When CincyMusic gave me the opportunity to possibly cover a couple festivals this year I applied for SXSW, not knowing if I was going to get the gig or not, and was pleasantly surprised when I got the email to cover the event and the 18-year-old me crept back into my skin and created a jubilant and giddy excitement that watching Almost Famous gave me.
I've decided to cover my trip and the experience of Austin itself and my picks of the most interesting bands that caught my attention at the festival separately within this coverage piece.
The trip started out rough as a massive snow front moved across the entire state of Kentucky on the way through in the dark of night, making it nearly impossible to see much more than an onslaught of oncoming snowflakes. The situation was reminiscent of how Han Solo viewed the charging stars from his Millennium Falcon. This lasted about three hours until refuge was sought by way of an off-the-beaten path rest stop.
After a couple hours of sleep, it was time to take back to the road just outside the Kentucky/Tennessee border. The trip through Tennessee was smooth sailing as I took in the scenery of the terrain and outlying Nashville and Memphis cityscapes. Passing over the Mississippi River brought me to reminisce of road trips I had with my father as a child.
All of this glow and trips down memory lane were ameliorated by the post-apocalyptic landscape of Arkansas. A place nobody seems to have inhabited since Hoovervilles were a thing.
Fast forward to Texas, where after a 23-hour trip, I wasn't in the mood to explore but as soon as I started to see the bustling nightlife SXSW had brought to Austin (on a Monday night nonetheless) I quickly gathered a second wind and headed out to one of ATX's hot spots–The Dirty Six (6th Street downtown), which reminded me a bit of Main Street in Over the Rhine, but stretched out five fold.
Getting into Austin past 5pm meant I couldn't grab my music pass until the next day so I ended up wandering the streets and checking out non-featured SXSW bands.
I stumbled into Coyote Ugly Saloon and checked out the scene there where I was welcomed to a bartender singing karaoke and dancing, much to the gathered onlookers delight.
Outside of the bar I was treated to a mass of street performers, ranging from street drummers to ventriloquists to Mariachi bands.
As midnight hit, the crowd started to disperse and I followed suit and went back to my room and lay in bed to grow more excited for a full day in Bat City in the morning.
Day two started out with a trip to Mi Madres, a Tex Mex restaurant in the Chestnut neighborhood where I was staying which reminded me a lot of Northside Cincy, where the counter culture seemed to thrive–equipped with businesses flying gay pride Texas flags on top of their building's flagpoles and quaint coffee shops and small venues littering Manor St.
After getting my music badge at the convention center and most bands not starting until evening , I wanted exploration of the city itself so I ended up hoofing it down E Chavez and on into the business district and passed out booking cards and had conversations with locals about what they thought the festival brought to Austin, with mostly positive comments of how much business it gives to mom and pop type stores around the city. The biggest complaint was traffic and I can totally agree–SXSW has brought in over 500,000 music lovers from outside the city limits in in recent years and it was mesmerizing seeing so many different state license plates from all over the country to celebrate music and the arts.
As the evening rolled back around, it was time to get back around 5th & 7th Street to check out the venues and music–including stops at the impressive three-stage Empire Control Room, the vintage and bluesy bar feel of Antone's, the fabulously rustic Dirty Dogs Bar and a few more along the way.
Somewhere in between the bars and the noise, I was delighted and entertained to run into comedian Ron White in a 6th Street bodega.
I am admittedly one to be a bit star struck, so naturally I started with the classic " I hate to be THAT guy, but are you..." to be interrupted by the gruff but upbeat comic retorting "yeah I'm Ron White.”
"I thought that was you, but you've lost a lot of weight," I bashfully stated, with a quick response of "yeah it looks like you gained all the wait I lost." Not to be out done by the comedian I came back with a light hearted "yeah whatever, Potato Salad" to which he was very amused by and granted me a selfie with him before exiting with his whiskey and White Owl blunt wraps.
Off to bed, another fun night in the books.
I wanted yet more exploration of the city for my third day in Austin, so the adventure express took its way to Hippie Hollow on Lake Travis. I had a bucket list wish checked off as I quickly found out that this was a nude beach and I obliged my bucket list and left it all to blow in the warm Austin air, surrounded by fellow first timers and beach regulars, reveling in the chance to talk to outsiders. It was a lush green, palm tree spackled canvas painted with clear, cool waters and intricate mansions carved into the hills. A sight not soon to be forgotten.
Next up: a trip right down the road to set up camp at the just as breathtaking Windy Point campsite overlooking the same lake to take refuge for the evening. To this point I had only spent $68 on lodging for three nights between that night of camping and the previous two nights at a VERY conveniently placed and lucky-to-get Airbnb. Not too shabby.
Back to downtown and another night of life on the Austin strip, hitting up mainstays such as The Main, Pour Choices, the cheesy and aptly named Velveeta Room, Barcelona and the very divey and enjoyable Flamingo Cantina, among others.
Austin was starting to remind me of some sort of crossbred mash up of Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and Nashville and I loved it.
March nights in Austin aren't nearly as warm as the days, so Wednesday night was spent shivering in front of a rag tag stick and branch fire and a thin tent at Windy Point, but the temporary discomfort was well worth it as it was my last night there and I wouldn't have traded it for the world.
Thursday was a day of realization, even though I had only spent $68 on lodging, money from gas and other expenditures was wearing the wallet a little thin so it was time to depart after spending a little more time in Chestnut, soaking in the local habitat of wonderful people, architecture and flora.
New Orleans was in sight and only added two hours to the trip and I had a free place to crash right around Bourbon Street, so it was time to take the show on the road and bid farewell to a gorgeous, courteous and forward thinking city.
SXSW left me wanting to have a longer stay in the future and provided nonstop music, entertainment and a whole lot of delicious local cuisine.
SXSW Band Recommendations
Caught a Ghost (Austin, TX)
Caught a Ghost gives out a lush and jazzy soul soundscape blended with an in and a flourishing of percussion and electro-pop attitude mixed with thought provoking lyrics.
My ears were at attention after taking in this mix of bluesy vocals and sounds that can't help but capture your attention.
Check out if you like: Jack White, Eels, Black Keys, Wax Tailor, the Submarines, Gary Clark Jr.
Moses Boyd (London, England)
Moses Boyd brought the band to SXSW last year, but this year he performed a solo drum/electronic jazz set that set to catch the crowd who didn't know of him off guard in the best way possible–coming from a very vibrant and growing London jazz scene.
This is definitely something that's a one of a kind type of act and sound.
It was like taking acid and listening to Sonic the Hedgehog game tracks mixed with free improvisation jazz drums laying the heartbeat out right in front of your eyes.
Atmospheric, daring and intricate.
Check out if you like: I honestly haven't heard anything like this, please, for the love of creativity check this out.
Black Pumas (Austin, TX)
SMOOOOOOOOOOOOOTH. With a capital SMOOTH.
Black Pumas laid down some sweet, mellow and sexy grooves that are reminiscent of classic R&B Soul.
This Texas 5 piece is surely on its way to expanding into the mainstream with their latest single "Black Moon Rising", a sullen yet STILL sexy crooner about love lost and questions / understanding of the aftermath.
Check out if you like: Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Charles Bradley.
Harpooner (Nashville, TN)
Some seriously sweet vintage vibes echo their way through a Harpooner set as they combine classic beach feels with an almost Beatles-esque undertone.
Harpooner takes aim at releasing bass driven tracks with brilliantly laid key layering and a wavy guitar/vocal attack and mixing them into the Psych-Pop multiverse.
One can't help to wonder if this was some sort of grand collision of some sort of cosmic classic rock comet crashing into the sea of cool population: Harpooner
Check out if you like: The Beatles, Supergrass, Super City, The Lemon Pipers
Los Outsaiders (Lima, Peru)
Although I don't speak the same language, the language of music itself transcends all walks of life.
This Lima quartet busted out some slick garage rock with classic guitar and vocal harmony mashups and plenty of cool boy attitude to boot.
These groove laden fuzz rockers hold their own on the stage and musically, and will remind you of the early to mid 2000's where nothing mattered but cool tunes, leather coats, Ray Bans and ripped jeans.
They have been lighting up Lima lately and have landed themselves an opening gig with The Killers in their home country. Congrats fellas.
Check out if you like: The Strokes, The Vines, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club
Low Cut Connie (Philadelphia, PA)
Low Cut Connie provides a show like no other rock band I've seen in recent years.
Confidence and swagger spew from front man Adam Weiner (who turned down a spot as a main contestant on The Voice) as his backing band lays down their own combination of high energy classic rock and roll style and flavor.
Low Cut Connie has been at it for the past eight years and has been blazing a 70's/80's piano rock trail all over the country, but don't think that this is a band that is easily forgotten in the RnR ethos–no. This band puts on a show that is an experience, allowing fan participation with the piano rolls and reflective on the road songs that seem to have been crafted with passion and perfected with time.
They have everything you're looking for if you want to see a heart on the sleeve rock band–in a music world that seems to have lost as much as they are putting forward.
Check out if you like: The Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen