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SXSW Festival Wrap-Up: Arrival + Day 1

“Your card sir, your card didn’t work..”
“Oh.. um yes it did I got into my room so everything is okay”
“I mean your card it wouldn’t go through.”
“Oh, my credit card?”
“Yes”
“I’ll be right down”

It was the worst kind of phonecall, not because I knew I was in trouble, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to nap, at least not for a few more painstaking moments. My arrival in Austin was plagued with discomfort. Eight hours bouncing between airports and connectors, haplessly wandering between gates and trying to quell my insatiable desire to lay down and die. I spent the evening prior to my 5AM arrival at Calgary International laying awake and wondering how the week at SXSW was going to pan out. It seemed quite counter-productive to stare at the ceiling apprehensively for hours on end instead of sleeping, but my brain couldn’t be shut off. I was nervous, undoubtedly, and traveling alone is never an experience that I get comfortable with.

My extreme delirium from lack of rest only amplified my displeasure of flying, as well as the awful case of bronchitis I had acquired a few days earlier. I spent all four hours on the plane in a constant state of nodding off, mixed with auditory and visual hallucinations. Clearly the other passengers must’ve thought I was on drugs, as I was never spoken to by a human being that wasn’t a stewardess. Even the cab driver at the airport treated me like a leper, so one can only imagine my incredible displeasure when the hotel woke me up from a brief coma to inform me that my credit card had been declined. After an excruciating hour dealing with the lady at the front desk who was convinced I was trying to con the hotel, I finally made my way back up to my room to lay down, but at this point my stomach would not be reasoned with. I needed food, badly, and the only place to go was out. I mustered up my waning strength, and stumbled out the door into SXSW, already in progress.

It was Monday, and technically the music portion of the festival hadn’t started yet, although that didn’t seem to matter. I hobbled up a dark and populated Rainey Street, and was immediately overcome with sensory overload. There were people absolutely everywhere in various states of intoxication, and live music echoed from the backyard of every eclectic house on each side of the road. I contemplated collapsing, but then remembering the atrocious cost of an ambulance fare and elected to continue my search for some of Rainey’s greasiest. At the Lustre Pearl there was a line of several hundred people stretching down the block, and the few lucky ones at the front sat on the curb smoking cigarettes underneath a neon “Funny or Die” sign. Somehow the legendary Bill Cosby was going to do a set in this tiny house, and I immediately recalled the sold out Jubilee Auditorium back in Calgary where 2,500 people swallowed up tickets to see Cosby in just a few heartbeats. The opportunity to meet several Funny or Die alumni was only one extremely long line away, but I quickly reigned in my fleeting desires and focused on the target, Stony’s Pizza at the end of the block.

Food trucks ran rampant at South By; it was nigh impossible to avoid delving into the mobile delicacies of the festival, and my first experience was greasy and delicious. As hot chunks of cheese and dough hit my growling stomach, I began to feel a renewed sense of confidence and energy. I got brave and explored the area surrounding the Austin Convention Center, but my legs quivered beneath me, and it became readily apparent that my body could only handle the walk back to the hotel. Halfway home I ran into Ray from HBO Girls riding a bicycle outside the mobile movement where Lady GaGa was wandering around on ten-inch platform boots with a team of body guards. Jesus Murphy of fuck what is happening? Celebrity sightings were incredibly jarring in my state of delusion, so I limped back down Rainey, dodging drunkards, freaks, and the occasional Ma and Pa, and proceeded to have a mental breakdown in the hotel shower before clamoring off to sleep.

Good lord what have I gotten myself into? The streets were still heavily populated at 10:00 the next morning, with many festival goers and locals donning sunglasses and parking themselves between a cold beer and a few friends. Immediately on the docket before the music was obtaining my badge, and ultimately my press credentials, so I hoofed it to the Austin Convention Center with a belly full of bacon and orange juice.

The Austin Convention Center is an absolutely enormous building with grand hallways and several floors of small panel rooms and suites. The interactive tech junkies were still widely present, as companies lobbied for the money and attention of every passerby. I weaved my way through the exhibitions to the registration hall where I would spend the next hour confused and angry. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to be picking up, was I granted a badge or a wristband? The badges were significantly more expensive and offered no cover at any music event. They also came in a variety of colors, presumably denoting a higher social status and a visible signal showing other festival goers that you were the premier attendee. After bouncing back and forth between the badge help desk (where the main manager slash puppeteer in charge of a drove of teenagers was a total fucking dickface and zero help whatsoever) and the press desk, I was finally redirected to the wristband line by the press kiosk after being told by the aforementioned asshole that I didn’t belong at SXSW and flying to Austin was a mistake. After obtaining my wristband and obtaining a fervent hatred for the volunteer staff, I strolled by the help desk manager and promptly flipped him the bird while simultaneously signaling to my newly acquired wristband. It occurred to me later that I had most likely missed out on obtaining my press laminate, and as a result attended the entire festival as second-class simpleton with only a wristband and an attitude problem. To be fair, it is worth mentioning that the people at the press outlet were exceedingly polite and genuinely concerned about my well-being, although they never told me that I should return for my badge laminate before leaving the convention center. Alas, hindsight always seems to be 20/20, and in hindsight I should’ve told that help desk manager to stop being such a prick since i’ll be publishing my desire to kick sand in his face and call his mother.

But my angered waned at the prospect of finally seeing a musical showcase. There was very little going on during the day (Tuesday, I would later learn, was always the least interesting day), however I strolled up Red River Street to the Hype Hotel, only to be met by a lengthy line wrapped around the block of those waiting to obtain their Hype Hotel wristband. I stood in the baking sun for forty five minutes to claim my RSVP, once again completely unaware of my own credentials. A day later I had the bright idea of messaging Anthony Volodkin, the founder of the Hype Hotel about obtaining a VIP pass. As it turns out, a pass was already issued for The New LoFi, and not only was the wristband lineup a complete waste of time, but the entry line that same night which turned me off from attending the Hype Hotel could’ve been completely avoided. However, these things could only be learned the hard way on my first trip to Austin, and once I got my regular wristband for Hype I decided to hit Cheer Up Charlie’s up the street where a local act was playing a set.

Emily Wolfe is an Austin local and a SXSW veteran, and the modest crowd that gathered to see her performance was very perceptive and only lightly intoxicated. Wolfe bounced between traditional Texas bar-rock to wavy, progressive psychedelia. Her vocals roots were deeply entrenched in genre legends Sheryl Crow and Melissa Etheridge, yet stylistically Wolfe was a silver bullet. It was a fantastic way to start my musical discovery, and it’s no wonder she was featured the following day on NPR’s “5 New Bands to Watch At SXSW“.

I also had the pleasure of finally meeting the human music encyclopedia that is David Greenwald. David has been somewhat of a mentor to me these past few years, and his voluminous guide to SXSW was practically my bible heading into the festival. We would later spend the majority of the festival bantering back and forth on Twitter, but it was nice to put a face to the man I’d been following online for years.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Emily-Wolfe-White-Collar-Whiskey2.mp3|titles=Emily Wolfe – White Collar Whiskey]
Emily Wolfe – White Collar Whiskey

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Emily-Wolfe-Mechanical-Hands2.mp3|titles=Emily Wolfe – Mechanical Hands]
Emily Wolfe – Mechanical Hands

Back on Rainey street, The Harmed Brothers started their set on a cramped stage in the front yard of the Lustre Pearl. Their backwoods Americana began to draw a steady crowd, as the staff at the Pearl were forced to bring out more benches and tables from the back. It was a spirited performance, capped by an endless barrage of witty quips and observational humor. “We got a drill solo goin’ on over there” smirked Ray Vietti, co-lead vocalist of the indie bluegrass slapstick duo as they were interrupted by a staff member operating power tools. The drummer and bassist tagged out a few times as Vietti and banjo extraordinare Alex Salcido played a few instrumental jams. Their set went swimmingly, and they were invited by the staff at the Lustre Pearl to play well-beyond their allotted time, for nearly two hours in fact. The Harmed Brothers were the embodiment of SXSW music, and one of the many pleasant surprises of the festival.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/The-Harmed-Brothers-Bottle-to-Bottle1.mp3|titles=The Harmed Brothers – Bottle to Bottle]
The Harmed Brothers – Bottle to Bottle

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/The-Harmed-Brothers-Moonshine-And-Marijuana1.mp3|titles=The Harmed Brothers – Moonshine And Marijuana]
The Harmed Brothers – Moonshine And Marijuana

The only set I had picked out for the evening was Misun at the Lit Lounge on East 6th in the heart of SXSW. It was my first time wandering down the densely populated urban cityscape, and an experience I wasn’t likely to forget. Bars, bars, and more bars dotted the road, with live music echoing from the interior and droves of ridiculous lunatics stumbling to and fro. It was very overwhelming, especially considering I was by myself, and the street fashion alone was enough to cause a tension headache. So I ducked into the Lit Lounge and scored myself a few shitty American beers about two hours in advance of Misun’s set.

I somehow managed to take a picture that didn’t include a man in a giraffe suit or the many scantily clad ghetto girls in their hyper-neon displays searching for sexual partners

I was about five beers in and feeling absolutely nothing, coughing incessantly into my shoulder and playing Flappy Bird while I patiently waited for Misun to take the stage. Why the hell did I decide to get bronchitis right before leaving to the biggest festival of my life? As if I had some sort of omniscient control over bacteria. The American excuse for beer certainly wasn’t helping, normally I’d be significantly buzzed, but at this point I was mostly bored. I spotted lead songstress Misun Wojcik at the bar taking shots, and I decided to introduce myself with what would later become my ‘monologue’ to every artist I met over the run of the festival. “Hi my name is Jarrett, I’m with the blog The New LoFi and I’m a huge fan blah blah blah”. She was a good sport, and after giving me a pat on the back she proceeded to the small stage tucked in the corner to start her soundcheck.

It was an energetic set as Wojcik bounced around the stage on the balls of her feet. Their sound is quite hard to describe, blending elements of synthetic-infused dance-pop circa ’98 and spaghetti-western style pump-up. It was a great performance, undoubtedly, and a marker of many fantastic sets to come. Misun wound up with a lot of praise over the week, garnering attention from new and old fans alike, and it’s surely worth keeping an eye on the DC trio as they traverse the heavily populated world of synth pop.

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/MISUN-Sleep2.mp3|titles=MISUN – Sleep]
Misun – Sleep

[audio:http://thenewlofi.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/MISUN-Coffee.mp3|titles=MISUN – Coffee]
Misun – Coffee

Desperate to catch up on the sleep I was sorely missing, I snagged my first taco and took the long walk back to my hotel room. Day 2 was bound to be full of music, but what I couldn’t possibly predict was the mayhem that would ensue on the streets of Austin. Mel Gibson at a downtown pizzeria, an intrepid photographer slash body contortionist, and the most horrific tragedy ever to occur in the 27 years since SXSW began. All of this would come tomorrow, unbeknownst to your hero as he strolled south down Rainey to his executive suite at the Holiday Inn.

STAY TUNED KIDS! And make sure you check out my photojournal that documents the entire week from start to finish.