While in Texas for the Cadillac ATS-V adventures I took some time to cruise over to see my old friends at the Austin Speed Shop. Always welcoming and unpretentious —even when I show up unannounced— the guys at the Speed Shop are always open to showing me around and letting me checking things out. It’s a testament to their collective chill. It sort of reminds me of when I am traveling and I find a cool store that could be interesting to highlight on the site. At lot of times people who don’t know me will tell me “no pictures”. Though interestingly, 99% of the guys with the coolest, best merchandised places will always say yes and give me unlimited access to take as many photos as I would like. I think this goes back to confidence in what they do. Like the Speed Shop, they know what they do is unique enough that a few pictures won’t instantly become a facsimile in some other place.
Some time around 3am Sunday morning, the end of South by Southwest drew nigh. The phones needed to be recharged and the people did too. The streets were full of walking wounded and you vowed you were never going to subject yourself to this again. Then you remember you said the same thing last year, and maybe the year before too. A man stood on a balcony dressed as a Pope, but his hat was green, so eager was he to honor St Patrick’s Day, just a few hours old.
Near the closing bell we nearly stumbled over a man’s seeing eye dog in the back of a dark club. What was it doing there? That’s a worthy question that we didn’t ask. After four days strung out on music, performed everywhere from Goth clubs to sunny backyards, you’re not sure what you’re seeing. Was that really an origami swan sitting in a martini glass? When we looked again it was gone. Somebody probably tried to drink it.
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.
While in Austin a few weeks back we popped into Lamberts for a quick bite and a break from the chaos that is SXSW. The intention was to saddle up to the bar and dine on some of the tasty food that Lamberts has become known for. While tempted by the aromas of the slow smoked meats, we instead veered slightly off course and selected the Frito Pie, a decision that will reverberate for years to come in the form of cravings for a dish in a far away city.
Sunday after SXSW is time to repent. It’s a day to confront questionable decisions—and you made some—and consider the bands missed, the drinks accepted, the morning bb-q indulged. You ask yourself what it all meant and there’s no good answer, there never is. Then you remember your favorite acts: Sharon Van Etten, Austra, Veronica Falls, An Horse, and you appreciate the magnetism of terrific, talented musicians. It’s a basic need.
You still have to overcome some guilt when you look at decent Austin residents who’ve been rampaged by people asking where they can buy The New York Times or charge their phones. You hear stories from the comely staff at the San Jose about serving drinks for 7 straight hours, confided without a trace of self pity. Others took a more direct approach—one large sign on the side of a bar (which is nominally in the hospitality industry) read: ‘Thank you/Go home.’
Resist the temptation to try to come to terms with SXSW logically. These aren’t tax forms you’re dealing with, but 2000 bands, playing in clubs, in tents, on streets, in parks. By design, it reinvents itself every year, and there are countless pathways through the mayhem, all of them leaving you exhilarated and exhausted. You face the assault on your senses and then pick your spots for visceral gratification. The fact that the festival overlaps with St Patrick’s Day is a blessing or a curse depending on your feeling toward public intoxication and fake Irish accents.
South by Southwest is commercial, chaotic, concentrated. It’s also elemental, extraordinary and the most essential week in American music. In the last few years we saw bands from Au Revoir Simone to Andrew Bird, Beach House to Midlake. Not in a field with 100,000 stoners or the echo chamber of Madison Square Garden, but in clubs where you’re 50 feet away from Warpaint or School of Seven Bells. At this late date you’re not getting a room at the Hotel San Jose, but you can still road trip to Austin and crash on the couch of your friend who’s still working on their thesis at U of T. Then head to Marfa check in at the Thunderbird Motel and you’re feeling pretty smart indeed. Don’t worry about tickets, there are free concerts all day, everyday and light beer for everyone.
Every concert needs its audience, so get thee to Austin.