SXSW Dispatch: The Show Must Stop

strangers.jpgI’m coming back from SXSW sleep-deprived and my ears still ringing. My final hours in Austin went a little something like this:

After catching hip-hop sets from Talib Kweli, Pete Rock, and Jean Grae, I stopped by this outdoor courtyard at dusk to hear local Austin band Combo Mahala play Hawaiian music from the 20s and 30s. A couple in their 50s from England (both wearing cowboy boots) told me they came all the way to SXSW so they could hear bluegrass, country, and Hawaiian music. “The real gems are bands that aren’t even part of SXSW,” the woman told me.

Time for a break from music. I caught a screening of Heavy Metal in Baghdad, a documentary film about the lives of members of Baghdad’s only metal band. The film’s endearing look at a group of friend’s goal to be a band in the middle of a bombed-out war zone also elevates some mind-numbing facts about the lives of Iraqi refugees since the war started. When the group finally enters a Damascus studio to record their first album, it doesn’t matter if you like metal or not; you’re just glad they made it there alive.

Next I caught a Brooklyn “total sonic annihilation” band called A Place To Bury Strangers. Their set closer was more than 10 minutes of sheer noise. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen so many people cupping their hands over their ears or just walking away from a performing band. The sheer wall of ear-splitting chaos was surreal. Here in Austin, at 12:30 at night, a performance like this felt sublime.

I took a chance and decided to close my last night with a low-volume set from Denver’s Greg Harris Vibe Quintet. Hearing jazz music (fronted by a vibraphone) was a niece reprieve from the slew of noise elsewhere, although a visibly drunk woman dancing around tables and flirting with members of the band (while they were playing) kept things interesting.

“Thank goodness all the freaks are leaving,” A friend said as she pulled up to drop me off at the airport. “But I guess we’ve got a few of them that live here, too.” As I checked in, another friend bid me farewell with the following text message: “Come back, but let the rains clean up this city of mine for a month or so first. ‘Cause as usual this town looks like it has been sh!*t on for the past two weeks. Now back to normal…”