Endurance Tests: The Less Than Glamorous Life of a Local Band During SXSW, Part 3

By Morgan Davis


Of all the shows my band Stickers had booked during SXSW, the event we were playing at Cheer Up Charlie’s was undoubtedly the one we were most excited for, even if we weren’t quite sure what it was or who we were sharing the bill with. Dubbed a “Singles Mixer,” our Cheer Up’s show unfortunately happened to be the show that was most plagued by outside forces; before SXSW even began, the booker, Paul Sisler, had to deal with some last minute venue juggling and there was a point where we weren’t sure it was going to happen. Then, after Paul had secured the final day of SXSW at Cheer Up’s, tragedy struck with the infamous crash out front of Cheer Up’s and Mohawk. No one knew if Cheer Up’s would remain open for SXSW at that point, and honestly, no one would have blamed them if they had decided to close.

Though that horrible act of violence has defined SXSW 2014, the way the venues, SXSW as an organization and Austin’s emergency personnel responded was incredible. I feel as though the city was so shocked by the incident that the quick action of the emergency crews and the well thought out responses from the venues and SXSW got glossed over. I’ve worked festivals that have had tragic accidents happen at them, like crew members falling to their deaths while rigging outdoor stages at Sasquatch and shootings at events like Seattle’s Summer Jam, and the way the behind-the-scenes workers respond to tragedy has a lot to do with how much of an impact those tragedies have. Emotionally, I feel like everyone was gutted by what happened at SXSW and the effects lingered throughout the event, but I believe it says a tremendous amount about the people that make SXSW happen that the event was able to move forward and Mohawk and Cheer Up’s were able to continue with their schedules.

Walking into Cheer Up’s at load-in time, you wouldn’t have known that less than a week ago the venue was surrounded by tragic chaos. Though the crew was still cleaning up after the previous night’s showcase, Cheer Up’s staff were a dream to work with, from the stage manager constantly adjusting the set-times on her clipboard to the extremely accommodating and attentive sound engineer. Cheer Up’s was one of the few venues in Austin we hadn’t played – due to Cheer Up’s relocation, we even managed to get on stage at Mohawk before playing CUC’s – but I had seen plenty of shows at the old location to appreciate what an upgrade the new venue is. Cheer Up’s has developed their space in a way Club de Ville unfortunately never managed to, and walking in you immediately notice how much life and charm they’ve put into the building, while also boosting the sound and stage quality both inside and out by a significant margin.

yvette-bandYVETTE photo by GIMME TINNITUS

I had time between load-in and our scheduled 4:30 start to wander over to Beerland to catch YVETTE, a New York duo that had been on my radar for some time and who have recently started to get major attention from Pitchfork and Spin. Despite playing in the early afternoon on the last day of SXSW to a clearly hung over and lethargic crowd, YVETTE put on what was without a doubt the best set I saw during all of SXSW, and easily one of the best live performances I have seen in some time. Though they’re a duo, YVETTE sound like a seismic audio force, an unpredictable mixture of violent thrusts of guitars and catastrophic drums that explode out of a beat rather than staying in one place. YVETTE’s set was unfortunately short, but they made the most of their time, visibly winning over even the most hungover of the audience members, no small feat considering how brutal their sound is.

When I got back to Cheer Up’s, things had gotten a little mixed up again. Due to a miscommunication, some of the bands thought there was going to be a backline at the showcase and so had come without drums or amps. I had my drums with me, but my bandmates hadn’t arrived yet, so we had to scramble to find amps for the first band on the bill, New York’s Honduras. It being the last day of SXSW, not too many people had wandered into the venue yet, which was fortunate, but Cheer Up’s was eager to stick as closely to the schedule as they could so the longer it took to find gear for Honduras, the shorter their set time would be. Luckily Honduras was able to get in touch with one of the other bands that had left their amps at the venue before heading off for lunch, and the show basically happened on time, with Honduras’ surf-infused indie rock providing a great soundtrack to the cocktails and midday sun.

By the midpoint of Honduras’ set, the crowd had filled out at Cheer Up’s and the weather was perfect. Stickers had been placed second in the bill, which is in my experience one of the best places to be if you’re on a relatively small line-up, as this event was. There were eight bands scheduled to play the Singles Mixer, but the bands later in the line-up would have to deal with the possibility of the weather getting worse, which it did. The last day of SXSW had jumped between overcast and sunny constantly, but we were fortunate enough to have our entire set coincide with a good stretch of stable sunshine and a sizable crowd. The combination of the attendance and the giddiness at playing a venue we all love made the Singles Mixer set a looser performance than normal, with a nervous energy to it that made our songs a little more amped up. But that worked out well and it felt like we caught on with the crowd.

After playing through a week of sometimes disappointing gigs and dealing with an especially stressful SXSW, the Singles Mixer couldn’t have been a better note to end on. The backline issue meant my drums got used for much of the evening, but the line-up was fantastic and the venue was ideal, so I was happy to stick around as long as I could. These are the kinds of shows you hope to play at SXSW and the thing is they could easily be more commonplace than they are if more venues were as devoted to creating a friendly crowd environment as Cheer Up Charlie’s is, and beyond that, if more audiences were willing to go out of their way to support those kinds of venues. Regardless of SXSW’s flaws and my own personal stresses during it, this is undoubtedly the day I choose to remember this year by.