SXSW Music: Chaos, Beauty, and the Strokes

A look at the moments of frustration and of calm at the Austin festival.


AP/Jack Plunkett

There is debris in the streets. People are waiting 30 minutes just for a food truck burrito. And the current view from my window is of a large pile of waste overflowing the dumpsters outside Stubbs. This whole town could use a shower. Such is the state of things when the third night of SXSW and St. Patrick's Day collide.

Last night The Strokes played a free show to an over-capacity crowd at SXSW, reportedly over 25,000. There were accounts of dancing, performances of golden oldies like "You Only Live Once," and fireworks at the end. And it being SXSW, there was also a touch of mayhem.

Early into the show, when the crowds reached capacity, security guards reportedly closed the gates, leaving thousands of people shut out of the concert. The restless and unlucky soon took down at least one of the barricades and moved past security into the show. Matthew Odam of the Austin American-Statesman tweeted "People scattering like rats at daylight at entrance to auditorium shores for the strokes, who are about two songs in." A local radio host tweeted that those locked out of the show "just broke into the the spangled banner in protest." No one appears to be seriously hurt, but it was another bit of chaos at the midway point of SXSW.

Across the lake in downtown Austin at the new W hotel, the dixieland Preservation Hall Jazz Band took the stage to record a special taping of the Austin City Limits television show. The crowd of St. Patty's Day revelers and yuppie spillover from the W mostly seemed to be hanging around to hear Widespread Panic, who were set to follow Preservation. (The scheduler who came up with this has some answering to do.) But there was plenty of excitement to hear the Louisiana legends, particularly on the floor. Too bad they would be inaudible.

This is a band that doesn't really plug in, instead it uses microphones to amplify, and it became apparent during their sound check that there would be real issues hearing them. For one, the crowd was noisy, but part of that noise came out of frustration: They couldn't hear the band, so they started talking. And it went like dominoes from there. Two songs in, I approached a sound guy to ask what was going on. He shrugged and said, "I'm not in charge."

After the show, I exchanged some tweets with the producers. They maintain it was the crowd's fault, that they were only there to hear Widespread Panic. I maintain that the band should have been audible, and had the crowd been asked, perhaps it would have quieted down. It will be interesting to see how they handle the sound issues if they are going to broadcast the episode in the fall.

But despite plenty of frustration and chaos, there are moments of calm and beauty at SXSW, they just require some forethought and patience.

Most bands at SXSW have to deal with spillover from bands playing at other venues just next door, and for blocks it's straight cacophony. But for half and hour last night, Pitchfork darling Juliana Barwick gave a respite from all that. At the Presbyterian Church (an actual church with services on Sundays), she led a one-woman show of looped vocals, atmospherics, and minimalist keyboards. Framed by stained glass windows at her sides and giant cross hanging above her, Barwick's angelic, church choir-vocals found the perfect home. Facing the side of the stage, and angling her head up towards the stained glass, Barwick held her microphone like a trumpet, leaving rows of exhausted, scruffy SXSW-ers in silent rapture. (This was one show were crowd noise wasn't an issue.) No doubt some will soon be calling her the "hispter Enya," but don't let that keep you away. You can stream her new album at NPR.

An acquaintance, Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, has been running around town making some short films of some of the quieter moments at the festival for his paper, the Austin American-Statesman. They capture some of the community and spontaneity here, in a beautiful way. Here's one of the Fairbanks, Alaska group Feeding Frenzy:

And another of Frank Orrall, the lead singer and songwriter from Poi Dog Pondering. Things were a bit hectic where they met, so they went down the street and filmed in front of a laundromat: