Like moths to a flame, every March, seemingly the entire music world descends upon Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest music festival.
What originally began as an event where emerging and local artists could be discovered by visiting industry people, more than 25 years later, is moving into Mardi Gras territory as seas of humanity roam the city’s streets in search of a great party more often than great music.
New acts are now overshadowed by performances from album-promoting megastars such as Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z, and corporations book out entire venues to throw lavish parties, complete with free booze, to promote a host of products and companies that often have nothing to do with music.
Despite the industry takeover, SXSW is still, without question, the place to be, if for nothing else than for artists to prove they belong, and perhaps even stand out in some way. With well in excess of 2,000 official acts (and probably the same number playing unofficial shows in Austin), more often than not, an artist comes to SXSW and doesn’t make any impression, connections or even play in front of people at all.
Which brings us to the Ventura music scene. This year a few of our finest invaded an unsuspecting and hipster-laden SXSW in almost a guerrilla takeover style. It led to some surprising results.
The bulk of Ventura’s presence in Austin came in the form of the VenAustin Tour, which featured Jeff Hershey and the Heartbeats, 8stops7, New Liberty and Aaron Orbit.
The four local acts spent the previous two months raising money in every way conceivable to support a tour to SXSW. Despite no shows officially sanctioned by the actual festival, the four acts exceeded their own hopes and expectations, landing an astounding 29 sets between the four of them over six days in Austin. Venues ranged from packed outdoor events to off-the-beaten-path dive bars to even a Chinese restaurant that will probably now stand as Aaron Orbit’s all-time strangest gig.
Fueled on a diet of barbecue and Lone Star beer, the 17 members of the VenAustin tour set up headquarters in four Motel 6 rooms on the outskirts of town, venturing into the city every day, battling crowds during complicated load-ins, attempting to flier and promote shows to strangers and, as promised, bringing a party wherever they went.
There was New Liberty’s Armand John Anthony, who walked out of a club mid-set onto the busy daytime street and ripped a slide guitar solo that had blown-away music fans following him back into the club like some sort of jean-vested pied piper.
Jeff Hershey, not one to be outdone by anyone, channeled his inner Sam Cooke while singing on an outside ledge of a second-story club as hundreds of onlookers took photos and danced below, causing a temporary traffic jam. Badge-clad music business types filed into the club to give the amped-up frontman their business cards.
Photo by: Ryan Cleary
If you look real close, you can see Jeff Hershey wowing a gathering crowd below him, as he gives an impromptu (and uninvited) performance in Austin. (That’s how it’s done, son.)
The tour even resorted to some ingenious tricks to raise its profile when one tour member impersonated a T-shirt-throwing radio DJ, hyping the crowd to a frenzy before 8stops7’s triumphant headlining set on the outdoor stage of the Texas Rock Festival.
But while the VenAustin Tour certainly was the busiest local contingent at SXSW, it wasn’t the only one.
Zachary James the All Seeing Eyes, conveniently including drummer Robyn Ryder who was in Jeff Hershey and the Heartbeats, and bassist Aaron Orbit, played a set on Wednesday afternoon at a rooftop bar. James, with his born-to-be-a-frontman tall and lanky look, strolled the streets in a bright pink sports coat and suspenders with a T-shirt that simply read “Rock and Roll.” He was stopped constantly throughout the week by people wanting to take his picture, proving that at SXSW, looking cool carries a lot of weight.
Alexandra and the Starlight Band, one of VCReporter’s Bands to Watch, borrowed Heartbeats’ bassist Sam Bolle as well as Ryder again for one rocking set at a Thursday party thrown by the estate of Miles Davis. Her band was paid in the form of some pricey headphones — easily the highest-paying gig of the week.
Lee Koch, who has had the biggest national break of any local act in a long time with his recent run on The Voice as a Christina Aguilera-backed contestant, is now in the process of relocating to Nashville. Stopping off for a few weeks in Austin, he played a solo set during SXSW on an actual riverboat, proving that any electrical socket will suffice for a venue, whether on land or sea.
Last but not least, singer-songwriter Delaney Gibson, who has been living in New York but is coming back to the area to record next month, was in Austin; and she showcased some new material with a set on St. Patrick’s Day at a wine bar, providing a sonic reprieve from the absolute insanity taking place on the streets outside.
As the bars closed against their will and the inebriated masses flooded the streets on Sunday morning, officially ending the SXSW Festival, the VenAustin Tour members perhaps seemed to sum up the overall experience best.
Exhausted, sweaty and sunburned, but full of spirit and spirits, the 17 representatives of the Ventura music scene huddled on a crowded street corner in front of one of their dirt-covered vans and let out a joyous “Ven-Aus-Tin” chant, knowing that they had made a mark and that the Ventura music scene can, and did, hang with the best of them.