‘South by South’ why

Two weeks ago Wednesday, I skipped my classes and started my spring break early, going with my band to Austin, Tex. to perform as a part of the Midcoast Takeover. The event, organized by the Midwest Music Foundation, showcases bands from Lawrence to St. Louis and Omaha to Springfield, and is unofficially associated with the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival. Because there are 15 in our group – four singers; three brass players; two guitarists (one of whom is also frontman and composer); a drummer; a bassist; a violinist; a keyboardist; a band manager; and a sound engineer with the magic fingers to mix it all – we rented two Ford transit vans and gave them names: Black Betty and White Knight. I rode in the latter, and we pulled a trailer with all of our gear.

So, why would a band go to SXSW? I think it’s a fair question.

Perhaps to “get found.” Last weekend, the Kansas City Star‘s music blog reported on Bill Murray who had taken his photo with a local KC band while enjoying one of the many unofficial shows that bars have during the festival. It was an exciting moment. But still, one wonders what comes next. A contract for another Ghostbusters?

Perhaps it is to make connections. Both our manager and frontman purchased the (fairly expensive) badges granting them access to SXSW events, including the “networking opportunities” and panels on entertainment law at the Austin Convention Center. Our manager said he felt like he was “back in school,” while the frontman gave me his opinion on Friday morning as he washed the myriad of glasses and beer bottles which had taken over the kitchen counter of the three-bedroom house we were renting.

“As far as the badge thing goes,” he said, “I’m fairly disappointed.”

He told me about the event guide, which gives no descriptions of its dubiously-titled programs.

“There’s just too much,” he said.

He had attended a panel called “The Best Musicians out of Africa,” hoping to learn about the stylings of a certain type of music – its rhythms, its development, its culture. Instead, he had found some rappers lecturing on how to monetize social media.

Perhaps then, it is simply to experience the festival. Personally, I’m not so sure. Together with our lead guitarist and trombone player, I spent half a day walking the streets of Austin rather overwhelmed. Crowds of people moved aimlessly around 6th Street. From each of the bars, packed in next to each other, music blared at varying levels of offensiveness. From one, white boy rap; from another, death metal.

There were lines for everything, it seemed – lines for food trucks, lines for events, lines for lines. A whole sea of people with no idea where they were going. There was a glimmering moment of kindness, though—while we were standing by the line for a food truck selling Korean barbecue, perhaps looking a bit frazzled and overwhelmed, a passerby noticed and took pity, giving us the kimchi fries he was about to throw away.

In the end, there was a great relief for the 20-some block walk back to the van. As we passed giant agave plants which looked like deep-sea monsters and neighborhoods where broken-down abandoned houses stood beside those which were modern and carefully manicured, I wondered how the families who lived so near to the festival’s center felt about the annual mayhem.

At the river-side park where we’d been able to find a spot for the van, I admired the grackles and their strange, loud cries, as if in that moment they were the most melodious sounds I’d heard all day. Somehow they, not us, seemed to be the most well-adapted species in that environment. Even more than me, they thrive off of discarded kimchi fries.

For us, I think the trip was a symbolic gesture. It’s a rarity for a band of 15 to spend so much time together—much less, share beds. Pretty much all of us have day-jobs, so to have a trip like this come together is a real logistical feat.

On the ride to Austin, I had listened to audiobooks through earbuds rather than the music my bandmates were playing on the stereo. On the ride back, I sat in the front seat and talked jazz fusion with our guitarist, listened to our trombone player’s impressions of Samuel L. Jackson in “Pulp Fiction” and sang along with the others who knew the words to Radiohead’s album “In Rainbows.” To say that a band goes to SXSW for the bonding experience seems too facile, too simple. But, at some point along the way – somewhere between the gigs, intoxication, and the general rolling-of-good-times – I’d stopped being so separate.

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