by Dave Hyde

It strikes me as odd that Austin’s South by Southwest music conference is the destination for so many punk bands. The week and a half long industry gathering is a forum for filmmakers and record labels to showcase their movies and bands for distributors, A&R reps, and the press. I have always valued the aspects of punk that are essentially anti-industry—self-released records (or friends releasing each others’ records), cheap shows in whatever location works for the moment, local/mail-order distribution, booking your own tours, essentially the idea to do things on as close to a grass-roots level as possible—so these beliefs are at odds with the punks flocking to this event.

Another turn-off to SXSW is closer to my wallet. The ticketing system for the fest works like this: they offer badges and wristbands for sale at the $100+ range. The badges are more expensive and give you top priority for getting into shows and conferences; wristbands get you into any show that hasn’t already hit the venue’s capacity. Most shows have a regular door price for those without wristbands (which is usually $7-$15 for smaller shows). Since the prepaid folks are priority, there’s a chance that if you’re going to a desirable show you’ll have a long wait or will be unable to get in if the club hits capacity with badged folks.

Despite these reservations about SXSW the fact remained that about a dozen or so really good bands were taking their vacations to my town to play a barrage of shows over the same weekend. I’m still not sure I understand why this was their destination, but it made for a hell of a good time.

Going into the weekend I decided to steer clear of any official SXSW showcases. There were a few that were tempting (like the Beerland showcase that not only featured a good chunk of the punk bands in town, but also Guitar Wolf, who was sure to draw enough looky-loos to make trying to get into the show a chore), but most of the bands that I was interested in seeing were playing free shows over the weekend, which figured to be a safe bet. Thus, the account of the festivities that follows won’t reflect the experience of most folks, but I managed to spend less than $10 all weekend (on food and beer) and still saw every band I’d have liked to except New Model Army (and the A-Frames, but that was my fault).

A few days before the actual SXSW festivities were set to begin The Observers showed up in town. I guess they had a few shows fall through up to that point, so some friends set up a last second gig at The Parlor, a pizza and beer joint a few doors down from Sound on Sound record store. Despite less than a few hours notice, a decent crowd, including all of the members of Modern Needs (who also played) made it out. The Observers went on first just to make sure they had their fun before the cops showed up, if it came to that (a previous show there had been shut down by the fuzz). It was a typically fun Observers set, full of enthusiasm, dancing drunkards, and Colin making the crowd uncomfortable with his middle-school in your face style. It was only Modern Needs’ second show, and Sarah was there straight from work on about an hour’s notice, but they were tight and caught a few unsuspecting folks by surprise. I’m sure the band was excited to see someone in the crowd singing along to their cover of The Rats’ “Broken Wire Telephone”, which seemed to go unnoticed at their first show. The impromptu pre-SXSW show seemed to set the tone for the rest of the week. Despite the serious business going down in town, everyone I was around just wanted to have some fun.

I sat out Wednesday, the first official day of the music portion of SXSW to catch up on Pee Wee’s Playhouse and play backgammon against the computer (welcome to my life, dudes). There were a few interesting label showcases, but at the time I thought I was in my last week of work, so I held out on the Sub Pop and Birdman shows.

I made it down to Sound on Sound after work on Thursday in time to grab a few drinks and catch The Gris Gris. Their LP had been a mainstay on my turntable for a while, so I was excited to see them. In retrospect they were on the mark, but due to unrealistic expectations from friends over hyping them and just being in the mood for something more aggressive, I lost interest about halfway through the set. Some friends and I got into a fiercely competitive game of Egyptian rat screw. By the time the game was over (I lost) the after-party was already beginning down the road.

About a week before things went down I caught wind that a Manikin/A-Frames house party (which quickly morphed into a Manikin/A-Frames/Hospitals and all their friends house party) was scheduled to take place after the Gris Gris show. After a day or two of unsuccessfully trying to track down the address to that ‘secret’ location, my typically unnecessary anxiety had built up. Of course, by show-time at Sound on Sound, the location was no longer a secret, and we had the address in hand.

By the time we got to the house under the highway, it was already at twice its capacity. We pushed our way through the crowd and caught the tail end of Manikin’s set. Before I moved to town a friend had told me that “there’s this band here that you’ll dig who sound like Gang of Four.” While that description was off (there’s more LA punk and Greg Sage-ian guitar playing in the sound than that would lead one to believe) the band quickly became one of my favorites. I hope they impressed enough out-of-towners that they’ll move beyond their status as the local secrets.

I was pleasantly surprised when the Black Lips set up next. They weren’t scheduled to play, but I guess the folks doing the show decided if the police hadn’t shown up yet they probably wouldn’t come at all, so the Lips got added. Though their cover of “Jack the Ripper” was enough to send one friend out of the room (“after seeing bands cover that song a million times in the last ten years I swore I’d never listen to it again”) the set was a blast. We left the house to get some fresh air and ended up socializing through the start of the A-Frames set. Since we were falling asleep anyway, it was decided to head home rather than try to reenter the oversaturated house. Reports the next day said, “The A-Frames were amazing!” and “The A-Frames sucked!” Apparently, the two drunk guys who set up their instruments outside and started making noise turned out to be the Hospitals, but I don’t think anyone knew it at the time. Despite the consensus, I bet it was great and wish I had stuck around to see them.

I sat around work on Friday wishing I was out at the day shows. In my boredom, I shot an email to a friend who was living in Seattle to see how he thought The Dipers ranked as a live band. They were playing across town and I was hoping to hear “not great,” but was surprised at the answer, “They haven’t played live since I’ve lived here; I’d always assumed they were a studio band.” Great. After work I drove up to my home base at Sound on Sound to catch the end of the day show. Modern Needs were the only band I caught, and they were troubled with equipment failures that slowed down the fun.

After grabbing a bite to eat at Ruby’s I set out to find the mysterious Ms. Bea’s, a venue that no one I knew had heard of. It turned out to be a small east-side bar with a regular clientele of Mexican day laborers. A small but decent crowd of 60s punk fanatics turned up to intermingle with the regulars and see the Losin’ Streaks, Priests, and Omens. The bands set up on the outdoor stage near the chips and queso Ms. Bea put out for the taking, and we experienced one of the greatest show-going moments of our lifetime. The man of the hour was a short, drunken fellow wearing cut-off shorts over his sweatpants who was the most enthusiastic dancer I’ve ever seen. As soon as the music started, he found his way from his usual barstool to the middle of the courtyard and proved that he’d seen all the Michael Jackson videos more than once. By the second band, I think he realized that he’d need a partner to assist in his choreographed moves, so he found a suited man nearly twice his size. The dance competition was fierce, and towards the end of the Omen’s set the little man grabbed a prop. A 3 foot “noodle” (you know: long skinny Styrofoam swimming aid) was dragged into the ring and within minutes it was dangling out of the pants of the seven-footer. He worked it into his dance moves with a confidence that said, “I’ve done this before.” After the band finished, Ms. Bea got on stage to thank us all for coming and to let us know that despite his enthusiasm, she’d asked the dancer to head home for the night and sleep off his drinks.

The Losin’ Streaks hit the stage and pounded out the best set of the weekend. While crusties in jogging shorts walked through them a few times to grab some of that free queso, the band churned out Yardbirds-inspired hits. The drummer was among the best I’d ever seen. When they finished up, I headed back home to sit around for a few hours until 2AM when I planned to go down to the Lamar St. Pedestrian Bridge to catch a show there. Of course, I laid down “for a minute” and didn’t wake up until it was too late. The next day I heard stories of the 300 kids crowded on the bridge as the Clorox Girls, Observers, Signal Lost, and Tyrades shared a backline and played until the cops shut things down. “It was the best thing I’ve ever seen!”

I was, inadvertently, well rested to head out for a long day of shows on Saturday. When I got downtown around lunchtime, The Tyrades were already a few songs into their set. Perhaps they were still fueled from adrenalin from the previous night, because the set was great despite the circumstances. A few blocks away, things were getting started at Beerland, which was the next destination. It was a Chicago showcase and The Krunchies, Functional Blackouts, Headache City, and MOTO all played fun sets.

As the show let out, we tried to capitalize on the time between rain showers and grab some dinner before heading to Sound on Sound, where another show was already beginning. Total Sound Group Direct Action Committee doesn’t play out often, so when they do it’s usually an event. The show at Sound on Sound was only the second time I’ve seen them since I’ve lived here, and it was, again, a wonderful spectacle. The band manages to dissolve any barrier between themselves and the audience, and Tim attacked his guitar with whatever objects were in sight. The songs veered off into almost chaos but always returned to their melodies.

They were followed up by the Observers, Clorox Girls, and Tyrades. The storefront was packed with an enthusiastic crowd, and all of the bands played great sets. Outside the club in between bands, I went up to say ‘HI’ to some friends who were in the middle of a conversation with a visiting female friend of theirs. She noticed my t-shirt, which was tie-dyed with a Discharge graphic, and peered in, “Is that…?” She paused, then continued, "Do you want to have sex?" I declined and walked back inside where I was tricked into working the register of the store during The Tyrades set, which gave me an aerial view, but I was still too far away from the center of things to get the full experience.

Though I’d planned to just go home and sleep after the show at Sound on Sound, enough folks had been feeding me drinks that I was still ready to rock, so we sought out to find a house party where The Krunchies were set to play along with our friends, Army of Jesus. We had assumed maybe a half-hour wait before the bands we wanted to see, but in typical form, everything was dragged out for hours longer than they should have been. Had I been sober like my poor girlfriend, the night would have been intolerable, but I was unusually friendly and found myself in more conversations than I care to remember, which helped pass the time while the rap acts played inside the loft where the party was. After hours of waiting around, The Krunchies were finally able to set up, and they played through a stunningly fast and impressive set that put their earlier Beerland appearance to shame. Though Army of Jesus, The Observers, Clorox Girls, and more were all set to play next, we decided to call it a night and head home for some sleep (I’d guess it was around 2-3AM).

There were a few shows around town on Sunday, but after the days prior, especially Saturday’s 14 hours of live music, I decided it was time to start my week of rest. Over the next few days, the festival goers cleared out of town to go back to their day jobs and the city settled to its normal pace, which is only slightly more laid back than during SXSW.

Photos by Rob Karlic