After reviewing the streamed version of SXSW for AUK last year, our roving reporter Oliver Gray returns to Austin to get up close and personal.
The trauma of sorting out all the paperwork leading up to departure climaxed with an intimidating procedure involving doing a Covid test on Zoom and then finding, on arrival at the airport, that the attestation I had carefully filled out on paper, as instructed, now had to be done online in a phone app in the queue for the check-in. However, I felt slightly smug that I seemed to be not quite as inept as most of the people there, who had even less in the way of correct paperwork, and slightly relieved not to be among the baffled-looking phoneless pensioners for whom there were specially designated staff on duty. On the plane, I found myself next to a most charming young musician, who oddly was also proprietor of a very upmarket manufacturer of dressing gowns, so we had plenty to talk about. He introduced me to his bandleader and also to another couple of performers. Julian and I synchronised simultaneous viewings of the new Bond film, only to be frustrated when it was switched off in the vital final five minutes because we were landing.
As I was in some doubt as to who I was actually going to go and see this year at South by Southwest, I decided to give my new friend a listen, as he was so charming. Trying to fit them, and indeed anything, into the schedule has been made considerably more difficult by the abolition of the incredibly useful little booklet that used to list every day’s gigs in a logical order. Instead, you have to download an app, not much use on a phone like mine that doesn’t work unless you go into somewhere and sign up to their Wi-Fi. This app does not present the gigs in a useful way. They’re listed only by name of artist and name of venue. This is fine if you know the name of the artist or the venue you want to go to, but one of the greatest joys of South by Southwest is just having a look to see what’s on and taking a chance on a name that sounds interesting. I decided to concentrate mainly on tried and trusted acts and do careful research to find when they were playing, which invariably, of course, results in three of your favourites playing at the same time in hugely distant parts of town, followed by a couple of hours of empty space when none of them are playing.
Transport from venue to venue, especially for an old person like me, isn’t straightforward. Ubers are expensive and often can’t access the pedestrian areas. The electric scooters are lethal, although we did use them, and pounding the pavements is quite blister inducing. Even if you have a car (we didn’t) the central car parks tend to be full and also cost $15 a pop. This all sounds like a gigantic moan but I’m just getting the moaning out of the way, because experience has told me it’s all part of the charm of this unique and magnificent Festival, featuring many hundreds of acts.
Each day your inbox is stuffed with upwards of fifty different pleading messages from managers, agents and record companies, trying to entice you to go and see their band and choose that particular option out of the hundreds that are available. Sometimes it’s worth being just taken by a particular name in an email and trying to find out what they’re actually like. Each message begins with a blindingly insincere enquiry as to the recipient’s state of health and well-being, before listing some reasons why this particular act is far more important than any others playing at the same time. In actual fact, I did, during the course of the week, take blind steps in the dark occasionally, but mainly it was a matter of people I already knew and recommendations from other people that I trusted.
“Us” is me and my photographer Paul, who also happens to be my oldest friend. The first night found us in a student satellite town called San Marcos, thirty miles outside Austin, spending the night in a converted school bus in someone’s backyard in a trailer park. It was quaint but I could have wrung the neck of the very persistent rooster who launched into song at 6 a.m. and kept going for 3 hours. San Marcos appealed to my romantic notions of Americana, as the mile-long lonesome-whistling trains clanked their mournful way across the main street.
The next day consisted of buying supplies from Walmart, having some breakfast in the ever-delightful Star Seeds cafe, checking into the pretty average (but well situated) hotel and taking the hire car back to the airport. From now on, because hire and petrol costs were so prohibitive, we were dependent on feet and public transport. Having researched as much as we could with our inadequate tools, it was time to venture out into the musical mayhem.
Musically, Tuesday was a classic South by Southwest day of ludicrous contrasts, shockingly terrible sound quality, bands of extraordinary variety, and far too much beer (which has also gone up enormously in price since last time around). The musical styles varied from something called Queer Country from Kentucky (S.G. Goodman, definitely an artist to watch) to some lamentable punk from Bristol (Grandma’s House, who despite their admirable apostrophe, hadn’t done sufficient rehearsing), and some atmospheric ambient desert sounds which were like a Pink Floyd album without the exciting bits (SUSS). The traditional up and coming acts like Yard Act were of course out in force, already drunk (who can blame them?) plus a band which I went from hating to adoring within 40 minutes, MELTS from Dublin. My new friend Julian from the aeroplane was backing the Irish poet Sinead O’Brien in one of his custom suits, the whole thing being inaudible on account of the shockingly incompetent sound engineer. We returned to the hotel by night bus, which broke down on the way. Switching on my phone very late (it didn’t work anywhere other than in the hotel room) I received some very bad news about the health of a musician I hugely admire. Sleep, brooding on the news, was fitful to say the least.
Knowing that the rest of the week was likely to be quite full and challenging, we decided to make Wednesday a less hectic affair. We ambled down to Lucy’s Fried Chicken, SXSW’s current home of Americana music, to enjoy laid-back lunchtime shows from Jesse Dayton and Darden Smith. Lucy’s, despite having a spectacular line-up this year, is one of Austin’s least suitable venues. It can’t decide whether it’s a restaurant or a music venue and the way it’s set up tends to cause conflict. People arrive early and occupy the dining tables, which are behind a large space in front of the stage, but if anybody attempts to stand in front of the stage in order to see the bands, the customers sitting at the tables get in a rage and ask them to move. Therefore, unless the place is packed, there is usually a half moon of empty space on the gravel in front of the performing area. I stepped up to try and take a photo of Darden Smith and within seconds a red-faced and presumably red-necked gentleman was shoving me in the back and shouting out, “Are you going to f****** stand there blocking my view all day?” I wanted to say to him that he could at least have said, “Excuse me, would you mind moving?” but I didn’t dare, simply slinking away timidly, before continuing down the road to the Hotel San Jose for Montreal’s Ida Mae. Here there was considerably more space.
After three years, Paul and I had a lot to catch up on, so we sat on a bench on South Congress and nattered for a couple of hours in the hot sunshine before continuing, with increasingly agonizing blisters, to the Side Bar, a venue that represents everything that’s authentic in Austin music. It’s an absolutely filthy dive bar with disgusting toilets, a front room that has no lighting on the stage and sun streams through the windows behind the band so you can’t see them, but we certainly could hear the psychedelic tones of Gift and the post-Oasis indie of Enumclaw, before heading outside to be absolutely blown apart by the magnificent radical socialist roots rock of Alabama’s Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires.
Being no longer able to walk, I begged Paul to hire some of those lethal scooters and by a miracle we arrived at Gueros with our lives intact. Indeed, after gallumphing the incomparably delicious enchiladas, several more beers and a couple of margaritas, we reboarded our scooters and swished through the dark side streets in a state that isn’t recommended for someone like me, an old knackered twit in his mid 70s. Time for bed, because it was going to be busy tomorrow.
Thursday saw a long trek to Lucy’s to catch up with the Rubilators, whose Byrdsian jingle-jangle set was a tonic. Things have been hard for these guys. John Notarthomas has had to set himself up as a carpenter. “You don’t know how good it feels to be back,” said singer Walter Clevenger. “Oh yes we do!” shouted the audience back. Almost every artist made a point of saying how wonderful it felt to be returning to normality after the pandemic but not a single one (we saw) made reference to the little matter of a war raging in Europe.
One dose of Lee Bains hadn’t been enough, so we went back for more from the ultimate orator. If he was a politician in power, things would look a lot better for the world. A visit to the Cedar Street Courtyard didn’t reveal much in the way of interesting music. The place had been taken over by the so-called British Embassy and filled with unexciting, over-subsidized bands. The evening, however, was well spent at the outstanding Mohawk venue, with two rooms accommodating more than a dozen acts of the kind of outstanding quality and variety you would expect from the 25th anniversary of The Bella Union label. Everyone was good, but to make a choice, the outstanding contributors, despite the presence of both Midlake and White Denim, were the extraordinarily gifted Penelope Isles and the joker in the pack, Pom Poko, an explosion of energy and fun from Norway. Ezra Furman was ill, so 83-year old trouper Ural Thomas calmly stepped up to play a second set. In case any of my family are reading this, I will draw a veil over the crazy and extremely dangerous route home, drunk on an electric scooter, negotiating busy highways and potholed pavements.
Friday was the day for checking out the new UK buzz bands, so we hopped on a delightfully cheap bus ($2.50 for 24-hour ticket) and pitched up at the Convention Center, where you can also get free beers if you are a badge holder. The sumptuous environs of the ballroom allowed comfortable seating and a good view, if you didn’t happen to be behind one of the TV camera people. Wet Leg come from my part of the world and I found them highly entertaining and hard to classify, something that is of great merit in an industry often based on musical norms. Straight afterwards came Yard Act and, joy of joys, this time they were actually audible. Content wise, imagine a mixture of John Cooper Clarke, Pulp, Sleaford Mods, the Fall and John Shuttleworth and you have a truly great and innovative band. Both these bands will do well, although goodness knows what the Americans will make of buttered muffins and fixer-uppers.
Now it was time to attempt to get to somewhere several miles away with feet that were shot away with blisters. Dear friends, when you text me to say “If you are in Austin you have to check out so-and-so”, please bear in mind that it’s not like a normal festival where you can just amble across a field. It’s an entire (big) city with often several miles between venues. Slow progress took me all the way to Lucy’s Fried Chicken, whose programmer must be a genius, because the quality of the musicians is so much better than the quality of the venue. There was no hope of getting near to any of the bands, so Susto was an audio experience only. A carefully-planned attempt to appreciate the Dream Syndicate properly was ruined by an 8-foot tall giant pushing in front of me and holding his recording device and phone above his head for the duration. In other words, I could see nothing, the crowd being so packed that there was nowhere to move to. Add in the fact that somebody stole my beer and I wasn’t happy. It was possible to hear, though, that guitarist Jason Victor was one of the most innovative players of the week.
I am quite proud of the next bit. I had identified somewhere where we could hang out in relative comfort and peace. It was the premiere of a film about British folk music and it took place in a venue that was both spacious, quiet and comfortable. I had found out about it from my new friend Julian from the plane, but before he and Sinead O’Brien could appear, we had to view the film and listen to an hour of finger-in-the-ear folk performed by an ensemble of nine (count ’em) people who had been flown over from the UK, complete with their vintage instruments, to perform in front of a small bunch of their British musical friends. Whatever is this about? I’m not objecting to the music, which was fine except for adding nothing to the folk era in which I grew up (and which we later grew to scorn on account of its backward-looking incestuousness), but I’m still glad we went because there was … yes, FREE BEER! We indulged copiously, as it would have been a shame to waste it.
Julian informed me that Sinead O’Brien had brought her own sound engineer, but it was still impossible to understand anything she was saying. The musical backing was great though, and much like SUSS had been Pink Floyd without the exciting bits, Sinead was PJ Harvey without the tunes. The bus tickets were still valid and we made it back with all the other deadbeats who ride the US public transport system. I felt quite at home.
On Saturday, ridiculous delights filled the afternoon at Lucy’s, with a Big Star tribute featuring John Doe and Steve Wynn opening the programme. The bad news referred to on Day One was of course the illness of Chuck Prophet, so naturally the fans and followers, myself included, were out in force to express their support and care. In a burst of doctor-sanctioned gig activity, Chuck and the Mission Express were indulging in a typical SXSW string of shows, all of which we intended to catch. But before that, there was another bit of familiar SXSW-ism to be experienced – plodding a long distance to a show that you can’t get into because it’s sold out (in this case, Jesse Dayton and James McMurtry at the Continental). Silly idea in the first place.
At Lucy’s, a show was taking place with the Continental Drifters super group, featuring Vicki Petersen, Susan Cowsill and Peter Holsapple. Excitement was high, moving to hysterical with the arrival of the Mission Express. Few artists inspire admiration and loyalty like Chuck, and the air was filled with emotion, a mixture of joy and sympathy. Now was the time for me to eat humble pie and stop dissing Lucy’s, because despite not being able to see anything or be near the stage (old 8-foot tall bloke was in evidence again, causing bother) the atmosphere was so electric that the environment was irrelevant. The band members were beaming with nervous happiness and Chuck himself, despite a hint of frailty, was exploding with his usual energy and good humour. During ‘Wish Me Luck’, tears were flowing round the room but one thing I know: Chuck will treat his recovery with the same determination as this performance and will be back.
Now things became even more surreal as we scootered to a house concert held in the garden of a multi-millionaire businessman, whose house was named The Castle. Indeed it was a castle, with a full stage in the garden. It felt like a scene out of some Netflix movie, as servants flitted discreetly around, firepits crackled beneath the uplit palm trees and, most worryingly, mysterious men in black suits sat in sinister groups, speaking an unidentified language. This was a rare outing for the Mission Express cabaret set (no ‘You Did’, but a sublime ‘Summertime Thing’), which was performed with good humour to an audience of largely disinterested non-music lovers. What an extraordinary experience.
Their third show of the evening was held down the road at C-Boys. Before we went in, we purchased some excellent falafels from an adjacent food truck. As we ate, the sound of the Continental Drifters performing ‘Meet On The Ledge’ simply added to the madness. On the minuscule stage, Chuck and the Mission Express, seemingly indefatigable, laid waste to a wild audience, climaxing with a mind-boggling version of ‘Willie Mays Is Up At Bat’ featuring Charlie Sexton on third guitar. Seldom has any musical experience ever felt so intense.
Well, after every high will inevitably come a low. My wife told me before I left that I’d come back with Covid, and she was right. Was it worth it? Of course!