Confessions of a SXSW First-Timer
The first-ever installment of South by Southwest, a "music and media conference," was held on March 13-15, 1987, just a few days after my first birthday. Since then, we have both grown into something some people cherish and others despise -- and one of us is a bit more internationally-recognized than the other.
Originally created to boost the already burgeoning music scene of Austin, SXSW was an instant hit in '87 and as you know, it's grown into a massive, multiple-tiered festival experience. Over the the years, SXSW has garnered millions of supporters and nearly just as many detractors; jaded fans, journalists and publicists complain about the size of the event and exclusivity of many of the concerts and showcases.
Who has time to stand in line for one wristband that doesn't even guarantee entry? I'm on the VIP list, why can't I just walk right in? Do you know who my father is? (Okay, that last one might be an exaggeration, but you get the point.)
2015 marked my first jaunt to SXSW, which meant I was wide-eyed and open-minded.
While it might be easy for some longtime festgoers to hit 6th Street and gain that blasé perspective, 2015 marked my first jaunt to SXSW, which meant I was wide-eyed and open-minded. And now, a week later, I feel like it was one of the best experiences of my life and will hopefully be an annual tradition (I can't believe I'm nearly three decades late to this party).
From the second my feet touched the inside of Austin–Bergstrom International Airport on Tuesday (March 17), I was greeted with live music, and not just any live music, but a performance from Curtis McMurtry, son of acclaimed alt-country mastermind -- and one of my personal favorites -- James McMurtry. After meeting up with my partner-in-crime, Chris Martins, we quickly found our way to 6th Street where we grabbed a quick bite, gathered our bearings and listened to some more live music from an unknown, yet quite entertaining, punk rock outfit.
Chris and I parted ways shortly thereafter; he holed up at the Mohawk (where he'd find himself multiple times during the week), and my journey took me to the Hype Hotel where I caught two gigs that were a "must" for me: Odesza and Spoon.
Following a late first night, I started Wednesday the way I started the trip: with the McMurtrys. One of the best showcases of the week was at the Dogwood, a hefty hike from the core of 6th Street (not a bad thing) that featured nonstop Americana and rock all day courtesy of the 15th Annual Guitartown/Conqueroo Kick-Off Party. After watching Curtis and James (two separate sets), Jon Dee Graham, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Reverend Peyton's Big Damn Band, the Silos, American Aquarium and Ronnie Fauss, I had to head out to another showcase, but before I did, it hit me like a ton of bricks: This is what SXSW is all about.
I stayed in one spot for just a few hours and I had the opportunity to see back-to-back-to-back performances from some of my favorite artists (and personally discover a couple). Obviously, this revelation wasn't unique to just me or fans of Americana; there were an innumerable amount of events that catered to all musical tastes.
The rest of Wednesday was littered with performances by Natalie Prass, Laura Marling, Ronnie Fauss (again), Anthony D'Amato, Best Coast and Wolf Alice.
I could go on and on about every single band I saw at SXSW, but that would get boring and tedious; plus, each fan's experience in Austin is different and unique. While I was enjoying American Aquarium at four in the afternoon, Chris was interviewing Mew in their hotel room. When I caught Wolfe Alice's heavy set at Hype Hotel, he was watching TV on the Radio at the NPR Music SXSW Showcase at Stubb’s.
But I will tell you this: The best time of my week came about 40 miles outside of Austin on Thursday at Willie Nelson's private ranch, Luck, Texas. The Heartbreaker Banquet was a trip to the Wild Wild West for some sensational music, kicking off with the unforgettable song swap between Jonny Burke, Langhorne Slim, Luke Bell, Daniel Romano and Hugh Masterson. This was another epiphany of sorts; standing in a tent lined with church pews next to Willie's chapel watching these five guys tear through song after song, it felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In that same tent I caught the Deslondes, Matt Sucich, Angel Olsen and Butch Walker, and then just a few feet away -- past the food trucks and complimentary drinks -- I had the chance to watch Horse Thief, JP Harris, Nikki Lane (who duetted with Walker later in the evening), Willie (of course) and another new-to-me band, Clear Plastic Masks (I'm now a lifelong fan).
More music followed on Friday, and before I headed home on Saturday, I made a requisite stop by Waterloo Records (which hosted massive showcases each day in addition to slinging vinyl).
I ate BBQ. I ate breakfast tacos. I went to a ton of shows and I was turned away at a few. I stayed up until 5AM everyday. I made new friends and I met old ones. I saw some of my favorite acts and I was introduced to many, many more.
Maybe it's because this was my first SXSW, but I had the time of my life walking 50 miles in four days, getting rained on, not sleeping ... all to enjoy as much as I could -- and I know I barely scratched the surface.
According to Encyclopædia Britannica, the law of diminishing returns is an "economic law stating that if one input in the production of a commodity is increased while all other inputs are held fixed, a point will eventually be reached at which additions of the input yield progressively smaller, or diminishing, increases in output." I think it's safe to say that many apply this law to SXSW as well (in simpler terms of course): How can next year (or the next or the one after that) top my inaugural experience?
But I will hold out hope. The Heartbreaker Banquet is in its fourth year, and by all accounts, it was bigger and better than ever. Who's to say SXSW doesn't get better each year (it already has the "get bigger" part of that formula nailed down)?
Who's to say SXSW doesn't get better each year (it already has the "get bigger" part of that formula nailed down)?
An event that was originally created to bring national attention to Austin's music scene now brings the entire world straight to Texas Hill Country -- and I'm guessing the 30th anniversary of the SXSW Music Conference and Festival will be a prodigious commemoration to say the least. I can only hope I'm there, wide-eyed and open-minded as ever, ready to celebrate my own 30th birthday.