168 Hours at SXSW

For a music lover who wakes and sleeps surrounded by song, a morning of silence is rare. A quiet Sunday is especially rare, as this is a day I often devote to a special, self-defined genre consisting of songs that are good for doing laundry and lying in hammocks. But not this Sunday. This Sunday my ears and brain need to heal. But mostly, they need some time to cherish everything they’ve just seen and heard without tarnishing it with a return to recorded songs just yet.

This SXSW seemed even more satisfying than year’s past. The breadth of music was remarkable as was the variety of venues and their ability to make me better understand what makes our city so special. Here, an incredibly indulgent look back at the week, complete with links for anyone with the patience or interest.

The week started late night on Sunday with a trip to the Enchanted Forest for Silent Frisco. Enchanted, indeed.  All at once feeling not hipster enough and like I fit in perfectly under the most enormous disco ball I had ever seen, the hidden forest off Oltorf was a little piece of Austin I wouldn’t have imagined. Amidst a full-fledged bonfire and laser light show hundreds of people danced with lighted headphones, indicating their preference for the “green” or “blue” dj.  The silent community amazed me as I scanned the crowd to see the popularity of blue and green switch back and forth and the dancing get more intense. The energy was something you felt without hearing.  There was an indescribable sense of connection to anyone you passed whose headphone light was the color of your own. As the night got later and the djs got better, the lights switched more frequently, the crowd seeming to realize they were missing something great no matter which they chose and the djs battling it out for a silent but enthusiastic audience.

After a day full of interactive panels, Monday night was the Industry Party. I’ve long been aware of our agency’s ability to throw a great party but what made this one particularly special was that the bands featured were on many people’s “must see at SXSW” list and there’s something validating about hearing a band, Apache Relay, interviewed on Sirius radio’s special SXSW show just days after they performed at your office.  It was fun to play host at our own venue as the crowds poured in to Austin and Apache Relay along with Motopony and Heartless Bastards were the perfect entertainers.

A very late post-Industry party dinner at 24 Hour Diner made a Tuesday morning 9:30 interactive session improbable, but impossible for me to miss. My favorite music blogger, Heather Browne of Fuel Friends, was participating in a panel about music discovery and I couldn’t pass up a chance to hear the woman who brought me this post and Tyler Lyle talk about how she finds great music. It didn’t disappoint, partially because I learned about sites like, and the radio station KCRW (which apparently, as a music person, I should have known about long ago) but also because it made me think about music discovery in general and what a big part of my life it plays. The panel made me realize about how much credence and effort I’m willing to give to a personal recommendation versus how quickly I’ll “thumbs down” a song on Pandora and secretly roll my eyes in disgust at how badly the algorithm has misjudged me.  It also made me wonder if all of these new tools are helping more people discover music or the same small group of music junkies discover more music?  But, mostly, the panel made me feel lucky to live in a time when all of this is happening.

Tuesday afternoon brought the first of serendipitous events, an ACL taping with the Alabama Shakes that I won through the ACL Blog. I don’t remember a band having as much hype as this one in a long time, evidenced by the fact they were asked to perform a legendry ACL taping before they even released their first album.  Soulful, all-encompassing blues rock, it took less than one song to understand the hype. Brittany Howard has a voice that is that perfect blend of raspy, elegant and authentic. When she sings, I believe whatever it is that she has to say.  The privilege of seeing that band in that venue was undeniable.

A morning of work and Wednesday afternoon I was off with the masses for the first official day of SXSW music. I started with the always solid Paste party for Tennis and then headed to Mohawk to hear the last bit of Zulu Winter before waiting in line at Stubb’s for a couple of hours hoping to get into the massive NPR showcase. Badgeless, wristbandless, and foolish we hoped against hope that there might be a few tickets for sale at the door. Minutes before Fiona Apple took the stage the SXSW gods smiled down upon us and opened the box office in time for us to get tickets. Hearing Fiona Apple took me back to 1997 and my freshman year of college but she didn’t have quite the energy or “bigness” I’d expected from her.  Sharon Van Etten was next and I was really looking forward to her. I love her album and it falls quite nicely into my revered “Sunday Music” genre. She didn’t quite live up to my expectations, mostly because I think the venue was too big for her and the sound seemed a little off. That said, her last song “Serpents” was all that I’d wanted and I’ll see her again in hopes the entirety of her show is a little more like that under different circumstances. Dan Deacon was a surprise of the night. Electronic DJ and just a bit outside my typical taste, this guy added great energy between the Sharon Van Etten and Alabama Shakes set and I loved it. He also somehow convinced the majority of the Stubbs crowd to join together in a choreographed dance led by one of his friends in the middle of the circle. Yes, that guy was good.  Alabama Shakes were equally as fantastic as the first time, almost more relaxed and carefree than they’d been at Moody Theater. Finally, Andrew Bird took the stage. It is no secret that I love this man. His music makes my heart hurt in the best possible way and he is to my adult self what Counting Crows was to my college self. But he’s also immensely talented, intellectual in his lyrics, and could be the poster child for rebranding high school orchestra programs. Atop a beautiful set, he played a good amount of his new stuff (which will not disappoint) and mixed in a few older gut-wrenchers for good measure. No amount of exhaustion would make me leave his set early and his encore, Fake Palindromes, made the late night all that much more worth it. You can be sure I’ll be reliving this show over and over again for as long as NPR will let me.

Andrew Bird at Stubb's

Thursday saw more work and then an escape back to Paste for Of Monsters and Men. I’d really hoped to see them this week and they definitely lived up to my expectations. They’re young and still seem sort of naively surprised at how much people love them, which is a really refreshing thing about bands that come to Austin during SXSW. Their sound is big, fun, instrumental and really happy and they reminded me a little bit of Fanfarlo from a couple of years ago. I understand their tour is sold out so I loved getting to see them in the small casual space of The Stage on 6th and they’re definitely a band I’ll see again if I get the chance.  A couple of other bands and beers later, Built to Spill performed. They’ve been on my concert bucket list for several years and, even though it was a short set, they were nothing short of excellent. They might be on a pedestal with Andrew Bird for their ability to fill up the entirety of my brain and soul space in a few short notes. It’s possible there were tears. “Timetrap” and “Car” were a couple of personal highlights but seriously, if you’ve written this band off as a has-been of the nineties please, for the love of all that is holy, revisit your perspective.  Thursday evening closed out with a show on the rooftop of McGarrah/Jessee in which the venue was the star. Spotify and MSN created the perfect space that gave Austin a whole new feel akin to my most romanticized ideas of New York. Grimes put on a fun show with some good beats that made my inner hip-hop lover happy and I’ll continue to listen to her stuff as she undoubtedly gets bigger. I stayed through part of SBTRKT, mainly mesmerized by the projection antics on the buildings around me but I hit my wall before A$AP Rocky hit the stage.

Of Monsters and Men at Paste Party at Stage on 6th

With a little more sleep and my rally face on, Friday morning started off with more Of Monsters and Men at Filter, this time from the back of a huge crowd with the band continuing to woo every one of us. We stuck it out for most of the day at the Filter party at Cedar Street in hopes of seeing old favorite Fanfarlo with some of their new stuff.  They were enjoyable and the same Fanfarlo I know and love, but lacking some of the energy and enthusiasm they’ve had in the past-undoubtedly a symptom of the craziness that is SXSW. After a break for dinner and happy hour we headed to St. David’s Church to see if we could catch any of the official showcase there. We waited while people excitedly poured out after Ben Howard and reached the sanctuary in time to hear the last three acts of the night. Willy Mason was great if overshadowed in my memory by the beauty of the venue, the quality of the acoustics and the presence of Marcus Mumford one pew away. Both Daughter and Michael Kiwanuka followed and don’t deserve to be lumped into one thought but they both blew me away with their thoughtful lyrics and somewhat haunting voices. The whole set was such a refreshing, quiet change from the rest of the festival and reminded me how much great acoustics can change an experience.

At long last, the home stretch arrived. Saturday morning called for a much needed Kerbey Lane breakfast before the final leg began. The day began uneventfully at Malverde where ZZ Ward, despite sound problems, brought a really interesting mix of singer/songwriter and hip-hop and certainly made me curious enough to hear her under different circumstances. Next up was something I’d sworn I’d never do-walk into a bar called Peckerheads. Yes, this took great effort but it seemed worth it to hear one of the highlights of everyone’s festival, Ben Howard, perform his last show of the week. I can say 2 things with absolute certainty: I will never set foot in Peckerheads again and Ben Howard was completely worth it. He’s billed as a singer/songwriter but I think that’s an understatement. His sound is bigger, his voice is rich and his lyrics are gorgeous. People are comparing him to David Grey or Damien Rice and he definitely has that deep, emotional sound about him but I think there’s more to him that I can’t pinpoint yet. On the list of people I’d like to see again, he is near the top.  A walk past Mohawk to be teased by The Roots and we were headed to the finale of the week-The Big Easy Express with Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and Mumford and Sons performing. I was skeptical of this choice in the beginning. It was opposite a longer Built to Spill show that I would have loved to see, I’d never seen the lawn of LBJ as a venue before, it was a MySpace event and the ticket situation seemed questionable at best. I was proven wrong and blown away. The documentary perfectly captured the Railroad Revival Tour’s intrigue and energy and Austin was more than well-represented, especially that insane cloud that loomed over the show in May and is, to date, the most photographed thing in my Instagram feed.  There was such an immense sense of togetherness sitting with thousands of people on a lawn on the UT campus, overlooking a great Austin sunset and the UT tower, watching a film and anticipating the performance of the stars of that film more and more with each frame. They delivered. Edward Sharpe was as clear as I’d ever seen him perform, coming across as more free spirit than just unabashedly insane. I loved their new stuff, their audience interaction and the genuine feeling that they were happy to be there. Mumford never disappoints but giving us a taste of their newer work was a nice surprise and the Austin High Marching Band left me wanting so much more drumline in my life. I couldn’t have asked for a better closing than a personal favorite, “Wagon Wheel” that was equal parts sing-along and performance. The company was flawless and even the lack of alcohol at the event was a welcome change for my liver. Suddenly, the t-shirts bearing the phrase  “Long Live Myspace” didn’t seem quite so far-fetched. All-in-all, a perfect conclusion to a week that makes me so grateful to live in Austin.  As Brittany Howard put it, “I love Austin. Good people, good food, good music, good times.” Yes, I think that about sums it up.

Big Easy Express at LBJ Lawn


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