Music means something different to every person. To some it's an outlet, others a form of retreat and solitude; for some it's just the sound in the background, while for others it's the sound that everything in life revolves around.
In much the same way, SXSW can be something different to those in attendance. For managers and publicists, it may all be work and part of the job; for musicians it may be a whirlwind of activity and chaos, more effort than fun, but a chance to be heard and catch your big break; and for music fans it might just be the ultimate vacation and a chance to drown your cares in music of every style.
For some, like myself, a trip to Austin for SXSW is like an annual pilgrimage to musical Mecca: a chance to pray at the "Wailing Wall" of rock, and an opportunity to have my faith in music renewed. Granted, after four solid days of music, it can also be overwhelming and exhausting, but I always seem to come back somehow revived as well.
Of course, the cornerstone of it all is music, and music to the Nth degree. Having expanded to 100 official stages this year and starting off slow on Tuesday night before kicking into high gear on Wednesday, upwards of 2,000 artists fill the SXSW roster. Still more play in town for independent events that piggyback the festival. That's a lot to take in amongst an ever-growing sea of music fans and spring breakers looking to hang out in the coolest location in Texas during the month of March.
When I arrived, I initially ran into Susan Herndon, who had just finished her set and was preparing to depart for her next show of the day. The pleasure and reassurance of visiting the Oklahoma showcase is consistently two-fold: as good as it is to see our local artists representing Oklahoma (and specifically Tulsa) so well it's even more reassuring to see so many familiar faces who also made the trip to support them.
As should be expected, Desi & Cody kept the Austin audience just as captivated as those in Tulsa and as the day progressed, sets by We the Ghost, Del Toros, Guardant, and Dustin Pittsley Band proved that Tulsa was well represented.
Of particular note was how focused Pittsley was when he arrived. If one thing proved apparent over the week, this wasn't just another batch of shows for Dustin and his crew. He came to Austin out to prove something and he spit fire with each gig I caught, proving he's not just another singer/guitarist, but a force that will have to be reckoned with in the near future. Although it took a trip to Texas to see the dedication and focus of a few select acts, even before the evening arrived, they had done their part to restore my faith in Tulsa's music scene.
Once the evening arrived and after a return to the conference to sit in on interviews with Jim James and Depeche Mode, I was ready to take in a feast of music. After starting out with Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds at Stubbs, then moving to The Continental Club to get a dose of steroid-infused Americana with Murder By Death, I found myself at a rooftop gig with maybe 150 people packed around as The VirginMarys exploded on a tiny stage. With fury in their eyes and grins on their faces, this was the first of a whirlwind of showcase appearances (seven, actually) that these guys would make over the next four days. They were tight and furious and explosive -- and just what I have been looking for to renew my faith in rock and roll.
Before the night was over, I had one more pivotal show to attend. Wrapping things up and starting well after his projected start time, Jim James took the stage at the Hype Hotel at a little after 1am and took the audience to a different level. Opening with "State of the Art (AEIOU)," James had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the first notes melding rock, soul, and R&B in an almost hypnotic elixir. This was the culmination of the day and of musical soul-searching.
Even the Austin Chronicle described James' set as "[s]piritually inclined, soul-searching trip-hop rock" that "felt like church, dark and sacred." After a full day of searching, James closed with a worship service that blurred the lines between genres and renewed our spirits for the next day.
And what would the next day bring? Certainly more music. The evening kicked off with another close knot rooftop show with Vintage Trouble and crossed genre barriers with The Wanton Looks, Unsung Hero, a pivotal performance by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell and a nightcap in Empire Automotive garage with Dead Sara. The culmination of the day, however, came early with Dave Grohl's keynote speech.
If James led worship the night prior, Grohl was the minister to deliver the message. Over the course of an hour, he discussed his history, his love for music, the phenomenon that was Nirvana, the Foo Fighters, taking control of your career and the making of his latest film, Sound City. Amidst it all, however, his underlying theme and message came through loud and clear for musicians and music fans alike: "Find your own voice."
Reverend Grohl shared with his congregation: When left to your own devices, music is where you find your own voice. There is no right or wrong, because it's your voice and you get to decide and when you realize that, you, too, can speak to someone -- with a song, a riff or a lyric -- and change the next person's life as well.
Be sure to check back next week to get the recap of days three and four and get the lowdown form this year's essay contest winner, Anna Hudson, as well.
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