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South by Something’s Wrong: 2014 Recap

photo (28)I heard it many times this year. It’s bigger, rowdier and more corporate. It’s not the first year people talk about it, and it won’t be the last. But in the aftermath of the tragic accident outside the Mohawk on Thursday, many of us are forced to face the question of how much is too much at this festival?

This is my fourth year attending SXSW and as a quasi-local, the excitement building around the holiday is much like a giddy child awaiting Christmas morning: an opportunity to see my favorite bands that hardly ever tour, a chance to make new friends and see old ones visiting from around the globe, and a time to show off to the world how amazing this city really is. I’ve made some of the best memories at this festival, and each year brings the hope of something wild and unexpected. But this year was noticeably different. Something was off this time around, and for the past few days I’ve been trying to figure out why.

After nine days of nonstop parties and concerts, it’s hard not to feel like a zombie wandering down Sixth Street on the last night of the festival. Aside from the sheer size of crowds, various events this year from film to tech to music attest to the well-known fact that SXSW grows exponentially every year. In the span of a week, we experienced a Skype chat with Edward Snowden, a surprise appearance by Justin Bieber and a keynote from Lady Gaga, to name a few. While some praise the festival for being at the forefront of new ideas and pop culture, others mourn the loss of it’s original spirit.

As a festival-goer and unofficial member of the media, I try to soak in as much as possible in the span of those nine days — a daunting task between keeping up with social media, maneuvering among the hoards of attendees, sifting through the ridiculous amount of branding being thrown at you, all while trying to see good music. It becomes even more frustrating when faced with growing crowds filled with those who aren’t there to enjoy the music, but simply because it’s “south by.” The past two years, I volunteered with the festival to earn a music badge, but this year I decided to go rogue. So perhaps my observations are slightly due to the fact that I had to deal with lines and restrictions more than before. Even still, SXSW this year felt like more work than fun. It took more preparation, more patience, more stamina. Each year, music increasingly spills over into interactive, which makes it even harder to keep up when the music portion of the fest gets going throughout the week.

Oftentimes, seeing a band includes having to sit through their soundcheck, experiencing delays and short sets. It’s no secret that there have been tensions between bands and this festival; whether it’s worth the time and effort for musicians to get the mere payoff of exposure. Most of the time it seems like a preview to seeing a band’s actual headlining show, and I find myself more put off by the extreme amount of effort it takes to see them perform only a few songs.

To be fair, I did have a great time catching some of my favorite bands and discovering a lot of awesome music this past week (see who my faves were here). Not to mention, I enjoyed finally being able to legally chase the free booze and food around town with my friends. But by the end of it all, I was more than ready to have my city back to normal.

I’m so proud to call this place home. The community rallied around victims of the SXSW crash by raising over $100,000 in support. While it could have happened at any festival, anywhere, there’s no doubt that it paved the way for some “soul-searching,” as this New York Times article put it. I myself was largely impacted by the realization that it could have been me or any of my friends, since I consider the Mohawk almost a second home here in Austin. Needless to say, this horrific event was not the only off-putting thing that seemed to linger in the air this SXSW.

I’m still not entirely sure how to explain it, maybe I’ve just personally outgrown the festival or maybe I need to find a different approach at tackling the massive fest. Maybe I simply got overwhelmed by trying to keep up as both a music journalist and a fan. Or maybe there’s a larger SXSW issue at hand with an ambiguous solution. Ultimately and unfortunately, I’m left wondering whether or not it’s worth all the hype.

Top 5 Bands I Heard at SXSW

Each year, thousands of bands flock to the massive Austin music festival known as South by Southwest. It’s the optimum chance to check out buzz bands from the past year, see favorite acts that hardly tour and ultimately, to discover new music. I caught around 50 bands during the nine days of the festival, and have somehow managed to pick my top five.

Tourist

photo by Ashley Stanford

Photo by Ashley Stanford at the 405

The UK-based electronic producer played his first Texas show this SXSW, and I, of course, was there. I will never forget when I jammed to Disclosure’s first Texas set during the 2013 festival before they blew up on everyone’s radar. If there’s ever a testament as to how awesome SXSW can be, it’s seeing an act like Disclosure front-row multiple times as well as being able to chat with the guys, whereas now it would take quite some effort to even get near them. I will be as bold as to say that I put Tourist in that same vein. As a pretty big fan of house music, it can be hard for me to even begin to accurately describe or classify what I’m hearing — all I know is that it’s damn good.

Banks

L.A. songstress Banks was one of 2013′s buzz bands I was most excited to see. Despite being the singer’s first festival and with only a couple EPs under her belt, she did not disappoint. Her sexy vocals paired perfectly with her playful, awkward stage presence to create a powerful set. One of the highlights was when she broke into a cover of “Are You That Somebody” by Aaliyah, after humbly admitting to messing around with covers of inspirational singers to calm her nerves. Despite the sound issues present at the Filter Tumblr party I saw her perform at, and given that she’s still in the early stages of performing, her potential is unmatched. I would love to see what she could do in a headlining set.


Jagwar Ma

From the band's Twitter following their SXSW show

From the band’s Twitter following their SXSW show

Aussie electronic-rockers Jagwar Ma’s debut album “Howlin’” took many by surprise last year, myself included. It’s liveliness and originality brought something fresh to the music scene, and it most certainly caught my eyes, ears and attention. Their sole SXSW appearance was at Thursday’s Red Bull SoundSelect show, opening for Twin Shadow. I was pretty stoked to be able to catch them live, but I was hardly prepared for their mind-blowing performance. The trio came at it with an unparalleled energy (which, truthfully, put Twin Shadow’s set to shame). Combine that with the awesome stage setup: two levels of screens, great sound and a beautiful Austin night, and a dance party was bound to erupt. If you have a chance to see them live — don’t think, just go.


Panama

Panama playing at the Aussie BBQ showcase at Maggie Mae's

Panama playing at the Aussie BBQ showcase at Maggie Mae’s

Australian label Future Classic’s Panama is the second band from down under to make the cut. Self-proclaimed “purveyors of nostalgic electronic sounds,” they  incorporates live elements such as drums and melodic piano with synths and atmospheric sounds to create smooth house that comes to life when performed live.


Roosevelt

This year was a good one for electronic music, and German artist Roosevelt was one happy accident. I was able to revel in their last SX show at the Mohawk, after I had unknowingly missed them at both the Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan day parties; and I’m glad I did. I’m a huge fan of bands who choose to combine electronic elements with live guitar or drums, and Roosevelt stood out among them. It’s funky nu-disco to feel good electro-pop at it’s finest.


Bonus:

Questlove

I will admit that it took me awhile to appreciate Questlove’s musical genius. A couple months ago I finished his stellar book, Mo’ Meta Bluesafter which I acquired a newfound respect for hip hop. He happened to be DJing a Microsoft interactive party on the first night of SXSW that I knew I had to find a way into. Success was had, and at a small party filled with dancing tech nerds, I had never heard a better DJ in my entire life. The way he seamlessly moves his sets forward and effortlessly transitions from 90s House of Pain to The Police to The Beatles is absolutely amazing. Most of the people there probably had no idea the kind of musical legend in their presences — and even he would probably disagree with that label — but I could have listened to him for hours.

Ireland, it’s been grand.

A week ago I was ready to leave. The holidays are a natural time to want to be with your family, which makes going home seem normal and easier. But once my finals were finished and I resurfaced from the books, it began to hit me that I only had two days left here in Dublin. You would think the more you move, the more you get used to goodbyes. But you always leave a little piece of your heart in each place you fall in love with, so you can’t help but feel a little bit emptier leaving.

The Cliffs of Moher in Galway, Ireland

The Cliffs of Moher in Galway, Ireland

Most of the time goodbyes aren’t really goodbyes. You keep in touch through Facebook and social media and there’s plenty of time ahead to meet up in some city in the world. But Azar Nafisi once said, “You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place…like you’ll not only miss the people you love but you’ll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you’ll never be this way ever again.”

All cheesiness aside, she gets it. Never again will I be studying in a foreign country, using my youth and cultural inexperience as excuses for my mistakes and learning valuable lessons along the way. Never again will I be surrounded by people from all over the world, each one just as eager as the other to make new friends and explore a strange city. Maybe I’ll return to Dublin some day, maybe we all will, but it will never be quite the same.

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Street art in Dublin

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Me and my roommate Maureen on my last night out in Dublin doing the 12 Pubs of Christmas pub crawl. I’m going to miss my partner-in-crime these past four months!

I’ll be honest; I didn’t think I would learn much from this experience. Everyone always said that studying abroad is this life-changing time where you learn so much about yourself and the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel and live abroad before, so I didn’t think it would be much different. I never thought I would feel as intimidated as I did moving to a country I’ve never visited before, where I knew no one. I never thought I would get homesick for family and friends. I never thought I could do independent, adult things like book an entire trip on my own. I never thought I would actually crave a cold pint of Guinness. And I never thought that I would actually feel like a different person when I left.

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It feels like a lifetime ago that I got to Dublin, unsure of where my university was, of which bus route to take, of whom my roommates were, of what “grand” meant, and of the memories I was about to make. Nevertheless, this semester has flown by. It’s been a rollercoaster to say the least, but I’m sad to see it end.

It’s going to be weird going home, but I didn’t think I would miss Austin as much as I did. I can’t wait to see all of you beautiful people in a few weeks! First stop is Singapore so I can go home with a tan.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who kept up with my global blogging adventures these past six or seven months. Pretty soon it’ll go back to my somewhat normal routine of covering concerts and such in ATX.

Cheers Ireland, it’s been grand.

When I grow up, I’m moving to London.

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London is a modest city. Physically, it doesn’t have as much to offer as other European cities I’ve visited. Its streets don’t boast the obvious architectural beauty of Paris and it doesn’t have the quaint waterfront of Copenhagen. Unlike say Danes, Londoners aren’t obviously identifiable as being Londoners. For those of us who have never been before, we often think of London in terms of stereotypical images like red double-decker buses and Abbey Road. Which is probably precisely why locals tend to stay away from typical tourist traps like Buckingham Palace or Portobello Street.

So what is London really about?

You’ll find it hidden among its eccentric neighborhoods, and for me, particularly in East London. Bearing comparisons to the hipster boroughs of Brooklyn, it’s where the young scenesters congregate — and where I spotted Russell Brand walking his dog — at weekend vintage and food markets. Maybe it was the people watching, the colorful street art, the cheap Japanese food stands or the abundance of used-vinyl stalls —I found a £5 George Michael record, enough said — but I could have stayed there forever. Sorry New York, when I grow up I’m moving to London.

Brick Lane is lined with vintage stores and curry houses. An eccentric crowd flocks to its popular weekend vintage and food markets.

Brick Lane is lined with vintage stores and curry houses. An eccentric crowd flocks to its popular weekend vintage and food markets.

Street art and clothing stands make for a typical scene at Brick Lane's weekend market.

Street art and clothing stands make for a typical scene at Brick Lane’s weekend market.

I’m not sure if it’s the writer or the 20-something in me, but I’ve become more and more averse to busy touristy areas. I was told to visit Camden Market, which was so cheesy and crowded that I did a lap and left. I much preferred the culture of vibrant local areas like Broadway Market with its fresh food and live music or Shoreditch with its maze of art-filled walls.

A young band at Broadway Market.

A young band at Broadway Market.

A clothing stall at Broadway Market.

A clothing stall at Broadway Market.

Believe me, I tried to be a tourist. I walked from the shopping district of Oxford Circus to the entertainment hub of Piccadilly Circus but immediately felt super disoriented. The buildings are reminiscent of Paris, dotted with theatres and moving Times Square-style ads. But as I turned the corner I immediately got lost in Soho. Once known for its red-light district, it’s now filled with quirky cafes and shops. I passed by a place called Hummus Bros which I was so tempted to try, but was too filled up on fish and chips from a nearby joint. I wandered inside a vintage magazine store and a record shop. Those are the places that I would visit if I lived there, and perhaps that’s the appeal.

Locals head to Broadway Market on a sunny Saturday morning in East London.

Two girls head to Broadway Market on a sunny Saturday morning in East London.

I will however, say that Big Ben, the Tower of London and the London Eye are particularly nice at night, and Chelsea, while expensive, is also lovely. But I spent the majority of my time in the less-populated areas. Unfortunately though, the rumors are true. London is extremely expensive. As in, I’m scared to check my bank account, expensive. But I still love you anyway.

Big Ben at night

Big Ben at night

The London Eye

The London Eye

As much as I saw in three days, I won’t pretend to have even the slightest grasp on what London is all about. There’s an infinite amount of places to be explored. Some people ask me why I chose Dublin instead of a place like London, which I also would have loved. And part of it is exactly that: even if I had studied in London for four months, I would have left probably just as overwhelmed as when I arrived; that there’s still so much that I didn’t see. Dublin is a smaller city that I can actually grasp, and every time I come back from traveling, it feels like returning home.

Albeit, a home that I’ll be leaving in less than a month — yikes.

Dérive à Paris

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“In Spanish there is a word for which I can’t find a counterword in English. It is the verb ‘vacilar’…it does not mean vacillating at all. If one is ‘vacilando,’ he is going somewhere; but does not greatly care whether or not he gets there, although he has direction.”

While the word “vacilando” might be a slang term for many Spanish speakers as meaning teasing or flirting, John Steinbeck focused on a deeper meaning of the word. Anyone who knows me knows that I have a fascination for words in other languages that don’t have direct translations in English, and the word “vacilando” is no exception. It means that one is more concerned about the journey than the destination, and it couldn’t be a more accurate way to describe the last six months that I’ve spent traveling.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to re-visit one of my favorite cities in the world. Having lived in Paris as a baby and later returning for Christmas when I was in high school, Paris has always held a certain magical air for me. After sitting down in July and planning my concert schedule for the semester, I had known I wanted to go to Pitchfork Paris for months (as if the lineup weren’t great, it’s a music festival. In Paris). I planned four days in Paris alone. Having seen all the tourist attractions, I was more interested in exploring the city: its bookshops, record stores, cafés and back alleyways. I should have realized by now that life often has its own plans, so my casual weekend got off to a rocky start. (Note to self/everyone: if it’s before 5 a.m. the day after Halloween, set 10 alarms, including one human.)

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Pitchfork Paris posters found on the street.

By the time I had re-routed, I ended up arriving exhausted, in a rainy Paris late Friday night. I set off early the next morning, determined to see the Eiffel Tower across town from my hostel — because you’re not really in Paris until you see the Eiffel Tower. The sun came out just as I rounded the corner, and then magically everything was okay. I was in Paris.

Well hello there.

Well hello there.

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“They say that when good Americans die, they go to Paris.” - Oscar Wilde

Fueled by a bout of spontaneity and a fun night out with friends, my roommate booked a flight to join me just two days before. It would be her first time in Paris, but aside from a couple of main sights, she was interested the kind of exploring that I was. And I must say, it was one of the greatest weekends. Without a clear agenda, we stumbled upon a quaint hidden neighborhood, wandered into bakeries, strolled along the Seine and perused Shakespeare & Company. We stopped at a local café for a three-hour dinner where we made friends with the French waiters and scored some free wine. We danced at a music festival for 10 hours, mastered our navigation of the subway system and ate our weight in crepes.

The famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop.

The famous Shakespeare and Company bookshop via Instagram.

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Navigating the streets of Paris is a task in itself. American grid systems, I miss you.

“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” - Thomas Jefferson

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Two workers inside a warm, inviting patisserie.

"I never want this to end," Maureen said while eating a Nutella & banana crepe and a cappucino.

“I never want this to end.” Nutella & banana crepe and a cappucino.

At the rate of sounding super cheesy — Paris can do that to you — if I’ve learned anything from these past few wild months (other than that people often become hostile when you Instragram travel photos while they’re at work), it’s that the journey is more important than any destination you reach. It might not be the easiest, and it might be filled with screw-ups and life lessons learned, but I’m definitely going to have some stories to tell the grandkids.

In the words of Audrey Hepburn, “Paris is always a good idea.”