by Morgan Davis
“The catchphrase of South by should be ‘I don’t know, let me ask someone,” my girlfriend Megan tells me as we’re standing in the Press line at FLOODfest, watching a volunteer try to figure out who goes where. As she walks away to ask someone something, a too-energetic dude in dreads takes over. No one is sure if he works here or not. All the info he gives to people is unquestionably wrong.
“I have an Express Pass for this event.”
“We don’t take those here.”
“Go over there with the wristbands and regular people.”
“But I have a badge?”
“Go over there.”
By the time we are let into the event, it is more than two hours behind. A band that is of maybe French descent proceeds to soundcheck the same guitar line for an extra half an hour. The bouncer tells us that at this time last year, there were so many people waiting to get into this show, the line stretched around the entire block. They needed barricades to keep people from spilling into the street. Tonight, even with the promise of a Win Butler DJ set and the millionth SXSW set by Spoon, the venue isn’t in danger of spilling out anywhere. Mostly people are milling about, wondering if there is anything free to take or if maybe some music will start before too long.
I can’t help but feel like this is the default SXSW experience now.
The next day we are on the east side. It is a gorgeous day. Earlier in the week I had received an extremely vague, mysterious e-mail from Deb Stanley, manager of Soul Track Mind, asking if I wanted to cover a super secret show. I ask for more details and get introduced to a different person, who will only tell me the location (a house) and that one of the artists has more than two million Facebook likes. My friends point out that no matter who it is, it will be entertaining.
We walk up the porch of the house, there are people hanging out up front but we don’t know if they live here or are here for the show or work for whoever is putting this on. I ask a woman sitting next to a clipboard if she is checking people in and get ready to show the e-mail I got but she just opens the door and ushers us in.
Inside, people in floppy hats are putting EastCiders cans into a cooler and setting up cameras to film the show for an organization called Sofar (Songs from a Room). There are posters hung up in odd places, like beneath the kitchen counter and towards the bottom of a bookshelf. Instead of saying the names of the bands, the posters give us their social media info: up top are their Facebook pages, then their Twitter handles and finally their Instagram accounts. I scan the line-up and only see one name I recognize before getting to the headliner.
The headliner is Plain White T’s.
Fully prepared to drink my pain away with cider, I settle in in a corner that I hope is as far out of the way from the film crew as possible. The first band on the line-up is Jared & the Mill, an Arizona based band with a look and sound that isn’t too far from the Avett Brothers, albeit a little softer. Sofar’s set-up is ideal for Jared & the Mill, forcing bands to strip down their layers and perform in an intimate domestic setting with minimal instrumentation. Jared tells the audience that the group is used to this kind of performance style since the band started through busking. Each group plays about three songs, and Jared & the Mill’s selection shows off the band’s range and leaves plenty of room for them to charm the crowd with background details and anecdotes and an accidental pun on the video series’ name (“You’ve been a great crowd, so far!”).
The group plays up their dorky safeness, and even though it’s pretty forced (these are all good looking guys with clear confidence), it’s effective nonetheless. The last song they play is their single “Hold On,” a song that starts off quietly before building to a swelling, anthemic, harmonized chorus. It’s obvious and you’ve heard the trick before, but when something works, who cares? At this small east Austin house, the effect was made even larger by the respectful silence of the crowd and the natural echo of the abode, making the version we hard significantly more potent than the recorded version.
Jared & the Mill were followed by two singer-songwriters with good voices who would have benefitted from being placed before the Mill’s set. Heather Maloney started her performance by asking the crowd to give her a handclaps and footstomps beat while she did an acapella performance and though it was interesting, nothing in her set quite reached the same heights as Jared & the Mill. That isn’t necessarily a knock on her, I just think that she has the kind of voice and style that functions better with full backing and when she said she had been working with Bill Reynolds of Band of Horses to produce her album, that made a lot of sense. Orla Gartland, a Dublin native, performed next and brought a tremendous amount of personality to her performance.
Though Gartland’s music likewise could have used more accompaniment than just an acoustic guitar, she certainly knew how to work a crowd with self-effacing anecdotes and jokes about how if she says anything dumb we should just blame it on her foreignness. Gartland’s best performance wasn’t her own material but a medley of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” which did more to show off the range of her voice than any of her own material. Most of Gartland’s own work had the tone and structure of a Once castoff, and I suspect The Frames are a significant influence on her material.
Gartland also spoke about how SXSW had been kind of a letdown for her and that she had gone to the event expecting more musical magic but was surprised by all the branding. There’s no escaping the irony of her saying this at a “super secret” branded event for a purposefully gimmicky video series, but Sofar honestly did do a better job at making this a personal showcase than most of what you find at SXSW. The location helped, sure, but the demands they made for everyone to be quiet and respectful (albeit for filming purposes) was a very welcome respite from the massive distractions that occur at most SXSW events. Admittedly, nearly none of the groups that played were my kind of music, but this was at least an experience that stood out from everything else at SXSW. And it was also my first live experience with Fantastic Negrito, winner of the Tiny Desk Contest NPR threw earlier this year.
The instant Fantastic Negrito set up, you could tell they were committed to amping up this quiet event. Dressed to the nines, the group managed to crank out a quick, livewire set that had basically the same constraints and structure as his Tiny Desk entry.
“Lost in a Crowd” was the obvious highlight of their performance, the energy of the opening gospel tinged-group vocal immediately infecting the room, making ears and bodies perk up. Band leader Xavier Dphrepaulezz spoke about the pain of his life and how Fantastic Negrito has been kind of his last stab at “making it” after an injury forced him to have to focus on singing rather than instrumentation. The set was also a sharp reminder that while light, fluffy music will always have its place and be consumed, songs that communicate deep pain and feelings on social wrongs are where music is most necessary. “Lost in a Crowd” gained further relevancy when played at SXSW, where the best music isn’t just competing with lesser acts, it’s competing with noise from every corner and distractions ranging from free drinks to swag to the difficulties of getting around at all.
I wasn’t the right audience for most of Sofar’s bill, I’m a cynical music critic who consciously chose to basically ignore SXSW music this year in favor of covering the film festival, but I applaud their attempt to create a tiny little quiet home for music in the middle of an event that increasingly seems disinterested in providing real experiences. That said, I hope that future Sofar showcases will provide more diversity and that they will challenge acts from genres that aren’t already set up for acoustic events. Fantastic Negrito was a perfect example of how powerful that can be, and the acts that competed alongside Negrito in the Tiny Desk Contest just from Austin alone provide plenty of opportunities for future Sofar acts.
Tellingly, the next stop from the Sofar house was Fader Fort. The sort of SXSW event that you feel obligated to check out every year regardless of past experiences, Fader Fort is situated on the opposite end of the spectrum from Sofar. Every time I’ve been there, no one seems to know who is playing let alone have any interest in checking it out. The main mission when you arrive is finding the free drinks, attempting to track down whoever is giving out the free Converse vouchers and stuffing your bag with VitaWaters. This year Fader Fort was an actual official SXSW location, which seemed to have basically no impact on it. It was also invite only, through some weird e-mail lottery system, but that didn’t seem to alter the set-up or the way it was controlled and presented. This was the same Fader Fort as always, a big party in a gross field where the question on everyone’s lips isn’t “Oh my god, who’s on stage right now?” but “oh my god where did you get that Converse ticket?”
Being at Fader Fort, getting progressively drunker on whiskey and coke, all I can think is that I don’t like being here. I don’t like that SXSW is now the definitive music experience for an entire generation. I don’t like what that means. I don’t know what to do about this. I wasn’t a fan of everything at Sofar but it at least felt more honest and relatable. The free drinks were minimal. The brand presence basically unobtrusive. The music audible. The voices in the room silent and respectable, yet the mood still happy. I don’t know what SXSW is anymore but I don’t think it should be considered a musical experience.
The bands I know that perform at SXSW do not enjoy it most of the time. They feel rushed and forgotten. They talk about the stress and the anxiety and the sense of futility. The bands I booked for Ovrld’s showcase at Swan Dive all came up to me during the show just to thank me for us hiring a production company that gave them audible stage mixes. They thanked me for not forcing them to play at the same time as one another and causing sound bleeds.
These are trivial things. I don’t want it to seem like we did anything special, we did what should be the bare minimum for a showcase. Which is why every year SXSW makes me feel worse. But I don’t know what to do about that. Let me ask someone.
Morgan Davis sells bootleg queso on the streets of Austin in order to fund Loser City, the multimedia collective he co-runs. When he isn’t doing that, he plays drums for Denise and gets complimented and/or threatened by Austin’s musical community for stuff he writes at Ovrld, which he is the Managing Editor of.