Babysitting at South by Southwest, a cautionary tale

//Babysitting at South by Southwest, a cautionary tale

Babysitting at South by Southwest, a cautionary tale

<Smiley face

So where were we? Oh yeah, Tucson.

I went from there to Austin to get the Traipsemobile’s inverter replaced. This is way more complicated than it ought to be, since apparently the Xantrex company, the manufacturer, doesn’t like to admit mistakes. Much like the Bush administration, Lindsay Lohan and whoever keeps giving tv shows to Jim Belushi.

The 6th street mob at South by Southwest

This means that instead of just replacing the inverter – the vital component that allows battery power to be converted to the 110 power that runs the tv, microwaves and other appliances (Yes, I’ve been living without tv or the microwave for weeks now. How do I do it? Because I’m very brave.) – Xantrex requires we SEND them the allegedly malfunctioning unit and they’ll determine whether it should be replaced, goddammit. So I had to get the Sportsmobile guys in Austin to remove the inverter and send it off to Xantrex (whose corporate headquarters is apparently located somewhere on Planet Pissy) and then we have to wait several weeks for a replacement to arrive. I know. Did I mention how brave I am?

To make it to Austin by 10 a.m. on Tuesday, I had to drive all day Monday from Las Cruces, sleeping for a while next to that funeral home in Fredericksburg. It was very, very quiet there. Although I think I smelled ghost farts. Or it might have been the BBQ ribs I had in Junction. Lum’s. Damned tasty, they were.

My point, not that I have one, is that my arrival in Austin happened to coincide with the largest drunkfest this side of Mardi Gras, that being the 2011 South By Southwest Music Festival, referred to as SXSW by those of us too lazy to type out the whole thing.

This thing, once a nice little showcase for regional indie bands, has long since gotten completely out of control. Every band looking to get noticed, or stay noticed or remind people that they’re not dead shows up there now. There are 2000 bands in town. (Possibly not. I’m not actually looking anything up for this. Just go with it.). For the 5 days of South By Southwest, there is no live music anywhere else in the world, because every band in the world is in Austin, trying to bum a cigarette from someone.

Normally, I would avoid this at all costs. But a friend of mine, Kevin Bronson , of Buzzbands LA, the wise old man of Los Angeles indie rock, was running a showcase at the Cedar Street Courtyard, right in the heart of the thing. It was free. There was beer. Really, I had no choice but to go.

What I love about SXSW (and I kinda do love it, in spite of itself) is the way it’s spilled over to the rest of the city, way outside the official 6th-Street hot zone. I woke up Wednesday morning in a parking lot off Guadalupe, miles from the actual festival. But there was a band setting up about 40 feet away. They were as surprised to see me as I was to see them.

Kevin Bronson

All over town you could see little packs of lost musicians, confused by the daylight, looking ridiculously out-of-place in their skinny black jeans and porkpie hats, trying to make sense of a 10 a.m. world they’d never seen before. You could have rounded them up, coaxed them into your vehicle with a Torchy’s Taco, taken them home and raised them as pets. I’m sure this has actually happened.

The Buzzbands showcase started at noon, just about the same time Jack White showed up a half-block away to play an impromptu acoustic concert in a parking lot. This is why no one was at the Buzzbands showcase. Not immediately, anyway.

Kevin, who I’ve known since he was in high school, has become the Eminence Grise of the L.A. indy scene, that skinny white-haired guy in the back of the club who knows everybody. Any band that’s gotten famous in the last few years – Arcade Fire, Silversun Pickups, even Katy Perry – Kevin saw them first. And he’s got an excellent eye for talent. If he says you’re gonna make it, you will. If he says you’re not there yet, you aren’t.

Which is why every band in town covets his approval. One way he bestows it is by inviting them to appear at his SWXW showcase. So, it’s kind of like an all-star lineup of his favorites.

Linda Perry at the BuzzbandsLA showcase

I was drinking by 12:30, so I may not be the best person to recap the show for you, but I was mighty impressed by every act he’d chosen, although they couldn’t have been more different. There was this really gritty roots rocker, Hanni El Khatib and lots of power-poppy bands like Eastern Conference Champions and Voxhaul Broadcast.  Linda Perry showed up with her new band Deep Dark Robot. Her new album is “8 Songs About A Girl,” featuring the track, “Fuck You, Stupid Bitch.” It’s not a ballad.

But my favorite – and this surprised the hell out of me – was a techno-dance group from Seattle called Brite Futures. I may have been influenced the fact that their original name was Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head, a name which, according to her lawyers, Ms. Portman did not approve. Brite Futures is a better name anyway.

Brite Futures (formerly Natalie Portman's Shaved Head)

They come out with pink amplifiers and 80’s bright colors, wearing the outfits Sting threw out after the  Synchronicity tour, and play this delirious, impossible-to-resist stuff like My Sophisticated Sideways Ponytail, all grinning and bouncy and shiny. They’re like a Glee episode come to life. In a good way, I mean.

I spent the next couple of days just wandering around from one pocket of noise to another. I avoided trying to hear any band I’d ever heard of, because that’s where all the crowds go and you’re never going to get in anyway. You just float down the street, look at all the kids drinking all that beer and think to yourself, “That’s going to lead to an enormous amount of puking.” Which, of course, it does.

The view from the Traipsemobile during SXSW

By Friday, I’d seen enough. Because I am old. But I wanted to see one more band before I left. AgesandAges is from Portland, big on harmonies and handclaps, a big hippie-throwback kind of band that included a friend of a friend. I promised her I’d give them a listen.

About an hour before they went in, my friend posted an urgent Facebook message that her friend, Kate O-Brien-Clarke, the band’s keyboard player/string player/vocalist/handclapper extraordinaire, was in a panic.  She and her husband, Jay – who is in 3 different bands, at least 2 of which were playing at SXSW – had brought their 7-month old son with them and had made arrangements for a babysitter that, at the last moment had fallen through. So both parents had very important gigs and no one to care for their baby.

AgesandAges (that's Kate in the middle)

Don’t panic. I did NOT offer to babysit. The court orders have been very clear that I am not to do that. But I wanted to help if I could. So, instead of just being another old guy in the back of the club watching the show (which turned out to be mighty enjoyable) I called everyone I could think of that might be able to help. None of them could, because they’re my friends. But I tried, and that’s the important part.

No, actually, it isn’t. Kate and Jay, because they’re smarter than me, somehow managed to turn up a responsible adult who could watch their baby during their afternoon gigs but they had no transportation to get the baby to the sitter. This, my friends, is what the Traipsemobile was made for.

Kate packed up her violins and keyboards (she kept her hands with her) and sent them with the rest of the band that was going from Barbarella (the noon gig) to Betsy’s Bar (the 2 p.m. show) a mere six blocks away. Kate, the baby and me, went the other direction, to the babysitter’s house north of downtown, 20 minutes away on a good traffic day. Friday, during SXSW, is not a good traffic day.

Somehow we extricated ourselves from the downtown gridlock, zoomed up the I-35 and found the house where a friendly (and apparently warrant-free) young woman was waiting for us. By the time Kate got back in the Traipsemobile, it was 1:43, 17 minutes until showtime. The rest of the band was already on stage, set up, waiting for her.

The Traipsemobile has done amazing things in its short life. It has navigated Greenwich Village and Provincetown. It has climbed mountains and crossed deserts. But it has never performed more admirably than it did that day in Austin. We zipped in and out of traffic. We roared past stunned onlookers. We hairpin turned. We found seams in the traffic flow as if we were Adrian Peterson. We Starsky & Hutched ourselves all the way back onto 6th Street in record time. Kate was dropped off in front of Betsy’s Bar at 2:01 p.m., she ran out of the van and directly onto the stage.

I could have found a parking spot and gone in to watch the show. Or one of the 100 other shows going on around me. But it would have felt anti-climactic after that. There was only one thing for me and The Traipsemobile to do. We drove away. Heroes? Perhaps. Saviors? Maybe. In need of a quiet bar to drink many Shiner Bocks and watch basketball for a while? Definitely.


And now, here are a few selected songs for your listening pleasure:

Fuck You, Stupid Bitch (Deep Dark Robot)

[audio:|titles=Fuck You, Stupid Bitch (Deep Dark Robot)]

Sophisticated Side Ponytail (Brite Futures)

[audio:|titles=05 Sophisticated Side Ponytail 1]

Alright You Restless (AgesandAges)

[audio:|titles=03 Alright You Restless]

By |2011-03-26T17:53:44-04:00March 25th, 2011|Dispatches|3 Comments

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