Less a festival than a fungus, SXSW takes over downtown Austin with insidious efficiency, squirming its way into any space big enough to fit a drum kit and a few onlookers. This means that, while there's a constant flow of music, most of it is the kind you hear unwillingly: the crushing bass of a party DJ over-enamored with Araabmuzik's MPC percussion and dubstep-style breakdowns sharing the stage with piles of extraneous hype men; the crunchy dance beats that tumble out of promotional vehicles, their drivers handing out energy drinks to people crossing the street; the sound of guitar rock wafting across the river. There's a thudding pulse that seems to reverberate out of the city itself. In this welter it's hard to focus on the things you want to listen to, a situation heightened by the fact that every bar, restaurant, and street-corner tent is hosting some kind of event.
That welter extends to the crowds, which rove through the streets of the city in packs, gathering at food trucks and loitering outside venues. Later in the week, when showcases are studded with bigger-name acts, these crowds find all kinds of outlets, and the pressure is relieved. On Tuesday, the first official night of the music portion of the festival, pickings were a little slimmer. And while SXSW may lack a defined center, it isn't entirely democratic, which means that for every 10 half-empty bars on 6th street, plying passersby with free drink specials, local acoustic acts, and sloppy rappers, there's a showcase that draws inordinately sized crowds. On the first night, there seemed to be three or four such shows, which drove the lines for those venues around the block, and sometimes further. In such a climate, there's only one good strategy for a successful night: Find a good spot and plant.
The best option on Tuesday seemed to be the Pitchfork showcase at the Mohawk, a venue with dual indoor and outdoor stages. Mohawk is a refurbished dive meets seedy beach bar; its outdoor space is airy and cement-dominated, with high stone walls and two large balconies. The indoor is a woodsy hideaway, with a banner depicting a logpile dominating one wall, sauna-style wood panels on the other. There are framed photographs of men with elaborate beards. The men's bathroom has no door, and its line spills out and merges with the one massing in front of the bar.
Mohawk is across the street from Stubb's, a huge outdoor barbeque pit that's the staging ground for some of the festival's biggest music events. This often makes it subject to huge lines and middle-of-the-road, crowd-pleasing acts, something evidenced on Tuesday by the bill for its Interactive Festival closing party, which featured Miike Snow, Kasabian, and a mystery guest (which turned out to be M. Ward, confirming the trend of mediocrity). Standing on the Mohawk balcony with a beer, watching the lines snake outside, made things feel positively cozy.
This place isn't perfect either. The showcase was staggered across the two stages, which meant that a band would set up on one while a second act played on the other. It also meant the crowd was constantly shifting back and forth, a flow that further limits options. To move back and forth with it involved tons of sneaky maneuvering and a lot of patience. To stay put meant a good spot but considerable downtime, settling for the sounds pouring in from the neighboring room.
First up was Teengirl Fantasy, which started things off well with its yin-yang pairing of DJs, one dark and brooding, hunched over his equipment, the other Hawaiian-shirted, bouncy, and expressive, fond of exaggerated hand gestures and broad smacks at an electronic drum pad. After their set, I decided to head inside and plant, the world (and my expectations) shrinking once again. There was a set by Shlomo, a young DJ in a black hoodie, pulling zombie dance moves as he slowed down Drake samples and piled beats over them, distorted video of Zulu tribesmen wavering behind him.
During the next few hours I made one quick foray back out to the porch, to catch the soothing, hypnotic bounce of Bear in Heaven, before the insistent rush at the back of the crowd forced me back to my cozy wall spot inside. I gave up on beer, sated after a long day of promotional cocktails and overpriced Lone Stars. That left me with 40 minutes of Sun Araw, a band whose first song sounded like some deconstruction of Santana's "Black Magic Woman." A guy nearby commented that it's "broken trance music," but live it just sounds broken, and the combination of dissonant chord changes, thudding bass, and sluggish tempo was enervating.
Soon my spot against the back wall began to feel less like a choice than a prison, as more people filed in and the room grew tighter. Before long I'd been forced nearly inside the mixing booth, wedged between it and the tall shelf that stores the band's instruments. It's how I learned that the band TRUST, in spite of their aloof post-goth aesthetic, wasn't happy with the video screen behind them. They were one of two bands who didn't bring their own backing video, which meant they were forced to play in front of a forestrial backdrop projection bearing the venue's logo. It's a rule, according to a Mohawk representative, and their mixing booth representative wasn't happy about it.
Its worth noting at this point that, yes, SXSW is a huge mess. But all these growing limitations, getting trapped inside one venue in a city that may currently have a thousand of them, forced to deal with behind-the-scenes machinations and arguments and crowd traffic, were less an inconvenience than a reminder that even today, or especially today, when everything is downloadable and music itself seems more fleeting and ephemeral than ever, the process of creation and presentation behind it is still messy and difficult. There are always problems to consider, forces to be reckoned with, especially at a unique festival that joins hundreds of acts together into a single thriving ecosystem. So it's a constructive mess, one that provides necessary perspective in addition to an assaultive sonic experience.
TRUST finished up, the crowd continued to grow, and there was a great set by Tycho, who combined the night's electronica theme with a heavy dose of live instrumentation. They had a backing video, a series of song-length reveries that reflected and expanded the dreamy feel of their instrumental tracks. Everything seemed peaceful for a few minutes, and as their set ended I was deposited onto the street, slipping through a door next to the booth. It was 1 a.m., but things were still vibrant, hot, and loud. Stepping outside, I was nearly run over by two guys on bikes, zooming absentmindedly along the sidewalk.