On Busking and Getting Busted

Author: Marian

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For locals, South by Southwest is as much of an invasion as Mardi Gras is in New Orleans.  “Spring Break, 2011!” visitors cry over the debauchery and decibels of Sixth Street. Austin’s main drag becomes a complete, apocalyptic shit-show for the entirety of the festival experience.  With streets shut down, vans pull in as close to their destined club’s curb as possible.  The whole area is a non-stop cycle of loading in and loading out.

The festival itself may be seasonal, but music is not an ephemeral element in Austin.  “You’ve got to see the energy at another time of the year, like August,” a trumpet-playing busker informed me.  “It’s not as much of a party, but it’s just as potent.”

Almost every possible store front on the Sixth Street strip and its nearby sprawling streets transforms into a musical venue of some form during SXSW.  Blaring music pours forth from neighboring windows, always in contrast, but never in competition.  Street corners are taken over by buskers, performance artists, and spontaneous water gun fights, and nooks and crannies under store-front windows serve as respite for street-kids and vagrants, calm observers that sit vigilantly by card-board signs which tell their desperate story in one line.

A day after DC’s SXSW Showcase, put together by Val from DCist, a few of the participating bands decided to take to the streets to play, now that their main gig had passed.  At one point in the night, I caught Typefighter on a corner.  Lead songwriter Ryan McLaughlin gave his all, as the rest of the band clapped alongside.

Knowing how difficult it is to book regular shows, Deleted Scenes decided to do something different and played a show outside.  “We wanted to explore our material in a different context,” said Dan Scheuerman.  Having taken to the hobby of amp building, Scheuerman was excited to get his amps out into the street.  But Sixth Street probably wasn’t the best place for Deleted Scenes to set up their stripped down assemblage.  Apart from getting drowned out by the rest of the festival, a cop quickly shut them down.

But not entirely.  “We went to an alley a block and a half away, by a dumpster,” Scheuerman recalls.  “It was kind of lame, but it felt appropriate.  It was a disaster, and it stunk to high hell by the dumpster.  Vans drove down the alley through our set, but we felt poetically justified.”

Apparently, from DC performance artist Adrian Parsons’ experience, there are other ways to play at SXSW, aside from booking in advance and busking on the street.  Parsons’ method?  Walk into a venue with some performance swagger.  On Friday afternoon, Parsons casually strolled into Venue 222, rocking teal denim, cowboy boots, and a massive computer with a desktop monitor.  No questions were asked.  Parsons walked straight to the back, and started reviving his software and warming up on his keyboard.  Soon enough, he made a name of himself to the coordinator; AAA.  The coordinator seemed confused, as he did not see Parsons’ name on the bill.  But there must’ve been a mistake.  The coordinator allotted Parsons’ a small window of time to play at the end of the showcase.

Speaking of window…I got to 222, exactly at my what I thought was Parsons’ start time.  But the line of entry wrapped around the corner and out to the street.  Go figure; Das Racist, The Cool Kids, and EPMD were all set to play.  I tried to protest at the door that my friend was about to go on, but the door guy had heard too many similar stories.  Getting in line like everyone else seemed to be the only resolution, until I noticed an open window ground level close to the entrance, and immediately, out of desperation and meaning as little disrespect as possible, scurried through it.  The coast looked clear, but those club owners have quick eyes!  Within seconds, I was ejected, and then soon banished from the possibility of re-entrance.

Although upset, I had to understand the club owner’s perspective.  Going to that show was an option on my end, and trying to sneak in was my choice, followed by an unfortunate consequence.  Owning and operating 222 wasn’t just a lifestyle for that club owner, it was his livelihood, and he had to follow regulations to make sure that things stayed in order.

Lines, waiting, wristbands, expensive entrance fees, and aggressive doormen just weren’t in the equation for my vision of SXSW.  And that was just quite alright.  Fighting off tears of frustration, I turned around and faced the inundated layout of Sixth Street.  A troupe of drummers brushed past me, and Hare Krishna practitioners danced around in a circle of spectators.  Miniature water guns lay scattered on the sidewalk from a hasty much needed water gun fight.  An electric xylophone player smiled with closed eyes in the sunlight, and a boy stood in the middle of the street, offering free hugs to passerbys.

Music and movement was a constant, and at that moment, I forgot about the stress of 222 and realized that like Deleted Scenes in the alley, all these people weren’t trying to be discovered.  They were just contributing to the flux of SXSW, because it felt right in their souls. They were bringing their energies to the table and allowing spontaneity to run its course along Sixth Street.

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