Once Upon a Time in Austin: My First SXSW

Picture it, Sicily, 1927 Austin, 2017. The worlds of music, film, television and gaming have descended upon the “Live Music Capitol of the World” to showcase their talents and innovations for waiting crowds of potential fans, and taste makers. The tacos, barbeque, and skinny jeans are plentiful; while reasonably priced “Event Parking” is a coveted rarity, spoken of in quiet, hushed tones like speakeasy or Wifi passwords. Every hotel lobby, restaurant, pizza parlor, doughnut shop, bar, juke joint and open space with even a hint of a stage-like area plays temporary home to your new favorite band. Everything is too crowded (badge lines), too expensive ($8.50 for a slice of pizza?!) and a tad bit sweaty (it is Texas in the springtime mind you). The downtown road closures and associated gridlock are Drake-level petty and live for denying greatness. And despite it all, South by Southwest (SXSW) remains the premiere location for up and coming artists to share their work with those at the cutting-edge of culture.

SXSW or “South By” to veterans, is the annual nine-day mega convention/festival that combines panel discussions on everything from talks by CNN’s Van Jones to the showrunners of Game of Thrones to a conversation with T.I. hosted by Sway Calloway. The highlight and main draw for many remains the last week of musical showcases, both official and unofficial. For many music devotees, South by is about finding and falling in love with your new favorite band. It is impossible to see everything at any given South By, without breaking the laws of physics, so the following is my best attempt to take in as much of SXSW and Austin as I could. In 5 days, I walked over 30 miles, saw over a dozen performances and went through two memory cards to capture it all. I heard more trap influenced music than any man my age should reasonably consume. I witnessed no less than 4 music videos filmed, 2 on the same block by two seemingly different D-boy trappers. At one point my feet and knees began colluding with my legs in an attempted coup of my lower body. I put down the revolt with whiskey, rest and barbeque, and for my trouble I was gifted a sore throat from 400 change in temperature. What follows are my highlights, memories, fever dreams and possible hallucinations of my first, ever South by Southwest. Enjoy.

Day 1: Wednesday, March 15th

Austin, TX will make anything a barbecue, and our neighbors to the north were no exception. Tokyo Police Club rocked the casually cool attendees and Idiophone played the room expertly. I dreamed of Solange and cut it short.

After disrobing*, getting my badge, SXSW Bible, Camera Tag, Map, Drink Ticket I slid to the Canadian Blast BBQ to take in the sounds of our neighbors to the north. The headliner was Tokyo Police Club, a poppy and slightly preppy garage band that is one celebrity tweet away from being your 13-year-old niece’s favorite band. The hair dyed cool kids ate it up. With songs from their EP Melon Collie and the Infinite Radness and willing crowd amped up on free Canadian pilsners, the afternoon concert and setting Austin sun was almost a too perfect to start my first day on the ground. Catching Idiophone at a random bar on 6th Street rounded out my day. Again, another fun and poppy band one tweet away from moderate celebrity. By now a long travel day and began to catch up with me and my plans to see Solange at YouTube @ Coppertank evaporated into Nag Champa scented mist. I called it a night and decided to start day 2 fresh.

Day 2: Thursday

Day 2 was jammed packed and started early. It was filled with Aussies, Woodies and Trappers oh my! From Totally Mild, a Brisbane band in the morning to varying degrees of trap raping and singing with a dollop of Neo-Soul from the Windy City.

Totally Mild is a band from Brisbane, led by their vocalist Elizabeth Mitchell. Her buttery vocals carried up and over the South-By din and enraptured me. Perfectly toned and pitched vocals from a studio recording are on thing, but to replicate that live, on stage in front of a midday and slightly toasted crowd is another.

Def Jam featured Direct Deposit hosted by Yes Julz. 070 Baby Shake, Amir Obe, Dave East, and Desiigner rounded out the label showcase. 070 Baby Shake was shy and seemed nervous at first, but as the tracks continued, she eased into her short set. Her voice is hard to describe. Think T-Boz with the Migos flow and that gets you in the right direction. Next was Amir Obe and his inexplicable decision to perform in near darkness, save for the light from his banner behind him. Amir is part Weeknd and part Drake, and while that might sound redundant, it is no less true. To misquote T-Pain, Amir is a “Rappa/Sanga” that sings more about his exes than the trap. He walks in light-skinned privilege and does the emo-rap-R&B thing well. Dave East blessed the stage, pleasing the assembled tristate attendees in the crowd. Dave is a former trapstar with the lyrical dexterity and wit of a backpacker. Donning Givenchy threads and a staccato flow, East kept the crowds attention with jams from his latest release 2016 release Kairi Chanel. Next, Desiigner took the stage and did what he is known to do.

For those unfamiliar with the 19-year-old Brooklyn native, Desiigner is known for two things in his live performances, faces and rhythmic mumbles. Desiigner will give any photographer lucky enough to be within distance so many awesome, Gumby-inspired, extreme facial expressions that you can’t help but find a decent shot. Desiigner with his hit songs Panda and Timmy Turner, was, last summer, the poster child for what some considered the “death of hip-hop”. His lyrics made be hard to hear, and his adlibs may sound like a mix of gibberish and too much lean, but his cadence is impeccable and his ability to ride a melody is beyond many of his peers. For everything “real” hip-hops heads hate about Desiigner, even they were forced to admit, that this kids gives his ALL on stage. From microphone flips, to diving, to dances, to crawls, shouts jumping in the crowd, everything. By the end of his set, featuring songs from his 2016 release New English, he was drenched in sweat, exhausted and we were all the better for it. The party paused to celebrate a milestone in his young career. The label folks came out and presented Desiigner with a plaque for selling 10 million singles. Ten. Million. Singles. In an era of illegal downloads, leaks, and streaming services, an artist selling 1 million is impressive. But Desiigner sold 10 million singles, in roughly two years. Salute!

Jamila Woods crooned to the midnight crowd at Barracuda Backyard, putting one in the mind of a young Erykah Badu.   Her band was live, her vocals were smooth and her vibe was early 00s neo-soul.

Day 3: Friday

 Day 3 was filled with Black Girl Magic, Prince Adjacent tributes, international vibes and your woke white friend’s favorite rappity rapper.

Tkay Maizda rocked the stage at the Waterloo Free Record Day SXSW showcase. Tkay is fun singer/rapper. She blessed the crowd Black girl magic, box braids and Migos. OSHUN continued the magic, literally by invoking the Yoruba spirits of their namesake. The C born and Brooklyn bred emcees sang, flowed and danced over the syncopation of their 4 piece band. Despite a late start, these ladies brought ALL the enrgy to the Russian House’s capacity crowd. NYU students, DC natives live in Brooklyn. Hip-hop, sing, neo soul, etc. can spit and sing. African deities. LOTS of energy and dance moves. Fun! Love their brown skin. Feel like if I were a woke 20 something they would be my “favorite group you’ve ever heard of”). La Travesia del Alma: (From Medellin, Columbia. Instrumental band with blended vocal. Clara Gomez and composer Sergio Giraldo craft gorgeous and lush instrumental soundscapes. Name means reclaiming our souls.


Day 4: Saturday

The final day of Austin was a moment for the movement with T.I., a brush with sugar diabetes, an overly excited Seattle rapper’s first showcase and a band with Harry Potter ballads about smoking drugs!

Conversation with TI. Hosted by Sway Calloway, featured premiere of short film Us or Else. Random band next to Voodoo Donuts . Blues/Rock Black Keys feel. Man buns, heavy bass and hard drums. Groovey, good fit on Swagger Radio station on Spotify. The iProducer series at Malverde: WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACK (too loud, screaming into the mic!)

And the band who stole the night were The Lamberts: The Whistles & the Bells. From Nashville, TN. Country Dave Matthews Band with quirky frontman. Slow jam rock song. Harry Potter single and SMOKING DRUGS!!!!

Stray Observations:

After a nap, I attempted entry into the MTV Woodie Awards. The Woodies celebrate the up and coming and cutting edge of music, and culture, and make the perfect match to a festival like SXSW. The fact that the awards were hosted by Maybach Music jefe Rick Ross and featured performances by Desiigner, DRAM, Khalid and Lil Yachty meant there was no chance in hell I was making it through the gates and into the crowd, press credentials and music badge or not.  This was to be my first experience in what would become a recurring themes of badge access denied for better badge access.  After waiting it out for an hour, I ditched and made my way back across the Colorado River and headed to Antione’s for the DefJam Direct Deposit showcase. Hosted by Yes Julz.

Travel has the potential to make you do strange things, act out character and behave in somewhat socially un acceptable ways; “what happens in Vegas” and all. In traveling from Baltimore to Austin, with a layover in Houston, for my first ever South by Southwest festival, I stripped*.  

There are multiple ways to enjoy or experience SXSW. 1.) Come for the national headliners, stand on line, maybe see them, maybe not. 2) Wander into random bars and pop up performance spaces and discover your new favorite band. Good mix of both. Canada Birthday and Aussie introduced me to two new groups I should know about.

Parking is a BEAST. Find a garage early, pay cheap and catch the shuttle. I walked a total of 30 miles in 4 days. My feet are angry with me. My legs have given up two days ago. Socks and good walking shoes are required.

Trap 808 and double high hat is EVERY WHERE. In R&B, in rock in alt-girl world music (070 Shake).  The Migos flow deserve everything they are getting. No flow is more universal than that stutter step right now in music. The 808, double snare might be the new disco drum pattern.

Well after I disrobed, I trekked to get to my rental car and get this week of musical exploration underway. I found my way to the Soul Plane, Advantage Car Rental counter to get my car for the week and…they were out of cars. Not only were they out of cars, they had given my car away because I was late to my pick-up time. Trip insurance was useless, they explained, as it was not purchased from them, but from the company that rented me the car. After several “WTF” looks and glaring daggers, I yelled in the terminal, like a corner boy putting out the test: “WHO GOT CARS FOR CHEAP?!” I was ushered to the Dollar Rental desk where I was assured my hard-earned dollars would be appreciated and put toward a small, yet sensible conveyance.  I got a damn Smart Car. Yes, I folded my entire 6’ 2” (I’m 6’3”! I’m melonated bitch!) frame into what can only be described as a covered golf cart with satellite radio.  I decide that since the majority of my week will be downtown and walking, the car isn’t really a big deal; and if it explodes from being driven faster than 40 Mph, at least my life insurance premiums are paid up and my kids will be cool. After getting my badge, camera tag, South By Bible and welcome packet, I needed a drink so I sauntered over to the Press Tent, cashed in my drink ticket and let the music wash over me.