Old Men and Bag Ladies

The good, the bad and the crazy invade Austin

There is a woman on a makeshift, multicolored stage in a large backyard full of slightly scuzzy people. Scuzzy in the sense that they probably only take showers every other day, versus every day. Not hippie scuzzy, just sort of... San Francisco scuzzy.

Not that anyone is paying attention to the audience. All eyes are on the tall, bony woman who has taken command of the stage. The woman, her face sporting an unnerving, almost Jackson Pollack-esque swath of smeary makeup, creepy fuck-me-red Lancême lipstick pushed generously around the bottom half of her face, dark, dark raccoon-eye black eye shadow and thick orange base, points her toe in a classic dance position, repeatedly. She lip-syncs intentionally off-time to a pre-recorded tape of her own voice, then busts into a live song that can only be described as "angular."

The woman's name is Dynasty Handbag. She's a performance artist (uh, duh!), and she's one of the marquee performers at Gay Bi Gay Gay, an alternative to the grand lady of music festivals, South by Southwest.

As exemplified by Dynasty Handbag (if we were following The New York Times' style, I guess we'd have to call her "Ms. Handbag"), everybody has their own unique experience at SXSW; we'll get to that in a moment, but first let's talk about the parts that are common to pretty much any attendee.

This is an exhausting marathon of music and hobnobbing and drinking beer. Lots and lots of beer, which is part and parcel of the rock 'n' roll experience, so you can't knock it, but it sure does make flying from Emo's to the Convention Center to, uh, Beerland and back again to catch The Next Big Thing That Supposedly Nobody Knows About But Then Why Are the Lines So Freakin' Long? a nausea-inducing test of stamina and commitment. Does that sound fun to you?

It's not. Most folks lucky enough to score a free badge to SXSW are there to work and therefore, if they have even half a work ethic, feel compelled to run around like Steve Nash in the paint, catching as much as they can. Those poor souls who actually have to pay for their badges, since they just plopped down several hundred bones for the privilege, also feel compelled to do the same.

Then there's the time element. As bloated as it's become, SXSW needs to be expanded to a full week, because as it stands, attendees spend their days sprinting from day party to day party to catch more intimate sets of The Next Big/Already Big Things, none of whom are actually on the same bill, as that would be too convenient. There's a quick break to scarf down some free bad Tex-Mex, then as the sun sets, there is the race up and down Red River, 6th Street and that bitch of a hill on San Jacinto, all in a desperate effort to see a 45-minute set of a band you want to see and then make it to that "secret" Buzzcocks show, etc, etc.

The result is a teeming mass of thousands of people, as confused, tired and hungry as Ellis Island arrivees circa 1901, sweaty and sore-footed and wild-eyed.

Those, actually, are the lucky ones. You poor wristbanders—you're even more screwed.

That's the common experience. It sounds shitty and it is, but it's also exciting and surreal and pretty amazing. For all the bad side of SXSW, you can't argue that the sheer concentration of music per square foot is a miracle, a rarity that deserves to be indulged in, and when you dive in, that's when the unique experience starts. And the fun.

Everybody sets their own priorities: Some stick to the alt country. Some stake out surprise shows. Some mix it up between hip-hop and singer-songwriters. Some go whither the Texas wind leadeth.

The wind pushed me, initially, to the Convention Center. Upon my arrival in Austin Wednesday, I was privy—like 90 percent of the conference attendees—to the fact that Pete Townshend would be making a surprise appearance at the Austin Music Awards, playing alongside former Faces member Ian McLagan.

In all honesty, initially this felt like a "who cares" moment. At this point, it felt more like ol' Pete was less a rock legend and more a symbol of the crusty-ass rut into which SXSW has fallen. It was a feeling that grew even more justified when the blond 20-somethings behind me whispered among themselves, as Townshend took the stage, Who is that? I have no clue who that is. Should we go to Maggie Mae's?

But then Townshend took up a Strat and lifted the strap over his shoulder. He started ripping into some blues licks; the fluctuations of his wrist were more soulful than the entire gyrations of a new-generation band. He played only two songs, basically just your same old blues jams, but his tasteful mini-windmill moves, the bizarre configurations of his face as he bent a string—OK, I gotta admit it, I felt like bowing to the power of rock 'n' roll. It was stunning, adrenaline-producing, flat-out cool.

And this was just the first hour. What followed was a haze of bands. Ashy, unnamed band at Blender Barwith their pre-adolescent, prodigy violin player acting as the glue for a series of '70s soft-rock-type masterpieces. Dallas' own Money Waters, spewing his odd, one-of-a-kind brand of Texas hip-hop. Dengue Fever packing Emo's, skipping from weird Cambodian rockabilly to soulful, saxophone-infused Eastern soul. Peaches rocking the absolute crap out of a house so packed it was a fire marshal's nightmare, all G-strings and filthy lyrics and pounding synth bleats. Dallas' Hourly Radio doing the same, only in a Christian-y Radiohead way.

The Bravery kind of sucking. The Mountain Goats strumming their gay folk songs to an audience speckled with frat boys. The streets filled with stages sporting completely out-of-place mook-rock bands. Ghostface Killah in the elevator next to me. And everywhere, people sporting amazing haircuts, gabbing gabbing gabbing about themselves and how cool they are and wondering where they drunkenly lost their BlackBerrys. Ya gotta take the good with the bad, ya know.

And then there's the Day After. Sunday, when the collective hangover quiets the city, when 6th Street is opened back up for car traffic, when everyone's over it. That's when I head to Gay Bi Gay Gay, where wack-ass Dynasty Handbag blows my mind more than any of it. She spends 45 minutes freaking out like the killer in the Silence of the Lambs, prancing and careening and singing. She's wearing '80s-type stretch pants that are too big, a leotard bottom, some weirdly angled top and ballet shoes. She is scaring the shit out of me, but I'm also laughing uncontrollably. It's like the beginning of an acid trip that could go either way.

She finishes up her set to huge applause from the scuzzy lesbians/trannies and Austin legend Gretchen Phillips takes the stage to front her Joy Division cover band. Phillips says something along the lines of "See, that's what South by Southwest used to be like." And it's true. But that's the beauty of the whole crazy, exhausting week: You may be able to predict the corporate crap and the talking heads, but you never know if it's Pete Townshend or Dynasty Handbag who's gonna blow your mind. If you're lucky, it'll be both.

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