cauliflower, baby carrots, an epic amount of cilantro, all underlined by perfectly measured heat. Add sticky rice, a grilled baguette, a nice glass of Alsatian Pinot Blanc, and you’re inspired enough to begin plotting a brisket dinner.
Each year, we love to revisit our favorites: Hotel San Jose, for its laidback hospitality. Guero’s, which doesn’t pretend to be more than friendly Margarita purveyor and succeeds at that. Stag, they savvy clothing outpost that doesn’t disappoint (and yes, you can find Glenn O’Brien’s book in Texas). Lamberts, for brisket at the bar and superior Mezcal. East Side Showroom, for its ambitious cocktail ethic. By the end of the weekend you find new ways to reach your limit. Then the recovery begins, but you’ll be back, giving in to the promise of more sensory reward.