No Sleep at SXSW 2010


Photos by Victoria Smith

Gavin Glass flew twenty-two hours from his home in Ireland to perform at South By South West (SXSW). He brought two guitars, a suitcase full of foot pedals and equipment–but not enough clothes. This was his second time performing at the festival. Jet-lag set in early for him. Each night he struggled to stay awake, but as he moaned he would always finish by saying “Kick me in the face if I fall asleep,” because not only did he want to adjust, rock stars don’t go to bed before 2am.

At thirty-three he is about the median age of many of the bands performing. For every youngster who’s never heard of Muddy Waters, their is a veteran trying to reclaim his glory. With so many bands at SXSW for most journalists and music enthusiasts every other band is just a just another band. People plan around showcases that are national (German, French, Irish, etc.), publishing labels (Team Clermont, Biz3), or magazines and record labels (Warp, Duck Down, Paste, Filter). Music then becomes allied with a brand, emphasizing that these showcases are as important to the bands as for their sponsors. Instead of worrying about the next great band to discover, I discovered Gavin. Together, we discovered SXSW.

On the first day, before Gavin’s set at The Dirty Dog we listened to the Scottish band, The Law. The band’s energy pumped with flavors of ska and punk would surely rile a crowd. As we watched, Victoria Smith (my photographer) leaned into me and said, “These guys have played to crowds of 25,000 before,” but on this day only five. It was before three, and the venue was empty besides the small fluxes of drunk revelers dressed in green (Celtic’s jerseys were a favorite) chugging a beer from bar to bar, giving quick glances to the stage before heading to the next spot. But for Gavin it doesn’t matter, as he would say later “I was just happy to be showcased.”

When Gavin took to the stage the crowd size still hadn’t grown. He had traveled without his band mates who couldn’t take the time away from their paid jobs. His acoustic set was bluesy, and somewhat melancholy for the bright excitement of St. Patrick’s Day. Victoria yelled, “play something happy,” as Gavin picked up the mandolin and played a country-Irish-bluegrass-jig called, “Older Than My Years,” which while more upbeat, I later learned is about a friend’s suicide. Go figure.

For most bands this isn’t their breaking out party. It’s a time to reconnect with friends and a dream. This is the music industry’s spring break party. Bands support each others shows. Publicists come to meet the bands they hype. Writers meets publicists they telecommunicate with. And everyone RSVPs to more parties, many they hear through word of mouth, than they will ever be able to attend. Most of these events overflow with free drinks, as corporate sponsors subtly advertise.

We finished that night at the Virgin Mobile house. Located across the street from Stubb’s (the most notable venue, featuring SPIN Magazine’s party), the gated house was visible from the street by its illuminated red trim. The setup was like that of a high school house-party, except everyone was much older and dressed a hell of a lot better. Cheap liquor and beer were served from the open garage. While some people congregated around the bar, others sat in the courtyard or on the deck gathered in small groups. Gavin turned to Victoria and me said, “Let them come to us.” Oh yes, it was a high school party, but it was fun.

Photo by Alaina Smith

The next day, determined to see some of the bands I so heavily anticipated, I walked with purpose, darting between clusters of people, turning my head every hundred feet reassuring myself I hadn’t lost Gavin, something easy to do within the crowds. We arrived at the Parish, a bar located on the top floor above a separate bar (the number of bars on 6th St. is incredible) for the Hotel Cafe Showcase. Featured were a slew of pop-folk-rock artists in the vein of Lenka or Natalie Merchant (Greg Laswell was a headliner).

The first act we heard was Kate Miller Heidke, an Australian with blond Goldilocks, and a dirty mouth to match her pious image. She was talented and humorous. Operatically trained, Heidke would go between singing bubbly-pop-ballads to bridges that showcased her vocal power. Next was Nneka, a Nigerian songstress who’s drawn comparisons to Erykah Badu, but after hearing her this comparison seems more like a generalized labeling: black woman with an afro, and somewhat funky music. More jazzy than funky, Gavin and I agreed Nneka was slightly disappointing with her Americanized sound. A verse here or there was sung in her native language, but little resonated as unique.

While at the Parish, a fan recognized and greeted Gavin. I’ve usually thought it was rude to approach a musician off-stage, but Gavin’s eyes lit up. Having toured with Mercury Prize nominee, Lisa Hannigan, Gavin has gotten a taste of the limelight. In conversation some Europeans would recognize Hannigan’s name, but few Americans. Accordingly, his sighting was a confirmation of his accomplishments and a satisfying note to leave.

Leaving the festival didn’t bring the end of the night. Many bands, tour managers and friends would join us for parties at our humble abode (a huge mansion). Over drinks, joints, and food, connections were made and business was conducted. On one night, the tour manager of Glasvegas explained to Gavin how to manage signing to a major label. Stating that Glasvegas’ success was the result of getting two major labels to show interest in the band, giving them leverage without forcing a bidding war. The information was privy amongst friends because the industry is about friends first, and talent second.

After chatting, the night would end with a jam session. Sometimes people would join Gavin, but mostly it was his personal lullaby. His normally neat combed black hair would be worn from the day, sticking up with points from the gel’s hold. His lyrics would weight heavily as he hunched over the keys, gently pushing his past fears and current hopes into each note. It was one more practice, one more reminder of how much he loved to play, and one step closer realizing his dream.

Most of these bands play for love, and hope for fame. They share the dream to one day be widely appreciated, and the fear they’ve reached their peak. One night I overheard Gavin speaking with Jamie, a British record label owner and former bassist, asking him when he realized he wasn’t going to make it with a band. It’s a question all artists wonder. Are we as good as our mothers tell us? Do we push on to be “discovered,” or accept we “don’t have what it takes?” For a brief moment, Gavin contemplated the possibility, his mouth slightly open as he listened. “I haven’t come to that realization yet,” he said and smiled, “so I’ll keep going.” And like many of the bands at SXSW who dream of being rock stars, traveling absurd distances to be heard by small crowds, partying obscenely for four days, that’s all they can do, “keep going,” because rock stars don’t go to bed at 2am.