Feature Stories

What I Learned at My First, and the Darkest, South by Southwest Music Festival

Thousands of people are on Austin's famed Sixth Street, punks and hipsters and bros, et. al. We're standing in the jarring sunlight of daytime, the afternoon after an alleged drunken driver plowed into a crowd at South by Southwest. People walk gingerly past each other, as people do when they don't want to shoulder-barge other people to the ground in such a packed space, and the sheer buzz of the day before has dropped to a conversational level.

No one is shouting through the crowd. No one is dancing alone for reasons apparent only to them. The presence of authority is noticeably increased, especially at the intersections, which now have police cars parked across them where once there were barriers. It's SXSW on mute, or at least turned way down low, and you can't help but wonder whether anyone will, or should, turn it back up.

Before I moved to the United States from the UK, SXSW was one of the things I'd forever longed to attend. I'd spent days absentmindedly looking at the combined cost of flights and tickets every year, before remembering that I couldn't sell everything I owned and come close to the cost of spending a week in the impossibly fanciful Austin, at one of the biggest festivals in the world. It was a world away, and that world required really expensive badges.

Then, three years ago, I moved to Texas. So by early this year, when I was offered a press credential to cover SXSW, I was even more aware of how much fun could be had. I could go down, stay at a friend's, and be faced with the prospect of a week watching live music in Austin. Not a terrible way to spend an alleged work week.

Arriving via bus on Tuesday, I sauntered across First Street to pick up my pass. There were no lines in evidence either outside Austin Convention Center or inside for badge pickup. Sitting down after picking up the badge, I realized that I had absolutely no plan whatsoever. The music listings, contained in a book the size and width of a small child, pressed down upon me with a weight even greater than the mighty tome they were contained in.

I left the book on a sofa in the Convention Center. Who needs that kind of pressure? I headed out of the Convention Center and walked north. Upon approaching a club I had never noticed before, I heard a drumbeat. I stepped toward the door and people seemed to approve of my pass. Inside I realized I was at a music venue I didn't know the name of, watching a band I didn't know the name of. Perfect. There was a second band, a more country number, playing on the back patio. The venue buzzed with anticipation of the week ahead, hundreds of people even more excited about what's coming next than what's happening now.

Exiting the venue with a shrug, I'd learned nothing. There was another drumbeat over the road. I went there. A hardcore band was playing what appeared to be some sort of treehouse, designed to accommodate about 40 people, of whom I was the 41st. The venue was alive with movement, with shouting, and most of all with the repeated thwack of bass-drum noise into the skulls of music fans. This time I had arrived.

I spent the rest of the evening playing "follow the drumbeat." It seems that wherever you are in Austin during SXSW, there is either a man shouting into a microphone or a cymbal being hit really hard. I looked at some of the lines to get into some of the fancier venues -- you can judge exactly how popular an artist is by how many blocks are spanned by the line that artist has generated -- and decided that, despite my British heritage, queueing was not for me.

That's the paradox of SXSW. You have more possible choices than you know what to do with, but every choice you make renders another hundred outcomes impossible. It's actually stressful, knowing that staying for the end of this Lee Fields and the Expressions set renders it unlikely you'll catch any of X on the other side of downtown. Stressful in the best possible way, of course, but it seems that the worst possible choice you can make in these circumstances is to stand in a line for five hours. Doing so not only eliminates hundreds upon hundreds of possible outcomes, it means you've eliminated said outcomes while not actually gaining anything of any real reward, unless you'd swap those 500 bands for just 45 minutes with the artist of your choice, an artist you've likely seen before and will surely see again.

The following night, faced with a 45-minute wait to get into a show, I decided to just go walking again. In a dimly lit alley somewhere off Rainey Street, I spied a conga line winding off into the distance. Tracing the source of the conga line, like some sort of dance detective, I discovered the line originated in a bar hidden in the shadows, far at the back of the street. Not only that, but they were doing the conga while singing an a capella version of Macy Gray's "I Try." This was a place I clearly needed to be.

My badge was pointless there, and an ecstatic throng of people were bouncing next to the stage while an awful rapper performed. As I lined up to get a drink, a man behind me with a humongous beard and an old-fashioned smoking pipe started talking loudly to his friend about his favorite aspects of anal sex. I loved this bar.

Hidden far away from the lines, watching nameless bands perform in what must have been one of the darkest and dingiest gay bars of all time, the real appeal of SXSW started to sink in. And the idea that it has grown too big, too corporate, seemed more preposterous than ever before.

At about 12:45 a.m., I was in a car being driven by a friend, following the drumbeat, when I checked Twitter. My timeline was flooded with speeding bullets of news about an accident outside the Mohawk, about five blocks north of where we were. Two dead, two dozen injured. Drunken driver. He gunned it. Bodies flying. My heart fell through my shoes.

The next day, social media took a strange turn. Those flying bodies, some suggested, were somehow the fault of SXSW and its growing position as a branding juggernaut. I was confused. The festival didn't make an alleged drunk get behind the wheel of a car and evade arrest by plowing through barriers and into a line of people. If the festival was the overreaching cesspool of immorality that some were making it out to be, you'd expect the atmosphere to be at least slightly threatening, or angsty, or something. It wasn't. It isn't.

The muted daytime of Thursday, when Sixth Street felt so changed, moved slowly into the dark and people began to feel it again. The atmosphere shifted from somber to a renewed fervor. Twenty-three hours after the tragedy outside the Mohawk, I was in the venue next door, Cheer Up Charlie's, watching the Baptist Generals, an indie rock outfit from Denton who re-emerged and resurged last year.

The place was packed with a wild throng threatening to shift the roof off of the walls. While Sixth Street in the sunlight might have been more guarded than it had been in previous days, a few hours of remembering we were all at a music festival, a festival that none of us wanted to end with a whimper, meant that everyone inside this shack, a shack fewer than a hundred yards from a crime scene involving two fatalities, had responded to the sun setting on a mournful Thursday by getting everything they possibly could out of their systems, whatever that everything was.

"Everything you ever had/You will lose it," Chris Flemmons, the band's frontman, shouted into the microphone. The weed smoke hung heavy and beer flew through the air. However warranted and however briefly, the chaos of the night prior was muted. Cathartic moments like this, when a crowd moves into each other rather than out, when it's pulled together by something heinous rather than apart, are what characterized my first ever South by. I'll be back, I hope.

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Gavin Cleaver
Contact: Gavin Cleaver