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Tuesday, March 11, 2014

South by Southwest: A Preamble

Posted by Matthew Slessler on Tue, Mar 11, 2014 at 2:01 PM

Our SXSW correspondent, and friends.
  • Our SXSW correspondent, and friends.
[Against our better judgment, we assigned the task of this year's SXSW coverage to Matthew Slessler, a dear and very loud friend. He's not even in Austin yet and he's already writing about the festival. Here goes.—Eds.]

I have this habit of drunkenly texting Mercury music editor Ned Lannamann my take on music. It is always after midnight, it is usually random, it is a tad misguided a lot of the time, and it is always full of hyperbole.

“Roxy Music is the most underrated band on the planet.”

“Sly and the Family Stone are the greatest American band of all time.”

"'Buffalo Stance' by Neneh Cherry is one of my five favorite dance songs.”

I’m really lucky to have Ned as a friend.

So I had casually mentioned to my friend Ned that I was heading to SXSW for work and that I did not have a pass. Here is where Ned surprised me. “If you blog for us, I’ll get you a pass." I have nothing else to say to that, other than there is always that fork in the road in life where you have two choices. I was given that fork, and I chose to consistently wake up a good friend at 2 am my autocorrected thoughts on things, and I got a badge to SXSW. Go figure.

I feel the need (because I am nothing if not a blowhard) to write a lengthy preamble to my SXSW coverage to explain a few things. The first part is about the festival itself. The most common refrain you hear from EVERYONE is: “SXSW sucks now, it used to be cool, but it’s all corporate and bullshit now, it’s only worth it for the day parties.” What a convenient, predictable thing to say. Of course, the same people that blurt that are the same ones heading back down again to this festival they hate. It’s like that friend you have, we all have one, I know I do, they are the ones that NEVER want to cop to liking the norm. If the masses like OK Computer, he likes The Bends. Right now, a lot of you are reading this and saying, “Wait a minute, I like The Bends better, too," to which I say, I really don’t care. Who cares if SXSW used to be cool, and who gives two shits about Radiohead?

Where was I? There is always a strategy to festivals, and especially this one. It’s so massive, and there are so many bands—so many GREAT bands—so how do you balance seeing who you like against finding something new? You don’t, really. You follow the time-honored tradition of circling bands you already love (Bob Mould, the Hold Steady) and mix in some great Portland bands (Divers, Guantanamo Baywatch, Animal Eyes). From there, I plan to treat the festival like I treat the bars and jukeboxes of Portland. Have a few beers and see where it takes me.

Oh, and text Ned. Don’t forget to text Ned.

“Texas sucks, but Austin is cool.” Ahh, a refrain we have heard often. Usually by people who have never been to either one, but just like the “SXSW sucks now” mantra, it’s usually said by Sneetches without any stars on their bellies. Let me set the record straight on this: Texas does suck, and Texans don’t care. If there were a vote for one state to secede, the other 49 states would vote Texas to be that state (although watch yourself Arizona, you are picking up some major steam) and Texas would also vote for themselves, and everyone would be perfectly happy with that with maybe the exception of Oklahoma because if Texas secedes, what happens to the Red River Shootout? It’s an odd relationship, not unlike Don Henley and Glenn Frey (get ready for more of these timely references)—both sides are deplorable, but you agree to stay together begrudgingly because there is money to be made and crappy '70s hits to trot out.

But is Austin really that cool? Isn’t saying it’s the coolest city in Texas akin to saying Big Al’s is the coolest bar in Beaverton? It’s a sliding scale. Now, I will grant you, Austin is chock full of amazing musicians, great bars, and—as they will tell you ad nauseam—great BBQ. For the record, part of being great is not spending every waking moment telling everyone and anyone who will listen how great you are. This malady belongs to things as varied as sketch comedy, the Oregon Ducks, and yes, the BBQ in Austin. We get it: It falls off the bone, and you can cut it with a fork (which, when you really think about it, one of the most inane selling points ever. Why are we so put out by cutting things with an actual knife?). But Austin also is home to the University of Texas (frat boy alert!) and if you drive three miles out of Austin, guess what? You are in a flat-ass brown wasteland for the next 700 miles.

That is not my beef with Austin. Every city has its good and bad (yes, Portland, I am talking about you, too). No, my issue with Austin is this: The last time I was at SXSW, my cab was pulled over for speeding on a random back road from the airport to my hotel. That’s right, Austin’s finest gave my cab a ticket for speeding, and to be honest about it, the cop was, quelle surprise, a total dick about it.

So Austin, I’m watching you. I know you have others fooled, but to quote the great Burton Cummings (in another timely reference): “Colored lights can hypnotize, sparkle someone else's eyes.” I also realize that this festival is not a true representation of what your city is, but I’m still going to be hovered over my brisket and Lone Star with jaded eyes. Prove me wrong.

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