There are two ways to experience Austin, Texas.
You can arrive anytime but mid-March and casually soak up the music scene, which meets the hype as the live music capital of the world.
Or you can visit during the annual South by Southwest uber music festival (aka SXSW and South by), slated this year for March 13 to 18, which has become the unofficial spring break party place for the music industry.
You never know who you’ll run into — or discover — at South by Southwest. While lacing up my spikes for the 1995 SXSW softball tournament — which includes teams made up of performers, managers, music execs, media and more — a trio of prepubescent boys asked if they could belt out a tune before I stepped onto the field.
“Is it the National Anthem?” I joked. The three brothers chuckled nervously and delivered a catchy number a capella. “Hey, that’s pretty good,” I told them.
Pretty good. Two years later those kids, so desperate to be discovered, moved to another level. As Hanson, they were headlining arenas, and their single “MMMBop” topped the charts.
A half-decade later comic-actress Janeane Garofalo stopped me to ask for directions to the Alamo Drafthouse, the hip movie theater where you can swill Lone Star beer and consume nachos in the dark while catching an indie flick. Another year, I saw Academy Award-winning actress/Austin entrepreneur Sandra Bullock snake her way around bustling Sixth Street while hustling to catch a show.
More than 10,000 registered for a music badge last year and the event, which also features an interactive fest, generated $167 million. SXSW, which is the biggest and wildest music festival in the world, is responsible for creating the highest revenue stream for Austin.
It’s great for the city and perhaps even greater for the entertainment fan, who will enjoy this bacchanal of bands, booze and beef.
As far as recording artists go, you can catch the up-and-coming, the long-established and groups from around the world at SXSW, which also features a film and interactive festival, both of which start Friday this year.
The White Stripes, the Strokes and Spoon were some of the relative unknowns who broke at SXSW before most in the music world had ever heard their songs.
The best way to catch the next breakout artist is to purchase a badge (music badges go for $700) that allows you to enter any show at SXSW as long as the venue doesn’t reach capacity. The badge also allows you to gain admission into myriad fabulous parties (the list of soirees from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily topped 40 pages last year) as long as the events aren’t invitation-only. The badge also enables you to venture into the Austin Convention Center, which is the hub of all SXSW activity. You can sit in on informative music panels (examples slated for this year are “Format Shmormat: Radio Breaks Bands” and “Woody Guthrie’s 100th Birthday”) and workshops (recording artists receive tips). You also can purchase a wristband ($225) that allows entry once all the badge-sporting folk are admitted.
There is also the option to buy a ticket for the venue of your choice that evening. With more than 90 official SXSW venues hosting SXSW events each night, it’s not a bad deal if a couple of your favorite bands are on the same bill. That’s often been the case when Matador or Merge Records showcase their recording artists. In 1996 I never left a captivating Matador event, which featured Guided by Voices, Liz Phair, Spoon, Silkworm and Chavez at tiny Liberty Lunch.
There are also free performances during the afternoon by SXSW artists at Waterloo Records, and gratis concerts at Zilker Park. Last year the Strokes gave an on-the-house show for 30,000 fans.
There are can’t-miss musical experiences each year at SXSW. And it all starts with the keynote address.
Open only to badge-holders, the event is always impressive. The last few musicians to speak would have their faces chiseled in granite if there was ever a rock ‘n’ roll version of Mount Rushmore.
The iconic Robert Plant and the legendary Neil Young have delivered the keynote in recent years. On March 15, Bruce Springsteen will hold court at the Convention Center. The Boss, who also kicked off the Grammys, is touring with his E Street Band behind their forthcoming album, “Wrecking Ball,” which drops Tuesday. Springsteen and the E Street Band will perform March 23 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Some of the must-experience shows are announced last-minute. Jane’s Addiction headlined a raucous Playboy party at an abandoned supermarket in 2009, and the Flaming Lips played a parking garage 15 years ago in what was dubbed “the parking lot experiment.”
Expect off-the-wall in a town with the slogan “Keep Austin Weird.” The city certainly is the bastion of unconventional in a primarily predictable state.
Some of the announced SXSW bands include The Fray and Built to Spill, indie darlings The Magnetic Fields and Metric, and recording artists who may blow up such as Aussie songbird Grace Woodroofe and quirky Icelandic band Agent Fresco.
There’s plenty of music to chew on, which goes hand in hand with Texas-style grub.
Speaking of, there are a couple of must-visit BBQ joints in Austin.
Start at Iron Works (100 Red River, (512) 478-4855), which is conveniently around the block from the Austin Convention Center. The ribs are Texas big, messy and succulent. It’s counter-style and the décor is forgettable, but the food — particularly any beef dish — is memorable. Try the BBQ sampler plate.
If you’re in the mood for pulled pork, head to the Green Mesquite (1400 Barton Springs Road, (512) 479-0485). The pork is juicy, the sauce tangy, and go for the array of terrific sides. The fried okra is fabulous and the potato salad is savory.
Many of the SXSW events are catered by Ruby’s BBQ, and for good reason. Ruby’s (512 W. 29th St., (512) 477-1651) offers pit-smoked barbecue. The beef is lean, moist and addictive.
And then there is the Tex-Mex, which is as popular as the BBQ. There isn’t a bistro on the level of the incredible Las Manitas, which was paved for a parking lot four years ago. However, there are a number of Maudie’s sprinkled throughout the Austin area. Check out Maudie’s Milagro, (3801 N. Capital of Texas Highway, (512) 306-8080). There’s often a wait, but it’s worth it. It’s an old-school joint with exceptional salsa that brings the heat. Try the Diablo soul food, which is comprised of queso, guacamole, pico and spicy meat. The margaritas are potent and flavorful.
You can’t go wrong with most of Chuy’s menu (1728 Barton Springs Road, (512) 474-4452). Go for the creamy jalapeños, the massive taco salad or the tasty tortilla soup.
If you would like to spend a few more bucks for atmosphere and downtown convenience, go to Manuel’s (310 Congress, (512) 472-7555). The upscale Tex-Mex restaurant features unbelievable chicken enchiladas verdes. The fajitas (try the steak) aren’t bad either. Wash it down with the sublime prickly pear margarita, and you’ll be singing along and perhaps even embracing the “free hugs” guy on Sixth Street.
Since food and drink will be ubiquitous, you could pack on some pounds, but you will get some exercise. Most venues are within walking distance, but they’re spread across the downtown landscape. If you avoid the temptation to board a cab or a pedicab, you’ll burn off those burdensome calories simply by walking.
You also can jog, bike or walk along scenic Town Lake, which runs through the center of town. There are some nice hike and bike trails.
About a half-hour walk or a five-minute cab ride from the convention center is the Barton Springs Pool (2201 Barton Springs Road, (512) 476-9044), which is the fourth-largest spring in Texas. The water, about 68 degrees in March, is pristine and the surroundings serene. Admission is $3. The pool, which is open daily from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday to Wednesday, offers a nice break from SXSW’s relentless wave of music and events.
There is much to do in the capital city of Texas, but if music is the reason you’re trekking to Austin, there will be little time for much else. Bands often kick off parties at 11 a.m. and recording artists perform at post-event soirees until the wee hours of the morning.
Bring comfortable shoes and get plenty of rest; you’ll need it for the overwhelming but wonderful time at SXSW, which is unlike any other festival you’ll experience.