Upon returning from a road trip to South By Southwest earlier this week, I quickly brought my two disposable cameras to the drugstore for speedy film development. I had decided to document my journey southward visually, but I was worried that the shots might not come out, because the second camera never seemed to make a satisfactory clicking sound as it advanced. Much to my surprise, not only did the shots successfully develop, but they came back to me more interesting-looking than I’d expected: apparently the device was slightly out of order, so cyan blue pops and spreads throughout the pictures as if they were swimming in the Mediterranean. This is not far from reality, as we did venture towards weather that felt positively tropical by comparison to the slow-melting Minnesota springtime here at home.
Our musical journey truly began in Nashville — by that point on the way, the weather had turned noticeably warmer and the streets began to fill with evident music-goers. When we saw a mini-van drive by we’d guess: band or family? At a music/vintage clothes shop in the country music capitol, we asked for suggestions for our upcoming drive to Memphis, the home of Big Star and Sun Records. We were told to go to the pirate-themed dive bar, Buccaneer.
We stayed in an Elvis-themed hotel across from Graceland, where the shot above was taken. Music notes, love notes, and graffiti litter the walls, the lampposts, and the pavement. I am fond of this picture because the manipulation of color re-works the tableau into a soft-focused, serene, 1970s sort of shot. In reality, the site is far from tranquil: Graceland is on a busy street, Elvis Presley Boulevard. Upon our arrival, we discovered that buses run every half hour from Graceland, but we insisted on experimenting with the Memphis public transportation instead, which led us to BBQ sandwiches in an establishment that was plastered with images of Cybill Shepherd and dancing pigs.
Our evening’s cultural tour continued at the recommended Buccaneer Lounge, where we saw the Brooklyn-by-way-of-Vermont, often-falsettoed, beach rock band, Fletcher C. Johnson, whose song themes include ones’s parent’s basement. As we departed from Memphis, we stumbled upon The Many Moods of Ben Vaughn on volunteer radio 89.9 WEVL. It was a treasure.
The first band we saw at SXSW played at noon on a Wednesday — a baroque-pop group of sisters, named Shel, from Colorado who performed at a tiki bar. “South By” tends to foster bizarre confluences; the venue was serving free Coloradan margaritas to the first 200 attendees.
My personal highlights from Austin are skewed towards the country-flavored outfits, although eclecticism reigned supreme:
- Hurray for the Riff Raff, a politically conscious, laid-back, and lovely New Orleans Americana band, with a leading lady whose endearing tremolo recalls Cat Power, or maybe a charmingly insecure Patsy Cline
- The show where we inadvertently caught the hard-rocking Heartless Bastards at a Patagonia store which supplied everyone with free pizza and iced coffee
- Seeing veritable funk legend Bernie Worrell, whose purple electronic keyboard evokes a psychedelic soundtrack
- Hearing the dark, atmospheric power-pop of Montreal’s Besnard Lakes.
- The festival’s grand finale, for me, was Big Freedia the Queen Diva, a fierce transvestite bounce call-and-response rapper from New Orleans, who brought to the stage one male dancer to do the “shoulder hustle”, a portly manager, and two mermaid-haired female dancers in fishnet garments.
Making your way to and from downtown Austin — actually, travelling at all during the festival — is itself something of an adventure. One day, we had the good fortune of meeting up with a taxi driver who hailed from New Hampshire; he’d broken his leg and ended up in Austin, apparently; he also insisted on using a foreign GPS system which announced upcoming turns in an Australian female voice.
The taxi driver never did leave Austin, but we returned to Minnesota two days later, after stopping to pick up some amazing Czech kolaches and hazelnut-flavored gas-station coffee along the way.
Chloe Nelson is the program assistant for mnartists.org. All photos taken by the author and James Jannicelli