AUSTIN, TX—“It is my fortune and misfortune to know how the spirit-presence of a strange place can enrich a man or rob a man but never leave him alone.” —The Moviegoer, 1960.

Walker Percy’s words hit me as I struggle to stay awake on the long flight to Austin, TX — I fight for consciousness because I’ve found that the restless, cramped slumber of airplane sleep is somehow more exhausting than none at all. The quote is a bit daunting in light of my present situation directed toward an unfamiliar city known only to me through its reputation for being “weird.’

You know what else is daunting? 4 days, 50 stages, 1600 bands. This is South by Southwest.

I wake up exhausted at the Austin airport (sleep was victorious; blame the daylight savings time-thief who stole an hour of my life last weekend), surrounded by a sea of artistically ghetto individuals hauling guitars/ amps/ any piece of musical equipment that comes to mind through the baggage claim. The live music portion of this massive arts festival starts on Tuesday, officially, but the city is clearly just gearing up for the commotion that will climax towards the end of this week. Aware that most of the major music happenings are still in prep and resolved to heed Percy’s omen, I devote the day to Austin.

state capitol
Austin Capitol Building

The last time I trekked cross country to see a band, I found myself in the Land of Lincoln where even the license plates serve as a tribute to the Savior of the Union.

My first encounter with Austin? A massive shrine dedicated to the Confederate dead. Music takes you everywhere, and does so with a poetic irony that could inflame the jealous fury of any ancient deity. And don’t you forget it.
Don’t forget the Alamo either, but I’ve paid enough respects to the capital and historic district for the time being, and head downtown to scope out a focal point of action. It soon becomes clear how this town received its “weird” rep: there’s an attorney’s office that was formerly a combination opera house and livery, a bar called “The Library,” a Shakespearean ale house, The Driskill Hotel which proudly advertises itself as the home of shady political transactions, and about a million misfit college students knocking their “experimental’ years out of the way. Good times.
After a few hours of wandering, I stop at HALCYON coffee| bar | lounge. I stop to rest, eat Nutella crepes, and read Jung’s Answer to Job. A girl named Molly interrupts me to converse about how she thinks Jung is simultaneously crazy and sensible, and I listen with patience as I stare longingly at her film badge. And here we arrive at my dark confession: I don’t have a film badge; I don’t even have a music badge.
I’m here to see any shows that are free, have low covers, or can be accessed through conniving. There is also a small hope that I will run across a rich, Texas oil owner who will generously front $700 for my pass. This hope is quickly dying, however, as the only people I have met thus far are poor-ass, bohemian hipsters.
I try to experience the SXSW film experience vicariously through Molly, who gives a positive review of Second Skin, a mediocre review of 21, and a long spiel about the disintegration of individual privacy in the information era. Privacy concerns aren’t super SXSW-related, but it freaked me out as we parted ways. Molly went to stand in line for her next feature and I tried to find some cover-free music.
Sixth St. is graffitied with sidewalk chalk advertisements and littered with hopeful street musicians clutching guitars, banjos, and even ukuleles in hopes to impress or guilt-trip a passerby into contributing to their tip boxes. I ignore all of them and walk into Emo’s Lounge, where an Australian artist showcase is in progress. It’s happening, it’s free, so why not?
I guess in the same way that pretty much all alternative rock groups develop a slight British accent in their singing style (Thanks, The Beatles!), all folk rock singers must pick up a bit of a southern twang. Even Aussies. This principle made Kate Bradley’s soft, homespun set quite amusing, but otherwise unspectacular. The show was capped nicely Ash Grunwald, who provided some blues from down under that also carried a very controlled, psychedelic edge. Grunwald sort of made me think that Cold War Kids were compacted into one person and then hocked their piano for a surfboard and some massive dreadlocks. With a deep, tremulous voice, syncopated riffs, and breezy, but serious lyrics (e.g., “Don’t worry what others may say/ Every dog will have his day” ) to back him up, Grunwald had even the bar tenders “yee-haaa-ing” throughout the set. Actually, the Texas bar tenders were especially vocal.

Ash Grunwald

The night could have gone on much longer, but tired from the nap in the sky, and wanting to save energy for the next four days, I peaced out.

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