Each week, Lizzy Goodman takes you behind the scenes in rock ‘n’ roll.
On the morning of my third day at SXSW music fest in Austin, Texas, I opened the hotel room door (at noon) and discovered someone had left me a souvenir: a paper bag containing a package of almonds, a bottle of Stoli and a sandwich baggie full of sticky, good-stinking weed. This has never happened before. In the nine years I’ve been coming to SXSW, I’ve seen a lot; I’ve seen the Wu-Tang Clan turn thousands of dusty, pasty indie rockers into verse-spitting disciples. I’ve seen great bands (the Killers, Arcade Fire) green and untested as they hone their sound in tiny clubs. I’ve seen Drew Barrymore order pizza, Bill Murray crash a Friday Night Lights shoot and Courtney Love’s underwear (white with pink flowers). But I’ve never before been anonymously gifted drugs.
That’s Austin for you. Every year, it’s exactly the same. You wait for an hour to eat crap quesadillas on the roof of the Iron Cactus, drink like a college freshman, get sunburned, reveal too much personal info to colleagues in the back room of some bands’ suite at the Double Tree, and then pretend it never happened the next morning over vegetarian breakfast tacos and tongue-stinging bloody mary’s. But every year, it’s also completely different. Something serendipitous or bizarre or otherwise kismet happens that reminds me why I pay pre-season price for cute sundresses and get my ass on a plane, year after year, to spend the third weekend in March down in Austin.
A sampling of SXSW 2011’s signature moments: Theophilus London — a buzzy (and really handsome, jeez) new R&B/hip-hop prospect delivered a joyful, kinetic set at Mowhawk — defined by dynamic, genre-blending tracks and multiple hat changes (one black felt, one Indiana Jones-esque with a turquoise band). By the end, as he was tossing out stacks of fake $1000 bills and shouting the chorus to his electro banger “Girls Girls Money,” it didn’t even feel gimmicky. I stumbled outside and into the daylight, dazed, and ran smack into the sonic assault of Okkervil River, who I didn’t even know were playing this MOG party. “It’s just a bad movie where there’s no crying/…It’s just a life story so there’s no climax,” sang Okkervil frontman Will Sheff, representing his native city well in week-old scruff and a cowboy shirt, as the crowd collectively fist-pumped to one of the band’s most beloved songs, “Our Life Is Not a Movie or Maybe.” I had a boozy, bizarrely intimate conversation about Ashley Green with the nebbish bassist for Dark Summer, a local band who will be opening for the Killers this summer. “Joe Jonas is dating her and he took off his purity ring so you know what that means,” the guy says, gazing wistfully in the direction of the coconut shrimp buffet. “It would be a crime against god not to have sex with her.” (He might have a shot, as the teen America power couple just split for those who care about such things.)
There were also the dark and sad moments that make industry veterans bitch about it being too big to be fun. Kanye West’s closing night gig (featuring Jay-Z and Justin Vernon from Bon Iver) was ostensibly a personal gift from West to the hipsters but it was streamed by Vevo, who granted and then revoked access to packs of would-be attendees inspiring chants of “fuck Vevo” outside the abandoned power plant where the concert was held. It wasn’t some impish troublemaker who passed out the myriad supersoakers you saw all week, it was Ray-Ban. And Kid Rock flew in to host a Jim Beam tasting and inflict his personally-curated selection of budget Lynyrd Skynrd bands on us all night. But here’s the thing: the West show was apparently killer (I was watching the undeniable bratty genius of Odd Future with Michael Cera and his harem of hot nerd girls at the Vice party), the squirt guns were a brilliant innovation (this year’s official pickup line was wordless, just a precisely aimed stream of water), and that new cherry-infused bourbon Kid Rock is pimping is really freaking tasty when you mix it with club soda.
South By Southwest 2011 was the same as it ever was, but that’s a good thing. “We don’t tolerate negative energy,” summarized Big Boi in between smacking the asses of girls who jumped onstage to grind with him at the very same MOG party. “When we get a bunch of cool motherfuckers together, cool shit is bound to happen.” With that kind of talk, I have to wonder: is Big Boi my stoner Secret Santa?