SXSW 2014: You Gotta Stay Positive.
I started writing this as just a list of highlights of my SXSW. I quickly realized, though, that what I really needed to write about was why this was a great week despite being one that the “experts” of SXSW would undoubtedly consider a failure: I didn’t actually see all that music (comparatively), I (gasp!) paid for my drinks and food, and I didn’t see a single thing sponsored by Doritos. There is no way I will be profiled as a SXSW Ninja Lifehacker. The entire week was darkened by the horrific deaths and injuries resulting from a presumably drunk driver, of course, as well. And yet here I am with, on balance, delight.
Wednesday afternoon brought the Family Music Meltdown. We had a gorgeous day and a great setting at the Thinkery, and a fantastic crowd. (We counted 539 people over the three hours!) You can see a bunch of photos on our Facebook page. The crowd was from all parts and populations of Austin, the performers put the stage — built from used pallets by NeedTo.com — through its paces, and I think it’s safe to say that anybody who didn’t rock out wasn’t trying. I do wish I’d thought to put on sunscreen. In part as a result, I was wiped out, so I didn’t get out to see anything that night.
On Thursday, I met up with Lloyd from The Deedle Deedle Dees and walked through Flatstock, a crazy cool poster show. We then caught the end of Jon Langford & Skull Orchard (with the fantastic Jean Cook, known to many as the violinist with Elizabeth Mitchell), and then some bits and pieces of various acts (mostly local) at Spider House. And again, I went home and to sleep pretty early.
Friday I finally felt back up to really doing stuff. In order, I saw:
- The Hold Steady at the radio day stage (good show, weird location);
- Holly George-Warren (whose husband is Uncle Rock) signing her probably-great book about Alex Chilton
- The Whigs at the Mophie Hanger (good garage rock)
- The Hold Steady (again) at the Mophie Hanger (great show, pretty cool location);
- Waco Brothers at Yard Dog (favorite part of SXSW every year, and their cover of 20th Century Boy was perfect);
- The Front Bottoms at Palm Door (terrific show) (where Craig Finn showed up, and he suggested that we then go see…);
- The Donkeys on the roof of Cheers Shot Bar (100% weird venue, 100% great band); and
- Kishi Bashi with Dena at Half Step (pretty enchanting, but I was super tired so I headed home).
Saturday brought another family music showcase — Whole Lotta Fun at the Whole Foods at the Domain. Rain forced us inside, but we had enthusiastic crowds and performers again. Koo Koo Kanga Roo, Sara Hickman, The Que Pastas, Lloyd H. Miller and the Austin Phonebook, and David Tobocman all made the day the promised whole lotta fun (measured in metric). Plus, we were inside and I got to sit down, so I was more up for more rawk after the event…and the rawk came.
Some background before continuing the narrative: A few months ago, the Hold Steady did a campaign to fund an EP that was, in part, benefiting the family of a fan of theirs — a super fan — who had died suddenly. One of the premiums was a 3-mile run with Craig Finn, something I couldn’t resist.
So on Friday, I wore running clothes under my regular clothes and went to see the band for the third time, this time at Brooklyn Vegan’s showcase at Red 7.
After the set (best of the three I saw), I changed in the not-very-fancy dressing room at Red 7 and Craig and I went for a run into east Austin. This was his second run of the day (he’d done one as part of an interview with Runners World), which might have been good for me, as it made it so I could keep up.
It was a ton of fun. Craig’s my age, grew up in Minnesota listening to a lot of the same bands I did and going to a lot of the same shows. We know some people in common. He went to Riot Fest just to see the reunited Replacements (as did I), and thought they sounded great (as did I). I also happen to think he’s one of the most talented songwriters around.
Our run’s destination was the home of a very nice couple in east Austin who had pledged for another premium — an acoustic set by the band in their home. I was heading there just to pick up my gear (which I’d put in the band’s van), but the couple — very generously — invited me to stick around (and gave me Topo Chico!). So I also got to see three members of the Hold Steady (Craig plus Steve and Tad) playing songs (including “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” one of my favorites, plus a song from the new record) for three of us.
I’ve seen far more music in past SXSWs, and I’ve found far more free food and drinks. I’ve scheduled my movements with great precision, ensuring the highest proportion of music (and free food and free drinks) possible. By many people’s measures, my week this year was an inefficient failure.
But I’ve never had a SXSW that felt more truly connected. The events I helped put together were immensely satisfying, the music I did see was a nice mix of the familiar and the utterly new to me, and the chance to hang out with Craig and the band (and Joel and Elisa) was just as good as I could have hoped.
It helped me remember — even in the face of the horrible deaths of people who were just in Austin to be part of it all, even in the context of insane corporate branding and stupidity — why I spend so much time trying to put events together; why I wanted to move to Austin; and why I believe in music and this scene so damn much. It’s about joy, about community, about making stuff better.
There’s gonna come a time when the true scene leaders
Forget where they differ and get big picture
‘Cause the kids at the shows, they’ll have kids of their own
The sing-along songs will be our scriptures
We gotta stay positive; we gotta stay positive.
* * *
‘Cause it’s one thing to start it with a positive jam
And it’s another thing to see it all through
And we couldn’t have even done this if it wasn’t for you
We gotta stay positive.
We gotta stay positive.
– The Hold Steady, Stay Positive