I’ve been attending South By Southwest on and off for 20 years—since I was in high school and you could go get a music wristband at HEB after school for a whopping 15 bucks.
Obviously, a lot has changed. (Austin was practically traffic-free back then, at least relatively speaking.) But I had an amazing time this week, my first stint covering the festival for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper (where I used to work full time on the Metro desk) and its online arm, Austin360.com, along with a slew of incredible writers, photographers, editors, online producers, and more.
We all felt incredible sadness for the victims, families, witnesses, emergency workers, and community affected by the fatal crash on Wednesday night. For those of us awake and still working and enjoying music in those wee hours, confirmation of the two deaths was a huge, horrible shock.
Night turned into day, hearts were heavy, but the shows went on. Some victims are still in the hospital days later, getting an outpouring of support. Austin is a special place to be a music lover and live music supporter, even on the worst days.
Without further ado, here are links to, and excerpts of, what I wrote for the Statesman and Austin360 during SXSW music week. Plus some favorite photos. (My own band played SXSW too.)
The Statesman music team’s picks for the week: I’ll be scouring these again after the dust settles, looking for new music recommended by my colleagues. I already know I want to spend more time with a slew of female-driven bands on the rise.
EXCERPT: "It’s universal," said Jackie Sue Guana, 26, of Austin. "The K-Pop community is growing — it’s awesome."
Guana DJs an occasional K-Pop night at Elysium and attended the SXSW showcase with regulars and friends from a local K-Pop DJ collective Demographics, which she helped start after struggling to find K-Pop in Austin clubs.
"We call it Demographics for a reason," she said. "It’s not just Koreans. I’m Hispanic. It’s very diverse—K-Pop is for everybody."
EXCERPT: "Where were the special guests?" a friend wondered. Indeed, it was just Fiddy for the party, but he was ably backed by a six-piece live band, including an especially energetic drummer who added punch to even abbreviated dance jams like "Candy Shop" and "Magic Stick"—a natural medley because they are, essentially, one fun song with two different names. (If you prefer to drown out the standard-issue misogyny of some of the lyrics, the throbbing live bass helped, too.)
50 Cent arrived on stage right on time Tuesday night—zero introduction, zero hype—and went right to it, working both sides of the stage, getting the audience to bounce, wave, and fill in lyrics on the biggest hits. Some quibbles aside, fans got what fans came for: Curtis Jackson in strutting, megawatt-smile form. Here was the man who made 2003’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’—one of the most motivational mainstream hip-hop albums in recent memory—performing (at least a verse or two of) every jam: “In da Club,” “Patiently Waiting, ” “Many Men (Wish Death),” “If I Can’t,” “Poor Lil Rich,” “What Up Gansta,” “21 Questions,” “P.I.M.P.” and “Wanksta.”
EXCERPT: Wearing skinny jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt with a photo of a woman’s breasts on it, the tall, tattoo-covered Grace started the show with her long red hair covering her face. But when she lifted the veil after a few songs, she flashed huge smiles, strutting and yanking on the microphone stand, reveling in the joyful energy of the crowd and feeding off the bouncing enthusiasm of new bassist Inge Johansson, formerly of the (International) Noise Conspiracy and Refused.
During one song, Grace reached out to the front row and took a young man’s face in her hands as she sang. “I love her so much,” he said, turning to friends behind him when the song was over.
EXCERPT: On Tuesday night, solo drummer Rachel Jael had staked out one corner, banging away on white buckets and empty, upside down water cooler jugs. Jael, 24, is in town from Las Vegas for her second SXSW in a row. Why would she make the journey without even an unofficial showcase?
“The people!” Jael said, as masses of music fans rushed past her in all directions. “That’s why I came back. They’re crazy and they’re the best part. If it weren’t for the people, there’d be no music.”
EXCERPT: "Don’t take my picture," Gaga instructed, moments after hurling sausage links into the crowd. "Just have a good time. The best part of South By Southwest is seeing people get lost in the music."
It wasn’t the easiest advice to take. Gaga arrived on stage Thursday night strapped to a roasting pole by black bondage belts. Not long after wiggling free, one of her many theatrical sidekicks, a woman named Millie, was straddling Gaga on a bucking mechanical bull and repeatedly vomiting green and black liquids onto the performer’s face, shoulders, and apron.
Some fans stood on their tiptoes to make sure they weren’t imagining things. (“Is the girl in black sequined hot pants really gagging herself all over Gaga?”) It was as repulsive as it sounds.
My band, Butch County, rocks the Girls Rock Austin unofficial SXSW day party AND KILLS IT. :) It’s my first time playing with the all-female band, and I had a total blast. A former bandmate came up to me afterward and man-squealed, “You’re the all-female AC/DC!” A 19-year-old girl also came up to me after our set and asked if I teach guitar. I tried not to hug her and burst into tears right on the spot. Such a special afternoon. Thank you to all the friends and family who came out, supported our band, and supported nonprofit Girls Rock Austin!
(Butch County: fist-pumpin’, high-jumpin’, hangin’ with punk heroine Exene Cervenka of X.)
EXCERPT: Before launching into his 20th and final song, Pitbull instructed the crowd Friday night. “I want everybody here tonight to give me” — and he paused for emphasis between each word — “every! … thing! … they’ve! … got!”
Note to Pitbull: Too late.
From the moment the Cuban-American rapper walked on stage at ACL Live for the iTunes Festival, every single person in the Moody Theater — from fans to backing band to dancers to lighting technicians to Pitbull himself — seemed to be giving their all and then some. The show was a master class in nonstop energy.
(Good thing they sat media in the rafters. Otherwise I would’ve had to jump on stage with Pitbull and show my Zumba moves.)
EXCERPT: Gaga didn’t sing, but she strutted onto the Moody Theater stage to huge cheers, waved to the balconies, jumped up and down, fist up and long, white-blonde dreadlocks flying… . At her Stubb’s show, Gaga told the crowd she’d been going all out at South by Southwest. ”I haven’t showered,” she said. “I’ve been drinking a lot, eating a lot. I’ve been seeing so much music I forgot to get a manicure.”
EXCERPT: “Get on stage! Come on! Everybody! All the girls!” The lead singer of Oklahoma City band Skating Polly would not take no for an answer, eventually coaxing more than a dozen kids onto the stage at Cherrywood Coffeeshop during Friday’s Girls Rock Austin party.
The young music fans danced, sang along, and made a spontaneous, scuzzy noise on the punk duo’s instruments …
I slept, went out for migas and a Bloody Mary (my first alcohol in a week, since writing and drinking don’t mix for me), did laundry for hours on end, and hung out with my husband and kids. It was glorious. Life is good, and I am so grateful for this exhausting, inspiring, and hopefully unforgettable week! Thanks for sharing it with me!
P.S. - For crying out loud, it’s been such a crazy week I totally forgot that last Sunday I wrote this piece about “meaning it” at SXSW. Every word is still true.
Erin J. Walter is a writer, musician, mother, and aspiring Unitarian Universalist minister living in her hometown of Austin, Texas, where she serves on the board of Girls Rock Austin. Prior to joining Butch County, she played bass in indie bands Second Story Thief, The Personals, The Hidden Mitten, and Pocket Cat, and sang with the Blue Ribbon Glee Club and Regrettable Sweaters. Follow Erin on Twitter and Instagram @erinjwalter. Feedback welcome!