Before I could rock out to Jack White’s ear splitting guitar solos, however, I wanted to catch a couple more shows during the day, especially the blues guitarist, Gary Clark Jr. My friend and I walked all the way across town to Waterloo Records for this performance and when we arrived, we were drenched in sweat and dying for something to drink. Once we made it through the packed water bottle line, we settled in to listen to the last of reggae legend Jimmy Cliff’s set which included “I Can See Clearly Now” and a cover of Bob Marley’s “One Love.” After the conclusion of this reggae-thon, we crept up closer to the stage against the oncoming traffic of dazed people leaving Cliff’s show.
We found shelter from the heat next to a tent and we sat down and waited for another chance to move closer to the stage while the quirky band Of Montreal played a rather tame set that in no way matched the descriptions of their shows I had heard about from other people. Before the band finished their set, my friend left to go wait in line for the admittedly incredible DJ lineup back across town which included Araaabmuzik and Skrillex. Left to my own devices, I patiently waited for Of Montreal to finish their set so I could make my move to the front of the stage. Incredibly, as soon as the band finished, there was a massive exodus of fans as almost everyone had apparently been waiting for Of Montreal to play.
Enjoying my perfect view of the stage, I watched and waited for Howlin Rain to appear, another band that I had hoped to see that happened to be playing before Gary Clark. Armed with my new earplugs, I prepared for the worst the band had to offer and was disappointed that the earplugs seemed to muddle the band’s sound and made their voice synchronization unintelligible. Fortunately, this setback only reared its head for this particular show as I had no further problems with the earplugs in subsequent shows.
Finally, after nearly two hours of waiting, Gary Clark Jr. appeared and blew everyone away. This upstart blues musician is being hailed by some as the next Jimi Hendrix, and he did as much as he could to support those otherwise outlandish claims. The man’s stage presence was subtle as he mostly hid behind a pair of Ray Bans and a Fedora, slightly bobbing his head to the music. One could tell he was incredibly in to the music he was playing, which made his performance of his newest EP even more delightful as he swaggered around the stage, ripping into each guitar solo with unbridled passion.
However, despite my enjoyment, my state of relaxation shifted to one of urgency as soon as his set ended as I knew it was time to rush over to The Stage On Sixth to wait in line for Jack White’s showcase, which would also include performances by John C Reilly, White Rabbits, and Jack White’s ex-wife Karen Elson. I half-ran, half-walked with purpose back across town, convinced that if I started running people would catch on to my plans and try to beat me to the stage. After scarfing down some food down from some random food vendor, I was ready for what I hoped would be the night of my life.
I walked triumphantly past the large line of people out of the stage and gleefully asked where the wristband line was. Because, you know, I had a wristband and that made me special. “I’m sorry” said the SXSW staffer, “but this event is going to be limited to badges only tonight.” …What? What?! What!!! I was shocked, barely listening as she explained to me that I could wait in line with the other wristband people and hope to get in later. This line, of course, was the very same line I had just triumphantly walked by assuming that it was full of people without wristbands. Not so, SXSW had singlehandedly reduced the value of my $180 wristband to that of a hope line not unlike the one my friend had waited in the previous night for The Jesus & Mary Chain show. Given, I didn’t have to pay for my wristband, but for anyone that did, their rage must have been tenfold mine, and I was outraged. Anyone who wanted to see Jack White would have had to spend $1000 to see one act. You would think that SXSW would realize that someone as popular as Jack White would be in high demand and at least have the decency to announce a few days prior that the show was going to be limited to badges only, no exceptions.
Without anything better to do and my plans for the night in shambles, I wandered over to where my friend was waiting in line for the Skrillex show and was shocked to see that he was towards the front of the line and actually had a legitimate shot at getting in the show. As he was understandably unwilling to give up his place in line after waiting for 3 hours, I dejectedly picked the next best showcase I could find and walked aimlessly over to the Lustre Pearl to wait in line for The Big Pink and Built To Spill.The Big Pink was good, and Built To Spill was better and each knew their craft well, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that SXSW had slighted me. To add insult to injury, I soon became aware that my friend, without a wristband, had actually succeeded in getting into the Skrillex show and was at that moment dropping some serious bass with the best that dubstep has to offer. Even he was having better luck than me. Desperate for some alternative to the comparative mediocrity of what I was seeing in relation to Jack White, I resolved to leave after Built to Spill and try to go see The Nightwatchman, aka Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine. If I couldn’t see one guitar god than gods be damned I would see another one! And what better way to show my disgust for SXSW’s policies than by taking part in the Occupy SXSW show!
I just made it into the musky bar where Tom Morello was to play just before it reached capacity and instantly realized how sweltering hot it was inside the cramped venue. Outside, Occupy protests went on as chants of “Fuck The Police!” bled into the venue as I waited patiently for Tom Morello to appear. What I didn’t expect, however, was the longest sound check in the history of sound checks to take place in between sets and Morello didn’t come on stage until almost 40 minutes past his scheduled time. By this time I was severely dehydrated and thoroughly annoyed with the drunken metal heads behind me who clearly got all of their political information from Rage Against The Machine.
Just as I was considering admitting complete defeat, Morello finally came on and I was treated to some good ol’ fashion rockin’ protest songs with some trademark Tom Morello riffs. Unfortunately, after 3 songs the temperature of the venue was really starting to get to me and I was forced to leave as I was seriously worried about passing out. At the very least, I can now say that I’ve seen Tom Morello play guitar not 30 feet away from me. I later learned that Morello would eventually try to bring his show out on the street to the protestors and was inevitably shut down by the police. I ventured out once again into the closed off streets of Austin and into the chaos of the night as I wandered from showcase to showcase waiting for my friend to get out of the Skrillex show. Finally, at about 1:30, my now very intoxicated friend stumbled out of the venue and we grabbed a late night snack and went to sleep, him with a sense of satisfaction, and me with a sense of bitterness.
And you know, I still don’t regret much about the week despite all that went wrong. Yes, I could have planned to go to other showcases, but was I really going to miss out on a chance to see Jack White up close and personal? Most of the problems I had were out of my hands as it were. To be sure, I’m fairly certain that unless I manage to get a premium badge (for free) in the future, I can’t see myself going to another SXSW anytime soon. Though much fun was had and I saw some truly incredible performances, had I actually paid for my wristband the week probably wouldn’t have been worth it.
For SXSW it’s best to either go big and get a badge, or simply show up and pay for each showcase. Had I paid for my wristband, my friend would have beaten me in relation to the overall money spent on showcases. Ultimately though, SXSW needs to fix some of the aforementioned problems if they want to deliver the exceptional week and a half they so dearly wish to.
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