The idea that you need to buy a ticket to enjoy all the year’s biggest new music showcase has to offer is a myth that Posy Dixon is all too happy to dispel


The idea that you need to buy a ticket to enjoy all the year’s biggest new music showcase has to offer is a myth that Posy Dixon is all too happy to dispel

If you can depend on the music industry for one thing, it’s an insatiable enthusiasm for any kind of expensable get together, especially one that warrants a healthy dose of travel, networking, and drinking on the company card. Austin’s SXSW is definitely up there in the heavy weight league of work-meets-pleasure annual industry obligations. Half conference/half festival, what started as a show-case for emerging talent has morphed into a minotaur of live music that pillages the town of Austin, Texas, at the end of every March, bringing over 1900 bands from 55 countries together for a four day music marathon.

Like most festivals, tickets are on sale, which in this case gain you access to a plethora of official ‘showcases’ hosted by labels, promoters and media groups where you can catch a glimpse of all the official SXSW bands, from Hole and Megadeath to the ‘next big thing’ (Surfer Blood, Surfer Blood, sodding Surfer Blood). Predictably these tickets cost a small fortune, so tend only to be purchased by those wielding a company credit card or a reliable excuse for a tax right-off. Luckily for us mortal Switch card holders, the whole ticketing idea slightly backfired, as with so many bands, boozers and backlines in one city, it didn’t take people long to take matters into their own hands and start putting on ‘unofficial shows’ in every bar, car park and back yard within sniffing distance of downtown Austin.

Today SXSW exists in a chaotic state of glory; an unruly land of the free. The four day program of music sprawls across the city, seemingly uncoordinated or controlled by any higher body, yet coming together to create one almighty multi-genre, multi-venue, mostly free festival.

So, after 4 sweaty Tex Mex, beery Austin days here’s the lowdown of the highlights of SXSW unofficial style – all of the below provided for your pleasure for absolutely zero pounds. Viva the free revolution.

Free shows in ‘think outside the box’ settings
One of the things that SXSW is famous for is its eclectic assortment of venues. Lack of space and desire to stand out from the masses has forced promoters to resourceful measures when selecting potential gig locations, the results of which fluctuate between awesome and abysmal.

Topping the blissful venue stakes is the French Legislation Museum, an Austin Historical landmark building, erected by some cocky French dude in the 1840s on 22 acres of lavish landscaped gardens. Within these tranquil settings the unofficial Garden Party and Lawn Party rescue souls from the chaos and filth of Downtown, this year treating a sun-basking crowd to sets from The xx, First Aid Kit, Woods and Thurston Moore.

Another legendary spot (on the opposite end of the chill-out scale) is the Lamar Foot Bridge, a narrow pedestrian bridge that spans Lake Lady Bird, where three years ago some bright cookie decided to launch a gorilla late night show at 3am. Fucked Up and No Age graced the inaugural event in 2008 and since then at least one bridge show has kicked off each year. Unannounced, spread only by the late night rumour mill, the music is pretty much unfathomable as a mass of kids crawl, climb, crowd surf and riot over the bridge till sunrise.  After a few false calls Thee Oh Sees were this years suspended headliners, throwing down a 50-minute set to a deranged crowd as the bridge bounced up and down in time to the stomping garage rock.

More free shows in comically shit locations
The other result of resourcefulness and the DIY vibe is the mass of entirely inappropriate and ill-equipped spaces commandeered for the festival. Pretty much any plot of solid ground passes for a venue, if a backline (of sorts) and some power can be harnessed. This years top DIY venues included a lopsided, three-legged ex-army issue tent popped on the side of the freeway outside a fried chicken shop, the wind swept parking lot of an Ethiopian restaurant and the back garden of a quiet family pizza parlour on the outskirts of town.

We watch Lovvers utilising an array of upside-down plant pots for drum stands, local rising stars Bad Sports play ‘sans microphone’ to a handful of tweakers in some dive bar on the wrong side of the tracks, and an array of cut power supplies, broken mics and near electrocutions. These shows sure cut the wheat from the chaff and it’s in these conditions we see some of the best performances of the week, Audacity and Bad Sports being two of the finest.

A place for bands to ‘get creative’
Over SXSW most bands will play anywhere between three and twenty shows. Their solo ‘official showcase’ (attended by the industry folk, swigging bloody marys and wiggling wands of destiny) will be the one that ‘matters’, whereas the four, five, six or sixteen other shows they play serve only to spread seed, blaster reputation and keep everyone present entertained.

Let loose from the repetition of tour, ticket sales, venues and promoters, many bands unleash some of the loosest shows they will play all year, trying out new material, experimenting with ill-rehearsed covers and breaking down the crowd/band barrier whenever possible.  The pressure is low and the atmosphere is party – and you get a real feeling that as much fun is being had on stage as off.

Day one we watch Fucked Up play on the porch outside Beerland in the centre of town. Spilling onto the street they draw a huge crowd of both fans and passers by, reduced to covers as a few of the key players struggle to navigate their instruments due to the amount of weed consumed that evening. The sound is primitive and the band are in pieces, but no one cares as the sun is shining and people are jumping around in the street which is pretty much what SXSW is all about.

Similar enactments are seen at Mohawk, where Jonas Stein climbs the scaffolds during Turbo Fruit’s set, finishing a song dangling like a bat from the rafters. Later Ty Seagall’s entire band join Jeff the Brotherhood on stage. Three to a drum kit they beat the shit out of their gear before throwing it into the crowd, who kindly pass it towards the open back door. Load-out done the easy way.

A prime opportunity for guilty pleasure
Cease the moment; the sheer size of SXSW and general confused/drunk/exhausted state that the majority of attendees spend their week in creates the perfect guise for nipping off to watch one of those bands you’ve always wanted to see but have been too embarrassed, proud or skint to buy a ticket to go to. SXSW unofficial – your chance to see all that shit for free.

Top guilty pleasure shows of 2010 included Gwar at the MXTX stage (arse cheeks out, fake blood spurting out of nipples – yay alien metal, we love you) and Andrew WK (again lame, but ‘Party Hard’ just won’t wear thin). Perez Hilton’s (a serious guilty pleasure himself) annual ‘One Night in Austin’ party ticked many a box offloading Macy Gray, Estelle and fucking Snoop Dog onto a braying crowd of D listers.

House parties…
Ain’t no party like a SXSW house party… some advertised in the unofficial listings, others spread only by word of mouth. Hosts range from record labels with lavish rented ranches to sixteen year old kids whose parents have unwittingly left town on the wrong weekend.  Either way these masochists open up their homes to the masses, boasting one night line-ups that would fill an Upset The Rhythm rota for a month or two. In a two bedroom bungalow (complete with kegs, beige three piece suite and kids spewing in the hedgerow) we balance on a window ledge to watch Eternal Tapestry, Pocahaunted and Real Estate play to the living room audience at 2am.

At the other end of the scale a few miles out of town, eco label Green Owl have rented a Texan Ranch, complete with sleeping barn and swimming pools. Each night their eco-friendly Castor Oil bus shuttles friends, strangers and stragglers alike from bars in town out to the Green Owl Ranch where the party goes through the night till the sun calls out for breakfast burritos.

So there you have it, SXSW, party hard and party free. Save your pennies for a flight to Texas next year and join the ultimate freeloaders festival.

By Posy Dixon


Originally published in issue 16 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. April 2010

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