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A Week in Hipster Heaven
At South by Southwest in Austin, the dream of rock music's revival lives on
It’s not often that one finds oneself in a bar in the middle of the afternoon, flanked by roaring guitars, cardboard arcade machines playing obscure 80s videos, and an eight-foot-tall dancing papier-mâché mosquito.
Yet such things happen at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, Texas every March. And it is where I found myself this week, watching the Nashville band Snooper. It was the first time I had been to SXSW since 2019.
SXSW answers the question every aging rocker must ask themselves at some point: “Is this ever not going to be fucking awesome?”
So far, the answer is no.
Three days at SXSW are like a dream - as if, for 72 hours, nothing of any import is happening outside the dive bars of Austin. If you schedule efficiently and make use of the local Lime scooters (more on this in a bit), you can see 35 shows in the span of three days, a feat I easily managed. And for those of us trapped in the icy climes of the midwest, you are treated to warm(er) weather and world-class brisket and tacos. (And sometimes, if you play it right, brisket tacos.)
The lineup, which this year featured roughly 1,400 bands, gives young, up-and-coming artists the chance to show off to music industry-types and people who still enjoy seeing guitars on a stage. This, of course, is a dwindling segment of the population, as rock is no longer a dominant genre within music - sure, dad bands like Wilco still play to sold-out houses around America, but that’s because their fans have aged with them. Most of the bands at SXSW are looking for a toehold in a music industry that doesn’t value them.
(That’s not to say bands who play SXSW can’t go on to success. In 2019, Japanese Breakfast - A.K.A. Michelle Zauner - was a standout at the festival. Within three years, she would go on to earn a Best New Artist Grammy nomination.)
So the conference is mostly for the graying, bespectacled music cognoscenti who walk around Austin’s streets squinting at Excel spreadsheets on their phones. These lists are populated by ridiculous band names (worst this year: “Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs” - presumably, “Pigs” is pronounced differently every time), carefully selected and scheduled over the previous few months.
In other words, these are my people. You know how in the end of Blind Melon’s “No Rain” video (spoiler alert, but c’mon, it’s been 30 years), Bee Girl opens the gates and finds all the other bee people to dance with? This is Austin for me - hordes of people who don’t blink for a second if they hear you say ridiculous things like “I just saw Iguana Death Cult - definitely wasn’t as good as Gay Meat.”
(Non-geriatrics can clearly tell I am a member of the aging rocker society - at one point two girls that couldn’t be more than 20 years old walked up to me and asked me what “ska music” was. If I had two cyanide capsules I would have ingested them on the spot.)
And of course, the whole festival isn’t populated by hipster indie bands - there is an entire wing of SXSW dedicated to hip-hop. Most of the rappers hang out on 6th Street, many of them lip-syncing videos while being filmed smoking blunts. I am fairly certain I walked through the background of a few rap videos while stuffing my face with a funnel cake. I just hope they credit me by announcing a “special appearance by MC Diabetes.”
But it’s not just the people you meet in lines and at shows that make it feel like a family atmosphere. Clearly the musicians meet other band members and form friendships that will last their entire careers. They all seem to support each other - I attended at least four shows in which a band said their equipment was either lost by an airline or stopped functioning, so another band lended them their gear. Late in the set by Brooklyn band Hello Mary (more on them later), drummer Stella Wave announced she had broken a drumstick. Immediately, a man rushed through the crowd to let her borrow his.
The festival also gives regular music fans the chance to meet artists they admire, who oftentimes are randomly wandering around drinking beers. After seeing Montreal band La Sécurité (my favorite show of the entire festival), I saw lead singer Éliane Viens-Synnott and guitar player Melissa Di Menna wandering around the patio at Hotel Vegas. I walked up, told them how much I enjoyed the set, and quickly retreated. (“I love your band” can turn into “I love your band WAY TOO MUCH AND I THINK WE SHOULD HANG OUT ALL THE TIME” very rapidly, so it is important not to linger for too long. Especially when you are an oldster.)
The next night, when I saw Ellie again (we are totally on a first name basis), she gave me a little wave before taking the stage. I cannot say it wasn’t exciting that she recognized me. I suppose it is possible I had some toilet paper stuck to my sleeve and she was signaling to me that I should remove it, but I’d like to think I was in some way memorable.
ANYWAY, the whole experience is a lesson that musicians are actually real people, with real problems, and who are real fans of other bands. I went to a number of shows where members of bands I had seen before were there to support their new friends. May we all find a community where people support each other so effusively.
Of course, supporting your favorite bands on just the right schedule gets tricky in Austin, where the venues can be spread out to the point where it is difficult to get to and from shows. Fortunately, the city is littered with electric scooters, which you can use to get to a venue almost a mile away within minutes.
I freely admit I had ridiculed scooters until the very moment I tried one - not only are they time-efficient, they are actually kind of fun. (The fact that they allow people who have had a few drinks to jump on these things and weave in and out of traffic is insane, as is the rule that they are not allowed on streets that are blocked off - isn’t it better to have them on streets where there is no car traffic?)
The other primary mode of getting around are these pedi-cabs strapped to escaped mental patients who pedal you around downtown. They seem about as safe as bathing with a plugged-in toaster.
Regardless of your mode of transportation, the festival gives you days and days of pulse-pounding excitement, both from the shows themselves and the recognition there is so much untapped talent in the world. Someday rock will be back, and when it is, some of the artists featured at South By will emerge to become the biggest artists in America. (Two of the featured musicians in 2019, for instance, were little-known artists named “Billie Eilish” and “Lizzo.”)
But until the favored music of the 90s crowd comes back, we will all be continuing to sojourn to Austin every March to see band after band after band. We will fall in love with someone new every half hour, then break up with them and fall in love again at a different dive bar. And the question won’t be “why are we here?,” it will be “why would we ever be anywhere else?”
With all the throat-clearing out of the way, let’s talk about some bands.
I previously mentioned my new best friends La Sécurité, who put on the most exciting show of the festival. Their propulsive art-rock electrified everyone in the room - their only downside is that they have released exactly two songs (both of which are great.)
This, of course, is not a hindrance - it actually became British band Wet Leg’s claim to fame that they were once “the band who got famous with only three songs.” Then they released their album and it was amazing from back to front. Given the live songs played by La Sécurité (which will evidently be featured on an album being released in June), their full album will be a big success, too. There is a hefty Pitchfork rating in their near future.
Here’s one of their two recorded songs, “Suspens.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the festival for me was The Courettes, a husband and wife duo from Denmark. In listening to their album in preparation for South By, I loved the hooks and the riffs, even though they are essentially a ‘60s, Phil Spector, Wall of Sound tribute band. They sounded great, but there comes a point where the gimmick can overtake the product.
I also wondered how they could take the immense Wall of Sound effect - echoing drums, dreamy guitar lines - and translate it all into a live show featuring just two people.
The answer is that they don’t try at all - instead, while playing live, they turn into the White Stripes (with roles reversed) and shred with teeth-filling-rattling volume. I did not expect to hear James Hetfield-style riffs from tiny Brazilian singer Flavia Couri, but that’s what she delivered - and with an infectious enthusiasm and panache. The thirty or so people packed into the tiny Chess Club had a wonderful time.
Here’s “Talking About My Baby,” which is a great song, but, again, doesn’t approximate the live experience.
Word has been out about Brooklyn band Hello Mary for a while - Rolling Stone last year called them “The Next Great New York Rock Band,” and their debut self-titled new album backs that claim up.
Go listen to the album yourself. All I could think was, if the Foo Fighters released this exact album and it was Dave Grohl singing instead of Helena Straight, the album would be considered one of the Foo Fighters’ best and they would be playing stadiums around the country.
Instead, they are playing at three in the afternoon to paunchy music nerds sucking down beers in Texas. There is no justice.
Here’s their song “Special Treat.”
Finally, it is hard to discuss SXSW without mentioning Los Angeles Band OSEES (Formerly “Thee Oh Sees” and “Oh Sees,”) which has a residency of sorts at Hotel Vegas in Austin. Led by muscled, tattooed hipster John Dwyer, they are really good on record, but unbelievable live. Their songs are pure propulsion, tailor made for crowds to jump up and down and bob their heads.
Sadly, I was not able to get in to see them, but I walked behind Hotel Vegas and realized you could stand right behind the stage and peer over a fence to see the show. Some other guys and I jerry-rigged a wooden palette so we could see over the fence. (Video of the show from where we are standing at the end of this post.)
Here’s their song “The Dream,” recorded in an empty warehouse during COVID. If you can listen to it without moving your ass, you aren’t human.
Finally, if you’re at all interested in my journey through the musical landscape of SXSW, I put short clips of around 20 of the bands I saw together in a five-minute video. I recorded it all on my phone.You can check it out here:
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