Words/ photos: Lloyd Bolton
Last week I travelled to Austin to test the widespread assertion that one can spend a week at SXSW without a ticket and still see plenty of the bands and come away with a belly full of free food and booze as well. The key to this was to pay ardent attention to events being announced in the weeks building up to the festival, RSVP to as many of these as my weary email address could take, and a readiness to enact a shapeshifting plan of action as the days unfolded. Was it possible to see enough music for this all to be worth my time? Absolutely. In its wake I feel I could do with a month of total silence. And I only arrived three days into the music section of the festival! Here’s how it went down.
For those who don’t know, SXSW is an annual showcase of (primarily) a huge breadth of music across genres and film premieres that takes place in Austin. It is broadly organised with films taking centre stage in the first week and music in the second, and its bill is completed by talks from all sorts of speakers from various industries discussing their work, this year ranging from Lizzo to the company putting Luis Suarez on the NFT market. The event is primarily an opportunity for industry professionals to network and showcase work they are involved in, usually mediated by some sort of company, be it Bad Vibrations or Urban Outfitters. The festival famously ‘takes over the city’, though I found this to apply more to the attendees (flooding cowboy boot stores and Lime-scootering down the streets) than to the music itself, which generally revolved around Red River and Rainey Street and other downtown spots, with a few events (mostly unofficial) sprawling elsewhere.
“I listen through a festival line up imagining all the bizarre cutting-edge artists I’ll find, before falling in love with another country singer.”
The core of SXSW is a series of official events, which require a badge costing over $1000 to get into, however the concentration of all of these interesting international performers in one place opens the door to a parallel festival of unofficial showcases. Hotel Vegas, home to free or cheap events all week, must have put on over 300 bands across its three stages through the week (making its money back charging a traumatic $7 for a can of Lone Star). Their main focus was certainly on thrashy punky bands, Surfbort seemingly playing every other night. Half the time you could tell who was on stage later just by looking around the crowd for a dyed mullet. A lowlight I look back on fondly was the band whose name I didn’t bother finding out who crashed through similar sounding song after song, their singer yelling whatever and then closing each track saying ‘Fuck you. We’re bankrolled by Joe Rogan.’ Redeeming the venue the day after, I saw the brilliant Faux Real at midnight the next day, an all-singing, all-dancing, high-kicking, snake-hissing Romulus and Remus.
The other good thing about Hotel Vegas was its photobooths. I wasn’t particularly interested in their usual function but crashing around 6pm on the night I was to stay up for the Brothers Faux, I found they were a great spot for a quick nap. There’s enough available that you probably wouldn’t be disturbed by people waiting to use one and their little curtain gives you a bit of darkness and privacy. In spite of the blaring music outside I got a good 15 minutes bent into one before someone poked their head in and asked was I alright and did I need some water.
Generally speaking, ‘day parties’ are the ones anyone can get into, including some official events, and the evenings are a little more difficult to fill for one without a badge. There was plenty of good stuff on to see during the day, multi-day showcases run by Doc Martens and Flood Magazine forming my bread and butter. I caught Ezra Furman playing a rocking, vital set of old and brand-new tunes, all worth hearing (especially recent single ‘Point me Toward the Real’). I was also lucky enough to catch Zamrock legends W.I.T.C.H. (brilliantly an acronym for ‘we intend to cause havoc’), who I was surprised to discover were still going at all at this point. They ran through an unpredictable course of wah wah garage punctuated by idiosyncratic musical jump cuts and the joyously eccentric antics of their frontman, who danced around and made great unathletic leaps over his monitor.
I attended an equally memorable day ‘showcase’ being held in the corner of the fancy and soulless Fairmont hotel, looking to catch my latest obsession Branson Anderson. (Every time I listen through a festival line up idealistically imagining all the bizarre cutting-edge artists I’ll find before falling in love with another country singer). It was as if the hotel itself had no idea what they were hosting, with their socials mentioning only the special steak they were serving over the weekend, with the stage itself shoved in a corner behind a couple of sofas. The songs were great but it was a bizarre environment to hear them, with most of the staff and patrons unaware what was going on in their midst. Anderson even came up to me mid-set and started chatting to me, ‘how’s it going? How come you’re here paying attention among all this?’, wilfully discarding his role as performer and the formality exuded by the hotel. In whatever form, I found these day events plentiful and easy to get into. The longest queue was at the Doc Martens party and that was around 15 minutes.
It is also during the day that one has the best hope of finding open bars and free food. One should not, as I did, expect to be fed free tacos and beer all week, however. Most days I ended up paying for most of my food and drink. The pursuit of free shit generally meant forgoing your choice of what music if any you got to enjoy it with. I did best at a Canadian event with an open bar and free poutine. As I guzzled and gorged I ended up involved as a deadweight in a rather interesting conversation between film producers, the sort of thing that could happen a fair bit here if you weren’t careful (or wanted to forge your way into the industry). ‘Oh yes, the growing potential of Indonesian filmmaking, of course…’. I was also pretty pleased with myself at the Tulsa takeover on Rainey Street where I managed to get two margaritas effectively for breakfast crossing Rainey Street to a fresh produce company showcase where I chugged a lot of free cans of sparkling water in the sun while Naima Bock played a lovely lunchtime.
Essential to tracking down free showcases and free food was the slice of twitter dedicated to sharing such events. I created a separate account so that my feed would be 100% South By info, which was really helpful for catching event announcements and keeping up with the latest news on the ground. The best account to follow was The Dirty Team, who seemed to cover most unofficial event announcements and checked in every day updating us on where the party was at. Also good were Festival Saviours and SXnoms, both mostly dedicated to finding the lowdown on what food was going about and where.
My first night I ended up at a secret Meatraffle set at the Sahara Lounge, which they cryptically publicised on their page as a set by ‘Carnivore Tombola’. This ended up being a rare old night in a venue with an L-shaped ramshackle glamour that inspired Meats manager Tim to proclaim it ‘the Windmill of Austin’. Someone was going round asking people to speak to her tape recorder Warhol-style. She later popped up on stage as part of the perfectly expressive DIY guitar-drum duo Being Dead, who were one of the revelations of the week. Cocktails were far more cost-effective than beers, fuelling my own inspiration on the sweaty Meatraffle dancefloor. I ended up staying past close with the band sipping the cheap champagne the venue provided for them after the show. Through the week they became semi-regular companions between their other shows in the Austin saloons and on honky tonk dancefloors, a base of Londoners to bounce Texas off.
I was told throughout the week that this year’s festival was a more muted affair than usual as a result of the continuing uncertainties and anxieties associated with the pandemic. This seemed to benefit the ticketless hanger-on as most queues for free events were absolutely negotiable, the exception being anything involving everyone’s dad’s favourite 6Music DJ’s favourite band Wet Leg. As for ‘official showcases’, I found that any that I tried to get into were accessible to all, requiring at most a cover charge of $7. Ultimately, those running shows want to have as big an audience as possible, so naturally they opened things up if they didn’t fill up with badge holders. I got to celebrate something of an anti-St. Patrick’s Day at a wonderful dual showcase of Scottish and Welsh artists, dancing to a joyous Walt Disco headline in the small hours and even ending up with a couple of drinks tokens courtesy of the hospitality of the FOCUS Wales team. I was also able to indulge in another Faux Real set as part of the thoroughly excellent Wide Awake/Bad Vibrations night, and when that all began to feel too familiarly British, snuck in free to a showcase by South Korean collective Balming Tiger, glad to be baffled and engrossed by the irrepressible Mudd the Student.
The week was absolutely exhausting. Prospective attendees might consider coming only for a small section of the week or stockpiling Red Bull in advance. I spent Sunday between the bed and the sofa, rejecting all possibility of seeing another band on another stage and soothing myself in the unfamiliar simplicity of S. D. Burman. Weak as I was, I felt lucky to have had access to such an infinity of shows, and all without buying a badge (combined cover charge costs amounted to around $20). Though this was perhaps an exceptionally good year for the badgeless coaster, I am sure a similar experience can be had during a regular SXSW. Of course, nothing is truly free, this trip involving transport to Austin, inflated accommodation costs for the week and, in spite of the freebies, the reality of sustaining yourself on festival truck food all week. Ultimately, though, if the experience of something like two weekend festivals squished side by side of is something you seek, fear not the $1000 that the festival try and put between you and SXSW.