It's hard to explain SXSW to people who've never come here. That sounds like bragging, and maybe it is bragging to a certain extent. Yet this city's relationship to the festival and the 100k+ people streaming through the bars, panels, shows, movies, events, lines etc, is complicated and often openly hostile. Friday night I was at my first event--an open bar, of course--and heard someone say: "Wow, Austin isn't crowded and belligerent after all."
Last year I dove into the festival more than I had for years. I've been back in Texas for five years now, and previous SXSW's have seen me spend a day wandering, maybe just a night show somewhere with friends, or even missing the whole thing. Last year was different--not only did I have Spring Break off but I was also making money for the first time in a few years. So I stalked the appropriate twitter accounts, I listened to rumors, I wore comfortable shoes, and I did just about every damn thing imaginable.
We got into the Spin party at Stubbs even though we hadn't RSVPd. I don't remember hardly paying for a meal or a beverage all week. I saw each band I wanted to see--Schoolboy Q was as creepy as I hoped, Warpaint was loud and joyous, Dum Dum Girls was pleasantly synth and blunted. I even saw enough Future Islands to realize that I maybe don't understand anymore why some bands are so hyped.
Empire Control Room, Stubbs, Spotify, Pandora, the great thing across the street from Fader (which is the best trap in the world because it sucks in thousands of people out of the other venues), VIP at Childish Gambino--it was on.
Then I stood in line for two hours and got a wristband to see Jay Z and Kanye at the Austin Music Hall. The Music Hall holds about 3,000 people and is basically just a glorified gymnasium with better speakers. Even the worst seat there would be a $300 ticket at a normal Jay Z show. Yes, I waited in line for another 3 hours AND I missed the first 45 minutes of the show because the venue was at capacity, but I don't care. It was the greatest concert I've ever seen. The crowd could have been told they were about to flood the place with poison gas and we would have died singing 99 Problems. Jay and Kanye were right on top of us. Every song was a hit. They seemed revitalized playing such a small venue. At one point Kanye appeared at the top of a pillar right in front of the balcony--about ten feet from my face--and he tore through the set, floating on fog and pink lasers.
Afterwards, still not believing what had happened, I started to make my long walk back to my car on the east side--about two miles away. I stopped at Frank, the old, old Alamo Drafthouse on Colorado, for a drink. Like a good festival-goer I pulled out my phone, ready to write tweets and status updates about how I'd just seen something better than anything any one else I knew had seen. All of Twitter was talking about the festival, of course. You know where this going.
A guy running from the police drove through a barricade and into a crowd of people standing in front of Mohawk. Four dead. Dozens injured and traumatized. I scrolled back an hour in my timeline and saw the tweets all change from "OMG FREE BEER AHHH SXSW WOOOO" to confusion, then shock, then fear. News was still rolling in as I sat at the bar, refreshing my account, exploring the tragedy from just a few blocks away. I looked around. Everyone else in the bar was happy. The bartender checked on me and I said "Did you hear about the accident?" She said no, and then I ruined her night. I needed to tell her. I couldn't not tell her. She called over the bar back and had me tell him. We looked at my twitter for a few minutes--all feeling the same punch in the gut. Red River. Mohawk. Cheer Up Charlies. These weren't anonymous places to us. All three of us, locals, had stood in those exact spots. I had been there that morning and most other days of the festival. The three of us shared some quiet grief. "I don't know," the bartender said. "Do you want another drink?"
I walked up sixth street to get to the east side and my car. The drunken faces had all changed from fun to scary. You could see the dead eyes and the unsteady bones as people paraded up and down sixth. I thought back on every open bar, on every drunk person I saw at noon, one pm, two pm. I remember thinking that Sixth was as crowded at 7pm as it was on a normal Saturday at 1 am. I remember people walking on top the jersey barriers protecting Cesar Chavez's bike lane from the cars going 30mph. I remembered the drunk women holding the heels. The red-faced men picking fights with their friends, their girlfriends, anyone.
This year there are supposedly fewer open bars, but that's hard to believe. Last night I saw those zombies on sixth. I saw a giant man step back on a waitresses ankle and barely move as she screamed, shoved him off her foot, then limped away cursing. I saw a woman kicked out of a private event with her dress on sideways. I follow Twitter accounts devoted to steering people to the open bars with the shortest lines. Every app, every start up, every fledgling music publication thinks their way to success runs through Titos vodka. And it's only day three.
Austin has a drinking problem and it's never more clear than during this Festival.