Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Surviving SXSW or Fear and Loathing on the Music Trail

For those of you who don't know SXSW is a conference and festival that includes interactive, film, and music portions. SXSW is held annually here in Austin TX during spring break. Imagine the spring break beaches filled with drunken college students in bikinis and swim trunks. Now replace that with bar bands and drunken hipsters. That's SXSW in a nutshell.

Although I've lived in Austin for over a decade, I've only stayed for the festival a handful of times. I usually prefer to stay clear of crowds and during SXSW I can usually be found off in the west Texas desert communing with the lizards. Since my work is now syndicated by the Retna agency I felt that it was now my duty to cover this thing for better or worse.

The first week kicks off with the film and interactive stuff. To be completely honest I skipped most of the interactive stuff and went straight for the film. The film festival is relatively low key. I went to a lot of movie premiers shot the red carpet entrances and went to a few parties and hob-nobbed with some A-listers. Austin is a town where celebrities can feel comfortable. We have no paparazzi and for the most part we Austinites tend to ignore celebrities. That being said, the celebrities usually let their guard down and act like human beings.

While the film festival is laid-back and fun when the music festival starts, being a photographer becomes some new kind torture where you shoot for 14 hours running from venue to venue then after that you spend 6 hours editing and captioning photos so you can have them uploaded by the time the media offices open in the morning. As for the remaining hours 3 of them are for sleeping and 1 hour is spread out across the day for grabbing a bite to eat or a shower if you're lucky.

Day 1: This day started off pretty easy. I shot a few panels on the music industry, most notably Martin Atkins speech "Tour Smart". After that it was off to the mayor's reception party to pick up my credentials. While there I took some random photos of the mayor and the party and did a group shot of the Black and White Years, Austin's hottest new band.

After the reception it was off to the Austin Music Awards. The AMA kicks of the SXSW music festival every year. This is where Austin honors it's own. While there I photographed The Dicks. This is an Austin band that formed in the early 80's that influenced a lot of punk musicians and was instrumental in helping to keep the punk scene alive and well in the middle of Texas. The Dicks were joined on a song by David Yow singer of Scratch Acid and the Jesus Lizard.

Following the Dicks (after more awards were handed out) was Roky Erikson. This man is best known for his work with the Austin psychedelic band the 13th Floor Elevators. He is also well known for his legal battles as well as his struggles with mental illness. It's great to see him almost fully recovered and back to performing. His set was amazing. He was backed by Austin's The Black Angels.

Next it was across town to Stubb's to catch the Decemberists. They're an indie rock band I guess, not my cup of tea, but I was on assignment. I don't let my feelings get in the way of doing my job. After that I was off to Emo's to catch Echo & the Bunnymen. There were a couple of other shows I wanted to catch there as well (Circle Jerks and H.R. Band), but AMA ran late and I missed them. Emo's was too packed and I couldn't elbow my way up to the front. N0 big loss, the lighting there is terrible and I knew I'd have other chances to shoot Echo so I split. I headed over to Beerland which is a non-SXSW venue. There I shot my friends the Chumps doing a reunion show. They were the first band I saw when I moved to Austin. It was a blast. Great way to end the night.

Day 2: Got up around 9 and edited images for upload. I edited, captioned, and uploaded until about 2 pm. I got a call from Retna telling me that my images need to be in earlier. Yikes, that means I'll have to do it after the shows at night. I shot a few more panels during the afternoon.

The first band I shot today was the Oak Ridge Boys (you know, Elvira...). I didn't even know they still existed. They were good for what they do. The lighting was great. Easy stuff. It was broadcast live on Direct TV. After that I headed over to Antone's to catch the Doug Sahm Tribute. The first act was Jimmie Vaughn, Stevie Ray's older brother. This guy can play the blues proper. Very pure, not flashy, just good straight up blues, just the way I like it.

After Antone's I jumped next door to catch Ian McLagen, best known for his work with the Faces and the Rolling Stones. He's an amazing musician who proudly calls Austin home. I've hoisted a few pints with him and he's a great bloke who will regale you with stories about the Stones in the 70's. Not many people can claim that. Now it's back across town to Stubb's to catch the Meat Puppets another local band that made good. It's great to see the Kirkwood brothers back together and rockin'.

Again, it's back across town to La Zona Rosa to catch Tori Amos who was introduced by celebrity gossip moron Perez Hilton. We got to shoot one song so it had to be good. There were a ton of photographers jockeying for position. I got a decent spot and got some salable shots off. I guess she was good. It sounded a bit shrieky to me though...

Back to Antone's to catch Justin Townes Earle, son of legendary singer/songwriter Steve Earle and named after Townes Van Zandt another legendary singer/songwriter who lived here in Austin. This dude was GOOD. His guitar playing was amazing (sounds a lot like Townes) and his singing and songwriting were top-notch. I didn't hear any of his father in his voice that night, although when I got the CD I could hear it a little. JTE is his own man though and his work stands on its own without being derivative at all.

After that I hopped on my bike to head way across town only to find I had a flat tire! Not good. I was headed to Playboy's private party "Rock the Bunny". The headlining act was none other than Jane's Addiction! I was pretty stoked about shooting this show. I had to meet the press people at 1 am to be escorted into the venue and I had a flat! I luckily grabbed a cab and made it just in time. There were dozens of photographers there each one pushing towards the front. I ended up near the end of the line which was fine by me. I had seen Jane's before and I knew that the left side was where Dave Navarro is and Perry and Dave like to ham it up. I ended up right in front of Dave Navarro and got some amazing shots even though the lighting wasn't the best. After Jane's I was too tired to stay for the rest of the party and even though there were free drinks and playmates hanging around I walked the 2 miles back to my car. I drove the last mile to my studio where I got down to some serious editing. I knew I needed to get those Jane's pictures up right away. I got down editing at about 7 am and I headed to my place to crash.

Day 3: I got up at 10:30 am giving me about 3 hours sleep. I headed back to my studio to finish up editing some of the less important stuff. I headed back downtown to pick up my pass to the Spin party and to shoot Little Steven from the E-Street band give a panel, then it was off to the airport to pick up a friend. I dropped him at the hotel and headed down to the Spin at Stubb's party. I hadn't eaten in something like 24 hours and I was tired and cranky. I grabbed a couple of free beers at the party then went into Stubb's and after much confusion on the workers part ordered some tasty BBQ while watching the bands play through the windows. There were bands that I should have been shooting, but I couldn't be bothered until I got my strength back up. After I was done eating Echo & the Bunnymen hit the stage introduced by Jane's Addiction singer Perry Farrell. I shot Echo and upon exiting the photo pit I ran into Perry Farrell and his wife Etty Lau who graciously allowed me to shoot their portrait. A lovely couple. Echo & the Bunnymen were OK, but seemed un-inspired. Maybe because Ian McCulloch was wearing a freaking peacoat when it was 89º...

I head across the street to the Red Eyed Fly to catch Little Steven from the E-Street band, but he never showed. I was already there so I figured I'd shoot what ever band showed up. I sweated in the the midst of a huge crowd and fired off a few frame of the White Denims and split.

Off to Emo's to catch the legendary garage rock proto-punk band the Sonics. I had some time to kill so I went up to the Camel lounge and grabbed a couple of brews and chatted with the dudes from Fastball. It was then time for the Sonics. The line to get in was HUGE. Luckily, I was able to get in early with my press status and my connections in Emo's. I got right up front for the show. As I mentioned before the light at Emo's sucks. I managed to get some decent shots but spent most of my time just enjoying the band. When they played my favorite song "Strychnine" I was happy. I didn't want to ruin the moment so I left with the riff ringing in my ears.

After leaving Emo's smiling, I headed off to an easy gig. Shooting some comedians. First up was Janeane Garofalo. I had never seen her stand up before and she was pretty hilarious. She has a sense of humor quite like mine. Next up was Margaret Cho. I was surprised at the number of tattoos that she has, quite attractive actually. Although she was funny her bits included quite a bit of penis humor that I really didn't find funny only a bit gross. I guess if you're a chick it's funny but I don't really want to hear about huge wangs, thanks.

Now off to Stubb's for the super-secret (?) Metallica show that everyone seemed to know about. This is where my night went south. There were too many photographers there and I couldn't get in because of the SXSW volunteers who swarmed the damn place. I was pissed. I shot a few pictures in between peoples waving arms and around point and shoot cameras held high in the air. Disgusted, I stalked off. I'd seen Metallica before, big deal. I missed out on some serious money shots though. I did end up getting a few usable shots, but they weren't my best work.

After that fiasco I grabbed a pedi-cab and headed across town to Austin Music Hall to catch DEVO. I arrived for the last couple songs of Tricky. I have never heard anything so horrible in my life It sounded like a rapper trying to play rock music, but failing miserably. OH WAIT! That's exactly what it was. Hey Tricky! Stick to your own music. Now DEVO was up, more trouble with SXSW volunteer "photographers". I won't go into details here, but it was ridiculous to say the least. I ended up dropping my 105mm f/2.8 VR lens to the ground and destroying it. $900 down the drain. DEVO was OK. They were as good as any middle-aged men in costumes can be. I just found their set kind of awkward. Their type of music only makes sense coming out of the mouths of 20-somethings. It just looks weird when old men do it. Sorry DEVO fans.

After yet another fiasco I head over to catch the New York Dolls, one of my favorite bands. They were proto-punk glam rockers and they influenced most punk and glam bands from the Sex Pistols to KISS to Mötley Crüe. They are less than half of the original members since most of them are dead, but they still seem to keep the spirit alive. David Johannssen was reading off of a lyric sheet and the music seemed a little uninspired. They were just missing that something they had when they were young, dumb, and full of drugs. RIP Johnny Thunders and Killer Kane.

The last three shows were running late so by the time I got to the next show it was too crowded to get close enough to get my shots. With my 105mm freshly broken I retreated into the closest bar to drink a Guinness and a Powers and lick my wounds while enjoying the sounds of Dinosaur Jr. playing in the courtyard. I decided to skip my last show, go to an all-night diner and eat a huge meal. It was then off to my studio for more editing until 7 am.

Day 4: Up at 10 to shower and drink a quick cup of chai. I was feeling pretty bad. My voice was hoarse, my throat was sore, I was feverish. Not enough sleep was wearing me down. Down to the convention center to catch a few shots of Daniel Johnston sign copies of his new book. Daniel has been playing a few shows during SXSW already and I can tell he just isn't feeling great about this. I say "hi", grab a few shots and leave him be. He's truly a genius and it's a shame about the state he's in.

I head down to south Austin to photograph a singer/songwriter I met earlier in the week. Her name is Kristin Diable. She has an amazing voice and she can play a mean guitar. She's a Gibson artist and recently moved to New Orleans from NYC. I arrive to catch the last few songs and afterward we shoot some portraits. She's got a great smile and a pleasant demeanor, a real joy to work with.

Time to head back down town to catch another movie premier. This one is Neil Young's Rolling Trunk Show. There is no red carpet, but we're taken up to the green room to wait for director Jonathon Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Manchurian Candidate) and a possible Neil Young. Demme shows up and he's funny as hell. We shoot some portraits. Neil is a no-show.

Off to the Austin Convention Center's Bat Bar for another Direct TV live performance. This one is Ech0 & the Bunnymen. Although I shot them the day before I decided to shoot them again. Good choice. The lighting was excellent due to the TV cameras and the performance was much more inspired than the day before. There were some technical difficulties and Mac seemed a bit peeved at times, but it peeled of nicely. I sat down on the floor and enjoyed the whole show from the front. It was one of the few shows that I stayed for the whole thing. They played all of the classics and a few new ones which are great as well.

Next was Juliette Lewis and the New Romantiques. Of course we know Juliette best as her work as an actress most notably in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. The bar was small and crowded and I had to push my way to the front only escaping harm by promising I'd be gone in two songs, fierce crowd. We were kept waiting for awhile and I was about to split when the crowd parted and Juliette came by me poking me in the eye with her feathers.

To be honest I didn't expect much, but when the New Romantiques fired it up it was GOOD! A nice guitar based noisy rock band. Juliette's voice may not be the best but she growls and yells with conviction and she doesn't seem to be putting on an act. She is 100%. I'm generally against celebrities who try to make a crossover into music because it almost always sucks (Shaq, Scarlett Johanssen, Billy Bob Thornton, Russel Crowe, etc...), but Juliette stands out from the crowd.

Over to Red Eyed Fly to catch Exene Cervenka perform. She's best known for her work with LA punk band X. These days she does an Americana kind of thing. The songs are excellent as is her voice. She was joined on stage by some people from another band but I didn't catch the name. There was a Hammond organ that was great and a girl who sang amazing harmonies with her.

Next was another catastrophe. Another big show, another case of too many photographers. PJ Harvey at Stubb's. Without going into details I got screwed out of this one. I was able to shoot about 200 frames off from the side with my 200mm before being shut down by security. I got some usable stuff, so all was not lost, but it was still a thorn in my side. If security was doing their job right (checking badges thoroughly) I would have been in the photo pit covering my assignment.

Next I was off to catch the Proclaimers best known for their hit "500 miles". I loved that song as a younger man so I wanted to shoot these guys. It was a good show. Straight ahead folk music from Edinburgh, Scotland. Like almost all musical brothers these guys do great close harmony.

Up next was my last assignment. Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction doing his solo act with his wife Etty Lau. The show was being held at a club called Pangea. This place is absolutely the STUPIDEST place in Austin. It's a "bottle bar" where yuppies go to pay $200 for a $40 bottle of booze and be separated by velvet ropes from everyone else. Of course it's a SXSW show and it's PACKED, but these idiots insist on maintaining the "VIP" area. Now VIP doesn't mean famous here. It's just a few 30 something "professionals". I know this because I happened to know some of the morons in the VIP area. The whole thing is classist, snotty, and ridiculous. Anyway, I digress. I somehow ended up right at the corner of the stage in front of the Mac computer used for sampling or whatever. It wasn't a prime spot but it was the best I could do. It didn't hurt that there were smoking hot girls pressed up against me. So the guitarist comes out and starts playing (he runs the computer as well), then out come some super-hot nearly naked go-go dancers, followed by Etty Lau (who is smoking hot as well), then Perry Farrell. The music was good. Electronic stuff with samples and live guitars (there was a hot chick bongo player too, as I recall). It wasn't my kinda of stuff, but it was alright. The crowd seemed to dig it, except for the one dude who stood in front during the whole show with his middle finger up. Seriously dude? You could easily have walked out...

I stayed for about 3 songs and fired off about 8 GB worth of shots at 8 fps. The lighting was horrible and I was just throwing $*@& at the wall hoping something would stick. I climbed up on the stage so I could get a better perspective. I actually got some great shots believe it or not. After the third song I was done. Literally. I couldn't hang anymore. My sanity and heath were hanging by a thread. I couldn't look through the viewfinder again or press the shutter release one more time. Of course when I turn around to leave the path of least resistance was through the VIP area. The gorillas wouldn't let me through. I literally had to punch and kick my way through the crowd to get out. Good riddance to that place, I hope it goes out of business.

Feeling sick, tired, broke, and disgusted I limped my way through the drunken sorority girls and frat boys in the warehouse district nearly getting run over by drunks a couple of times. As dead as I was what I really craved was a beer. I saw my haven ahead, Dirty Bill's. I rolled in there and the bartenders Pants and Randy hooked me up with a couple of Lone Star tallboys. I slammed them down then headed off to Secret Hideout Studios for another round of editing.

7 am. I crawl to my car and head home for the comfort of my bed. I take some Ny-Quil to ease some of the sickness. You'd think I'd sleep all day, but nope. I'm up at 10:30 and I can't sleep. I head back to Secret Hideout to finish some editing...

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