As the music portion of the festival, and SXSW itself, draws to a close, there’s a lot to consider. Most of this information is related to the unique size of the entire event; other festivals, even the three-day ones that involve camping in rural locations, breed a different sort of exhaustion. They’re hectic and strenuous, but generally run on a single track.
Because it’s so diffuse, and because it takes over a city rather than some blank spot on the map, SXSW feels like a far more complicated proposition. At some point it even starts to feel like its own lifestyle, especially after you’ve spent an entire week eating all your meals standing up, haven’t seen a piece of fruit in just as long, and have feet covered in a wide array of blisters old and new.
But there are benefits that come with this kind of commitment. Spending such a long time tracking back and forth over the same streets breeds a weird kind of familiarity, accompanied by the pleasure of having worked out a relatively efficient show-catching system. The Austin I’ve come to know isn’t necessarily the real city; it’s a circumscribed subdivision bounded by highways on two sides and a river on another. It’s defined by an influx of outsiders, street performers, and hustlers, but figuring it out is satisfying nonetheless.
By the fourth day of music I already had a VIP card for the Stage on Sixth, which gives me the freedom to hear something reasonably good at anytime between noon and six p.m. It’s how I caught half a set by The Wedding Present, now made up of original member David Gedge and three younger additions. They had a good crowd, but seemed unsure of how to hold its attention, an atmosphere that resulted in a lot of talking and big gaps closer to the stage.
I knew that despite the temptation to jump across the street to Flamingo Cantina, where Youth Lagoon and Of Montreal would be going on one after the other, it would be better to stay put. I’d already waited 20 minutes in a completely stationary queue there earlier, trying to catch Deerhoof at 2:30, and figured that this was one of those places having issues with its occupancy regulations. I knew, with reasonable certainty, that I was never going to see Chairlift, whose impossible lines had deterred me three times, an exclusivity that makes for its own kind of buzz.
With this knowledge comes a different sort of experience. I headed back across town to see Tristen, a young, Nashville-based singer whose debut album was surprisingly mature and exciting. She was ensconced at the Cedar Street Courtyard, playing a party hosted by Filter Magazine, with weird sightlines and drastically marked-up beer bottles. But the performance was worth it; hunched over and weirdly feral-looking, she stalked around the stage beneath a vintage guitar and a custom strap, steadily winning over an initially uninterested crowd. Later I had the opposite experience with Washed Out at Club Deville; the crowd seemed excited from the start, but the band was so far away I could barely see the tops of their heads. At one point it seemed like their set had finished and canned music had come back on the speakers; they were actually still performing, but from such a distance it was hard to tell.
So after four or five days, SXSW becomes less about watching your favorite bands play for hundreds of people than gleaning little snippets of weirdness and moments of joy. I’ve never been a big fan of Blitzen Trapper, but watching them kill it for locals planted at bar tables was thrilling in its own right. The day before, River City Extension had won me over in similar fashion, with lots of exuberance and some vicious mandolin shredding. This happened again with Built to Spill, and while I’m almost convinced that the explosion of improv soloing ending their show was a hurried response to having an hour to play rather than 40 minutes, it was still great.
Under normal circumstances, I might have been disappointed by Com Truise, who performed a DJ set at Flamingo Cantina with a monk-like fixation on his knobs. With his shaved head, black T-shirt, and hulking passivity, he reminded me of Damian Jurado, who performs with an equally thin amount of charisma. But the music was good, the beer was cheap, and the crowd was strange, including an odd fellow engaging in some kind of Burning Man-style karate dance routine. All this, combined with the Rastafarian murals on the wall and the tendrils of sunlight creeping in from the nearby courtyard, made for one of the most untraditionally pleasing sets I encountered. It’s the kind of simple thing that makes SXSW worth fighting through. You can turn the festival into a contest, trying to check off big name acts and running yourself ragged for five days, or you can sit back and enjoy the ride.