The author at SXSW 2015 playing with Son of Stan at a Grey Goose-branded show “watched by, like, 11 people.” Courtesy the author

I don’t know if this happens to you on occasion, but I regularly experience bouts of longing for certain aspects of the 2020 quarantine. Obviously not the sickness, death, and collective psychological trauma, but there were moments and vibes during quarantine that were at the time new and very nice. Besides the peculiar financial blessing from my experience with unemployment insurance and the influx of free time to tend to an ever-expanding houseplant jungle in my apartment balcony, there was the eerie novelty of the sudden pause forced upon the world, where traffic was sparse because there was nowhere to go and Facebook invites were suddenly empty, my brain finally freed from the expectations to be somewhere at a particular time. That part of lockdown is what I miss most. But parceled with this nice feeling was the fascinating unreality of witnessing the cancellation of major events, and, weirdly, I also miss that experience quite a bit. I remember being bummed about Fortress Fest getting canceled, and when I watched the Mavs game that would end up being the last one of the non-bubble 2020 season, that’s when I knew that the pandemic was real. But when it came to SXSW finally throwing in the proverbial Bounty™ Quicker Picker Upper Ska-lamity Stage towel, I can best describe my emotional reaction with the words “avid” and “glee.”

Do I hate SXSW? No, not exactly. Well, kind of. Maybe a little. Maybe even more than a little. I have had really enjoyable SXSW experiences, and I have had others that made me wish I’d stayed home, and there’s no reason to think that the festival’s bloated branding and constant onslaught of content monetization are any more tolerable than they were prior to 2020, any more than there is reason to think that the traffic in Austin would be lighter. So, I guess I’d enjoy and dislike it as much as ever if I ever went again?

I don’t know. Seeing bands — both local and otherwise — once again spam their fans’ feeds with SXSW show updates mostly reminds me that that pandemic-fomented quietude of making do without any Tough Actin’ Tinactin™ Itchin’ Hardcore showcases to attend was never going to last and probably (or hopefully, I suppose) will never occur again. But what I felt the week after SXSW 2020 would have normally ended was the reality that live music was mostly turned off everywhere, and who knew when it would return. That realization made me really fucking sad. As much as I like dragging SXSW, I never wanted it to just … vanish. Cue up Cinderella, because I didn’t know what we had ’til it was gone. For good or nah, SXSW is symbolic that people still want to experience live music. And one thing I wondered at the time: Will people care when SXSW comes back?


Turns out, two years later, people still care. I see SXSW-related content and imagine the same triumphs and hassles of fun performances in crappy spaces and gigs on huge stages with nobody watching them. Despite my wistful rearview glances at the peacefully empty social calendar of 2020’s spring and summer, I am grateful that Austin’s annual music festival is back, even in its gross, corporate ignominy. SXSW’s return to cultural prominence is a reminder to everyone that live music is a vital part of life, and as much as I miss the empty freeways, I’m grateful that bands have shows to invite us to. — Steve Steward


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