Austin just smells different.
That was the first thing I noticed when I stepped out into the Texas night, bags in tow, to begin the three-day quest that is the South By Southwest Music Festival. My biggest fear for the week was that I would find out SXSW (the "hip" way to write South By Southwest) was an industry schmoozefest and my high idea of bearing witness to the future of music would turn out to be nothing more than a high idea.
Thursday was bright a little too bright, and a little too hot but as soon as I stepped out onto Sixth Street, Austin's main drag, things seemed to come to life. People swarmed the streets, even at an early hour, talking about music, bands they were going to see, wanted to see and maybe were pissed they couldn't see. (That was one drawback: There were over 1,000 bands playing SXSW, all of them concentrated in the three days of the festival.) (Click for photos from the event.)
As the day pressed on, I hooked up with the Riddlin' Kids, the Feds, Ed Harcourt, OK GO and the X-ecutioners. I saw everything from rock to soul to indie to hip-hop and it was all good, it was all honest music. I began to wonder if the search for the next big thing was the wrong way to go. Maybe the future of music was in having many different genres all leading the charge. Instead of everything being tagged this and that, it would all just be great music. Duke Ellington once said there's only two kinds of music: good and bad. Point taken.
Friday night lived up to everything that I'd hoped for. Imagine an anthill at the height of the ants' workday, then add loud music and the smell of great BBQ and there you have it. I walked down Sixth Street trying to take it all in. I'd spent the morning with the Mooney Suzuki, and now I was on my way to see the Brought Low, a great band from New York that drew a more rock-oriented crowd. After the Brought Low I headed over to another club to check out metal/hardcore bands Shadows Fall and Killswitch Engage. Talking to kids on the street, they confirmed my earlier suspicion: The next big thing wasn't in the vibe. People didn't care what you were doing as long as it was good. No more slick-produced megabucks templates only honest music, no matter what genre it was.
I stumbled around Saturday in an exhausted state, talking to kids, seeing more bands, freaking out over the rebirth of true punk rock I saw with L.A.'s own Icarus Line. I found out that on Friday night their guitar player, Aaron, had smashed a glass case at the Hard Rock Café (Click to see the case get smashed), removing the Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar that was in it and trying to play it (see "Long Lines For Clinic, Lynch Mob For Icarus Line At SXSW"). That's punk, that's badass. As the day drew to a close I felt very satisfied, topping the evening off watching High on Fire and hanging out with some friends.
I wasn't wrong when I landed in Austin. The future of music was in these streets, just not in plain view. The next big thing, from what I saw, was not a genre but a quality. If you were making music that mattered, music that spoke to things people could relate to and blend into their own lives, then your genre didn't matter people wanted to hear it. So the industry slips a little. Maybe it'll use this time to learn how to build a band and make a legend again. That hope eased me into a sound and blissful sleep on my way home.