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Dispatch from SXSW: It’s All About The Music, Man

It’s much, much harder to enjoy all that SXSW has to offer than it used to be, at least without being forced to buy an expensive badge.


A long time ago, in an Austin far, far away, South by Southwest was started as a small music festival. Just 700 people attended the first event in 1987. Now 31 years later nearly half a million people show up to the ten day festival in the now 11th largest city in the country. It’s no longer just a music festival, but also home to a film festival with blockbuster world premiers and an interactive conference that has seen the launch of must have apps.

SXSW is so much more than it used to be, but at its heart, especially for me, it’s still a music festival. About ten years ago my brother was living with me between undergrad and law school. SXSW was much younger then, easier and cheaper to navigate. After working all day we would change clothes at my office downtown and head out into the streets to catch all the live music. For little or no money, we could go from venue to venue and hear musicians from across the world, some bands that may some day make it big, some that never would, but it was the ultimate way to experience live music.

I love live music, in fact I think it’s the ultimate way to experience music. My favorite weekend of the year is the Austin City Limits Music Festival each fall where hundreds of bands descend upon seven stages in Austin’s largest park for music, local food, and good beer. It’s a damn good time. It used to be easy to do that at SXSW. It’s harder now.

That year I went with my brother we found a British gal who was singing in a hotel bar. We had never heard of her, but caught a bit of her first song as we walked by and thought we would stay. When it was over we started talking about how much we liked her performance and the couple next to us chimed in. Unbeknownst to us we had been sitting next to her parents the entire time. They were the sweetest British folks you’d ever met, complete with the quirky accent and NHS teeth. They asked us all about Austin, where they could go eat in the few hours they had free, and what there was to see. That’s something that can only happen at SXSW.

We liked her set so much we decided to go see her second showcase at an all British night at a club later that week. She was one act on a big bill that concluded with Aqualung. Despite not have an expensive wristband or badge, we were able to get into that show and enjoy a whole host of great British acts. I walked out of there with three CDs that night from bands I had never heard of before. I was able to do that for a few more years. Now it’s much, much harder to enjoy all that SXSW has to offer without being forced to buy an expensive badge.

Thankfully there are still a few options we music lovers have. On the south shores of Lady Bird Lake, just across from downtown, SXSW sets up a free stage the last few nights of the festival and loads it up with acts. This year they’re making you get a “guest pass” in order to attend, which means you have to give them your contact info and probably expect to get blitzed with emails, but it’s still free. This year you’ll get to see Los Lobos, Shakey Graves (who is amazing live!), Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Night Drive, Shinyribs, Rory Erickson and more. It’s a pretty great line up.

What’s really nice though is what our local public music station does. KUTX, and offshoot of our NPR station KUT, both based at UT Austin, holds morning concerts at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Austin on the banks of the lake. It’s a gorgeous setting, with great bands, and it comes with breakfast tacos! Who can say no to live music and breakfast tacos? Not this guy. The bill this year is impressive. It includes, Kalu & the Electric Joint, Knox Fortune, Bully, Erika Wennerstrom, Naked Giants, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Duncan Fellows, Jade Bird, Dessa, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real, Lido Pimienta, Bekon, and Ghostland Observatory among others. Yeah.

As a live music fan, seeing a line up like that without having to drop $1000 is fantastic.

Another radio station in town, KGSR, does a similar concert series at the W Hotel this week as well, featuring Cloves, Cold War Kids, Matt Costa, Old Crow Medicine Show, Bishop Briggs, Bob Schneider, Walker Lukens, and believe it or not Hanson. So if that sounds more your speed you can head over a few blocks to the W and see those shows on the cheap.

This is the Live Music Capital of the World, and SXSW is the largest live music festival in the world with well over 2,000 acts performing in the countless venues across town, so somehow or another live music fans will find a way for other live music fans to see good music without having to pay an arm and a leg for it. I just wish it didn’t have to be that way.

Friday’s SXSW dispatch: a highly unusual dinner.