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The SXSW Shuffle

Milwaukee Bands Play the Prominent Texan Festival

Mar. 20, 2008
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SITTING ALONE AT A LONG, WHITE TABLE BY THE ENTRANCE GATE, KELSEY KAUFMANN SMILED at the festivalgoers, handing them concert schedules as they filtered into the park. They were arriving for a bash called Mess With Texas, one of the largest of the storied day parties during Austin’s South By Southwest (SXSW) music conference, and Kaufmann was happy to guide them. “Where’s the V.I.P. booth?” one man asked, and she pointed him toward the center of the park. “When do The Breeders begin playing?” another asked, and she helped him find out on the schedule. But when a third man asked her where performers should check in, she was stumped.

“Sorry,” she shrugged. “I don’t actually work here.” Although Kaufmann had become a de facto information booth for the party, she had only staked out her spot at the table to promote her own unaffiliated concert.

“I’m in a group called Cougar Den; we’re a spazzy thrash band from Milwaukee. We’re playing in that bus over there at 5:30,” she’d announce to anyone who might be interested, pointing to a red-painted school bus parked in front of the gate and passing out fliers handwritten on the back of the Mess With Texas schedules. Cougar Den’s school-bus performance was ultimately not meant to be—although the Mess With Texas organizers had no objections to their accidental volunteer, they took issue with the mobile concert venue, fearing it would distract from their event—but Kaufmann had drummed up enough interest to make at least a couple of people peek inside the empty bus that evening.

Photos by John Carrico


For undiscovered bands, navigating South By Southwest, the country’s largest music conference, requires more than a little tenacity. With more than 1,700 artists from all over the world performing at the festival, and countless others playing unofficial SXSW parties, it’s a battle not to slip through the cracks. On Sixth Street, a long, congested strip of bars and concert venues that serves as ground zero for the annual gathering, bands resort to gimmickry to stand out. One musician wore a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costume, another wore a sandwich board sign advertising free hugs, and others just played on street corners until the police made them stop—anything to capture the attention of one of those mythical major-label A&R reps, or at least a second glance from one of the countless music writers and bloggers patrolling the area.

At its core, SXSW is a routine industry conference, complete with presentations, expert speakers and a cavernous exhibition hall where salesmen lure prospective clients to their booths with free key chains and flashlights. Since the industry in question, however, is the music industry, over the years SXSW has taken on the aura of a giant music festival as fans outside the industry flock to Austin to see their favorite bands.

Fans can buy a wristband that admits them to official SXSW events, but even without one there’s still plenty of music to see, since corporate sponsors throw lavish, free parties and concerts throughout the week. Even celebrity chef Rachael Ray played impresario this year with her own bash, enticing the crowd with music from consciously hip bands like The Raveonettes and The Stills and comfort food catered by Ray herself: seven-layer sliders, mac ’n’ cheese suizas and bourbon-orange skillet barbecue chicken with cornbread topper.

Despite the wealth of talent on display, the take-away message from this year’s conference was bleak: It’s a great time for music, but an awful time for the music industry. With CD sales in a fatal downward spiral, guest speakers grasped at straws while proposing different ways for the industry to milk revenue from art (most solutions involve licensing). Lou Reed used his dispiriting keynote speech to lament that MP3s, the medium quickly superceding CDs, simply don’t sound any good. Even R.E.M.’s headlining concert took on a sad undercurrent. The desperation that drove the one-time megastars to promote their new album with a free show in the back yard of a barbecue joint says more about the state of the music industry than any panel discussion ever could.

For undiscovered bands, an invitation to play SXSW is an honor, but not necessarily a golden ticket. Cougar Den’s SXSW showcase performance was the lowlight of their week. In an unmemorable bar, in front of a mostly disinterested crowd of barely half a dozen people, they blitzed through a set of their ferocious hardcore, vibrant and vital, while the event staff scrambled to contain the volume.

Every few minutes, the staff would beg the band to turn down their amps, inevitably grimacing when the next song began at essentially the same deafening level. As the band concluded their final song with a commanding cacophony, a fed-up, brooding man stormed toward the stage looking as if he might cut the power—or at least share an angry word or two with the noisemakers—but their set ended before it came to that.

Quiet restored, Cougar Den waved good night to the handful of onlookers: “See you next year!” “Well, we came down here to do our thing, and that’s what we did,” singer/bassist Bobby Reitman said afterward, through a flustered smile. “We were true to ourselves.”

The group had planned a tour around this unlucky show, driving to Austin in their unheated van, but the rest of the weekend found them more in their element, networking with other independent bands and promoters. Just five hours after their showcase performance, they were playing a spontaneous set at a mammoth, early morning house party.

Other Milwaukee bands had similar success playing outside the official confines of SXSW. In addition to his showcase show, electro-rapper Juiceboxxx made the most of his week by committing himself to at least six other performances. Returning SXSW veterans Call Me Lightning played their twitchy, increasingly danceable art-rock to a receptive audience at an official showcase for their record label, French Kiss Records, then stuck around for an unofficial show at a record store the following afternoon.

“There are always lots of non-SXSW shows going on in Austin, thrown almost out of spite by local folks who don’t want to deal with the expensive wristbands and industry hoo-ha,” singer-guitarist Nathan Lilley explained. “It’s cool to get a chance to participate in both.”

Percussionist Jon Mueller, meanwhile, crammed an entire weekend of shows into one night. He played four sets Thursday, showcasing with two performances—one solo and one with his band, Collections of Colonies of Bees—and sitting in with two other acts. Collections of Colonies of Bees’ set was rewarded with a prize any band would have been happy to take home: an approving write-up on The New York Times’ Web site.

Milwaukee’s Freshwater Collins also shuttled to Austin last week, but they eschewed the SXSW formalities altogether, using their ample contacts to book three downtown performances. They planned their shows for maximum impact—debating which, if any, instruments they could smash should the mood strike them—but they faced a hurdle: The mobility of singer/guitarist Chris Vos, normally the band member who most wildly flails around the stage, was limited by a freak accident just before the band left Milwaukee.

“It was the least rock ’n’ roll injury ever,” Vos explained to the crowd at their Thursday show. “My cat—yes, my cat— knocked a decorative plate on my foot.” The seemingly harmless plate severed a vein, sending streams of blood spraying across Vos’ kitchen. “It looked like something out of a slasher film,” Vos recalled. Eight stitches later, Vos spent much of the week hobbling around with a swollen foot and a cumbersome crutch, popping Advil before his performances.

But he was nearly back to 100% in time for the band’s final show of the week, which could prove their most fateful. Before the set, drummer Justin Krol spotted David Fricke, one of Rolling Stone’s most influential writers, and slipped him a Freshwater Collins CD.

Krol was careful not to get his hopes up too much, but, he noted, “I saw him after the show and he was still holding it, so that’s not a bad sign.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.

Freshwater Collins Photo by Evan Rytlewski


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