South by Southwest is not just about music. It’s also about waiting in line.
Waiting in line to maybe get in. To maybe be shoulder to shoulder behind the tallest man in Austin. To maybe strain to see a stage that’s a foot off the ground. To maybe – just maybe – find that sweet spot with a band you love and enough room to lose yourself.
On Friday evening, I’m looking through the list of that night’s bands, all within a half-hour walk of each other. Hmm, should I see Wyclef Jean, M. Ward or Neko Case? Or maybe I should check out Talib Kweli, Ryan Adams or Future Islands.
And then I see a new addition—Lana Del Rey! (Yes, I’m a fan. And the idea of seeing her in person kinda makes me swoon.)
She’s scheduled to go on at 9, in two hours, so I headed over. The line is already curving around the building, about 150 people. The doors are at 8, and there’s room for 450 badge-holders. Sweet! I’m a badge holder.
Eight p.m. comes and goes. The line begins to move but only a few feet every 20 minutes. At a quarter to 9, they’re at capacity. Only about 120 badge-holders got in. I guess they had more VIP show up than anticipated.
This is a normal occurrence at SXSW. Maybe 400 VIP get in first, then those who paid hundreds for badges, then people who just bought a wristband for a specific show. The last category of people usually wait a very, very long time, if they get in at all.
Abandoning my dreams of seeing Lana, I headed over to the Weezer show, a 10-minute walk. The line for wrist-band holders is a few dozen, for badge-holders, almost no one. I get right in and head toward the front of the stage to wait for midnight.
I’m close to the front. I hold my ground when broad-shouldered men try to push their way in front of me. But I scoot over for a couple women. And somehow I find myself, as I often do, standing behind the tallest man in Austin, straining to see opening bands on a stage only feet away, but totally blocked from sight. My legs hurt, my glass is empty, and the 90s are long gone. Weezer just isn’t worth it.
When I hit the street, the line of people waiting to get in is in the hundreds. But I know I made the right choice. I can move. I can breathe. I walk down the very busy Sixth Street, weaving in and out of the crowd, determined not to let anybody slow my role. My phone is about to die, but I know where I’m going. I’m giving SXSW’s Friday night one last shot at redemption. I’m going to Minus the Bear.
There’s a decent line outside of Barracuda Backyard. I asked the door man if they’re at capacity.
“For wristbands, yes, but you go to the good line,” he says, pointing to the alley.
Around back, there’s no line, just dumpsters overloaded with beer bottles and paper plates. Inside it’s a wonderland of space. I walked right to the front of the stage and stretch my legs. The Minneapolis band 4onthefloor is rocking the stage. The lights are low. People are dancing. Full-bearded frontman Gabriel Douglas, sings about being drunk on Tuesdays. I get a drink.
After 4onthefloor is the Mothers, from Athens, Georgia. I get comfortable on a bar stool and endure possibly the most boring show at SXSW. The band’s vocals are as lazy as their stage presence. Every song the same—a monotone whine and absence of all body movements or facial expressions.
When Minus the Bear comes on at 1 a.m., I easily make my way to the front. The indie-rock band from Seattle is getting into their groove, but the vocals are totally drowned out. I start to get jostled. My ears begin to ring. I go to the back of the room.
The stage is high enough, I can still see the band. And from the back, I can hear all the sounds. I can hear the guitar, rocking and weeping. The bass, grooving and the drums, pounding. And I can hear frontman Jake Snider’s vocals, soothing and strong.
And I dance. In the back of the room, in the middle of the night, I found my sweet spot. And so I dance.