City of Song

Austin embraces its artists during SXSW

Maybe it's something in the water.

The Colorado River meanders through Austin, Texas, like a lazy-sounding lullaby, and it seems like everyone in the city has a deep-seated appreciation for art, so the stuff they're drinking must just be a little more musical.

Of course, during South by Southwest, people from all over the country—from all over the world—flood into the city to celebrate music, movies and gaming, but you can see art and music in the way the buildings are constructed (every bar seems to have a stage), in the buskers on street corners (a ventriloquist has set up shop on one corner, a guy playing a full-sized piano on another), and in the very way the city is laid out (you can't seem to walk more than 10 feet down Sixth Street without hearing live music.)

At the SXSW softball game on Sunday, the day after the official end of the festival, hordes of hungry and hungover guests, artists, volunteers, staffers, journalists and various breeds of talent scouts and producers flock to Krieg Field, a few minutes away from downtown, to listen to and talk about more music. Oh, and to play or watch softball on teams organized by festival occupation. (The print media team, by the way, makes it to the final round before losing to SXSW staffers in a game that, I am sad to report, is not especially close.)

An enormous bald eagle puppet comes rolling toward the bleachers, mounted on a bike and operated by a man named Grant Schaubhut. He and two other men built the eagle, along with a fleet of other bike-powered animals—including a giant butterfly, a praying mantis and an 80-foot long rattlesnake that could be seen weaving through the streets of downtown earlier in the week—feather by feather (or scale by scale or what have you). He spent much of his life working as an artist, before quitting to seek greener pastures. But now, he says art has found its way back to him.

His colleague Jeremy Rosen is passing out fliers about the operation, called the Austin Bike Zoo. The UT Austin grad is the engineer of the operation, but you can see an artsy side peek through in the way he smiles when families gather around the eagle to take pictures.

"I've been in denial about being an artist my whole life," he says. "So I guess I am an artist."

Artists are everywhere. We run into an employee of locally famous Stubb's Bar-B-Q, who says he's been working at the place for nine years to support his music habit (and this guy's got it bad—he's a drummer in five different bands.) We run into a young woman at the softball game who moved to L.A. from Amsterdam to pursue a career in music. Even our Airbnb hosts are in a band.

The city feels like it's buzzing, because there are artists all around you and you're not sure which people they are. That girl with the cotton-candy dreadlocks looks like a performer of some sort, but who knows? What about that group of guys with suspenders and the cuffs of their trousers rolled up? Bandmates or just big fans of a band with a similar look?

Many of the artists at SXSW though, seem unafraid to be seen as regular ol' humans. Teen heartthrob (and excellent trumpet player) Cuco, in gym shorts and a T-shirt, announces after his first song that it just hit him that the festival is called "South by Southwest" because it's in the Southwest. At the top of a quiet set in a bar called the Valhalla, Josh T. Pearson announces, "Hey, ya'll, I'm Josh T. Pearson. We're doing our best here."

Artists get up onstage to talk about how much they love other artists playing at the festival, share their admiration for some of the artists who have inspired them and express genuine thanks that people showed up to see them. With many, you can tell just by watching them perform that making music isn't something that's optional for them.

Guitarist Marco Ruiz of the band Coma Pony is so into his music that his glasses fly off at least five times during his set. (He tells me he's never broken them before though, because he's very careful.) When I ask Gordi, an Australian indie pop musician with an astonishing belt, if she does music full time, she lets it drop that she just finished medical school.

"[Music] is my priority," she says firmly. "I try to keep that on the back burner."

I talk to an artist who does admin work during the day to make the money that music doesn't bring her. (We all probably talk to some of those every day.) I talk to a musician who dabbles in journalism to stay afloat. I talk to Joe Purdy, who has been doing music full time for 17 years because, in his words "it was the only thing I was ever good at."

I talk to nerdcore rap artist named Sammus, who, between rapping about topics like fighting for your place in the world and starting over after losing all her beats off her laptop, is pursuing a PhD in science and technology studies at Cornell.

"Matter's not created, no it's only reimagined, so what matters is how creative you are with what you have," she raps in "Reset." When I tell her getting a PhD in science and technology studies at Cornell sounds insane, she laughs and shouts over the bar noise, "It is insane!"

In that Josh T. Pearson set, Pearson admitted that he had not only had he "lost his voice somewhere along the way," but he had just met two of his band members a few days earlier. You can see how much his bassist, a guy named Noah, loves music if you give him as so much as a passing glance during the show. When I tell him so after the set, he sort of melts and beams at the same time, ecstatic someone noticed. It's true, he says. He gets goosebumps even talking about other bassists he looks up to.

"My mom just passed away, so this whole thing has been a whirlwind," he says. "Josh and I met through a mutual friend who knew I was looking for a band to play in."

This was my first year at SXSW, and I heard plenty of complaints about how the festival's grown overly corporate, or about this venue or that one, one artist or the other. By the end of the whole thing, everyone looks as exhausted as you feel.

But these little gems of moments, where an artist shares how hard she's willing to work to keep music in her life, where you can see the power of a song overtake a musician onstage, or where someone who was having a hard time finds a band where he belongs? That made SXSW 2018 a work of art in and of itself.

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