It's only 1 p.m. on Friday afternoon, but already the streets of Austin, Texas, are teeming with partygoers. At Emo's bar, just off the 6th Street strip, a crowd is dancing furiously to the jangly pop of a Japanese girl group. A few doors down, in the backyard of Stubbs BBQ, hundreds of people are standing in the heat, eating slow-cooked ribs, sipping cold beer and bobbing their heads to the neo-new wave of a Vancouver, Canada-based rock trio. At nearly every venue in the city, in fact, thousands of people are simultaneously doing the same; dancing, drinking and enjoying great live music.
The South by Southwest Music Conference, which began 16 years ago as a grass-roots celebration of the local scene, has now evolved into a significant event in the industry, a four-day free-for-all of conferences, panels, workshops, showcases and concerts.
Each day of the festival, from noon until nearly dawn from Wednesday through Sunday, the city erupts in a cacophony of sound; driving guitar rock 'n' roll, pretty singer-songwriter melodies, screaming hard-core, down-home bluegrass, swaying electronica and just about everything in between.
The mood is a cross between Woodstock and Mardi Gras, a beautiful madness that descends upon the city with the first of the thousand or so bands that arrive each season to strut their stuff. Hailing from locales as nearby as Dallas and as far away as New Zealand, this year's SXSW also included a healthy showing of bands from the Los Angeles area. Roughly 70 of the 1,000-plus acts were from the Southland.
Throughout the long weekend, L.A. acts played continuously to sold-out audiences -- from the Moving Units belting out post-post punk to a frenzied late-night mob, to the Jealous Sound and Everybody Else charming them with sweet melodic rock, to Radio Vago wowing a packed club with its trademark art school eeriness.
Despite L.A.'s own hometown advantages (a major label presence and a wide variety of venues), playing SXSW remains a valuable experience for both unsigned acts looking for label support and established bands promoting new work.
"Ideally, if you're looking for a record deal, playing in Los Angeles is great because the labels are based there," says Todd O'Keefe of the pop-rock act the Green and Yellow TV, in Austin to promote its self-released "Record X." "But this is an amazing experience in its own right, just to come and play for people who really love music."
O'Keefe says this as he stands in the thick of a bustling parking-lot party being held just a few miles outside of town. A band from San Francisco is playing their hearts out at the moment, but O'Keefe has come to watch fellow Angelenos Earlimart that evening.
Aaron Espinoza, Earlimart's lead singer and songwriter, is leaning on a nearby car, looking tired but utterly content. His band, whose upcoming album (entitled "Everyone Down Here") is about to be released through Palm Pictures, has played one successful show thus far, performing to a full house despite the fact that it was booked opposite the immensely popular British act Blur.
"Our show was completely packed and Blur, I'm sure, had a decent turnout as well," he says dryly, "so it's been really great here in terms of people seeing you play. And I've seen some amazing bands myself as well, although most of them have been friends from L.A. Even down here we all seem to be sticking together, which is nice. Everybody is doing their own thing, but we all support one another as well."
Espinoza is right. What was obvious in Austin last week was the growing unity within the Los Angeles musical community, a give-and-take and a mutual encouragement that one can discern perhaps even more distinctly here, hundreds of miles from home.
"It's good to know you have a support network," says Espinoza. "I'm not sure what's happening right now in L.A., but it seems to be positive. We just saw Irving play last night before our show and they were incredible."
At the parking lot party, Irving, a rock/pop band from Silver Lake, had just arrived to repay the favor. In town with a new album, "Good Morning Beautiful," the five members of Irving seem enthusiastic not only about the work of their Angeleno counterparts, but also about the entire SXSW experience.
"Across the board everything we've seen has been amazing," says Irving's Aaron Burrows. "And some of the best shows have been our friends' bands. It's been great that way. And I think we've played well here ourselves, partly because we're playing, in large part, for other musicians, for people we admire and respect."
For the acts involved with SXSW, the festival can be both intimidating and inspiring, as they're playing music for hundreds of others acts searching for exactly the same sort of satisfaction and success.
"Four days and a thousand bands," says the Green and Yellow TV's O'Keefe, looking around the party and shaking his head. "You think of that and for a moment it's 'Oh God, what do I think I'm doing?' But hopefully all the bands are here not because they're looking for a huge record deal, but because it's fun and it's something that they love to do." O'Keefe pauses a moment and smiles. "I know there are a billion bands in the world who think they're amazing and that's OK -- I'm in one of them."