SXSW: A Day Trip In More Detail Than Anyone Wants

Despite working late the night before at an excellent — if sparsely attended — show from Z’s and Guardian Alien, I got myself out of bed before the sun rose Wednesday morning and drove down to Austin for the first full day of the music portion of SXSW. To be honest, I detest festivals. Deep at heart I’m a misanthropist who loathes and distrusts large crowds of strangers. My 8 hours in Austin was just enough to validate that opinion, even if it wasn’t as bad as I feared.

To be honest, it wasn’t the festival itself that got me to visit; my dear friend Nate was flying in for a panel discussion he was part of later in the week and was going to have time to just hang out. Tuesday night I got a message that he was going to be filling in as a DJ between the first couple of bands at the Pitchfork Show No Mercy day party so we planned our day around that show. With him leading the way we got into the club early, where I got to meet the incredibly friendly Fred Pessaro of Brooklyn Vegan. I wish I could make it to Saturday’s metal showcase he and BV were hosting, but there is absolutely no way.

Getting in early also meant I was fortunate enough to be one of a handful of press and performers that got to see the Batillus set. They were scheduled for noon and hit the stage on time, but the venue wasn’t ready so the general public wasn’t allowed in until about 12:30. It was a shame, because they played an intensely powerful set to a nearly empty room. It did fill up midway through their second to last song, and the reception for the finale was loud and appreciative. Ian was right.

I then went outside to the other stage set up at Mohawk and caught most of Encrust’s set. Their groove-laden death metal was a definite wake-up call to the growing crowd. This is a style I’m growing more fond of the more times I see it live. I still never find the urge to listen to death metal at home, but a nice tight live set is another thing all together. Good stuff.

Around this time Kim Kelly came through, gave Nate a big hug, shook my hand, and disappeared. Nate and I agree that Kim will one day run the metal world; her talent, ambition and effort make that crystal clear. She burns bright like a sun. I only hope she is a benign ruler.

As Inter Arma started up, Nate and I looked at the schedule and realized it was lunch now or forever wish to eat, so though they sounded strong our stomachs won out. This meant we also missed out on the reliably great live band Mutilation Rites, but Nate saw them recently and I’ll see them again on Sunday. After a mediocre meal but a blessed hour of low volume talking and incidental music, we headed back to Mohawk. We had missed all of the White Lung set as well (it took forever to get our food once we ordered), which I do regret. However, they’ll be back in town in a few weeks so I’ll try to catch them then.

Back inside, the venue was filling up and the chance to see parts of both inside and outside sets was going to be tougher. While waiting for Vattnet Viskar to start I caught up with my twitter friend John of Granite House Records (it’s weird when virtual friends gain corporal forms, but so far it’s always gone quite well). One of the most gregarious people I’ve met of late, John was a joy to talk to and he seemed to hit it of with Nate as well. If you can talk music than most of the time nothing else matters.

Vattnet Viskar were solid, and as New Hampshire boys I wish them well. I ended up tearing myself away from my talkative friends and worked my way outside to see a bit of Royal Thunder’s set. Nate said he had seen Chuck Eddy earlier, and having met him at the Witch Mountain show last November I wanted to say hello. Chuck is a big fan of Royal Thunder, and I was able to peer over the crowd and see him up close to the stage. I knew that even if I pushed through the press I wouldn’t be able to do much more than shake his hand (talking up by the PA was not happening) so I stayed back and listened to the band. I hadn’t seen them before but, like so many artists these days, the live sound was something bigger and better than on record. I wish I could have caught their whole set, but Pinkish Black were on next indoors, and I have an obsession with my local favorites.

Nate hadn’t seen them before, so I used my size to block off a space near the stage for us both (we’re a bit Mutt & Jeff in scale). Pinkish Black played a much different set than I had seen them play all winter, focusing on the debut instead of new material. Some of the songs, like “Tastes Like Blood”, I hadn’t heard them play since I first saw them open for Agalloch last summer. They’re a better band than they were back then, and Daron was in fine vocal form. His vocal strength and consistency has really impressed me of late, and though some people didn’t fully appreciate, Nate and I both enjoyed it. To be honest, I like the new material better than the songs from the debut (which is saying something, as it was my favorite record of last year) but it was nice to hear them played again.

We made our way back outside to catch the second half of Pallbearer’s set. The band sounded great, as had all the artists on the outdoor stage. The sound man mixing all the bands there was really, really good. I had seen Pallbearer last December, and Nate had caught them recently opening for Enslaved. We both thought they were much, much better than we had previously heard. However, as great as the band was, singer Brett Campbell was all over the place, straining, pitchy, and generally sounding like a man who can’t hear himself at all. If he can conquer this problem they can conquer the world.

My friends Brad and Cat made it to the show during Pallbearer, and once again I enjoyed seeing them and I was so pleased they were able to make time in their schedules to catch some music and say hello. One of these days we’re going to get together and let that be the event instead of having it around a different activity. I promise.

By this point, maneuvering around the club was becoming a real chore, and it was only going to get tougher as the pits started to form for the next few bands, putting pressure on the periphery where I had at least been able to comfortably stand. Trash Talk outside and Power Trip inside were going to be a last straw for me, and as I had seen them last December I didn’t feel a pressing need, despite how good they both are live. Brad escaped upstairs to the balcony overlooking the outdoor carnage, and after talking to Jon and Daron of Pinkish Black, Nate and I escaped outside and wandered down to the convention hall so he could get his credentials.

The musical portion of my day was now over, except for hearing the sound of bands escaping out of open doors and over patio walls. I was tempted to catch Camper Van Beethoven after hearing Lowery’s distinctive croon through an open door, but the line was long and my patience was short.

I almost literally ran into Scott McCaughey while crossing the street but didn’t say anything besides “excuse me,” because a crosswalk is not the place to talk. And what would I say? “Thanks for all the music over the years?” Nah. Best I kept walking.

After Nate was properly credentialed we went looking for a Roky Erickson show at a coffee house, only to end up at the wrong branch of said establishment. We took the disappointment in stride and decided it was a sign. We’d both had enough for the day.

We zig and zagged across town to where I had parked my car, passing lots of street performers and a “red carpet” showing of the Sound City documentary, where Dave Grohl was posing for pictures. We didn’t press in to get a closer look. At this point, I was ready to leave the unwashed masses to themselves.

We wandered out to Pharah’s Mediterranean restaurant in the quirky North Loop neighborhood and had an excellent, leisurely dinner. No crowds, no noise. Bliss. I made it home before midnight.

My day was worth it, because seeing friends and hearing music are always worth it. But I would rather spend my time and money seeing each band as they come through town, playing to their fans in clubs and theaters, than deal with the crowds. Even though they really weren’t bad, and it was incomparable to what the next few days and nights would be like, I just don’t like the whole environment. I don’t see myself going back anytime soon. Unless once again a friend comes through town. Though in that case, can I suggest you fly into Dallas a day early, and I’ll bring you down after a day of relaxing fun in the Big D? Thanks in advance.

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