If you’re a musician or music lover and you’ve never been to Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, you should without question add it to your bucket list. Touted as the biggest music festival in the country, the now quarter-century-old event has seen its roster swell to 2,200 “official” performers, and its influence expand into the realms of film and interactive media.
“Unofficial” performances, of which there are plenty, probably double the number of bands playing during the week, if you include every dude with a guitar on every street, and increasingly the Brooklyn vibe has infiltrated the place with things like sneaker store DJs and skinny-jeans street teams. Call it hipster gentrification or summer vacation for record label interns.
With over 100 venues packed with 20-band schedules daily, Austin has long since proved itself well-equipped to handle the massive influx of rock-and-rollers, country and folk singers, blues men, metal maniacs, techno-heads and the small armies of music industry weasels who are ostensibly there to sniff them out for potential commercial exploitation. Many an up-and-coming band has been signed to major record labels after a buzz performance at SXSW, and increasingly indie filmmakers and technology and video game programming wizards are also being scooped up after their industry’s respective events.
Keynote speakers for the festival’s various segments have included people like Bruce Springsteen and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and the event has helped launch the film and television careers of the likes of Lena Dunham and Fred Armisen. Both Facebook and Twitter were given considerable boosts in recognition and hipness factor after stints at SXSW Interactive.
Into this week-long nonstop 6th Street partying, many Valley bands have bravely inserted themselves over the years, but this year was something different. In a concerted effort backed by studios, local labels and radio stations and a number of other generous supporting businesses from the community, Northampton Comes to Austin took a few of the region’s young performers to SXSW, rented them a riverboat to play on and bought them a shitload of beer to keep their party going—which turned out to be not nearly enough.
“There were 130 people on the boat, and we had eight cases of beer. We ran out of beer in the first hour,” says Spirithouse Music co-owner Paul McNamara, who, with his partner Danny Bernini, shepherded the young rockers on the trip. “So we’re panicking. We’re gonna get thrown off the boat. There’s gonna be a mutiny. We go and ask the boat’s captain, who calls his friend, who has a motorcycle, to get more beer. The guy goes and straps eight more cases of beer to his motorcycle, then gets them into a boat, and finally comes out to re-supply us. Everyone was like, ‘Who’s this guy coming in the boat?’ He was kind of like a pirate… he also brought 16 bottles of rum.”
“It was supposed to be 18 bottles of rum,” says Bernini. “But two got drunk on the way down.”
The boat, approximately 100 feet long, launched from under one of the city’s main bridges on the Colorado River, which runs so placidly through Austin that sometimes they call it a lake. Erin McKeown started the boat set, followed by The Sun Parade and Jamie Kent and The Options. LuxDeluxe closed out the party with a give-it-your-all rock set, sacrificing through performance sweat the last drops of liquid in their bodies not already evaporated through alcohol or sunshine on the 85-degree day.
“The bridges were great,” says McNamara. “Great big metal bridges—every time we’d go under one it was like a huge reverb chamber—the bands loved it.”
It’s unclear whether the boat showcase has ever been done before at SXSW. Plenty of people have hosted water-borne parties and the like, but an entire program of bands on a boat may be a first for the nation’s biggest music festival.
The expedition was facilitated by both Spirithouse Music and Kent’s Noho-based Collective Music Group, a motivated entity that has been effective at whipping local musicians into shape for further exposure such as this venture. Other local backers included Signature Sounds, Kokonowski Law, Wilco’s Solid Sound, The Luthiers’ Co-op and a number of Valley restaurants and businesses like the Apollo Grill, Alina’s, Eastworks, Visage, La Veracruzana, Serio’s Market, Friedman & Kannenberg Accounting, Berkshire Brewing Co. and United Bank. Other, more national sponsors included Telefunken and indiemusicsales.com (an e-commerce site for musicians).
“Also,” says McNamara, “the Northampton Arts Council was a huge supporter.”
The mission originally was focused around a rented RV that Spirithouse decked out with a full ProTools mobile recording system a la the 1970s Rolling Stones. The crew took the vehicle down many a highway, stopping to play gigs in places like Baltimore, and extending their reach to places like New Orleans’ Café Negril, where LuxDeluxe played two very well-received sets, and McNamara says he got an odd business solicitation.
“This guy gives me his card and says, ‘Hey, you guys are great! Do you want to come play at this music festival in Canada?’ I said ‘Sure, why not?’ and pocketed his business card. When I looked at it later, turns out he’s the mayor of some town in Ontario.”
Once in Austin, the primary mission component was to sniff out a space where they could dock the RV, hopefully nowhere that would piss off the neighborhood and not too far from the action. After they’d secured a relatively “downtown” parking site for the gas-guzzling monstrosity, the studio began recording live sessions of the Northampton bands and other, sometimes nationally known acts that were already being played by stations like 93.9 The River, which relayed the recordings as something like “live from Austin,” playing what McNamara says amounted to “about eight or 10 spots a day.”
“Bill Childs [who hosts a show on The River] was there,” says Bernini. “He’d interview each artist before they performed, and then we’d send the interview along with one song from the set up to the station and they’d air that.”
The group had a large banner headlined “Northampton comes to Austin,” which was strung out on the RV to announce its identity and also to advertise the boat show—the high point of a week-long adventure of constant music.
“At first we’d sought out more terrestrial options [to stage their main showcase],” says McNamara, “but it’s hard to get a spot down there, and when the boat option came up, we were like, ‘Well, that’s pretty much ideal.’ At the end, we actually wound up getting a space on East 6th Street for the RV, and we kind of had a bit of an impromptu residency at this place called The Tamale House, which was awesome. We needed a place, a destination, that was stable.”
Bands played both inside and out at The Tamale House, taking turns while the others were off performing other showcases at other venues.
“Some of the bands played over at The Recharge Lounge by the Convention Center, at Big Bang or at the Telefunken booth over on 6th Street,” McNamara recalls. “LuxDeluxe and The Sun Parade both played about nine times in six days, so everybody was busy.”
Some other Noho-to-Austin transplants and/or bi-locators also popped by, including Matt Hebert (Haunt, Ware River Club), who came and played a set at the RV. Bill Childs, long known for his Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child radio program that started on the Valley Free Radio (VFR) station and was eventually picked up by The River, is a staple of the family-oriented rock ‘n’ roll scene, and his show is (conveniently) now syndicated out of Austin (you can read more about his world in The Advocate’s arts story “Child’s Play,” March 26, 2009). Childs, who regularly co-hosts the show with his own children and has been ubiquitously involved with all things kids- and rock-oriented (Northampton’s annual Meltdown event, Flywheel’s No Nap Happy Hour, events at the Eric Carle Museum, and more), was on hand to represent the under-12 demographic at Noho’s RV.
“Bill ran a whole kids’ program in the mornings, when most of the grownup rockers were hung over and what not,” McNamara details. “It was great; tons of families came around to check it out—some of our folks played kid-friendly sets, plus other bands like Lake Street Dive.”
There was a problem, though.
“Around noon, a death metal band would set up across the street. We couldn’t compete with that—we tried—we were like, ‘Let’s see if we can folk louder than them!’ Yeah, um, not really. They were all subwoofers.”
Over the long week of music, recording, interviews, parties and numerous other experiences that only someone on the ground could relay, the event was a smashing success. The young bands were completely pumped, and the older participants couldn’t help but be vicariously energized when their own energy for direct participation began to wane.
“For LuxDeluxe,” says McNaMara, “it was a big thing, the first really far-reaching tour kind of thing they’ve done. The Sun Parade’s toured a little bit so far, but for these young guys [Bernini’s son Gabe, who plays in LuxDeluxe, is only 18, and his bandmates are around the same age], it was probably eye-opening.”
Both LuxDeluxe and The Sun Parade have planned releases for August of this year of recordings currently in production at Spirithouse.
Bernini, the company’s chief engineer and producer and a veteran of both North Brookfield’s Longview Studio and New York City’s The Hit Factory, has worked on everything from NRBQ to Blondie and the Notorious B.I.G. Biased or no, he says he’s got a good feeling about what’s in the can so far. “They sound great,” he says of the two bands’ current efforts. “Seriously, I think these guys are really juiced and poised to make the records of their lives.”•