Photo by Cassandra Dunn on Unsplash.
Like many Austinites, I’ve mostly viewed South by Southwest as a good excuse to retreat from downtown. In 2020, when I was actually looking forward to making an effort, the whole thing shut down. And despite my previous detachment, I was cartoonishly distressed. A lot of it was what that cancelation represented for the community, and that was the beauty, for me, of it coming back.
This year, with press credentials, I felt much better equipped to tackle the crowds. (Parking was my biggest obstacle, resulting in a chaotic mix of driving in circles, spending more than I wanted to, packing walking shoes and taking the bus). My editors’ only specific asks were pre-coverage, so by the first Friday it was just me and my platinum badge on our own schedule. I tried to follow some of my own advice, laid out in this free events roundup for CultureMap, and to take advantage of the best tips from the more than 350 press releases that arrived in my inbox. In the end, I was mostly in the SXSW app like, I presume, everyone else.
I tried to update this every day, partially to motivate myself and get some use out of this wonderful, holy grail press perk, but also to help anyone reading along decide what they would prioritize in their own schedules. That, on top of trying to keep up with my regular freelancing, was just too much. If I could impart anything I’ve learned, it’s not to try to standardize any approach to this festival. You’ll feel inadequate no matter what. You’ll see more than you ever should in ten days, basically, no matter what.
Of course, I’d encourage you to scroll through this whole list and see if anything appeals to you. It’s a pretty eclectic mix of events I chose just because I personally wanted to see them. But here are some top picks:
Something unique to see in Austin going forward
A musical career to get lost in
Parties: Gucci X Bumble / The Lox Club
Kickoff parties seem to be the main offering on the first Friday, and I should have anticipated the chaotic emptiness of purpose. I tried to have a normal day at home, looking forward to two events that night: an invite-only cocktail party by the unlikely duo Gucci and Bumble, and a public gathering for Lox Club, a “culturally Jewish,” members-only dating app that boasts “ridiculously high standards.”
Arriving fashionably late to a fashion event was not the right call. 45 minutes in, Sammie’s Italian was so packed, no one could get anywhere without physically pushing past bodies decked out in Gucci. The food and drinks were lovely, on the exceedingly rare occasion a waiter could get close enough to serve them. If nothing else, it was fun to see what will probably be the most effort people put into their outfits throughout all 10 days. I shouted to my plus-one for 20 minutes. I sat in the car waiting for my next event to start, reading praise in Texas Monthly for the restaurant I’d just fled.
I headed to the Lox Club event alone as my friend fulfilled other obligations. Nothing to report. They did a good job preserving standing room. But it was still just a popup nightclub. I took a few weird mirror selfies of my outfit and left, reminded that SXSW is one part conference, one part bar crawl, and the latter is really only tolerable with friends.
Film: “Self Portrait”
There’s not too many ways to dress it up: SXSW convinced quite a few people to sit in a theater for an hour and a quarter, watching nondescript snippets of security camera footage. And it was worth it. “Self Portrait,” although it seems unassuming, is an understated audiovisual feat. Filmmaker Joële Walinga grabbed live scenes from unlocked cameras over four years, feeding those to sound designer Ines Adriana, who matched each with public domain sound effects and even foley, creating something with next to no purpose in the most wonderful way. (Walinga said in a Q&A after the film that there was “no message.” She was waiting for the perfect application for the clips and suddenly realized, “If I’m obsessed with it, that’s enough.”)
I suppose the assumption in the austere marketing is that people know security footage is always silent, but it took roughly 15 seconds in the theater for me to accept that I must not know very much about security cameras, and the sound was real. My sureness wavered–only briefly–watching windmills turn while I struggled to match the pace of the clicking to any one pinwheel. I wish I’d been able to appreciate the ingenuity and sheer amount of effort in real time, instead of slowly coming to terms with it upon seeing the public domain credits at the end.
Because we are people, a lack of narrative is really just an empty container waiting to be filled with a fabricated one. My favorite sequence (and I am biased here) was toward the beginning; a town appeared that looked to me like one I’d driven through somewhere between New York and Vermont. I knew I wouldn’t be able to confirm this on memory alone, and I started wondering if anything would come up that I’d recognize beyond any doubt. Unlikely; this footage came from all over the world, and didn’t contain too much signage. Then, the very next clip: a map blatantly declaring its location at Pico Peak, a few minutes down the road from Killington, where I spent nearly every other winter weekend growing up. The rest of the film felt like an artsy game of GeoGuessr, with very little chance of knowing how close your mental pin landed to reality.
Most of the security footage we see in daily media is cropped to display some punchline, usually something gone wrong. Every day right now, scenes from Ukraine pop up in between recipes and selfies, with grainy, shaky footage ending in explosions. There is an eeriness–albeit an irrational one in the safety of Walinga’s careful curation–waiting for nothing to happen over and over inside a downtown Austin theater. It fades as the repetition reminds us, outside a news cycle of exceptional highs and lows, nothing is happening everywhere, most of the time.
Rest Day // Logistics // Unofficial free event: KOOP & Jungle Records Day Party
I favorited some Sunday events on the SXSW app, but the only thing I really wanted to see was the KOOP Radio and Jungle Records showcase, apparently focusing on “experimental, classical, choral, jazz, sound and more.”
Between driving, parking and walking, my Saturday excursion took nearly five hours just to pick up my credentials and see one movie. Garages seem to have abandoned hourly rates for flat event rates–a good thing for people parking all day, but terrible for people who just want to pop in and out for a couple of hours. Ride shares from my North-Central home to downtown are upwards of $30 one-way this week. I decided I’d have to try taking the bus, quite a feat in Austin, and fervently avoided by most.
Exhausted by this tedium, head swimming with extra-SXSW obligations, I decided to take the morning at home and work. I just kept going. I missed several busses. I finally headed out in my ugliest walking shoes, go to the bus stop, and realized I forgot my badge.
I wish I’d committed to this event, because the lineup is really something you don’t see every day. I’ve been listening while putting this post together, and I’ve especially enjoyed Justin Boyd’s ambient work, some of which gestures toward country music in a charming way that reminds me of Brian Eno’s genius “Deep Blue Day.”
(Here’s that lineup for posterity, in case KOOP removes the page: Inversion Ensemble, Peter Stopschinski, Nathan Felix, The Whale, Sonya Gonzales, Justin Boyd, Mighty Fuzz, Xavier Gilmore, Kathleen Shelton, Randall Holt, Emily Bishop, DJ Stuntman Flip, Students of Northeast High, and “special guests!”)
Film: “Omoiyari: a Songfilm by Kishi Bashi” // Afterparty at Elysium
This movie made me cry. That’s not much of a feat nowadays, but I just kept going. We’re talking half the film.
It must have been around 2014 when I discovered the magic of Kishi Bashi (Kaoru Ishibashi). My main touchstone is a manically joyful track from that year, “Philosophize with it! Chemicalize with it!” that sounds folksy in melody (punctuated with little yodels), cinematic in grandeur and classical in virtuosity. The little twisted violin voices rush out like the glittering synths of Animal Collective if they gave up all their edge and wrote a soundtrack about running through a field.
So that’s enough to bring me to tears with the right visuals, and soaring shots of Ishibashi standing on the barren sites of former Japanese internment camps across the US are definitely the right visuals. But I kept it in. This film was half-history, half-identity. The history portion, almost entirely relegated to the first half, was more informative than I’d expected. (Ishibashi said during a Q&A after the film that he hopes to cut it down for use in schools.) The identity portion was what got me.
Not a tear escaped until the musician’s parents came onscreen. His mother, a little stiff with the superstitious air of someone admitting that things did turn out alright, talked about the constant worry a parent feels with a child in music. His father, who had been mostly quiet, slipped into a rebellious little smile and countered that worry: as an engineer, he delights in seeing his son have fun. This is more important, he said, than being rich. I wish I’d taken a notepad to write a few quotes down, because it was so concise and youthful. Ishibashi’s mother reminded me of mine, and I wish I saw my father in his in that moment. But it’s so wonderful to know he’s out there. And once that got me going, I never stopped. Ishibashi’s musings on the importance of music are really nothing new from the mouths of committed musicians, but the sincerity undid me over and over.
The rest of the film bounces around across various trips, personal ideological commitments, and musical projects (the most interesting of which, to me, was in collaboration with the Miami-based Nu Deco Ensemble, and deserves its own documentary). It’s all deeply charming, emotionally vulnerable, and notably, doesn’t really include much internal conflict. None of it felt like a problem to be solved, so much as a story to be told. Of course, there was an agenda (raising awareness and avoiding the same discriminatory mistakes), but every scene was put forth with a comforting frankness that let every emotion emerge in total purity.
Though relatively short, the afterparty performance carried forward a similar tone, Ishibashi and friends buzzed not only with mezcal, but the excitement of a movie premiere. “I’m pretty much just going to make everything up, so…” he said, raising the bow of his violin alone on the stage, and that he did. Beatboxing and all.
Dinner: Chef Andrew Zimmern at Malverde // Music: Single Lock Records Showcase
I knew this dinner would be the most involved of my SX plans, but I wasn’t prepared to be literally wined and dined at quite this level. This event got straight to the heart of my confusion regarding the whole festival: is it okay to admit the exclusivity sometimes makes it better? (Sorry for the Carrie Bradshaw intro on this one.)
This was a tight event. I don’t know how many people ended up attending, but counting the seats from a photo I took at the head of the long table, it looks like there were only around 40 guests. I simultaneously look forward to and dread “networking opportunities,” knowing most press events just want bodies. But before dinner, almost everyone I talked to was meaningfully involved in the project being promoted that night. Everyone was legitimately happy to be there—and more importantly, legitimately invested in the project—before the hors d’oeuvres even hit the serving trays.
This event focused on a new docuseries produced in part by “Bizarre Foods” host Chef Andrew Zimmern, “Eating Up the Oceans: How Do We Save Our Seas?” Every dish was about the sustainability of “blue foods,” nutrition that comes from bodies of water. According to Zimmern and his culinary collaborators and vendors, the goal is to address the issue of sustainability realistically, by working with solutions rather than villainizing and cutting out potentially problematic food groups. (That could be any of them, depending on who you talk to, and that’s the problem.) Zimmern talked about the “Möbius strip” of worldwide issues, from sustainability to social equity, and everything intersectional in between: “We need to press down on all those gas pedals at once.” In other words, it’s about diving in, not sitting out. While chatting with me, one vendor whose snacks were included in the gift totes mentioned the controversial but hyper-popular ocean doomsday documentary “Seaspiracy.” This docuseries is diametrically opposed to the abstinence approach.
The food was stunning, and even as someone who doesn’t seek out cooked fish, I definitely see the appeal of making blue foods a larger part of daily life. My favorite dish was Chef Ann Kim’s poke-like “bibim” bowl, a cold salad to be enjoyed after a thorough mixing. I love really straightforward food that focuses on a few great ingredients, and this was the epitome of that idea. The trout was definitely the star (introduced by the vendor with assurances that it was happy til the end, which it never saw coming), and everything else was a lovely cast of supporting textures or acidity to cut through the soft, fatty fish and lots of sesame oil. Chef Zimmern’s very rich main dish, salmon with mustard-miso sabayon and mustard greens, started a brainstorming session in the seats around mine about the most foolproof way to cook fish at home. (That’s the point of the event, y’all. Mission accomplished.)
I’ve also thought a lot about the kelp butter by Easy Tiger, and a chardonnay by Dough Wines: one of the only wines I’ve liked so much that I wrote it down in my notes app. (It’s not that I don’t like wine, but that there is so much wine out there I can’t imagine keeping track of anything I’m not singularly obsessed with.) The crowd favorite seemed to be Chef Tavel Bristol-Joseph’s famous Basque cheesecake, which was so fluffy it crumbled into big, fluffy pieces when touched, which is a texture oft-neglected in cheesecakes, according to yours truly. I got a story reply on Instagram from a friend in New York saying, “I’ve literally heard of that cheesecake.”
Not to gloss over the Single Lock Records showcase, but I’m going to gloss over it. The press release I got billed it as Muscle Shoal’s next generation, and I really appreciate what they’re doing in that arena of independent Southern music. From what I heard, this showcase could (and basically does) happen any other night in Austin, and I didn’t stick around too long. Here’s the lineup in case you want to check any of them out: Duquette Johnston, Rock Eupora, The Pine Hill Haints, The Prescriptions, Caleb Elliott, and Speckled Bird.
Competition: Dirty South Ball
Something about reviewing a vogue ball feels perverted. It’s certainly an art worthy of analysis (maybe not by me), but something about replaying such an improvised, countercultural event in eager detail feels…gauche? I’ll leave it to the community mags, for now.
I can talk about what it was like to be at the first-ever official SXSW ball; it was absolutely the most fun I had at the festival. Compared with my dinner the night before, it was also an equal (very real) and opposite (very accessible) reassurance that SXSW is absolutely worth it. I rarely see balls advertised in Austin, unless I’m looking for them. That’s not to say they aren’t being advertised, but those calls for visitors aren’t making it past a core community that is already regularly engaging with those goings-on. I’ve heard complaints that the festival is no longer real or interesting, but this year, a great many people on the roof of the Coconut Club discovered what ballroom really is outside of hit TV shows and a few viral videos.
For those who don’t know, vogue balls are essentially the very punk, club version of a pageant, divided into categories for dance, costume, sex appeal: anything that could fall under performance or presentation. They’re loud and inseparable from audience participation. (Maybe this is why a written review seems weird. Impartiality is a pretty foreign concept in a ballroom audience.)
I missed a good portion of the competition making friends on the roof next door, but nothing sounds worse to me than showing up sober and alone, to stand in a crowd of plastered gays shouting about pussy and keeping the runway clear. I mean, a lot could be worse, but what a wasted opportunity. I met the loveliest group of Californians, did some completely unexpected and sweetly genuine networking, and basked in the energy of a community turning it out while making history.
Good news for newcomers and legends alike: Austin’s “very first” vogue nights series kicked off this February, a spinoff of the series that started in San Antonio last September. That’s every first Thursday at the Swan Dive.
Pretty simple; I just needed a break. I kept almost committing to go out and find a show to see, and then not doing it. After all the dancing and meeting strangers I did the night before, I had started to lose my voice, and I wanted to finish out the weekend as strong as possible.
Music: The Wild Feathers // Music: Kiltro // Music: Delta Spirit
My relative laziness Thursday bled into Friday as I faced the intimidation of the closing three days. Without any semblance of a plan, I ended up driving downtown fairly late in the day just to get some momentum and improvise from there. I got extremely lucky with a parking spot on the street, and a show I’d been really disappointed to miss back in December when I drove past a name I recognized on the blues club marquee: The Wild Feathers. A couple days later, I got a text from the East Coast from someone who didn’t know them, but saw them live and was blown away.
I loved “The Ceiling” in 2013, on the tail end of my gentle folk and stompy Americana phase. For whatever reason, none of their other songs really clicked for me, but this one remains a favorite to sing. At Antone’s for the second time in half a year, they played a short, tight set to a terrible crowd I can only imagine either wandered into the venue for its reputation, or was waiting around for Delta Spirit. Still, they kept up a lot of energy and seemed to be earnestly having a good time.
I was pretty sure the next set was not for me, recognizing Joshua Hedley’s name from a very cool free riverboat cruise I’d written about in my pre-coverage. Not wanting to lose my excellent parking spot or the chance to check out Delta Spirit at the same venue, I wandered next door to The House (formerly The Russian House). Every time The House has live music, I know it’s going to be excellent. On the surface, its programming is singularly focused on world music, but I’ve noticed every act I’ve seen there has had a psychedelic slant. A neighborhood restaurant with standing room for no more than 50 and awkward marketing, it seems like the music would be educational or nostalgic at best. Someone at The House just has cooler taste than every booking agent in Austin, and I can’t explain it, but I can appreciate the hell out of it.
This time, this mystery hero’s selection was a Denver trio, playing that night without their bassist and showing no sign of discomfort or disorganization for it. Chilean-American singer songwriter Chris Bowers-Castillo led with dreamy syncopated nylon guitar loops, lots of electronic texture and dizzying, lilting vocal melodies. Percussionist Michael Devincenzi pinned it all down with an almost uncanny precision for how relaxed he looked. I don’t think I’ve ever been so mesmerized by a drummer. I’ve listened to some portion of the smooth but roiling album Creatures of Habit every day since I saw this show (now more than a week ago).
Energized by the accidental stumbling into an incredible show, I went back to Antone’s for Delta Spirit. It’s probably unfair to compare a band of 15 years to anything going on at a new indie showcase, but this set was everything I wanted from the Single Lock show on Tuesday. (That’s made especially unfair by this group hailing from New York and California, but there’s always been overlap between Cali and Southern artists.) This band has charisma. Aside from being an excellent singer, Matthew Vasquez really puts on a show behind the mic, and there’s always something satisfying about a long-haired guitarist (William McLaren) really losing himself in each solo. It’s unusual to see this much energy from an established group on such a small stage, and the audience, somehow transformed for the better since before 1:00 a.m., seemed to appreciate that.
Saturday and Sunday
My body gives up on me
I had plans to see Mt. Joy on the big outdoor stage as part of the festival’s biggest free event series, quickly replaced upon realizing Beck would be playing at the Moody Theater. (Why was no one talking about Beck? I shared events nearly every day on my Instagram stories and got a response as surprised as I was that the musical legend was in town.) Those, still, were overthrown by an absolute toddler problem to have, an ear infection.
I woke up Saturday with lots of pain in my inner ear and the weirdest phasing issues between the two sides of my head. Everything sounded a little like that wobbly voice meme filter. I’d been run down with allergies for days, and mentally chastising myself for only seeing one or two events each day. I wasn’t taking into account how long each event lasted, not to mention all the complicated logistics. These were all four to eight-hour excursions.
Although obviously I’m disappointed that the end of my SX fell through, I appreciate that my body forced a break on me. Everyone talks about pacing yourself throughout the festival, but when you’re holding a comped pass worth nearly $2,000, it’s easy to feel like you’re not doing enough. I can’t even imagine what it’d feel like if I’d paid for it.
I think the key is having a loose plan, and reminding yourself over and over that things are more fun when you give yourself time to enjoy them. I think anyone will tell you this, but you really have to do it for yourself. Best of luck out there seeking out the real, this year and every year. I promise it’s out there.