In a panel discussion on Tuesday afternoon, Anthony Bourdain described his preference for "red-blooded countries"—passionate, unstable places where anything can happen—over well-behaved, Scandinavian-style ones, where calm and order are the norm. Applying this to SXSW, the film part of the festival is one of those Scandinavian countries, taking place in a system defined by meticulous organization. You can guess what the music portion is.
Film has its messy moments, but the system is clearly proscribed: You get a "queue card," wait in a neatly ordered line, chat with a producer from St. Louis, and then get directed to your seat. Music is chaos, in the sense that it's usually ruled by random chance rather than any distinct system. To see Bruce Springsteen (at a secret location) you needed to enter a raffle and hope for the best. Entertaining the impossible dream of getting Jay-Z tickets required a byzantine process involving Twitter and an American Express card registration. Then again, you could walk into a no-name bar at any time of the day and possibly hear something amazing. It's a Wild West kind of atmosphere, which is by turns both thrillingly off the cuff and colorfully overwhelming.
The definite benefits of the SXSW model were clear on Wednesday morning, when I aimlessly wandered into the Paste/Sennheiser showcase at the Stage on Sixth, drawn in by the comfortably large venue and the equally comforting sound of horns. The day had just started with MyNameIsJohnMichael, who seemingly conscripted a New Orleans jazz band into his act. The combination was a little rough, a little silly, but the necessary energy was there, and the group pulled it off, kick-starting what could have been a sleepy noon set. MyNameIsJohnMichael was followed by Typhoon, a band so large (10 members, including two drummers and a keyboardist who spent a lot of his time on percussion) that they inspire questions of how their earnings are divided. This might have become an aural mess, especially with only 10 or so minutes for setup, but they were impressively coordinated, settling into a warm, brightly orchestral flow.
A little more than 24 hours later, I was languishing in line at the same venue, which seemingly has a policy of letting no one in while the band is playing. Thankfully, a Sennheiser rep recognized my VIP status, slipping me a pass and asking me to put in a good word (I've never used their products, but I hear good things). This helped me catch most of The dB's, one of the best power-pop groups from the '80s. Their set outside was steady but not thrilling, full of new material and slowed-down renditions of classics. In another instance of tweaked expectations, the act I had based my early afternoon around had proven slightly disappointing.
With time to kill and nothing exciting nearby, I wandered into a show by Father John Misty, who I briefly, mistakenly was able to imagine I had discovered. Later I learned that this was actually the alter ego of J. Tillman, former drummer of Fleet Foxes, and that his debut album is coming out on Sub Pop in a few weeks. Still, there was the thrill of discovery in the set, played to a handful of people in a dark room under a lazily whirling disco ball at Beauty Bar. Tillman's songs were fresh and funny, and his persona was fascinatingly unbalanced, a mix of earnest country crooner, Nilsson-style songsmith, and standup comedian.
The fact that music so proliferates downtown Austin means you can have a lot of these kinds of strange experiences: A few minutes later I walked into a strangely maze-like venue, saw snippets of three uninteresting, nameless acts, and wandered back out onto the street, hopeful there were better things in store. It's a funhouse kind of atmosphere that's unequalled anywhere else. In the last salvo of Thursday's afternoon rush, before the six to eight p.m. window where everyone breaks for dinner before the long procession of night shows, I caught El-P, a rapper whose existence I'd forgotten. He was loud, confrontational, and exciting, bringing on guest after guest, a style that reached a peak near the end of his set, when he shared the stage with the tremendous Killer Mike and a tiny, red-haired MC.
It's the kind of festival where you can wander into a tent-covered parking lot and see Titus Andronicus, who's a little woozily off-kilter so early in the afternoon, but still giving it an sincere effort. They stormed and screamed, but didn't quite click, prompting one older audience member to hoarily quip, "I liked these guys better when they were called the Clash." Before them was Beach Fossils, who seemed to have been in cold storage since 2010, admirably fresh-faced but hopelessly derivative, offering a brand of jangly California surf pop that's already seemed to fade from popularity. Titus frontman Patrick Stickles spoke about the "planned obsolescence" of indie rock, and it seemed like he had a point, but the next day the same space would be filled to capacity by fans of the ancient Metal Blade Records, whose bands flooded the street with cacophonous guitar and double-bass strikes.
This just proved that, sometimes, SXSW isn't about surprise or discovery, but just the simple pleasure of locating a band you like, getting in the crowd, and watching them for 30 minutes before moving on to the next thing. Maps and Atlases played a dense set of complex, immaculately delivered songs at the Paste/Sennheiser stage on Thursday. The crowd was thin but fervent and the music was great. Lead singer Dave Davison ended each song with a warmly earnest "Thanks a lot!" and seemed to be having a great time. In this chaotic festival, sometimes it's a relief to get exactly what you expected.