Attending a festival such as SXSW requires a level of patience and strategy not intended for the weak of heart. Here’s a list of advice from a girl learning the hard way:
  1. Make a prioritized calendar of shows you would like to see, keeping it well-rounded and realistic, with a good mix of genres.
  2. Let go of all expectations entirely.
  3. Remember that alcohol percentage is double what you’re used to and the selection is three times as good. Also, you can order a cocktail anywhere and at any time you damn well please. Bask in the lack of Zion curtain and be merry.
  4. Leave some time to walk around aimlessly and see what shows you can find.
  5. If you’re with a group, give yourself time to explore solo. If you’re by yourself, chat up other newbies and locals alike.
  6. When you make it to a venue to see a band you’re excited about, stay for the whole lineup. It’s more efficient and you’ll be forced to learn about rad bands you wouldn’t have otherwise. Boom.
  7. Be shameless in your consumption of food truck grub. Several times a day at least.
  8. Keep a notebook handy and write down all the bands you hear about so you can make a bumpin’ Spotify playlist later.
For my second day, I dedicated the majority of my time to an event put on by The House of Vans at the local indoor/outdoor venue The Mohawk. The lineup made my heart flutter—Ryley Walker, Steve Gunn, Torres, Waxahatchee, Speedy Ortiz and Angel Olsen (Angel f’ing Olsen!). I had no intention of messing around and got there hours early to be the first in line. The boredom and sunburn were worth it as I got an incredibly lucky spot on the upper balcony right in the center. From this vantage point, I was able to see the stage in all its glory without being in the throes of the crowd. I lined up three beers and moved in for the night, knowing that if I left, my precious real estate would be swooped up savagely.
Ryley Walker’s set seemed to have a soothing, lullaby effect on the madness of the trickling attendees from the line that was out the door and around the corner. His intricate and gauzy guitar playing is illuminated by standup bass and sparing vocals. Though his music is folk oriented, it has an orchestral feel that asks the audience to give the instruments their full attention. It seems he is the type of artist who acts as a medium through which music travels, and it’s not necessarily in his control what ends up being transmitted. That being said, the result is nothing short of lovely. It was, for me at least, a mood-setter for the rest of the evening.
You may have heard Steve Gunn without knowing it, as he plays guitar in Kurt Vile’s band when he’s not working on solo musicianship. If you’re wondering about bands to keep an eye out for from SXSW, this is definitely one to stay on top of. With the same sort of raw, heaven-sent goddamn songwriting talent as Ryan Adams, Gunn creates slightly psychedelic Americana soundscapes that are spacey yet beautifully captivating. For being more instrumental than anything, he fills up a venue with his music effortlessly. If you enjoyed Beck’s Sea Change album, you would appreciate the dreamy textures of Gunn’s, Way Out Weather. His set is one I won’t forget for some time.
Torres made for a good follow-up to Gunn, as they have a cosmic, out-of-body feel while being a bit heavier than the prior bands. With brooding bass and keys layered underneath vocals that are easy to latch onto, they delivered a set that matched the slightly rainy weather. I found myself slipping in and out of paying full attention to their songs as my mind wandered—an effect that I think is worthwhile from a piece of music. It’s meaningful to be able to be taken to a place inside of yourself while listening.
As the rain continued to drizzle lightly, Waxahatchee took the stage. The last time I saw her play was at an intimate house show in Salt Lake as she was passing through on tour. Though of course I preferred the nearly private concert to a packed venue, it was a treat to see how has she grown as an artist. She glowed confidently as she strummed her electric guitar and sang both old and new tracks. Her voice has a sweet, raspy effect that makes her lyrics feel ultra-relatable, especially combined with the smart and simple guitar chords. At one point, she brought her sister up to play a few songs with her. Their combined harmonics were breathtaking and a bit morose. They played “Lively” and it felt like I was glimpsing into a shared memory of their childhood. I look forward to hearing Waxahatchee’s upcoming album and re-living the few that she shared onstage.
Speedy Ortiz hopped up next and shifted the mellow energy in hardly a blink of an eye. They hashed out some of the best indie-rock I’ve heard in a while, though it’s hard to say exactly what about their music is so appealing– which is perhaps part of the reason it’s great. It seems the members get each other and can play in sync without consciously checking in, which allows them to rock out with ease. Singer and guitarist Sadie Dupius brings a youthful, almost teenage presence to the stage, making it difficult to look away. Their set was over too soon and I was left wishing for more.
At 1:00 a.m., at long last, Olsen got on stage and I don’t think I was alone in my fan girl reaction to seeing her a few feet in front of me. She plugged in, sang a short intro into the mic as a sound check and said, “I think I’m gonna play now.” As we cheered, she added, “I tried not to get drunk, but you, I had to go last. I talked to Jesus about it though, and he said, ‘Girl, get drunk and have fun.’” If what followed was her playing inebriated, I can only imagine the glory of a sober set. Or maybe the alcohol added something that wouldn’t normally be there. Either way, I feel sorry for anyone who didn’t get to see Olsen in rare, gorgeous form that night. She hardly had to utter a word before having an entirely captive audience. As she sings, the moments that don’t make every hair on your neck stand up are few and far between. You can see her working through emotional barriers in her eyes as she locks them to a fixed place and strums with a graceful intensity.  When she performed, “Acrobat,” the lyric, “I want to be made of love,” hung in the air for full moments after. She would stop between songs, say thank you and giggle a bit, as if she couldn’t quite believe what was happening. “It’s special to have a stage,” she said, “It’s really fucking special. Nothing to complain about.” After performing “White Fire,” which was at least 10 minutes of haunting, intimate guitar, she said, “Some people might ask why I would play a song like that in a situation like this. And I say, because fuck that.” Olsen announced decidedly that “I’m A Stranger Here,” by Lambchop would be her last song. Her set didn’t seem premeditated in the slightest and, though it was on the short side, was everything I could have asked for. Indeed, as it came to an end, I felt that if I didn’t see another show the entire week, I’d be happy and I hope that someday I get the chance to hug her and tell her thank you.