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Archive for March, 2010

A sense of place

Every March since 1987, Austin becomes the place where people from around the world flock for the annual South-by-Southwest (SXSW) festival & conference. Austin is many things, but SXSW defines a pretty big chunk of the city’s personality.  In 14 years, I’ve never splurged and bought a badge or wristband for this event, like so many thousands of people do every year, but I have had fantastic experiences in and around SXSW otherwise.  Fresh off SXSW2010, I’m reflecting on my life in Austin, growth & progress, and the spaces off the beaten path where I tend to find my bliss.

When I first moved to Austin, I was given the tip that “volunteers” were paid $50 a night to work the door at a SXSW music venue.  That sounded like a nice supplement to my minimum wage and the $$ I earned donating plasma.  I ended up volunteering for SXSW for 5 years  in a row (eventually, I had a job where spring break was paid vacation, so I was free to morph into a club-prowling night-owl, working downtown 5pm-2am ).

In 1996, I was assigned to the Driskill Hotel (a historic and reputedly haunted place) for a singer-songwriter showcase in 1996 (complimentary shrimp cocktails and chocolate covered strawberries from the kitchen next door made it feel even less like work).  The fact this venue was on the second floor was a blessing for a SXSW newbie like me – the drunken throngs couldn’t just wander in.  But boy, were they out there on 6th street when I exited the hotel around 1:30am!  Debauchery!

The next three years I worked at the Electric Lounge, Emo’s, and Liberty Lunch – (I don’t remember which year-which club), clubs where I saw some rockin’ shows over the years:  Sonic Youth, Sleater Kinney, the Butchies, the Donnas, Man or Astroman, Blond Readhead, Knife in the Water, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown are a few I recall, and they hosted poetry slams, puppet shows, and Beastie Boys dance parties, too.  Two of these places no longer exist, thanks to the  “progress” of  “downtown revitalization.”  ~Sigh~  Lofts and tech industry offices.  Yay.  “Let’s provide tons of new, expensive, chic housing downtown, and then reduce the number of entertainment options available.”  There is a flaw in this plan.  An equally disturbing cultural loss and administrative “whoops” is now being echoed in the pending closing of UT’s Cactus Cafe. But I digress…

One of my most persistent SXSW memories (not by choice, mind you) is the night I inadvertently screwed over one of  my favorite musicians:  I tried really hard to stick around to see Vic Chesnutt (I’d seen him previously at the aforementioned Cactus Cafe, as well as in Athens, GA venues), headlining at the Electric Lounge (I think that’s the right club)…alas, the volunteer pickup van wanted me and all the cash I was holding back at the cashier cash-out pronto.  In my frustration, I left without leaving Vic’s manager his payment check for the night (one of my cashier duties).  Double whammy – I missed his performance, and I jacked up his cash flow.  I heard he was pissed.  I hope he didn’ t hold a grudge.

On a lighter note, I think that was the same year it was freezing cold outside, and SXSW door duty was out on the curb – the club bouncers & I shoved pocket warmers in our skivvies and socks, and drank whiskey & hot chocolate all night – worked like a charm.  SXSW Survival Skills 101.

In 2000, The last year I volunteered for SXSW, I was assigned to work the Texas Union Ballroom (another UT Campus venue, although not currently endangered). Unfortunately, I wasn’t terribly present (fretting over my ornery 13yr old brother, who was living with me, and *not* thrilled I was working this gig) and didn’t pay attention while Daniel Johnston played.  Oh well.  That ballroom is a good space, and I’ve seen Ani DiFranco play and Maya Angelou speak there. I can’t complain.

So even though I haven’t club-hopped with my $300 badge to see all my fave bands play 30 minute sets at different locations around town, I had some really enjoyable & memorable experiences that solidified Austin as a place for me.  I got to be an insider in the night-club and music scene during spring break.  How cool is that?

The last few years, I’ve taken a different tack, enjoying the free peripheral events (much more laid-back, chummy little happenings just off the main thoroughfares officially booked for paying conference-goers).  There are shows at stores, restaurants, and clubs too tiny or seedy or off-the-beaten path to charge admission.  There are house parties all over the place.  The crowds are small, the free beer and festival food are great, the company (usually friends and acquaintances) is grand, and there isn’t much stress involved (worth big points in my book).  Maybe I’m getting lazy, but it sure is nice to not fight the crowds, to have room to explore, chat, sit, wander away and come back, whatevah.  I even performed at one of these shows, in front of people, in a costume, with a partner, in a clogging routine we made up to go with a song Amo’s band played, all on somewhat of a dare.  Good ol’ fashioned, from the heart, cheap-as-dirt fun.  Just can’t beat it.

This year, I didn’t look at the published SXSW schedule once (really, not even once).  I followed Amo & her band to 3 different venues (2 houses and one cafe).  DNN played three shows. We had the pleasure of seeing good friends unexpectedly.

The sun shone as we spent all day Friday at Cafe Mundi to support the Girls Rock Camp fundraiser and say goodbye to another favorite place (Mundi is closing today, thanks again you annoying s-o-b progress).  The local and international bands we saw gave spirited performances despite technical difficulties (who needs electricity anyway?).  We met up with our friend Sara from Atlanta.

We froze our booties off walking around on Saturday (crazy weather/temp swing is sooo Austin!).  We met up with our friend Abe from NYC, and wandered through the Austin Convention Center and into Flatstock (poster art show).  We ran into our friend and former landlord there – his family founded and runs the Austin Record Convention. They were selling records, so we bought a few for our newly-acquired turntable.

We passed back through the Rainey Manor house party (where we started) on the way back to the car, for a few more free performances by friend bands, free beer, and a sausage wrap.  Amo spontaneously asked the Garden Posse gals to screen-print her sweater.  Then home again, home again, jiggety-jig.

So even though this SXSW thing has grown exponentially, from a modest local music festival to an international music/film/interactive technology extravaganza (and many lament that it has grown too big for its britches), all is not lost to progress: there is still space where we can find intimate, moving experiences with people and places.  I am comforted to know that if I wander along the fringes, away from the epicenter of thronging masses, at the edge of progress, I will find what I’m looking for.

-Mel

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