Next week, I will be back in Austin, TX, for my annual Spring Break ritual: the South by Southwest Music Festival. No beaches for me. I'm a live music junkie, sure, but I'm also cursed with what comedian Bill Hicks famously called the "bar tan": pale skin, tan teeth.
SXSW is better suited for my mid-March desires (and SPF threshold), delivering four days and nights (this year, next Thursday, March 17th to 20th) of the best in unsigned/independent bands at downtown Austin's many small and mid-level venues. Broken Social Scene on a tiny club's second-floor stage? Been there. The Decemberists performing to a crowd of 30 at an unassuming, outdoor patio? Done that. My Morning Jacket's Jim James falling to the ground at my feet during a guitar solo? Oh, yes. Matador Records' up-and-comer Shearwater filling a cavernous church with opera-like bravado? Wow.
It's similar enough to New York's CMJ Music Festival in the tons-of-bands, tiny-stages respect, but that fest—and others—do not have the city of Austin going for them. Its overblown "Live Music Capital Of The World" label really does come true one week every March, a fact you might believe simply by sticking to the main 6th Street drag of nightclubs.
But sometimes, trying to squeeze into the bathroom at Emo's to see Iggy Pop's secret urinal gig isn't all that fun. I'll be at SXSW to see as many big names as I can, sure, but I'll also report back on the peculiar moments that result from leaving the fest's major nexus and watching the rest of the city come to life. Pizza parlor concerts, house parties, day parties in front yards, unassuming folk bands at coffee shops—these are the places where the "new weird" of SXSW tends to sprout and blossom.
Where psychedelic bands like Pocahaunted can turn an awkward, narrow restaurant into a tunnel of compelling, droning noise. Where Austin mainstay Peter & The Wolf can command the corner of an undersized, East Austin club like The Peacock just to make sure his makeshift choir of 12 can sound good in a venue with no acoustics. Where Canadians from country-tinged music collectives like Six Shooter Records can take over a tiki bar and out-twang almost any pure-bred Austinite in the city. Where San Diego's epic blues-metal outfit Earthless can turn a podunk CD store in North Austin into the Fillmore East because of a 40-minute beast of a rock song.
Even in SXSW's furthest corners, there is music, and it is loud and important. Also, there is typically shade. So I will be there.