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Music

SXSW in Review: Or, How My Yearly Trips to Austin Can Be Compared to Michael Finley’s Career

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For Those Who Care, my long-ish thoughts are after the jump.

There was so much I didn’t do this year. If you saw the reports of who played and matched it up with the list of bands I saw, you’d maybe consider me a failure. And maybe you’d be right. And maybe I don’t care.

When I first started going to South By Southwest in 1995 — on my own dime, a college student with a wristband that only promised I’d get in before the people trying to pay as they went — there were always rumors of this person playing here or that band playing there. Unannounced gigs. Secret shows. Surprise cameos. They almost never happened. But I always believed enough to give it a shot. I was willing to walk from one side of Austin to the other on the off-chance that this time it would happen. I didn’t want to miss out on the possibility. Didn’t want to live with myself if something great went down and I wasn’t there to see it. I wanted to keep believing in Santa Claus, and so I did. I was young and felt I was capable of anything. I was Michael Finley on the Mavericks, before the team traded for Steve Nash and drafted Dirk Nowitzki.

Over the next few years, part of the situation changed. I was writing about music full-time, and given a badge and hotel room for my trouble. I could get into anything now, just about, and did my level best to try, like I always had. I still felt like I had to see everything, no matter how far away it was, no matter how long the line, or how crowded the venue. I hit every party, kept running totals of how many bands I’d seen. There was certainly quality to the list, but it felt as though it was trumped by quantity. I was Finley during the Big Three era.

Then the situation changed again. I was still writing about music (and for better outlets), but I was also writing about other things as well. I started missing shows, and when I’d hear reports from others in attendance, it gnawed at me. I was still capable of doing the things I used to, but not for long stretches. I’d come home happy, but unfulfilled in a way. I was now Finley as his game started to leave him, but before he realized it, 2003-05.

But then the best thing happened, even though it didn’t feel like it at the time: I skipped a year. My wife was in the home stretches of her pregnancy, so I stayed home. All the bands and all my friends went on without me. Great shows, fun parties, the anecdote factory — everything kept right on going. And the world didn’t end.

When I went back the next year, SXSW had started to change, and I already had. The day parties now practically outdid the normal festival, both in number and prestige. I hit the ones I could, but didn’t kill myself to make it happen. If a line was too long anywhere, I left and found something else worth seeing and hearing. If a club was too packed, same deal. I realized that there’s a good (possibly great) show somewhere at all times, even if there’s seemingly a better one on paper. I picked my spots now, only taking a chance on the things I really wanted to see. I am now Finley on the Spurs, as much as it pains me to say, because I hate the Spurs. I can still give you 20 off the bench every now and then.

That’s how it was this year — back on my own dime, by the way. The headlines coming out of Austin undoubtedly will talk about Metallica or Kanye West‘s “secret” shows (at Stubb’s and the Levi’s/Fader Fort, respectively), or Devo’s big appearance at the Austin Music Hall, or the grand after-party put on by C3 Presents in an old Safeway, featuring the reunited Jane’s Addiction. I didn’t go to any of that, and I only seriously considered going to see Devo.

It was better — to me, at least — to see the stuff that still really excited me about music. The Thermals, No Age, Wavves, Youth Group, the Spinto Band, LA Riots, Fight Bite — to name a few. I saw some big names, too (Primal Scream, Echo & The Bunnymen), but it wasn’t really about that. I’ve turned the scoreboard off. So maybe I’m Michael Finley’s kid playing in a PK4/5 basketball league at the Y.

Best bands I saw: Echo & the Bunnymen (still great after all these years, and Ian McCulloch is maybe better, with a smoky patina to his voice to go along with his ability to wear a hoodie, full-length wool pea coat, and sunglasses in any environment); No Age (noisy duo from L.A. that repeatedly pull instantly memorable songs out of seemingly bottomless chaos); Youth Group (big hooks, great melodies, and Australian accents).

What the crowd looked like: Overdressed for the weather and heavily mustachioed. If you want to see that many people with bad facial hair — and I know I’m one to talk — you’d normally have to go to a sex offender finder website.

What the crowd looked like, part II: Gigantic. Apparently, music registrations were down 10 percent or so, but that was more than covered by the people who came down to go to the free parties and the roaming groups of randoms just there to make the scene. My friend Bob Mehr, while walking on Sixth Street on Wednesday night, said, “This is what Saturday night used to look like,” and he was probably understating the case.

Overall impression: Kind of a weaker overall lineup this year than in the past, but still plenty entertaining. The festival feels like it’s starting to get too big and unruly for Austin, whose style of city-planning and infrastructure-building is, at best, an acquired taste. But as for the folks at SXSW, they certainly get more right than wrong.

I’m 34 now. There’s an expiration date for this, even the way I do it now. But it’s not next year, and it’s not anytime soon.