My alarm went off at 5AM.
I spent 10 minutes staring at the dark ceiling, thinking of all the reasons why it was a really bad idea for me to get out of bed.
As an official SXSW Music Festival photographer, I was stationed at an assigned venue for every remaining night of the festival. While I have no complaints, given that I received a $1700 (seriously!!!) SXSW Platinum Badge in return, my show-going opportunities were limited to showcases happening earlier in the day.
Showcases, for instance, like the annual 6:30AM SXSW broadcast of local radio station KGSR, which on this fine Austin morning, featured the likes of Wild Belle, Ra Ra Riot, and The Avett Brothers.
And so, I arrived at the downtown W Hotel by 6AM.
It turns out that I got there a few hours too late.
Though it was early, a line (GAH! THE LINES... ALWAYS THE LINES!) had already snaked around the corner. Apparently, people had begun queuing at 3AM in order to ensure their entrance into the event. My normally optimistic self wrestled with my inner sleep deprived pessimist, and during the 15 very unhappy minutes when I stood in line, I devised a plan that satisfied both parties.
A short walk away, at The Four Seasons, another local station, KUTX, was hosting a similar event. The artists were smaller indie acts - A Giant Dog, David Wax Museum (whose jam Guesthouse I was familiar with), and Wild Belle (who were apparently starting their day off full steam ahead with early performances for both stations!) The line up to get inside was, thankfully, non-existent, and for a $10 donation, I received entrance to the ballroom housing the event, a breakfast burrito, and lots of coffee.
Here's a picture of Wild Belle from the morning's performance. It was taken from a very sleepy SX280 point-and-shoot, so pardon the lower image quality. I was really impressed with their performance, and will definitely try to hit up their full set the next time they come to Toronto.
The crowd at the radio event was a bit unexpected, comprising mostly of young families and retirees looking for an interesting way to start the morning. This event was open to non-badgeholders, and I don't think I saw any other badgeholders in attendance - most were likely either sleeping, or more ambitious than myself and attending the KGSR event I tried to enter earlier in the morning. Despite this, I was surprised by how engaged the audience was with the music. A Giant Dog was the first band I saw grace the KUTX stage. They have a heavier rock and roll sound, that I can imagine would illicit complaints from my parents if I were to blast it in the living room. However, the crowd was completely engaged in the performance - dancing throughout, clapping, and cheering at the end of each song. While I expected this kind of musical appreciation from the festival attendees, many of whom had traveled from afar, or dished out significant cash to be there, seeing such a joyful reaction from the community was heartwarming. There's a reason why Austin is known as the "Music Capital of the World!"
As the week progressed, I came to realize that the steep entrance fee to Official Showcases meant that the majority of people in attendance were "industry" folks. Some were jaded, having attended SXSW for the past 15+ years and unexcited about having to give up their weekend in exchange for networking, meetings, and more meetings. Some were first timers, excited to finally attend such a significant event. But either way, those who were working, understandably, carried an air of professionalism with them even at the showcase performances. The most engaging crowds I witnessed were at unofficial events, or events that were opened to the public if there was space.
Next up, I attended the Canada-US Indie Music Meetup, where I attempted to get my networking on.
Later that day, right outside the Austin Convention Center, the Annual Canada BBQ event was held. While my personal theme for SXSW was searching for new discoveries, a few of my favourite Canadian artists performed during the afternoon event, and I wanted to show some support.
First off on the bill, from Vancouver, British Columbia: The Zolas, whose latest album, Swooner, was released a week before the event. If you haven't heard their music before, I would highly recommend it! They're a great Canadian band with memorable tunes, intelligent lyrics, and a great sound. Funnily enough, their Canadian tour found them performing in Toronto a week after SXSW, and I was fortunate to photograph them again at that event as well.
Milk & Bone, from Montreal, Quebec, are a duo that I had been hoping to see for a while. I missed their set in Toronto earlier that month, and at CMJ last year, so was glad I finally had the change to catch them.
And last, but certainly not least, from Hamilton, Ontario - Arkells. I've seen these guys perform live eight times before (the most of any artist I've ever seen!), and am always looking forward to my next encounter with their music. They band played some old favourites, and a few selections from their upcoming album, which should be released later this year.
Having fulfilled my national duty supporting Canadian music, and having used up all my free time, I headed toward my first official assignment of SXSW Music, the Paradigm Nashville Showcase.
The Majestic, one of the *many* institutions along 6th street, is admittedly sketchy looking from the outside. A single, shabby door leads its way to a staircase up to the 2nd floor venue. But, as you emerge from the stairwell, you find yourself in a cozy venue, with red curtains, stone detailed walls, incandescent lightbulbs, and quirky wallpaper patterns.
First up, Irish singer-songwriter, Ciaran Lavery. Lavery was one of my favourite discoveries of SXSW. His songs are simple, but memorable, and his voice a yearning and emotive instrument. In a week filled with hundreds of artists and performances, I found many musicians who I enjoyed in the moment, but the Irishman's tunes stayed in my head throughout the week. His songs 'Shame' and 'Return to Form' particularly wormed their way into my head, and now find themselves upon several of my regular playlists. There's something about Irish musicians; they carry such raw emotional intensity that you can't help but connect with, and Ciaran Lavery continues this tradition in the very best of ways.
Next up, Paul Cauthern.
As a photographer, sometimes I get so caught up in capturing images, that my mind wanders away from the music. This is especially true when I'm dealing with less than optimum lighting conditions. For example, this stage was illuminated with red and blue light. Alone, these colours spur the disdain of colour correctors everywhere. But, put them together on the same stage, and it really, really sucks. I'm sill a newbie in the world of post-processing, and poor lighting conditions Thus, in my efforts to prove myself as a worthy SXSW photographer, I had to be especially attentive. I may have been bouncing around to the music (as per usual), but hyper concentration mode had been activated.
The Last Bandoleros:
Cody ChestnuTT's sound mix malfunctioned partway through his set, resulting in an impromptu acoustic performance.
Liza Anne is another artist whose tunes I found memorable. However, by this time of the night, having already been awake for 17 hours, I was understandably exhausted. It's also important to take note that I had been lugging 2kg worth of camera equipment with me all day - how's that for a workout? :)
Stokeswood played an incredibly energetic set that helped fuel my second wind for the evening.
And so, having completed my first SXSW photo assignment, I headed back to the hostel, tucked myself into bed, and called it a night at a respectable 4AM.
Yes, this was a long, and photo heavy post... but that also makes it an accurate representation of a long and photo heavy day!
Want to read about the rest of the adventure?