The real South-by is a lot of traffic, a lot of tedium, and a lot of fun.
We hadn’t moved in about 20 minutes. I wasn’t necessarily keeping track, since Deep Purple was playing, as it seems to be every time Ken Shimamoto is in my truck. The recording of the long-hair British heavy-metal band performing in a Tokyo theater in the mid-1970s is screechy hilarious, at least to me. Ken was probably about ready to slit his wrists — from the music selection, the traffic, or both.
Ken leaned out of the passenger window, trying to get a look at the wreck that had us parked on I-35 near Hillsboro with the ignition off. Still no movement, except for people getting out of their cars to do what — go gawk at the carnage? Gross.
About an hour and several Deep Purple tunes later, we were moving again, back on the road to SXSW, the internationally known music festival and conference that takes place in the Live Music Capital of the World ® every year. As members of the press, Ken and I — and a few other Weekly staffers and freelance writers — have access to all of the panel discussions and SXSW-sanctioned shows.
The panels? Borrr-ring! The showcases? Eh. Most of them are a bunch of national bands already signed to labels playing to a bunch of hipsters who’ve probably already seen said bands 900 times before. I was just there to see the locals, anyway – Fort Worth locals, not Austin. Something to do with having a job writing about local music and all.
Ken wasn’t all that picky. “This is the first time I’ve been out of town and didn’t have a sick relative to see,” he said. He had additional reasons to be excited. Two of his favorite bands of all time — The Gunslingers and The Nervebreakers — were slated to play.
Once in Austin, we stopped to pick up the badges that would get us into panels and showcases without having to stand in line or pay cover charges. After that, we drove to our temporary quarters, a couple friends’ apartment. Stuff dropped off, teeth brushed, and we were off to 6th Street, Austin’s answer to Bourbon Street and where a majority of the gigs, SXSW-sanctioned and not, happen.
The 6th Street scene by the time we got there, around 6 p.m., was, as our hip-hoppin’ homies say, “percolating”: tons of young, unsmiling hipsters, “bad black dye jobs” (Ken’s name for aging, unsmiling hipsters), frat bros and muscleheads, and girls in short dresses or skirts with Ugg(-ly) boots. (A guy who goes out in shorts and work boots is a tool. But a girl who wears the footwear of the North Siberian proletariat and haute couture is stylish. I don’t understand.)
One thing about Austin that you may or may not know: All of the bars are smoke-free. The only places where you can blaze up are on patios or sidewalks, and there aren’t many (patios, that is; there’re a lot of sidewalks). Ken and I were reduced to the Blind Pig Pub. Not that the bi-level, three-bar monster isn’t cool, just that all of Austin seemed to be there. The wait for a canned beer ($4 domestics, five freaking dollars for a Shiner) was never any less than about four people deep, and finding some elbow room proved to be kind of problematic, especially after Ken and I were unceremoniously conscripted by a visiting musician from “Wis-cahn-sin” to stand watch over his gi-normous keyboards. Thankfully, the beer was cold.
Ken and I split up, he to Spiro’s to see The Gunslingers, who weren’t going on ’til the ungodly hour of 1 a.m., and me to … another place where I could have a beer and a smoke.
I braved the 6th Street throng and got a piece of dreadful pizza and a text message inviting me to Paradise, where two Fort Worth bands, The Orbans and The Burning Hotels, were playing.
Most of the other Cowtowners I knew who were going arrived on Wednesday, the first day of the event. By the time I ran into some of them at the Paradise show, their better selves were long gone — they all looked like they’d barely missed being mauled by a bear.
“Did you have fun on Wednesday?” I asked Caroline Collier, a Fort Worth musician and one of our contributing writers. Her response was lost to the ether. The music and the ambient noise were unconscionably loud. As she spoke, I just nodded approvingly, politely. “Uh-huh. Oh, wow. That’s great.”
The line at the bar was pleasantly short. Apparently, as I later heard, the conference was at only 75 percent capacity, which didn’t seem to correspond to the massive numbers of people who kept 6th Street buzzing all weekend long. But. Whatever.
The Orbans and Hotels did well. The rather intimate though high-ceilinged club was packed — about 150 people total — and about 50 percent of the crowd had to have been from Fort Worth, leading to a recurring joke: referring to the place as “The Moon: Austin,” referencing the Texas Christian University-area hipster hangout. As for celebrities-in-Cowtown-only, I saw the Lola’s saloons crew, a Tarrant County assistant district attorney (who was well behaved, Mr. Curry), Calhoun drummer Mike Ratliff, drummer Jordan Richardson, who now plays in mega-rockstar Ben Harper’s new band, and ex-Flickersticker Brandin Lea, whom I almost killed. On my way out I gave him an I-love-you-man! bear hug, inflaming a nagging rib injury that I didn’t know he had. Part of the fun of South-by, though, is seeing people you’re accustomed to seeing but in a new, vacation-y environment. I was just excited. Or loaded. Whichever. (Sorry, Brandin.)
You could smoke but only out “on” one of three ancient, iron-railed windowsills lined along one side of the building. At some points, the smoking line was longer than the beer line. The best part: My tab. Let’s just say that for the amount of money I paid to drink my face off at the now appropriately named Paradise I could’ve gotten only two rounds at the Blind Pig. “Hot dog!” is right.
On the way to 6th the next afternoon to do who the hell knows what, Ken and I ran into Jed, another ex-Fort Worthian now making his millions elsewhere, who joined us at Casino El Camino, the last bastion of alt-culture on 6th Street. Apparently, during non-South-by times, Austin’s main entertainment corridor is the preserve of collar-popping bros and the Ugg-boots-and-short-skirts-wearing set. Except for the Casino. I was introduced to the bar’s owner and namesake, Casino, a native Long Islander to whom Ken, as a former employee of an old Long Island record store, regularly sold albums of superlative quality.
The Wreck Room-y bar/restaurant is known for its burgers, “the best in the world,” according to Ken. (Don’t tell Fred’s.) The Pabst Blue Ribbon came only in the canned 16-ounce variety, which made Jed as visibly happy as Jed gets — not much — and got me to thinking about why I can’t get a PBR pounder at any of my local F-Dub watering holes. Playing on the TV behind the bar was American Movie, a documentary about some Midwestern jokers trying to film, shoot, and produce a vampire movie on the cheap and from which all kinds of apt parallels to aspiring musicians were drawn.
“There’s never gonna be any next big thing,” I recall pontificating. “Today’s listening audience is so fractured, there isn’t a consensus large enough to sway the overall market in one direction or another. Success for a local band nowadays comes down to longevity and touring.”
We were soon joined by one of our hosts and another longtime Fort Worth hipster, who gets special points for ordering the Casino’s killer cheese fries: steak fries slathered in a melted white cheese and a subtle green salsa. And why can’t we get cheese-salsa fries here in the Fort?
As a record label honcho, Jed was putting on a private party at a fancy sushi joint, where the smoking was nil but the Lone Star free. Off I went to Kenichi. The band, Shurman, churned out rocking Texas Music. Nothing Josh Weathers couldn’t do but still solid.
At every South-by — I’ve been going for, like, the past 10 years — Saturday afternoon is when I start getting what are known as “I-35 eyes,” meaning, “Time to pack up, get in the car, and go back to Fort Worth.”
But I’d run into another dear friend from the Fort and spent the rest of the balmy afternoon with him, smoking cigs on the Blind Pig patio and paying $4 a pop for 12-ouncers of Miller Lite. Earlier in the day, I had alerted my in-laws, who live in nearby Georgetown, that I might be crashing at their place — I really didn’t want to put out my hosts anymore than I had to. At one point, I texted the in-laws, saying that I was running late but was on my way. The response I got was, “That’s OK. Pizza in the fridge.”
My buddy’s tank was running low, too. He was staying with a few other people at a hotel nearby and was dreaming of getting some street-vendor food, going back to the hotel, flipping on the tube, and chilling out. But he didn’t want to have to track his friends down. Plus, he had committed to seeing a non-sanctioned show by a Fort Worth band. I invited him to stay in Georgetown with me. He declined. I told him, “Man, the show’s gonna be The Moon: Austin. Standing around, drinking beer, scream-talking to all our friends — whom we see every other day — and listening to music.”
“I know,” he said. “But I have to.”
The next day, I texted him: “Dude, you missed some badass pizza. Watched the Discovery Channel too.”
He wrote back. “Hahaha. You missed some badass nothing.”