Wednesday, March 23, 2016

SXSW 2016 - A Retrospective

Having a panic attack is kind of like this:  you’re doing some kind of mundane activity, like showering, or driving, or sitting in a meeting, or trying to fall asleep, and you think you see a tiger out of the corner of your eye. You try to look away, or pretend it’s not there, but your body and brain shift into fight-or-flight response. You tense, you spiral into stress, you feel certain you’re going to die if you don’t escape right away. Except — there is no escape, because the tiger isn’t real. It’s a thought, in your brain, and no amount of logic or left-brain coercion can break you out of the feeling that you’re doomed, so you turn white and feel like you might pass out. For me, at least, this is what a panic attack feels like.

Dissociating is kind of like this:  you’re reading a book, and you can picture in your mind exactly what the main protagonist looks like. You seem them navigating through the world. You can sometimes sympathize with their emotions, but you are always sort of floating above them, observing them but not fully experiencing what it is they’re going through, not really seeing through their eyes or living in their skin. Except it’s actually you you’re floating above, not a fictional character; it’s your own eyes that seem to not quite belong to you. You keep yourself distant from your own lived experience because the trauma of really feeling what you’re feeling seems like too much to bear, so your brain protects you by keeping you distant. This is my experience.

Having an eating disorder can be like this:  you give a presentation at work, and your boss tells you that you did a good job, but to make sure that you keep your bullet points on your slides shorter next time. Despite getting mostly positive feedback, you feel down about yourself, and this manifests itself by you thinking, “Ugh, if only I spoke three more languages, nobody would ever think anything I do is wrong! Why can’t I just get French down, already?!” Except instead of languages, you think you need to lose some magical amount of weight, because this will make you “perfect” in the eyes of other people, and you will no longer have to live in fear of failing someone and being abandoned. Equally as disjointed as thinking you need to learn more languages, but far more damaging depending on the actions you may take following the thoughts. This is just a slice of the life you might have with an eating disorder.

This is a weird way to start a review of a music conference, I know. But here’s the thing — if you live with anxiety, with a panic disorder, with an eating disorder, as I do, this colors much of your life experiences. These things don’t define me, but they are a part of me — a part I’m working very hard to overcome or cope with in various forms and fashions. But they are also the reasons why music is so crucial for me. Around February each year, I get to feeling a bit down. I went to college with the idea that I was going to make it in a creative industry. First, I thought film might be for me; then, radio. I finally settled on music journalism, and this choice really defined my path through college and in the years after I graduated. Hell, it’s still what I try to do in the in-between hours of my life (when I’m not at my day job). But while I continue to hustle to some degree, I’m not nearly as involved in music journalism as I used to be, when I was running a blog solely focused on music and regularly supporting local Austin bands through concert attendance and showcase curation. So by the time it’s been almost a year since the previous SXSW conference, I forget why I even bother. I feel overwhelmed by the massive amounts of artists coming to town, and a part of me wants to curl in a ball in my bathtub and stay in my apartment until the storm passes. But every year, I slowly work my way as far as I can through the artist lineup (yep — literally band by band, alphabetically until time runs out. This year I made it to the mid-J’s!) And every year, either as a birthday gift to myself or through the magic of music mag connections, I end up with a badge so that I can jump around fairly easily and consume more live music over the course of 4-5 days than I do the rest of the year. This year was my 10th year attending the festival, and this year more than ever, it felt like SXSW saved me.

The rest of my review will be split into days. My hope is that, whether you were there or not, you’ll be able to feel like you were, standing right next to me, doing goofy white girl dances right alongside mine. It won’t be a full retrospective, exactly; but rather a sort of quilt of memorable experiences woven together in what I hope will be an engaging and interesting fashion. If nothing else, I hope it turns you on to your new favorite band, and I hope that makes you feel less alone and more understood in this crazy, random, fucked up and beautiful world.






SXSW Day 1 - Tuesday


In my quest to conquer the SXSW 2016 artist list, Boraj (pronounced kind of like “Borahg”) was one of the first bands I really fell in love with. This year in particular, I found myself very bored by what I’d call “standard American indie rock” and/or “standard American indie folk rock” music, which made me especially drawn to anything that felt different. I wouldn’t claim that Boraj really lands THAT far outside of my normal musical tastes — they make sweeping, gorgeous music that feels like what nature would write in its winds and oceans and mountains, sort of like Sigur Ros, but from Chile and with lyrics in Spanish rather than Icelandic. With only two chances to see the group’s first-ever performances in the US, I begged Zack to try to get into their Tuesday night gig with me after we got off of work. With no credentials, I really had no idea how difficult a task this might be. Luckily, the first magic of SXSW ’16 kicked in this night — by paying the cover price of $10 each, we were let into Friends Bar before anyone with badges or wristbands, making it inside in plenty of time to get comfortable and make new friends.

Before Boraj started their set, I noticed a young woman with a cool backpack taking notes in a spiral notebook standing in front of me. She had a septum piercing and hair in pigtails, and something in me said, “Say hi!” So I asked who she was writing for, and she laughed and explained she was just taking notes for herself because she was a college radio DJ and wanted to remember things to say on her next show. I immediately felt a connection with her, since I had been a college DJ for 4 years. “Oh man, that’s how I learned about all the music I know now!” I told her. “ME TOO!” she said. We swapped stories about our favorite artists, and she wrote her radio show info in my phone so I could tune in to her next show (Monday nights, 7PM MST — look for the “False Friends” show by DJ Tijeras here.) I got to watch her hug her favorite artist at the showcase, a girl named NatisĂș who dressed in black skinny jeans, boots and a loose, silky button-down shirt — so much like my good friend Melissa that I had to take a photo of NatisĂș on stage later and text it to my pal, informing her that her style was being copied by a rock star from Chile.

Boraj themselves were so completely charming and fabulous. There were sound issues in the room that made it difficult to hear the vocals (a shame, since haunting harmonies are one of the cornerstones of the music) but in the end it didn’t matter because the band was so thrilled to have an audience, and they looked like they were having so much fun. In that live setting, the Sigur Ros comparison disappeared a little bit, and instead Boraj reminded Zack and I of one of our favorite local acts, Little Lo — a band of friends making music they believe in together, because it’s fun and they’re talented and they want to create. After the band’s energetic set, we stopped the lead singer to congratulate him on a fantastic show, and he asked us again and again if we really liked it, needing to feel that reassurance to make sure he could really believe it. We freely gave our praise, feeling so happy to be a part of the moment.

I like to find new favorites at SXSW, since there are so many bands to see and fall in love with. But sometimes, you gotta put on that comfy sweater and your favorite sneakers. That was what led Zack and I to the Nomad Bar for my last show as a 28-year-old-woman — we wanted to be assured a good time, so we wanted Oberhofer. Oberhofer are a band I first learned of in 2010, when my insanely talented and super cool friend Pooneh Ghana recommended we try to catch them at the CMJ festival (the same festival where she introduced me to my beloved Drums). We never did, but two years later, I finally got to see Brad Oberhofer and company open up for Matt & Kim (and, quite frankly, totally overshadow the headlining act with their far more genuine presentation). Time Capsules II took over my life for a while, and then I got to stalk the band a little at SXSW 2014. The set list this time around was pretty similar to the one two years ago, but I am NOT complaining. Oberhofer have so many wild, fun pop rock songs that swell and burst open at just the right moment, so an encore — or four — of tunes like “Earplugs” and “Away Frm U” are always a blast. The highlight of the group’s Nomad set was a song I really had to dig around the internet for — titled “Dead Girls Dance,” there’s this haunting jam of a song that the band plays with a long instrumental part that allows Brad to wander around the venue for as long as he feels like — in this case, he physically exited the venue, walked out to the patio (presumably), and as I stood there watching his band furiously attack this song, I suddenly felt something on my leg. I looked down, half-annoyed, to see that it was Brad Oberhofer, crawling his way back to the stage through an unassuming crowd. Once he made it back to the stage, his guitar got caught on his mic stand, almost toppling it to the ground, but he was able to right the stand and himself without missing a beat. He was handed a shot of something clear, downed it, but promptly spit it out like mouthwash. At some point earlier in the set, he’d broken a guitar string, but instead of taking time away from the show to fix it, he expertly tuned his guitar to be able to play the “Away Frm U” riff — an impressive feat — and kept right on with the show. This 10-minute series of events put a huge smile on my face, and I head-banged through the rest of the set, feeling very involved in the process and connected with the band and myself.

Then, suddenly, I was 29 years old. Zack took me to Kerbey Lane Cafe, a 24-hour diner chain local to Austin, and we ordered chips, queso, and a brownie sundae to ring in my new year. We talked about moments in the shows we’d seen, mused on the characters filling the diner and standing outside of it, and winded down, prepared to dive into a badgeless SXSW the next day — my first in 10 years. I contented myself with the great experiences we’d already had, and felt hopeful that we’d make the most of the conference. I had no idea how great it was going to be.



I woke up on my 29th birthday to the sound of my phone buzzing. I groaned, not eager to start my day at 9AM. Without a badge to my name, the plan was to just camp out at a free day show that didn’t require credentials. When I peered to see who was calling, I realized it was the publisher who has hooked me up with credentials for SXSW in years past. I figured at this late stage, he was probably calling to say he wouldn’t be needing help this year. Instead, when I checked my messages, I discovered that he was asking if I needed a badge, and if I’d like one for anyone else. It was a birthday miracle. I couldn’t believe my luck. I called him back, thanked him profusely, and just like that, Zack and I were festival-ready. In exchange, all we had to do was get banners to a couple showcases and tweet coverage for the week. Zack took care of the first banner drop-off that same morning on his way to pick up my Dairy Queen ice cream cake while I got ready.

After collecting our surprise-badges, Zack and I headed to the showcase we’d initially planned to camp at for the day — the lineup was simply too good to pass up. We had high hopes for a day of good music, but we didn’t know we’d discover half of our favorite acts at the Beehive showcase at Swan Dive.

Entering the venue was like coming across an old friend after a long time apart. Swan Dive is where I’d hosted a few of my own showcases in the past, and it was comforting to enter the space, with its padded silver booths and old-timey chandeliers. A forgettable psych rock band was making noise on the inside stage when we arrived, so after a few minutes we headed outside to find a spot for Honne. This wasn’t a band I was particularly interested in seeing — all of the ones I’d wanted to see didn’t start for another hour — but they were a not-unpleasant way to pass the time. It’s another one of those groups that does the sort of soulful pop that Sam Smith does, with a white singer whose voice is OK and probably got him some solos at his school’s choir or something. It’s fine. But let’s fast-forward through Honne, through the massive line for free Eastcider (a delicious beverage made extra-sweet when free on your birthday), and jump to the first band I enjoyed.

Freedom Fry has a horrendous band name. I’m just gonna put it out there. When I came across them on the SXSW artist list, I might have even rolled my eyes, assuming this was going to be a group of cross-armed hipsters from L.A. looking to be ironic. However, when I hit “play” on “Rolling Down,” I was immediately won over by the sweet folk music that met my ears. Then, when the next song, “Friends and Enemies,” came on, I was impressed with the band’s depth — this was a totally different musical style, reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem's minimalist dance music. When I did more research and discovered that Marie Seyrat (1/2 the band) was French, I appreciated that the irony of the band’s name went deeper than I’d expected. Live, Seyrat and her band are sort of understated. They’re not boring to watch, but they just sound great and kind of let the music speak for itself beyond that. It’s easy to dance to the music and get swept up in the pretty melodies. In the theme of “musicians dressing like my friends,” I took a picture of Seyrat and sent it to my pal Emily, who also likes the desert-wear trend of long necklaces and ankle boots. The only song that fell flat was a Nirvana cover — they translated part of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” into French, and turned it into an understated disco. It didn’t really work. But when you’ve got a song like “The Wilder Mile,” with whistles and tambourines and clap-alongs, who needs a cover?

I was nervous to leave the spot we’d carved out in front of the stage, knowing Aurora had a really big following, but Zack convinced me that we HAD to check out New Yorkers PWR BTTM, so I begrudgingly headed to the inside stage. On my way, I passed a woman who I thought might be Aurora, and said, “You’re so wonderful, you’re gonna do great, good luck!” She smiled and sort of laughed and thanked me. I felt pleased with myself. Spoiler alert — it was Aurora’s backup singer, not actually her. I KNEW she looked too different! I’m still glad I wished her luck, because backup singers don’t get enough love.

PWR BTTM is NOT a novelty act. They’re not a “shtick.” They are the real goddamn deal. As we all become better about accepting gender fluid and genderqueer people, I think the idea that a guy in a dress is a gag will disappear and we’ll just accept that people represent themselves in the way they feel best, and that’s awesome. So here we have two people, covered in glitter and paint — Ben Hopkins towering over the mic in a sweet floral day dress, and Liv Bruce sitting behind the drum kit in a crop top and light-wash jeans — exchanging snarky-but-loving remarks and sharing self-deprecating humor with the audience, who then suddenly break into power-pop songs with forceful, driving drums and wicked electric guitar riffs that take your breath away. There is something so energizing about sharing a real moment with other humans who are baring their souls in a very relatable way, and to top it off, Ben and Live are so talented that you feel simultaneously in the presence of friends, and in the presence of greatness. I think my favorite line from their songs is from one called “Serving Goffman,” which seems to be about the state of humanity and the reality that we’re all just kind of figuring things out. During a breakdown in the song, Liv sings, “What’s your favorite color? Do you need to borrow my bike? Do you have a lucky number? Do you like the movies I like?” This flashback to the things that mattered in friendships when we were all younger and not yet prejudiced is so pure and lovely — it gets me every time.

I loved PWR BTTM so much that we decided NOT to leave their set early, as originally planned so we could go get a good spot at Aurora. So, as soon as their last chords rang out, we rushed to the outside stage, which was already jam-packed with people. Still, we were able to carve out a little space and get a good sightline on the Norwegian songstress. This is the point at which I realized I’d encouraged her backup singer, and felt briefly embarrassed, but then convinced myself it was OK because I hadn’t called her Aurora so for all the backup singer knows, I knew who she was and was just cheering her on. And she was fabulous in her own right, so I’m glad I did and so THERE! Anyway. When people asked me to describe Aurora to them, I said, “She has the gesticulations and unique style of Sia, but the musical harmonies and sweetness of First Aid Kit.” I’d say that seeing her live definitely confirmed my description was accurate. At 19 years old, Aurora is impressively self-possessed — she is living in her own world, storytelling from inside of it through her music. For her show at Swan Dive, there were quite a few issues with the sound system — her mic wouldn’t work, the monitors weren’t balanced, weird sounds bellowed out of the speakers. When the latter happened, Aurora would close one eye and widen the other, making herself look almost like a cartoon character. This wasn’t a put-on, though; she is so genuine, and that is so endearing.

When she finally got started, Aurora’s voice was sweet and powerful, weaving in and out of the tracks her talented band laid for her. In that first performance, I remember the song “Warrior,” when I first noticed a buff, tatted, bearded gentleman singing along passionately — an unlikely fanboy, if one based assumptions on appearances. I remember “Running with the Wolves,” swirling and moving with a driving rhythm. I remember when Aurora apologized for being as small as she is (I’d guess 5’5”?), promising, “I’ll do my best to grow.” I remember when she said, “I’m going to take off my jacket because I actually saved my armpits yesterday! Woo!” I remember when she noted, surprised, “Oh! That’s the guy I met on the plane yesterday,” pointing to a tall gentleman in the center of the audience. I remember when she thanked everyone in the crowd who was “…wooing, and clapping, and making noise.” The energy seemed to feed her, and by the time we made it to her closer, “Conquerer,” we were all dancing like we were in The Breakfast Club, in the library during the dance montage, breaking out our ‘80s moves. I knew then that I wanted to see this show again as many times as I could, because Aurora won’t be playing small stages much longer. I was smitten, bewitched — a fan.

Instead of heading inside for Lily & Madeleine, who I’d really wanted to see, I got nervous about having a good spot for our second Oberhofer show, so we remained outside and found a spot nestled near the stage. This allowed us to do some serious crowd watching. First, I asked the tall, skinny guy in the hat if he was a photographer for Oberhofer specifically, and he said yes. I mentioned that I’d seen him at Nomad the night before, and he asked if I was a fan of the band. I said yes, worked in that it was my birthday, and he seemed unimpressed so we kinda stopped chatting after that. I spotted Brad Oberhofer heading to the stage, and so did a gentleman with a bro-ish appearance about him, who apparently knew the band’s namesake because he yelled out to him and got a hug from Brad in return. Later, this same gentleman threw some free KIND bars into the crowd, so I’ll forgive him his bro-ish-ness. He obviously has good taste in music, at least.

Brad went to the back of the stage, where there was a box and a chair. He tested the box a bit with his foot, and then the chair, and sort of studied them side-by-side before deciding against the stack-and-climb plan he was clearly hatching. His bass player’s eyes widened and he said something to the effect of, “Yeah don’t do that, man.” It made me wonder what his band members had seen him do before.

Then I watched Brad smile wide when he spotted a young woman with a septum ring sitting by the side of the stage. Clearly a friend of the band’s, he gave her a warm hug and then played a little riff just for her as a warm-up. It was a very sweet moment, and I felt almost intrusive in getting to witness it.

The setlist was pretty much the same, but the show was even wilder. During “Dead Girls Dance,” Brad grabbed, his mic and stand, and moved it out into the middle of the crowd. We parted, very much like Moses and the Red Sea, and he played a riff before heading to the back of the venue, climbing up a wall and onto the top of a shed. He started clapping, causing the audience to clap along, and then a security guy snatched his guitar and helped him back down — I’m not sure what Brad would have done without the presence of this bouncer-like figure, but I’m partly glad we didn’t find out. Brad came back to the stage, mic stand still in the crowd, and jumped up on his drummer’s set before jumping off, losing his balance, tumbling backwards and off the stage onto his back on the ground — and turning that into his next move, wriggling along the ground until he made it back to his mic stand in time to sing the words of the jammy “Dead Girls Dance.” You just never know what you’ll get with Oberhofer.

After their set ended, as Zack and I were exiting Swan Dive, I passed Brad in the narrow hallway that connects the inside and outside spaces. I said, almost frantically, “Oh my gosh that was so great, you were so great! Thank you so much!” I was almost taken aback with how quietly — almost meekly — Brad responded, “Thank you.” He was smiling, but he had never seemed shy to me until that moment. I wondered after if he felt trapped in the hallway, or if it was hard for him to accept praise as it can be for me, too. I thought about his lyrics, which examine death and the endings of things and the hollowness you can sometimes feel in interactions. I hoped he felt that my compliments were genuine, and that he could review them later and trust that he’d done a good job. I want for him to feel confident and proud. He works so hard and puts so much of himself, emotionally and physically, into what he does.

After a quick interlude picking up the banners Zack had dropped off earlier in the day, and some delicious cheese pizza from Pizza Hut (don’t judge me it was my birthday damn it), Zack and I plotted our next moves. We’d picked up a FastPass to get in to the Thao & The Get Down Stay Down show later that night, but when we examined the different lineups that could pull us to a thousand different venues, our choice was clear:  we wanted more Aurora, and we wanted to see what I’d call one of my most anticipated SXSW artist discoveries, Coast Modern. The latter were a band with just two songs published, but those two songs were so strong that we just had a feeling we’d be fans. Boy, is that the understatement of the century.

We arrived early at Maggie Mae’s Rooftop, thereby catching the end of a forgettable indie pop group. There was this weird empty pit that had formed in front of the crowd, keeping the audience a good eight-to-ten feet away from the stage. I wondered about the phenomenon aloud, and a guy in the audience laughed, “Someone needs to break the barrier!” I quipped back, “I’ll do it, I’m not afraid! I’m just tall so I don’t wanna be a jerk!” We waited till that other band’s set was through before getting central and close, and as the four Coast Modern lads set up their gear, I made a friend with a social media marketer in the crowd, who laughed with me about being 29 and feeling old now that bands are much younger than we are.

I was worried about Coast Modern. We’d experienced this with Jungle before — a band has one or two really great songs, and the rest all blend together into an unidentifiable mass. I feared that this would be the trap this Californian group would fall into. One of the things that immediately saved them from this fate in my mind was the drummer, Steph Barker. Though she is not an official band member, she is so energetic and fun to watch that she added a whole new layer to the sound and a fantastic vibe to the set. The same could be said for the other non-permanent band member, bassist Micah Jasper — even though I couldn’t make out the lyrics the first time around, I knew he and permanent modern-coaster Luke Atlas were screaming SOMETHING fun on the track “Comb My Hair.” Really, at any given moment, you could be watching any of these kids rocking out and be pleased with what you saw. The man with arguably the biggest job, though, was Coleman Trapp, the lead singer of the band who ONLY sings at live performances. Without an instrument to hide behind, this is a task solely for the commanding. One of the reasons I’m so obsessed with the Drums is that Jonny Pierce OWNS the damn stage. He dances like a possessed alien robot and it’s fucking magical. In what turned out to be his first official Coast Modern performance, Coleman was a bit more subdued than my favorite frontman, but he wasn’t undeserving of the job. He had a chill confidence that made you feel you were in good hands. The band ended on their two singles, “Animals” and “Hollow Life,” and while the other songs in their set are strong, these are powerhouses. They have a groove that, as one Twitter fan put it, is “…the optimal BPM for body rolls,” and their catchy lyrics speak to that sense of feeling disconnected but wanting connection so strongly it can hurt. By the end of this first set, I hadn’t yet realized that this was going to be my diamond-in-the-rough discovery of SXSW. I knew I’d had a good time, and I hoped the band had, too.

Before Coast Modern had set up and played their show, Zack had spotted Aurora walking around and asked if I wanted to go meet her. “No,” I said shyly, “I really don’t want to bother her.” However, as I was standing there alone in the middle of the dance floor, as it were, while Zack was off grabbing some water, I noticed the Norwegian songstress just as she’d walked past me and back behind the stage. I vowed to myself that if she came back the other way, I’d say something, and just a moment later, she reappeared, swinging her jacket around and looking a bit aimless. I leaned in and made eye contact, and said, “Hey Aurora, you’re just so wonderful, you were so great earlier today, I’m so excited for your show.” She smiled wide, held me by the elbows, and said, “Thank you!” She gave my arms a quick squeeze, and headed off to wait for her set with her band.

So, when it was Aurora’s time to take the stage again, I felt more connected than ever to the singer, and even more excited to hear her play in a venue with what I hoped would be better sound than earlier in the day. Unfortunately, the same sound issues that plague SXSW on the whole delayed Aurora’s set again, so that she had to start 10 minutes late. She was so apologetic throughout her set about this, but let me tell you — I can’t remember the last time I was in as supportive a crowd as the one who showed up for Aurora that night. The applause roared out between every single song, and really came to a peak after she sang “Running With the Wolves.” Aurora had been a little less free at the start of this show because I don’t think she could hear herself in her headset or monitors, but this was the song when she started to dance with spellbinding hand gestures, and I think the audience felt that she was easing back into herself and feeling more comfortable. At the end of the song, we all cheered our approval in a huge wave of appreciation, and she seemed almost moved to tears, putting her hands to her face and saying, “Thank you, thank you,” over and over again because there was really nothing else to say. This wave of energy carried us all into “Conquerer,” and this was the moment that got me and made me a lifer for Aurora:  during the lyric, “Open ears, their eyes are open/Makes me call for you,” as Zack is my witness, Aurora pointed at me, and we shared a smile, and for the rest of the song, happy tears formed in my eyes. You see, that small gesture from another human being made me feel understood, like we both knew that we were in on this secret we were sharing, and that she knew that I got what she was trying to say with her music. If nothing else, it was recognition that we appreciated one another, and we both sang and danced like the sun wouldn’t rise in the morning, and who cared if it wouldn’t? It was the best possible way to finish off my birthday — apart from a huge slice of ice cream cake and a cuddle from my loving husband back at home.

SXSW Day 3 - Thursday


I did NOT want to get up on Thursday. I was exhausted from a long birthday, and from riding around on my bike so much for the first time in ages, and I really just wanted to stay in bed with the covers pulled up to my chin, thankyouverymuch. After a back and forth on what bands we wanted to see that day, Zack and I had agreed we’d start out with a gig at 3PM, so I was in no hurry to get moving. In fact, part of me planned on skipping out on the 3PM show because I was feeling so lazy. However, at three minutes to two, Zack texted me:

I was sold, and had exactly 30 minutes to shower, put on makeup, and grab my things before biking over to Cedar Street Courtyard. By the power of the SXSW gods, I made it — and, trust, this was truly a magical feat for a girl who typically needs an hour, minimum, to make it out the door — and I got into the venue just in time for the set. Particularly since Zack had selfie’d with Coleman, this was the point at which this brand-new band started to feel like “ours,” at least for this festival. We went from passively enjoying the music and dancing around to actively rooting for these guys to have a break out year. After their first-ever set, we were able to sing along to some of the lyrics on the second run, like during the chorus of “Comb My Hair” where we all get to basically scream at the top of our lungs, “JUST COMB MY HAIR!” Or during what I assume is called “Dive,” where we get to sing “Diiiiiive!” in a billowy melody. Still, we really let ourselves get down during “Animals” and “Hollow Life” at the end of the set, and I think in that moment, Zack and I made a non-verbal agreement to see Coast Modern as many more times as we could, because sometimes a band just needs some bodies in the crowd moving around to inspire more bodies to move.

Continuing our theme of stalking our favorites, we headed to Cheer Up Charlie’s for another round of PWR BTTM. Zack stayed for the first few songs before heading out to catch another act, but I enjoyed a whole additional set, standing by the gender-neutral bathrooms — this added an olfactory component to the set that was not altogether pleasant, but I just kind of shrugged to myself and embraced the grunge it added to my experience. In between songs, I noticed a girl standing near me who caught my eye — this is because it was Emmie Lichtenberg, the host of “Slumber Party @emmieshouse,” a show where Emmie gets in her PJs and interviews her favorite musicians a la your middle school sleepovers, with fun games and lots of pizza. I fan girl’d out for a moment, and then whispered to her, “Emmie, I’m so sorry to bother you but I just have to tell you — your slumber parties are so fabulous and I just think you’re so cool!” She was incredibly friendly, thanking me for saying something and asking me my name. Being a lady in the music world is not easy, and I just swell with love for badasses going for it and doing what they love.

After more sweat and glitter from PWR BTTM, I made my way back over to the east side of Austin, near where I live, for a local show featuring a band called Your Friendly Ghost. This is a band that features some of Zack and my friends, a band who christened our apartment on the east side after I moved in with Zack by playing an acoustic set at our housewarming party. A lot of our friends turned up to support YFG at this local bar that’s been our off-and-on home, and the familial feeling of the whole thing was really, really nice. One of our friends who attended the set, the wonderful and thoughtful Kelsey, bought me a delicious belated birthday cider, and this gesture was particularly moving to me and made me feel like a real part of “the gang,” as it were.

After the show ended, I was tired again and hungry, to the point of causing grouchiness towards Zack very unnecessarily, so I ran home to regroup before we headed out into the night together on good terms again. The lineup for the night at Easy Tiger was spectacular — The Big Pink, Wye Oak, Lucius and Wolfmother were all scheduled to play the intimate venue. Zack had smartly grabbed a skip-the-line pass for the show earlier in the day, but it was the last one, so he was able to go right inside of the venue while I waited in line for what seemed to be no reason at all — at first we thought it was down to a one in, one out capacity situation, but then randomly they’d let a large group leave, so I’m not really sure how they were keeping track of headcount. In any event, we made it inside just in time for the Big Pink, a band I’d fallen in love with right around the time Zack and I met.

I’d seen the band live a number of times before, so I felt like we were in good hands with this show pick. However, the lineup is almost completely different these days, with lead vocalist/guitarist Robbie Furze acting as the only remaining founding member. It seems clear that he’s ready to redefine what the band is going to sound like moving forward, and I always try to get on board when I really love an artist, because I know I’d feel horrendous if someone kept asking me to repeat old art and not give something new a chance. However, I was disappointed in the band’s performance at Easy Tiger. The performance of old favorites — they opened with “Velvet,” my absolute favorite Big Pink song, and ended with a re-imagined rock version of “Dominos” — felt sloppy, with Robbie mixing up some of the lyrics. The newer songs were much tighter, but they blended together so much more than on past records A Brief History of Love and Future This. I’m not done with the band, by any means, and I’m hoping these are just the growing pains of a new lineup — I still intend to check out the new material when it gets released. But of the three live Big Pink shows I’ve seen, this was definitely at the bottom of the list. It didn’t help, of course, that we were surrounded by chatty drunks who decided they’d rather scream over the music.

A bit deflated, Zack and I stepped outside of the crowd and regrouped. Did we really want to stay in this place, with people more interested in alcohol than music, where it was crowded and hard to see? No — we decided that it was not worth sticking it out for 3 more hours to potentially still leave disappointed. We consulted my spreadsheet of shows, and discovered that Oberhofer were playing their final SXSW show just an hour later, followed by one of Zack’s favorites, fellow Chicagoan Ezra Furman. It was settled, so we made our way through the disappointing masses. As we left, I spotted the male half of Wye Oak, Andy Stack, and turned back to Zack to whisper my discovery. When I turned back around, there was Jenn Wasner, my Wye Oak goddess who I had interviewed a year and change before that moment. Once again, with no preparation, I just said her name, and then found myself mumbling about how fantastic she was and how much I loved her music, and said, “I interviewed you a while ago, you wouldn’t remember me, anyway, you’re great!” She smiled and was far kinder than my verbal diarrhea deserved. I turned to leave, and that’s when I realized that we were unintentionally following Wye Oak and their posse outside. ‘Well, this is slightly awkward!’ I thought to myself, as Zack and I continued on, behind Andy and in front of Jenn. Once we were outside, I relaxed a bit…until I realized that the band was STILL going in our same direction. Turns out, they were going to do a photo shoot right by where Zack and I had parked our bikes. You know when you say goodbye to someone and then end up walking in the same direction as them? Multiply the embarrassment you feel by 10, and that’s kind of where I was at in this scenario.

As with all moments, the awkward passed, and we were on our way to the Rainey district — a place I don’t particularly enjoy frequenting, but which is a necessary evil during SXSW. We popped into a bar I’d never heard of before called Lucille, and camped out off to the side until our Oberhofer friends started setting up for their set. I anticipated major antics from Brad, given that this was their final SXSW show for 2016, but the set was more on the subdued side — there was no climbing of rafters, no entry into the crowd at all, in fact. That doesn’t mean it was a low-energy set, by any means — I don’t think Brad Oberhofer is capable of giving anything less than all of himself every single time. But comparatively, I think the band was playing with relief, because they had made it through a whirlwind of shows (by my count, they played six in seven days). Also, unless he was joking, after the set was over Zack and I would swear to you that we heard Brad say he’d been hit by a car earlier in the day. For a guy seemingly unbreakable, it somehow makes sense that he’d be up on stage, playing a show the same day he’d been through such a traumatic event. But I won’t lie — my mom instincts kicked in a little and I wanted to make sure he didn’t need water or a nap or something. Luckily, his friends (figuratively) carried him off to the back of the venue to rest, and we were left thankful that this artist was so willing to share his music that he played through potential pain.

Ezra Furman is an artist Zack’s been supporting for many years. Furman, like my husband, is native to Chicago, so any time he comes through Austin, Zack gets a little taste of home. This time, Ezra brought nostalgia for Zack and me:  Thax Douglas is a poet who used to open indie rock shows in Austin all the time with poems he’d write for artists. Before Austin, he was opening Ezra’s shows in Chicago. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, but he was back, and kicked off Ezra’s set with a really killer poem that I couldn’t recreate for you if I’d been filming it. I think Thax’s poetry is best experienced live, right before a rock ’n’ roll show.

For Ezra’s part, I can honestly say this is my favorite performance I’ve ever seen him give. Zack and I discussed this in the car a few days later, musing about why this might be. We agreed that we think he’s happier these days, because he’s coming into his own. I can’t and won’t try to speak for Ezra’s experience. I know what dissociation from my own physical body feels like, and if I could somehow recover from that feeling and have a sense of home in my own skin, I think I’d be happier and feel safer. From this place, and as an outsider to Ezra’s experience, it seems to me that he is feeling more at home in himself, and I certainly hope that’s true.

Apart from his demeanor being brighter and more excited, his music continues to be a rocking good time. Zack and I danced through the whole set, right along with Thax and the crowd that gathered, and there was once again a feeling of family, but for different reasons this time — we were surrounded by people who we didn’t really know personally, but it felt like we were sharing this moment and this feeling as we all “ooh-laa-ooh”’d along with Ezra and his band during “Restless Year.” Instead of being cramped in a crowded bar with people screaming over the band, we danced with friendly strangers and all left with mile-wide smiles.

SXSW Day 4 - Friday


Friday was one of the only days where we were bound to a showcase on behalf of our credential-givers, so Zack was up early to deliver banners while I got ready for the day ahead. After snapping some photos and eating some free food, Zack returned, and we headed to our first gig of the day together, the third Coast Modern show at Hype Hotel. As we parked our bikes, we could hear Honne — the diluted-R&B-outfit from the UK — wrapping up their set inside. There was no line, and we were inside in seconds, grabbing some free drinks from the bar. I tried a malted cherry cola situation, and since the bartender warned me there might be a vinegary after taste, I found myself enjoying it quite a bit.

We then sauntered up against the railing for our band, and when Coleman spotted us during soundcheck, he smiled and gave a little wave. This reminds me of something that Peter Moren of Peter Bjorn & John did shortly after I’d followed them around their first SXSW appearance:  I turned up again at a show in Dallas almost six months after SXSW, and after the second or third song the band played, Peter leaned over the edge of the stage towards me and said, “Austin?” My eyes widened into anime-cat size, and I nodded and whimpered “Yes!” before turning to some random friends I’d made in the crowd before the show and squeal-crying, overwhelmed. Since that moment, I’ve seen PB&J…I don’t know, 10 more times? I’ve bought their vinyl. I’ve bought their t-shirts. I’ve supported Peter’s solo efforts. For chrissakes, I own their instrumental album! (It’s quite good!!) My point is, by acknowledging a fan who you know is supporting you with something as small as a smile and a wave, you form a bond with them that is human and meaningful, and if they’re worth their salt, they WILL repay you in loyalty.

With all that said, Zack and I really felt like Coast Modern insiders at that point, and so we held nothing back for this third set. We sang, we danced, we applauded — and we were filmed pretty regularly by the Hype camera crew. Briefly, this took me out of the moment. I worried that I wasn’t attractive enough to be “worthy” of being seen as a Coast Modern fan. “What if someone sees me, sees how uncool I am, and then thinks this band isn’t cool? What if I am ruining their career?!” Remember how we started this whole thing by talking about anxiety? I often feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, which then makes me feel like if I mess up, I could ruin things for everyone. It’s sad, and it’s kind of narcissistic in a way, and really it’s just overthinking things. Luckily, happily, the band is just too good for me to stay stuck in my head like that for long, and by the time we made our way through the setlist to “Animal” and “Hollow Life” again, all that mattered was screaming the lyrics with Zack, and dancing with all our might.

After stopping back by the venue where our magazine’s showcase was taking place, we then turned our attention to the Empire Garage. We went there, thinking we might have to abandon ship because of the insane line-up, but while the venue hit capacity pretty quickly after we arrived, we made it inside just in time to catch The Heavy. You’ve DEFINITELY heard this band before — turn on any television, and flip to a basketball game (it’s March Madness, how hard can that be) — you know that “How You Like Me Now” song? That’s The Heavy. Their set started like how it felt outside — a bit slow, weighted down by the mugginess in the air; a bit too hot and sticky, so that it was almost laborious and the crowd struggled to give the band energy to feed off of. But the band fought hard to earn our energy, and by the time the set was roaring to a close, everyone was clapping along, singing at lead singer Kelvin Swaby’s cues. It was a good save, and I longed to see the group again in a cold House of Blues-type setting, during the nighttime when there could be a light show and a brass backup section.

Then we went to the inside stage, where it was equally hot and sticky but pitch black (to the point where I was afraid I might fall down some invisible stairs or something). I’d seen GIVERS play before at Coachella, and they’d brought me such joy that first time around. This time, I was still tired, and it was still hot, and I felt zapped of any energy I could provide. Still, Zack and I managed to stay on our feet through the whole set, and I’m glad we did. It allowed us to dance and sing along to “Up Up Up,” a song Zack and I used to spin in an online amateur DJ community (don’t ask), and the nostalgia felt sparkly and fresh.

At that point, I had to run an errand, so we returned home for me to do that and Zack to take care of our dog, Scooby. While I was out, some serious thunderstorms rolled in, and the rain smell was thick in the air. When I got back home, Zack and I agreed that we’d cut our losses and stay in for the night, preserving our energy for our “last hurrah” the next day. We watched a bunch of episodes of “New Girl,” ate more ice cream cake, and played cards until our eyes wouldn’t stay open anymore.

SXSW Day 5 - Saturday


I didn’t know much going into this year’s SXSW conference, but what I did know was that I was going to find some way into the Rachael Ray Feedback party on Saturday morning. I had never attended before, because it kicks off at 10AM, meaning people line up at 8AM and earlier to get inside where there’s beaucoup free food, drinks and music. No lineup, however great, had ever enticed me to wake up early enough to get in. But this year was different. This year, Jenny Lewis was playing her only SXSW gig at this exact party. This year, I lucked into a press pass that allowed me to skip the line, unless the venue got to capacity, so I knew I still wanted to arrive reasonably early, but I also (blessedly) didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn. This year, it was on.

Zack went earlier than I did to scope out the situation and try to make his way into the venue, which he did (shockingly quickly, I might add — the boy has skills). By the time I arrived, I was officially the first press pass holder over capacity, so I started the line for “my kind” while the general admission line continued to snake on into eternity.

I made it inside without too much trouble, and Zack and I grabbed some free beer and then found a spot for a bluegrass band from Canada who were a little too earnest for their own good, and yet somehow worked for me in that moment. Maybe it was the cold front that had blown in the night before, putting me in that crispy-fall-air mood that I love to be in. Maybe it was because that mood reminded me of Utopiafest, the most laid-back festival I’d ever attended in Texas, with similar-sounding bands, yummy beer, and snuggling up for warmth with the one you love. Maybe it was holding Zack tightly as we whispered about how much we loved the guy in the “DAVE” hat in the band (who, as it turns out, is named Dave). Whatever it was, I thoroughly enjoyed them, and found myself willing to sway back and forth and clap on command.

After a harrowing and desperate experience in the port-a-potties that I’d like to never speak of again (we’ll just say “no more toilet paper” and “anxiety surrounding germs” and let you fill in the blanks), the next artist of note that we got to see was George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelic. I had a history with this band and my mom, who would play them on our drives to school. My mom was always tickled that I noticed the high-pitched “wheeeeeeeeee!” in the chorus of “Give Up the Funk,” so we’d make a game of me singing that part to her every time it came on. I think this is one of the things that never fails to amaze me about SXSW — it brings artists of all calibers and tenures into the city of Austin, so that you can discover your favorite brand-new band (Coast Modern) in the same breath that you see a legend — in this case, George Clinton.

Now comes the difficult part. I have to describe a P-Funk live show. First, you need a sense of their mass. By my best count, there were at least 12 people onstage at any given moment during the show — Zack thinks this may have spiked to 18 at times, and I wouldn’t argue. Each person is their own amazing character, dressed individually and yet somehow coalescing into this alien movement. There was the woman in a white mini-dress with Go Go boots and angel wings; there was the blue-haired guy with holes all over the left side of his t-shirt; there was the woman in a classic black ensemble with a hat that said “DOPE” on it; there was “the Nose,” in shaggy white pants and a shaggy white jacket, with a sparkly belt that said NOSE so you could identify him, and a fake Pinocchio-like nose that had the words “FUCK GEORGE!” scrawled along each side. George, who no longer has his signature multi-colored dreadlocks, was in a silk-finished blazer with flowers all over it and rose gold headphones around his neck that I was coveting HARD. There were so many vocalists rapping, singing and/or soloing at any given time that it was impossible to know where to look — but that didn’t matter, because anywhere was fine. More importantly, the group almost demanded that we sing and dance along, and boy did we OBLIGE. Whether it was “Give Up the Funk” or “Flash Light,” I was dancing. It was probably the most physically involved I got all week, raising my arms when prompted, and high-fiving any band member who sauntered by (which, in this case, was “the Nose” and the holy-shirt guy). Ten stars out of ten, would see again.

Then, we were one set-change away from my idol, Jenny Lewis. We’d managed to make our way all the way to the front row, against the railing, and I was grinning from ear to ear. Always a style maven, when Jenny finally emerged, she was in white bellbottom pants and a white button-down shirt with fringe hanging off the arms. The shirt and pants were littered with glittery, multi-colored pot leaves, and I fell more in love than ever. Other than “Silver Lining” and “See Fernando,” I think Jenny only played songs from her latest release, and because she is an all-seeing goddess who knows what medicine to feed us, she played its title track. Before starting in on “The Voyager,” Jenny said, “I need my box!” referring to her rainbow-painted riser that she likes to stand on. “It’s all I have in this world,” she joked, and then ripped my heart out of its chest with a heartfelt rendition of this song about hope, exploration, and figuring life out. I also was particularly grateful for “Head Underwater,” and it may very well have been in my head, but I would swear to you that she saw me raise my hand and sing along with her on the line, “There’s a little bit of magic, everybody has it/There’s a little bit of sand left in the hourglass.” I’ve written at length about Jenny’s magnetism, about how she commands a stage and every little movement feels indispensable. There is an effortless cool about her that I admire and covet — I aspire to find a method of self-expression that lets me live lighter, as she seems to by pouring her fears and dreams and imagination into her songs. Her 30-minute set flew by, and I was so enamored with her and lost in that space that I didn’t even notice the unofficial king of SXSW, Bill Murray, sitting in the photo pit about eight feet to my right. I’m glad I didn’t. We both deserved our uninterrupted Jenny-worshipping time.

After a perfect morning, we took a long break so Zack could watch his collegiate basketball team duke it out, and so I could get something healthier than a Flyrite veggie-patty sandwich and fries in my belly. Then, we rushed over to the best venue in all of Austin, the ACL Moody Theatre, for one last hoorah with Coast Modern. Their confidence had been building all week as they settled into their performance style. Coleman was mastering his dance moves and hitting the high notes every time. It was the last chance for Micah and Luke to scream, “JUST COMB MY HAIR!” into the best sound system they’d encountered in Austin. It had all come down to this, and I was excited to take advantage of what I imagined could be my last chance to watch this barn-burning indie rock outfit from the first row before they blow up and my old-person self is relegated to middle-crowd status.

Zack and I made our way to the second row, and as we stood there, I overheard the people next to me talking about how excited they were to see Coast Modern in this venue. Keeping with my theme of speaking-before-thinking and talking to as many strangers as possible, I tapped the girl of the group on the shoulder and asked if they knew the band. She laughed and said, “Yeah, my girlfriend is the drummer.” “That’s so cool, they are so awesome!” I responded. “I know!” she said. I explained how Zack and I had been following them all week, and then said something awkward along the lines of, “We’re borderline stalking them,” but laughed because that makes it OK and not creepy at all, right? Anyway, we all managed to survive the conversation, and it was still nice to know that we were by real fans rather than random showcase-attendees. I do think we may have confused Coleman, though, who spotted our little group during the soundcheck, and visibly processed what was going on — I’d imagine something like, “Oh hey it’s Steph’s girlfriend! And…wait…that’s that woman that keeps showing up at our shows…do they…do they know each other? What…?” Except he probably knows Steph’s girlfriend’s name, but otherwise, this is my more-than-likely 100% accurate translation of his face. Outside of this confusion, I am hopeful it was a welcome sight to see a group of fans you’ve collected over your life and over the week, all ready to dance their asses clean off. I knew the setlist by heart at this point, and although we lost “Dive” to a shorter set time, otherwise every song sounded gorgeous through the giant Moody speakers, and Coleman in particular really blossomed as the frontman, egging the crowd on during the break in “Hollow Life” near the end. I felt close to blissful as I danced and sang along, really letting my weirdness out since the venue was also the darkest one they’d played in yet, and by the end of it, I felt completely content with my SXSW experience. I told Steph’s girlfriend-and-friends to tell the band that they were great, and she said she would, and Zack and I packed it in for the night and for the festival.

Now, realize — I skimmed over a LOT in this write-up. I skimmed over the waiting, and the bands that were forgettable or outright bad. I didn’t mention the handful of times that I was tired and grouchy and taking all of that out on my husband, and I tried to keep my own mental soundtrack to a minimum. I didn’t do these things because I want to present a shiny, perfect experience to you — obviously that’s not the case, or I wouldn’t have opened this epic saga with A Brief History of My Mental Health. The deal is, I wanted to share the moments that were healing for me. I wanted to recreate and relive the times when I felt like I was connected to someone, or to an emotion or thought in a song. I know not everyone is as lucky as I am, that I was able to take time off work to go live my dream for four days, in the music community where I long to be, so I hope that in some small way, this transfers some of the good vibes I’m going to get to survive on for the next 360 days to the rest of you. If nothing else, I hope it inspires you to check out these incredible bands making incredible art, and to support them, because they support the rest of us.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Caitlin's 30 Before 30

Instead of New Year's Resolutions this year, I plotted out my "30 Before 30" — 30 goals I've set for myself to meet over the next 365 days. I'm really excited about these, and hopeful that I can cross most (if not all) off of my list. If you want my editorializing on each of these items (and my husband's comments of encouragement, too) you can see those on the original post here. Below, I'll just keep a straightforward list, and as I accomplish things, I'll write up posts about how I did and link the goal to the post. Let's get to it!

1. Save up for a trip to Disney World for my 30th birthday. It was the trip of a lifetime.
2. Train for and run a half marathon.
3. Take a weekend trip by myself. I got in Formation in Houston and Dallas, and it was glorious.
4. Find a career I love.
5. Learn how to play the drums.
6. Learn how to sew!! Take a class, make some clothes/quilts.
7. Practice German and increase fluency.
8. Scrapbook my wedding goodies. Done!
9. Visit Iceland.
10. Write a book.
11. Go offline for a whole month. Meditative & refreshing - would do again.
12. Complete a month-long photo challenge.
13. Write once a day for at least 15 minutes.
14. Go to a music festival I’ve never attended before.
15. Be debt free. It happened, and wasn't quite as life-changing as I'd expected (but still a relief).
16. Watch my “30 before 30” watch list of Criterion Collection films. It took ONE BILLION YEARS but I did it and rounded up my favorites in this post.
17. Attend a “radical self love” boot camp of some kind.
18. Kickstart a new personal blog. Oh look, you're here!
19. Try out a few boxing lessons. I gave it a go, and intend to try more!
20. Personal goal.
21. Get 8 hours of sleep a night.
22. Complete a GoodReads book challenge.
23. See LCD Soundsystem with Zack. Boom.
24. Get published somewhere (Rookie, Rolling Stone, BuzzFeed, wherever).
25. Write a song.
26. Do one nice thing for someone else each day.
27. Dance more.
28. Let go of perfectionism – embrace mistakes.
29. Add more makeup looks to my arsenal.
30. Eat one meal a week with Zack AWAY from the television set.


Hi. I'm Caitlin. I've been on the internet for many, many years now — my first presence (if you don't count AOL chat rooms and AIM) was with a DreamJournal, and later, a LiveJournal. In college, I think I created about 8 different Tumblr accounts, blogs and journals — it's an experimental time in one's life, after all. The best blogs I've ever had are Austin Writes Music, which I am sadly retiring because it was overrun by hackers trying to sell casino games in German, and Rock Love Austin, which I still run with my husband. But there has been something missing in my life for many years now. I've lacked an outlet that was purely for my own expression, be it a recount of a day, or of a feeling; a no-holds-barred review of a transcendent concert; musings on life and why it is. I've missed expressing myself, of having a space all my own to just kind of riff for a while. So, what better way to kick off my 29th year — my final year in my 20s — than with a new blog? I'm excited about this. I ruminated on the title for a LONG time. I like where we landed. I want to reveal a lot to you, but I'm going to try and not overshare, at least not all right at once (as I am wont to do in my in-the-flesh interactions). This is going to be fun.

Apart from what I've already mentioned, one of the reasons I created this space was to track my progress on my "30 Before 30" list. I posted that list on Rock Love Austin at the beginning of the year as an alternative to resolutions, but I'll post it again here so we can all enjoy a more seamless experience.

The design of my blog is still very much unfinished. I have a beautiful logo coming from my brother, and I want to play around with navigation and the general look of things. I'm trying to learn to have patience in life, and instead of always embracing the part of myself that likes to unpack all of my stuff the same day I move into a new place, I want to take it slow, curating bits and pieces as I go until things feel really homey here.

I'm going to do my best to not overthink every post, and just let things flow. With that — thanks for reading, and for taking this journey with me.