South by Southwest, the multidimensional conference turned pandemonium scattered across downtown Austin and sprawling into the city’s nether regions, has evolved so far that it’s almost tough to pin down what it’s even about anymore. The volume of offerings is so vast and nearly uncontrollable that the question on everyone’s mind this week, even subconsciously, is probably along the lines of: What is even going on?
The only way to succeed at South by Southwest is by fully embracing the chaos. Your stomach will churn and eventually congeal from a week’s worth of queso-topped Torchy’s tacos, and a permanent daze surrounds your head like a halo of leftover hangovers and the mid-afternoon lull of dry heat on your back. This week in particular — Music — is not for the weak.
But if you tough out the lines, cease to acknowledge the pain in your heels and are open to swerves in every plan you attempt to make, South by Southwest can yield some of the most serendipitous and memorable experiences that would be impossible anywhere else.
So I decided to kick off this ramshackle week off by attending the most abrasive punk show I could find.
Hotel Vegas lies on the east side of Austin, past the freeway separating it from the radiant hijinks of Sixth Street. Around these parts it’s quieter, until you approach the venue itself. Hotel Vegas historically has a penchant for booking the scuzzier and reverb-laden sets of the showcasing acts. The shows range from ragtag crews thumbing lysergic jams to showcasing some of the most promising up-and-coming talents of the hardcore and punk variety.
The Spring Break Boogie had kept a crowd dancing all day, but when I arrived in the evening Austin’s own Flesh Lights were about to take the stage and ravage through the hearts of hundreds. You’d think this reaction is fitting for a trio named after a sex toy, but this band is actually unfuckwithable. I typically avoid hyperboles, but the barreling riffs, sharp Stooges-esque rhythms and stop-and-sputter bassline won me over completely. In the truest punk spirit, the band requested an audience member to finish their set on guitar. A bearded fellow took the axe and dove down into the dirt with them, a spontaneous end to an already unlikely performance. The only thing that could have enhanced this performance was if the crowd was more engaged, but maybe people were just conserving energy for later on. Basically, sign me up for more Flesh Lights. I realize this sounds lewd.
AJ Davila, of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s clan Davila 666, commanded the stage next with an electrifying set of bilingual doo-wop-surged punk. The various members of the band each contributed their own element to the theatrics, from gestural motions and the Spanish harmonies flowing from band’s two exceptional vocalists to the instrumentalists wielding guitars to make big sounds of mass love and reverb. The impressive tautness of the six members onstage was cemented by a sheer love of the craft, and you could tell the fluidity of these rhythms surged from somewhere sincere. AJ Davila and co were easily the most composed and deliberate of the ramshackle groups booked that night, but they got down and jived with the rest of us.
Next followed SF veteran psych-bard Kelley Stoltz, whose recordings span prolific proportions (Stoltz has working with the likes of Echo & the Bunnymen, Sonny & the Sunsets and the Fresh & Onlys’ Tim Cohen). His band, though, was here with a serious intent: to boogie. The blues-licked riffs and Stoltz’s good-natured lyrics were, in short, groovy. The vibes emerging from the stage provoked much self-dancing and aerobics, a fact that Stoltz verbally took pride in. It wasn’t the most revolutionary of sets, but the performance left heads nodding and hands in the air, clapping.
The reverberation in the air shifted after Stoltz’s set, propelled certainly by anticipation. For tonight happened to be a rather special night too too: John Dwyer’s snarling more abrasive musical endeavor Coachwhips, existing pre-Oh Sees, reunited for an exhausting round of shows throughout the week. From 2001-05 Coachwhips ripped through the Bay Area, and they the sleepy south again late on Tuesday night. Forgoing the elevated the stage, the band posted up on the floor along with the crowd. The set jumped right into “Hands On Controls,” Dwyer’s voice down to a squall, the drum’s skins being abused past retribution and keyboards wailing for air. The sound of pure, unadulterated abandon kicked up dust and left everyone panting for breath, pleading for more. The 20-minute set was a flash of limbs, crowd-surfers hanging past the rafters, and the majority of the band’s record Bangers Versus Fuckers. I’d been anticipating this moment for a while, and the abrasion didn’t disappoint.
A friend who saw Coachwhips perform a few days ago in Los Angeles texted me before the performance: “If you die, can I have your record collection?” He was half-serious, is the thing. Besides the inevitable jostle and a healthy amount of headbanging onstage, I made it out unscathed. I can’t say the same for my fellow Coachwhips compatriots down in the pit with the band themselves; after all, people were clutching down the tent in order to keep it down. Bones may have been broken and I’m positive somewhere blood was drawn.
Alas, I live to see another morning.