An Australian in Austin: Music and Food Journeys Through South By South West

Author: Melody Menu

Austin isn’t kidding about its love of live music. We needed only to step off the plane and enter Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to be greeted by music, from buskers with small PAs to bands performing on a full stage set within the airport, the smell of American Barbeque wafting down from nearby Salt Lick BBQ (to which we can attest to the awesomeness of their killer breakfast burritos). From the woman at the information counter, almost breathless to tell us all about where we should eat, drink and dance in her much-loved city; to the giant blue guitar that forms the airport bus shelter; music here is serious business.

Arriving a few days into the festival, our first adventure was the ‘Desert Daze, Ritual Events & Freakender Buckaroo Ball’ at Hotel Vegas and neighbouring venue The Volstead, boasting over fifty bands over four stages. With the unofficial and free showcase occurring during the day, and the official, pass-only showcase at night, Desert Daze became an ideal introduction to navigating the inner-workings of the multilayered festival. Here we saw The Chills for the first time, who played a stunning set of greatest hits – forming the soundtrack to the documentary The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps that we would later see. Much-loved hits such as ‘Kaleidescope World’ and ‘Heavenly Pop Hits’ sparkled in the sunlight, lulling the crowd into a nostalgic haze.

Within the dark confines of the Hotel Vegas Inside Stage, Montreal-based Pottery delivered a tightly-wound set that set the whole room in motion. With short, sharp lyrical delivery reminiscent of Talking Heads and Devo, and multi-layered art-rock guitar lines, they played a fast-paced and incredibly memorable set. Outside, San Fran stalwarts Thee Oh Sees packed out the main stage with their raucous riffs and wide-eyed beats, with much microphone swallowing and-fun time antics to be had by front man John Dwyer.

Our sustenance for that day came from Koriente over on East 7th St, where we were treated to the most mouth-wateringly fresh and refreshingly veggie-fuelled meals. The speciality of Korean japchae noodles – thick and abundantly chewy potato noodles with a mixture of wild mushrooms and tofu, topped with a fried egg and complemented by a complimentary salad of fresh veggies and sweet celery pickle, was both extremely delicious and revitalising. For us, Koriente completely dispelled any preconceived ideas that Austin would be primarily a deep-fried or barbequed affair, but a haven for fresh and innovative food experiences.

Over on an obligatory visit to Australia House, we enjoyed the novelty of travelling around the world only to see artists from own country. In the tree-lined front yard, Brisbane band Noire enchanted the audience and passers-by as a two-piece, combining lustrous vocal melodies with guitar lines that shift and fade like smoke. As we left to make our way to the Austin establishment Easy Tiger for a hearty meal of homemade kielbasa and potato salad, we were charmed by the melancholy sounds of Hobart outfit Quivers, the musical equivalent of a sad smile.

That night called for the belated purchase of a music festival wristband, with indie rock favourites Car Seat Headrest making their sole South By appearance at Stubbs Bar-B-Q. Car Seat were no less intense without their extended line-up of the Naked Giants, instead stripped-down to their original four-piece. Highlights came courtesy of their latest album Twin Fantasy, with an engaging rendition of original number ‘Sober To Death’ featuring an eclectic interlude of Neil Young’s ‘Powderfinger’ with guitarist Ethan Ives on lead vocals, before returning to the rousing finish line of dance anthem ‘Bodys’.

By the time queer pop royalty King Princess took to the stage, the mood was electric. Backed by a full band, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist otherwise known as Mikaela Straus showcased a stage presence and knack for killer vocal melodies that belies her 20 years. Blending professionalism and playfulness onstage, Straus alternated between singing with microphone in hand, to shredding on guitar, to making jokes with the crowd, laughing that ‘all the gays came out to play in Austin,’ to joyful cries from the audience.

Despite the morning sun that next morning, British alternative hip hop artist Dylan Cartlidge brought an impressive night-club vibe to the Barracuda bar. As the first band on the scene for Minnesota-based radio station The Current’s ‘Day Party’, Cartlidge maintained a warm and welcoming onstage manner in-between songs, before erupting into infectious grooves on bass guitar, rounded out by his band wielding glitchy drum patterns and samples.

For Auckland outfit The Beths, their performance at Barracuda wasn’t as straightforward, with The Current’s music director bringing attention to the shootings that had occurred in Christchurch overnight before introducing the band. Here, a visibly shaken band performed to the best of their ability, delivering a show of considerable musical heft, stunning four-part harmonies, and a visceral emotional response despite a few tears and shaky starts. Their performance on the day drew much support from the crowd, with cries of ‘we love you’ and ‘we’re with you, New Zealand’, while a couple of women close to me looked to each other knowingly and agreed that the band’s response to the attacks was ‘just being human.’

Through the corporate artifice that permeates South By South West, The Beths’ set that day was a reminder of the ability for music and art to transcend borders; push through pain; and unite with other human beings. It was these authentic moments of getting lost in a song, discovering a new favourite band, and witnessing something truly real and raw, that made for a transformative festival experience.


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