SXSW for Free: Day One, Wednesday, March 18

6th Street is the center of the action at SXSW

A late start didn't put a damper on Day 1 of the South By Southwest Music Conference, which featured a warm day, great music, and a few surprises. Most amazing, I did it all on a limited budget, spending less than what I'd shell out for a night out any other time of year.

4:00 p.m. — After rolling into Austin and sorting out the parking situation, I headed to the Canadian BBQ at Brush Square Park, hoping my pre-bash RSVP email got through to the organizers. The party offered free food, free drinks, and great music, including a set from much buzzed about Montreal band, Malajube.

Unfortunately, my first attempt at a free event at SXSW wound up being my first disappointment, my name never making the list. I wondered if I had brought my Canadian passport, would that have been enough for entrance? Shouldn't all Canadians be allowed entry to this sort of thing?

After some texts to friends, I wandered down to 6th Street where barricades closed the entire avenue, allowing room for festival-goers to hit up the numerous clubs without constraints of sidewalks. This also happened to be the case with many side-streets, making the festival extremely pedestrian friendly, except for when crossing I-35 for a few of the side parties.

Downtown Austin carried an air of Mardi Gras, people decked out in their finest hipster clothing, music heard from every point along the route. Many of those along the way were already drunk, as I witnessed what could be considered sexual assault if it wasn't enacted on anyone but a poor Energizer Bunny mascot. The spectacle smarmily recalled the Magnetic Fields tune, “Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits.”

4:40 p.m. - A friend texted me, telling me to head on down to Maggie Mae's, where I found bands performing on three stages, sometimes all at once. I walked into the first, street level, bar and caught the tail-end of a set by Titus Andronicus, an act that recalls And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead with slightly more atmospherics, but the same level of debauchery.

Titus Andronicus definitely wasn't wearing these clothes during their Maggie Mae's set.*

One of the guitarists fell from his amplifier stack after security told him it wasn't club policy to rock out on equipment over 10 feet high. The player gave him a brief, nonchalant look, and then jumped from his stack, rolling into a half-somersault, not missing a power-chord along the way. It was my first rock â??n roll moment of the festival.

Looking over my shoulder, who did I see? I'm pretty sure it was Carrie Brownstein, formerly of the now defunct, but still awesome Sleater-Kinney. I tried not to stare and I almost said hello, being that I interviewed her for a feature piece a few years back for my former weekly.

4:55 p.m. — I then headed to the Red-Eyed Fly in hopes of catching a set by Detroit garage-rockers, the Von Bondies, but soon discovered they swapped sets earlier in the day with another band. Instead, I got to spend a little time with Sweden's The Tallest Man On Earth also known as Kristian Matsson, a singer-songwriter, plying his earnest ballads to an appreciative crowd. Nothing too spectacular, though. It's hard to thrill me when you're a man and his acoustic amongst 2000 bands. Sorry, dude.

Sweden's The Tallest Man On Earth had the right idea for attire for SXSW 2009

5:05 p.m. — Next up, the Mohawk offered the Akron/Family from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. This was the most unexpected set of the day. If Animal Collective utilized drum circles and smoked way more pot, they'd be a close proximity to Akron/Family. The trio (and friends) had the crowd dancing in the heat with rhythmic incantations and warm melodies transforming the aptly-named Mohawk tent into a veritable sweat lodge.

LIke Titus Andronicus, Akron/Family played in a lot less clothing than depicted here

Two things I noticed at that point:

1) It was freaking hot. Maybe I'm not used to summer-like weather in March, but the sweat soaked through my t-shirt and turned my stylish hat into nothing more than a headband. I had to put it in the dryer later that night. Yuck.

2) There seemed to be an awful lot of facial hair in Austin. It was like a plague, hitting at least one in four members of the male sex, if not more. It got me pondering during the extended Akron/Family jam sessions. Should I grow some? How would I look if I did? I thought of San Antonio Current editor Jeremy Martin and his fine, full beard. Mine would probably look a lot like an unfinished game of Connect 4, patchy in places, thick in others. I scratched the facial hair idea, no pun intended, but promised myself to avoid shaving for a day or two, just to fit in.

Irregardless of the heat and extraneous hair, Akron/Family's set earned a closer inspection when I get back to San Antonio.

5:45 — Hidden on the other side of I-35, the Fader/Levi's Fort presented one of the better line-ups of the day, including Swedish indie superstars Peter, Bjorn, and John (the contagious whistle hook in 2006 single “Young Folks” is permanently imprinted in my brain, whether I like it or not), all for free. I headed over to the Fort to hook up my wristband, but the line stretched way too long for me to even consider joining it.

As I turned back to where my car was parked, I ran face-to-face with none other than Carrie Brownstein one more time. I figured it was fate and took the opportunity to say hello this time, thanking her for the time she hooked me up with a guest-list ticket to see Sleater-Kinney play one of their final tours, opening for Pearl Jam in Canada. Although my starstruck ramblings probably confused her, it was a pretty cool moment to talk to someone who heavily impacted the music scene over the past 15 years.

9:30 p.m. — The heat forced me to a brief respite at the friend's place I commandeered for the week while she was away in Peru. Later that night, I hit up the Data Pop '09 Party by the Alamo Drafthouse on South Lamar, “a celebration of music inspired by the Gameboy music movement.” The quick-moving line stretched down the strip-mall sidewalk, an all-ages crowed filling the former Salvation Army building.

A great concept, Data Pop suffered in execution during the two acts I witnessed. First up, 8bk OK consisted of two singers, female and male, and a dude playing a pre-programmed, hijacked Gameboy. The trio ripped through several campy Nintendo-esque odes, including several show tunes (“Kiss The Girl” from The Little Mermaid and “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors), set to an 8-bit beat. The singers were great, but the set was a novelty at best.

Sievert proved modestly pedestrian, a set marred by technical problems. The only saving grace came from the pizzas he handed out to the audience at the start of his set, temporarily forgiving him for a couple of train-wrecks during his first tune.

Don't get me wrong, I love glitch-pop and 8-bit-inspired electronica. Check out anything by Crystal Castles for proof on how it creatively good it can be done. But it was really hard to rock out to a performance consisting of someone pressing a button, holding a souped-up Gameboy aloft in the air, and not much else.

10:45 — At that point, I wanted something a little more organic, so I headed to the Monstrosity Party on Wilson Street to check out We Have Band, an act from London that has been receiving some buzz in the music press. I arrived at the party, only to be greeted by those leaving, some telling me the cops busted the neighborhood bash due to a noise violation.

Fortunately for me, a local restaurant serving food at the party was still in business, providing backyard treats to those left lingering. I took the opportunity to indulge in some of the best Frito Pie I've had in some time straight from the bag, loaded with cheese and jalapenos, and definitely worth the $3 spent.

11:30 — A quick drive downtown and a brisk walk down 5th Street took me to the Gigacrate Party at Beso Cantina, featuring The Rub (DJs Ayres, Cosmo Baker, and Eleven), a fantastic DJ crew from New York City, specializing in the latest mash-up craze. Along with party headliner Tittsworth, The Rub has been revitalizing the underground DJ movement, remixing some of the most recognizable hip-hop, soul, R&B, and house tracks.

NYC's The Rub killed it at Beso Cantina, getting the crowd hyped and in the party mood

As soon as The Rub stepped on the decks, the party started bumping, the dancefloor growing with churning arms and legs of pretty ladies. Even Captain Morgan showed up with his harem of sweatband-toting schwag girls, whatever that's worth.

12:00 — After checking out The Rub, I began walking towards the Noise Revival Orchestra show at Chain Drive, when I heard a familiar sound. At first I thought it was the invite-only Echo and the Bunnymen show, adding salt to the wound, reminding me I probably wouldn't get to see some of my musical heroes this week.

I investigated further, coming to a tent next to the Cedar Room. Only it wasn't Echo and the Bunnymen, but Brooklyn's The Cloud Room, an alt-rock band in the vein of Radiohead-meets-The Faint. The sign by the door listed the show at $5, money well worth seeing a great, under-the-radar act. Unfortunately for the band, they were too under-the-radar for SXSW audiences with only 20 people there to watch the group play. Fine by me, as it gave much needed dancing room, especially during the awesome single “Hey Now Now.” Word had it the Cloud Room's new album will see light of day soon.

The Cloud Room surprise is what SXSW is all about: stumbling upon great acts

Belfast's General Fiasco followed and didn't make me think twice about spending my five bucks. Young lads from the Emerald Isle, the group recalled the feistiness of The Jam and bygone Britpoppers, The Big Three. The choruses were catchy, the trio was charming, and showed plenty of promise.

Belfast's General Fiasco closed the night off on a high note

Tallying it up in the comfort of air conditioning, I spent only $20 over the course of the day. The worst decision was the four-dollar Red Bull at Beso Cantina when I could have easily asked for and received as many Red Bulls as my brain could handle at the Gameboy party (Red Bull was a sponsor). I saw a bunch of bands and shows across the musical spectrum on Day One, not once being asked to see my wristband or festival badge. It contributed to a feeling of musical empowerment that grew stronger after reviewing the quality and quantity of talent seen and experienced at minimal cost.

Goal: Spend under $100 over the course of the festival

Money spent so far: $20. $5 on parking, $4 on Red Bull, $3 on Frito Pie, $5 on admission to one show, $3 on water.

Free stuff: Entrance into six venues, one Red Bull, two Captain Morgan wristbands, plenty of stickers that found the inside of a trash bin.

Pedometer: Over 11000 steps (nearly seven miles).

*Live photos will be uploaded on return to S.A.


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