My Trip to SXSW

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This was my first SXSW and over four days I managed to see 55 of the nearly 2000 bands that travel to Austin for the annual music festival and conference. Not bad, but I could have done better. Here are some tips:

  • Flights to Austin out of Seattle are half the price or less of flying out of Vancouver. You probably know this, but just in case.
  • Show List Austin is the best source for the INSANE number of unofficial shows that are happening all the time.
  • Try to find out a place to consistently get free food and drinks. For me this was a lounge sponsored by an energy bar company near the convention centre. Most afternoons, I’d duck in for a quick, free gin and tonic and to load up on energy/granola bars
  • Most bands play multiple shows, so don’t worry if you miss a band one day, there’ll be more opportunities
  • Try to get a wristband. Locals and people with badges can get them. For $160 you’ll be able to get into most of the official (i.e. nighttime) shows. That being said, if you need to save money, you could just coast on the tons of free shows and lay low in the evening.
  • The convention centre is centrally located and it has free wifi and clean bathrooms. This was important.
  • If you’re flying out of Austin on Sunday or Monday after SXSW, leave yourself at lot of time to get through security (like two to three hours). The lineups were insane and we missed our flight. But then the people on the next flight missed their flight, so we stole their seats and made it home on time

Here are my highlights:

1) Great CanCon

  • Toronto’s Mantler was someone I’ve wanted to see for a long time, owing mostly to his collaborations with Hank. He did not disappoint; weird and charming lounge crooning.
  • Diamond Rings was billed to me as Toronto’s answer to Fine Mist. He’s a very different beast, but still super danceable and adorable.
  • Timber Timbre played in a church and, while I didn’t quite fall asleep in the pew, it was a very re-juvenating set. Beautiful and sombre.
  • Montreal’s Duchess Says‘ wild singer tackled Edo Van Breeman from Brasstronaut and, basically, freaked her way through the audience for their entire set. They were great screechy rock and super fun live.

2) Favourites

3) Surprises

  • I met Brenda at Lou Barlow‘s show at the end of the night and was shocked that the place was only half-full. Lou still has the pipes and the chops to put on a great show.
  • I’ve always liked Andrew WK in theory, but his music has never really grabbed me. Following metalheads Voivod, Mr WK performed an organ-only set and slayed. He’s an amazing pianist and his improvised songs about small dogs and geese (as well as a re-working of “I Get Wet”) were great.
  • I wasn’t sure what to expect of Roky Erikson but I didn’t want to miss the chance to see him. He’s put out an album with Okkervil River and I quelled my dislike of Okkervil lead singer Will Sheff long enough to greatly enjoy the set. Roky was fantastic and they even performed “You’re Gonna Miss Me“!

4) Disappointments

  • I’m aware that Das Racist is known almost solely for their novelty rap song, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.” So what did I expect? I’m not sure, but their live show was sloppy and condescending. They finished their set with, “Okay, we’re gonna play 30 seconds of THAT song.” Admittedly, their swapped lyrics were rad (“It was a combination best of times and worst of times“), but it felt like they were phoning it in.
  • The studio wizardry of Here We Go Magic did not translate to the outdoor stage. Their sound never really gelled.
  • There was a Korean taco truck called TaKorea and I didn’t get to eat there.
  • The cheap pizza wasn’t cheap ($4 a slice!) and tasted like garbage.

5) The Very Best

  • I saw Thee Oh Sees three times (more than any other band), but the show that stuck out was the 2:30-4am show on a pedestrian bridge over Lady Bird Lake. Thee Oh Sees and, in particular, their leader John Dwyer are forces of nature and I can’t recommend their live show highly enough. Crowd surfing on a bridge, people; good times.
  • Death have an amazing back story (mostly unheard Detroit proto-punk band triumphantly return with Drag City re-release of their album), but their set proved they’re more than just a great bio. Exuberant and totally bad ass.
  • If you can get a ride out-of-town, get to Lockhart, BBQ capital of Texas. Either of the two BBQ institutions, Smitty’s and Kreuz’s (amazing story about their joint history), will blow your mind. I went to both and lost an afternoon to a meat coma. Worth it. The Salt Lick, a bit further away, is a decent alternative, but not as good.
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