SXSW Music 2015: book reward nights now!

(Source: SXSW)

(Source: SXSW)

I just booked our reward nights at Holiday Inn Austin – Town Lake for the music portion of SXSW (March 17 – 22, 2015). Badges go on sale in the next week or so, if the schedule stays the same as previous years. Once that happens, there will be nothing left. So if you want to save some serious bucks and avoid couch surfing, this is your chance!

Holiday Inn Austin – Town Lake (20 North Ih-35) has reward nights available for the entire music portion of the festival at this time.  We really liked using this hotel as a home base last year, because it’s just on the edge of the craziness of downtown but steps away from the Rainey Street venues and awesome food trucks.  Reward nights are a reasonable 25,000 IHG reward points per night (or 15,000 + $70/night).  Don’t have enough points?  You can always do the (not so) secret workaround.

If don’t mind a short hike, Hampton Inn & Suites Austin @ The University/Capitol (1701 Lavaca Street) also has rooms available for the entire conference/festival at 50,000 HHonors points per night.  This is about the same distance from the action as the Holiday Inn, just in the opposite direction and a up a slight incline from Sixth Street.

The rest of the hotels at the edge of downtown are already sold out of award nights, as many didn’t offer them in the first place because of demand. That being said, there are many other hotels available outside downtown on various shuttle routes. I would still book as soon as possible if you have the points available.

I must say, if you can score a hotel through SXSW Housing right when badges go on sale, they do offer decent rates.  Last year I was able to grab the Holiday Inn Austin – Town Lake and I think it was about $210/night.  I ended up cancelling because I decided to use my pre-booked award nights to save extra money.

Good luck, and see you in Austin!

10 places we loved in Austin

Okay, so there are a lot of cool bars and entertainment venues in Austin, but I’m writing here about places that were not part of a SXSW showcase.  I’ve already expounded on the merits (or detractors) of the many venues we visited, and although we were nearly laser-focused on the next band we wanted to see, we did manage to have some fun outside the festival.  Here are a few of our favorite Austin finds that we would definitely revisit if given the chance.

Craft Pride (61 Rainey Street) – You get a lot of free drinks at SXSW, but every once in awhile you really want some quality beer in a chill environment.  And Craft Pride provides that in spades.  At the south end of the stretch of bars and pop-up restaurants on Rainey Street sits Craft Pride, which sports 54 taps and two casks of Texas brews.  They have something for everyone in a serene setting, and with friendly staff.  An oasis for beer lovers and those seeking respite from the madding crowd.

Casino El Camino (517 East 6th Street)  – Oh. My. God.  The burgers here!  It’s hard to get more divey than this dive bar, and when you enter you feel somewhat relieved that it’s so dark, because you may not really want to know how clean the place is.  But this dark neighborhood bar does offer up the best burger I’ve eaten in years, a mind-boggling selection of deep cuts on the jukebox, and a super cool crowd.  So cool I felt like I would be too much of a nerd to take a photo of my insanely good burger.  I did manage a photo of the Mesoamerican themed courtyard in the back of the building where we inhaled the delicious food though.

Courtyard at Casino El Camino

Courtyard at Casino El Camino, replete with dragon staircase and murals of pyramids.

Hatbox (115 East 6th Street) – Austin has more than its share of hipsters, so it is no surprise that the population supports a wonderful little haberdashery right on 6th Street.  Hatbox has a wide selection of hats for men and women, at an equally wide range of prices.  If you have ever wanted a hat but didn’t really know your size or the style that would look good on you, go see the super-capable staff at Hatbox.

Wild About Music (115 East 6th Street) – Next door to Hatbox (although weirdly at the same address) sits the aptly named Wild About Music.  From cheesy trinkets to gallery quality music-inspired art and photography, Wild About Music has nearly anything you could possibly want related to music.  It’s fun to wander through the store and marvel at the array.  Definitely a good place to pick up unique gifts for the music lovers back home.  Be sure to see the gallery area in the lowest level and appreciate some of the one of a kind art.

Waterloo Records (600A North Lamar Blvd.) – I have to admit, when I walked in and saw most of the store devoted to CDs, I was a little bummed.  But once I started methodically scouring the used vinyl stacks, I was really quite overjoyed with some of the gems I picked up for a very reasonable price.   It is a deceivingly wonderful store.  Check out Waterloo if you are in town, and especially if they are hosting an artist signing or impromptu concert (which appears to be quite often, if you look at the event page of their website).

Waterloo Records is a treat for vinyl enthusiasts.

Waterloo Records is a treat for vinyl enthusiasts.

Counter Cafe (626 North Lamar Blvd.) –  This small diner enjoys a returning clientele devoted to their fabulous eggs benedict creations and award-winning hamburgers.  Just steps from Waterloo Records, it serves up much-needed sustenance after hours of browsing through the stacks.

Counter Cafe, a modern twist on a traditional diner.

Counter Cafe, a modern twist on a traditional diner.

Town Lake Trails (south side of downtown) – Austin is bisected by the Colorado River, which has been dammed downstream to create the long, serene Town Lake.  (By the way, this is a different Colorado River than the one that runs through the Grand Canyon, in case that last sentence confused you.  I know I was a bit befuddled until I looked at a map when I got home.)  Austin has created an amazing network of paths, bike trails and pedestrian-only bridges, to encourage residents to access this gem of a park.  Strolling around the south bank, you come across the Stevie Ray Vaughn statue and Auditorium Shores, where you can also find pedal-boat rentals and river cruise tours.  The water is nearly glassy, making it a draw for crew teams, swimmers and lots and lots of dogs.

Looking at downtown across Town Lake, from a shady spot in Auditorium Shores.

Looking at downtown across Town Lake, from a shady spot in Auditorium Shores.

Mai Thai (207 San Jacinto Blvd.) – One of the many things we learned during SXSW, is to go west from the convention center to find food.  Sure, there are good pop-ups and food trucks if you go east or south, but the throngs of people really get to you and everything is so dirty.  For the same price you can sit down in a clean, air conditioned restaurant (that was never more than half-full), and get a huge plate of delicious curry or noodles.  We loved it so much, we went back a second time.  Free wi-fi, clean bathrooms, and delicious food.  Why was this place not packed?

Downtown Art Installations (all around downtown)  – It’s hard to see all the little details that make Austin so great when you are surrounded by wall-to-wall people.  So we were happily surprised to discover public art in various nooks and crannies of downtown when we wandered around after the festival ended.  If you only come to Austin during SXSW, you are likely missing out on all the little things that make the city so vibrant.

One of many guitar art installations downtown.

One of many guitar art installations downtown.

Rainey Street – Rainey Street is a neighbourhood in flux.  Just southeast of the convention center, this street just a few blocks long is transitioning from a neighborhood of small bungalow dwellings to intimate bars, restaurants and entertainment venues.  It is odd and wonderful, with the homey feeling of a low density residential neighborhood.  While many of the little buildings have been converted (like Lucille or Craft Pride), others have been moved and replaced with bold architectural statements.  The newest venue, Container Bar, was literally being finished as we arrived in Austin, and is comprised of various shipping containers arranged around a courtyard. This little area has all the funkiness you associate with Austin, without the crush of people.

Congress Avenue Bridge Bat Colony – The best free show in town is not in a bar.  Although it was a bit early in the season, we did get a chance to see the Mexican free-tailed bats fly out from the underside of the Congress Avenue Bridge one night.  Onlookers tend to start gathering a little before sunset, and for a period of about 15 minutes all you see are throngs of bats flying out from under the bridge and heading east down the Colorado River.  The peak of the season is in August, when up to 1.5 million bats take flight each evening.  A truly spectacular experience.

Bats heading east from Congress Avenue Bridge at sunset.

Bats heading east from Congress Avenue Bridge at sunset.

SXSW Day 5: Royal Blood, D.D. Dumbo, Dub FX, Troker

As they say, the third time’s a charm.  After trying to see Royal Blood twice before, we made it our sole mission of this music-packed Saturday to see the band.  After flubbing it the day before, we at least knew exactly how to get to Cedar Street, and we basically bee-lined it from the hotel.  If we’ve learned one thing from SXSW it’s get there early.  So we hit Cedar Street at around 2:30 and had plenty of time to listen to some great music.  Asgeir really struck me with their dark melodies that would build to a crashing crescendo, whereas Gardens & Villa had a more poppy sound with dance beat that got the crowd moving.

But really, we were there for one band: Royal Blood.  It’s almost impossible to describe the huge sound these two guys can make with solely a bass and drums.  In particular, it was just so great to see them out there having fun and enjoying the gig.  My husband made sure to get to the front pretty early and could touch the drum set he was so close.  I hung back to get the full sound, but loved seeing him up on the big screen.  He was buzzing all night afterwards, and it was the highlight of his trip to Austin for sure.

After the Royal Blood show, we decided to try to get into Dub FX.  I had only seen a handful of youtube videos, but have been fascinated by this Aussie busker turned soloist.  Knowing how tiny Maggie Mae’s is, we again arrived really early.  We caught the first act, D.D. Dumbo, who live loops various musical instruments to create a full band sound.  Definitely the updated version of a one man band, and a real treat to watch live.

Dub FX though really blew my mind.  I was right up front and could see him working all the pedals when setting up his loops for the show.  He is in constant motion, and it really is fascinating to watch him create new sounds and voice pitches from the pedals and controls.  Everyone should try to see this guy at least once, and hopefully close up, to really appreciate his craft.  I posted a few youtube videos (below the photos) to show what I mean.

With Dub FX and Royal Blood under our belt for the day, we pretty much felt sated in our SXSW hajj.  So we looked at the schedule to see if there were any other bands of interest.  We were tired of the crush of people on 6th Street, so we walked back down to Rainey to catch Troker again.

We caught part of the act of Mon Laferte, a Chilean powerhouse band, which sported pop tunes that would build into near-metal closings.  Really interesting, but not really the kind of music I was into that night.  Troker was the only band we went to see twice at SXSW.  We stumbled across them on the International Day Stage in the convention center and just fell for their sound.  So they were the natural choice when we wanted to have a chill last show experience.  Troker didn’t disappoint, as they put on another tight set of their jazz/funk stylings.  A perfect end to our SXSW extravaganza.

Day 5 photos:

Royal Blood sharing a laugh before hitting the stage.  My favorite photo of the festival.

Royal Blood sharing a laugh before hitting the stage. My favorite photo of the festival.

Royal Blood

Royal Blood

Royal Blood

Royal Blood

D.D. Dumbo

D.D. Dumbo

Dub FX

Dub FX

Videos of Dub FX:

SXSW Day 4: BADBADNOTGOOD, Sir Sly, Deap Vally

Something was really off for us today, like we just couldn’t get our crap together.  We were on a mission to find the party where Royal Blood was playing, but confused our days and ended up at the right venue a day early.  The good news is that the Cedar Street bar was pretty chill and we got some time to regroup while listening to the jazz/funk fusion stylings of BADBADNOTGOOD.  Really fresh sound.

We couldn’t decide whether to head to the chaos of one the larger parties, or find a relaxed place to listen to a few good bands.  I’m not going to lie, I’m starting to get tired.  So we decided to check out the Cherrytree Records line up at Trinity Hall.  What a treat!

Sitting out on the verandah, we could people watch over Sixth Street and listen to the first few bands.  We were really there for two artists: Sir Sly and Deap Vally.  Having seen Deap Vally before, we knew we were in for a great show and they sure did deliver.  Deap Vally really rocks at full volume, and the small venue really didn’t do their heavy guitar and drum sound justice.  These girls need a more cavernous, open venue to really display their craft.  Nonetheless, they really put on a show and it was fun to see them up close and personal.

My big surprise of the night was Sir Sly, which blew me away.  I walked into the gig knowing only the song Gold, which I really love.  From that one song I was expecting a kind of mellow set, but they really exuded energy and got everyone dancing.  I would say of their set, Gold was one of the less exciting tunes (which shows how many excellent songs they have).  The crowd had a blast, and I danced so much I only got a few photos.

So we’re still on a mission to see Royal Blood.  We have one last chance, so I’m ending this quickly.  Gotta get there early to see if we can luck out this time.  Crossing our fingers.

Photos from Day 4:

Sir Sly

Sir Sly

Sir Sly

Sir Sly

Deap Vally

Deap Vally

SXSW Day 3: Soundgarden, Band of Skulls, Capital Cities, Troker, Sam Roberts Band

Another amazing day, and another reminder of the merits of live music.  I was blown away by the quality of performances today, and even more impressed by the layering of sounds that you just can’t get via mp3 or cd these days.

We started out at the crack of noon, after getting in at 3 a.m. the night before, and we headed out to the convention center to pick up our wristbands for the iTunes Festival.  While we are ambling around we heard some amazing music coming out of the International Day Stage, so we wandered in.  Stumbled across the first amazing find of the festival: Troker, a jazz/funk/fusion jam band from Guadalajara, Mexico with horns and a DJ.  They were having so much fun, it was infectious to the rest of it.  You couldn’t help but smile and cheer them on.  They found a new fan here!

We hung around a bit to see the buzz band The Dum Dum Girls, but found them a bit underwhelming considering the crazy hype.  So we headed out to get in line at the ACL Live Theater for the iTunes Festival.  Wow, what a venue.  The acoustics in this theater are unreal, and have set a new standard for me.

The iTunes Fest started with Capital Cities, who were the next big surprise of the day.  While they have catchy tunes, their recordings sound a bit flat to me.  Not live.  Wow, the trumpeter alone could put on a show, and they all had so much energy.  They even threw in a cover of the Bee Gee’s Stayin’ Alive, with some of Weezer’s Sweater Song mashed in.  Really pumped up the crowd.

Band of Skulls put on a solid show, with their juicy, big sounds.  But they aren’t a dynamic band, so the energy in the room died down a little.

We were all there to see Soundgarden perform the Superunknown album from beginning to end for its 20th anniversary.  It was the first time the band ever played the whole album front to back, which was cool.  But sadly, though the playing was masterful, it seemed perfunctory with little energy.  Chris Cornell can really belt it out still, and his voice sounds just like it does 20 years ago. Glad I was there, but on the way out the door we raved more about Capital Cities than we did Soundgarden.

The band we really wanted to see was Royal Blood, but we didn’t get in to the packed solid Latitude 30.  So we headed over to Maggie May’s to catch the Sam Roberts Band.  Wow, talk about a great show.  The band was tight, and they sounded so much better than their recordings.  I would see them again in a heartbeat.

Today we are trying to get into our first party, as we’re on a mission to see Royal Blood while we can.  Wish us luck!

Photos from Day 3:

Troker

Troker

Capital Cities

Capital Cities

Capital Cities

Capital Cities

Capital Cities

Capital Cities

Band of Skulls

Band of Skulls

Band of Skulls

Band of Skulls

Band of Skulls

Band of Skulls

Soundgarden

Soundgarden

Soundgarden

Soundgarden

Soundgarden

Soundgarden

Sam Roberts

Sam Roberts

Sam Roberts Band

Sam Roberts Band

SXSW Day 2: Kanye, Jay-Z, Blondie and the Arkells

Another packed day at SXSW.  We headed over to the Convention Center to pick up our Kanye/Jay-Z passes and then got in line really early to make sure we got in to the Blondie interview.  Wow, it was so incredible to see my childhood idols within 10 feet of me.

We chilled at the Canadian Blast BBQ, listening to the Tribe Called Red set.  What a unique sound they have, looping in tribal chanting with house. Really inspiring.

After having some amazing BBQ, we got in line for the Jay-Z/Kanye West show, which ran two hours late.  So we were standing in line, in the cold Austin evening, for almost three hours.  But wow, it was so worth it.  When they announced the double bill, we assumed that one would go on first and then the other would do a set after.  But the show was totally integrated, with each artist doing a few songs, joining each other on stage and the switching out.  Really well-rehearsed and seamless.

Some parts of the stage were only accessible from an outside door, meaning the venue had to block out the crowd with barriers to let the artists come through the throngs of people.  Although it was a bit disruptive to those trying to get around, it meant I was within a foot of both Kanye and Jay-Z multiple times during the show.  That was an experience in itself.

Because it ran so late, we took a pedicab across town to Rainey Street, to the lovely Lucille’s bar, to catch the Arkells.  I couldn’t believe how small the crowd was, and it was such a treat to be able to see an amazing Canadian band from just feet away.

I really can’t say enough about the festival so far.  We’ve been learning so much, and have had so many wonderful experiences.  The city really embraces its musicians and make everyone feel so welcome.  No attitudes here.  Just good-ol’ Southern hospitality.

A few photos from Day 1 & 2:

Oh Myyy! It's George Takei!

Oh Myyy! It’s George Takei!

Neil Young talks taking back music sound quality and PonoMusic

Neil Young talks taking back music sound quality and PonoMusic

Debbie Harry talks the Band's formative years in NYC

Debbie Harry talks the Band’s formative years in NYC

Jay-Z lays it down.

Jay-Z lays it down.

Kanye West stuns the crowd with his showmanship.

Kanye West stuns the crowd with his showmanship.

Kanye and Jay-Z put n an integrated, water-tight show..

Kanye and Jay-Z put n an integrated, water-tight show.

SXSW DAY 1

Wow, Austin really knows how to party! No photos yet for Day 1, but the Neil Young keynote was a real highlight.  Take back music quality!  If you haven’t heard of his movement check out his PonoMusic vid on Kickstarter.

Lucky enough to score tix to Jay-Z and Kanye West so heading there now.  What a blast!

And I can’t forget to mention the amazing BBQ and craft beer.  Loving Austin!

Geography nerd, music lover

I think I love music for the same reason I love geography.  It takes me to a place, the place where a musician brings all of his experience, his life and his environment to produce a kind of lyric poetry. Heralding a homeland, for all its faults and glories, to a tune I identify with.  I have loved the differences in this world since I was quite young.  My mother, a geography major as well, would take me to her Cal State Northridge geography courses when I was a baby.  Maybe that’s why maps, travelogues and glossy magazines with ‘geographic’ in the name have always felt like home.

From an early age, my mother would point to canyons in the distance, painted in the California sun.  She would look at me querulously and I always knew the next question.  ‘What kind of valley is it?  Was it formed by a river or a glacier?’  I would squint at the bottom of the valley, trying to discern the slope of its walls, thinking “‘U’ for glacial, ‘V’ for river”.  Or sometimes, driving along a high desert, my mother would point to some far off mountain range with its rippled skirts, and say ‘what is that?’  “An alluvial fan, Mom.”  I remember Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow on the 8-track during these conversations.

It’s no wonder we lived for road trips, with the long stretches of ribbon asphalt, never knowing what would be around the next bend.  Our coach was a small RV (aptly produced under the name ‘Dreamer’).  And that Dreamer took us from adventure to adventure, around the Western States and eventually across the country.

I would like to think those questions drilled into me, or the professorial harangues in the background as I snoozed in my snuggy, would spark a love of geography nearly as great as the true loves in my life.  Why do I ache for experiencing new places like some women would a new lover? Why I feel at peace when I experience a foreign stillness and beauty around me, even in this chaotic world?  Why do I immediately look up where a band is from when I hear a song I like?

Deap Vally, a taste of home.

Deap Vally, a taste of home.

I categorize almost all things geographically, and that includes musicians and bands.  I especially listen for differences when bands move.  How small town sounds, raw and inviting, become removed or aloof when the band moves to New York or Los Angeles.  Or here in Canada how bands from the Prairies or Maritimes move to Vancouver or Toronto and the focus of the music changes.

I came to this realization while listening to The Local Natives on Austin City Limits last night, a band from Los Angeles (of which I am a local native).  In a place as big as Los Angeles, there is no one particular sound or music type.  But what I loved the most about my formative years was the raw music and power of my favorite bands.  X, Bad Religion, Fishbone, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In the beginning they were twangy and beautiful and raw.  And what I realize now is that when I hear a band from Los Angeles like the Local Natives or Deap Vally, it makes me feel like home in the same way a photograph does or the smell of the ocean.  I feel so drawn in during those moments of listening, drawn to that sprawl of vapidness that I found so beautiful and yet so heartbreaking.

From Myanmar to Austin: Side Effect wants to punk you up Burmese style. (source: Side Effect)

This connection of geography and music has spurred on a new love of festivals, which  bring together musicians from around the globe. I am excited for SXSW this year (my first year), with my interest especially piqued by the ‘Four on the Floor’ spotlights of bands by geographical location, as well as the geographical listings next to each band on the artist roster. To make the experience even more personal, I recently found out that the punk band Side Effect wants to be the first band to come out from behind the curtain of Myanmar to try to make it to SXSW.  It boggles my mind to think of what the journey and experience would do to their music, and for that reason I’m helping to support their quest on PledgeMusic.  I can’t wait to see if they make it, so I can hopefully check them out in person (and of course, report back here).

So what will a geography nerd do at a music festival this year? Why, map the bands I see (of course)!  So stay tuned this late March, as I create my first ever musician map of the bands I see at SXSW.

An amazing hotel award option for SXSW

Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are.  Not only is the occasional hotel still available with points for SXSW 2014, held between March 7 to March 17 in Austin, but there is a good hotel still available and it’s at an amazing value.  The Westin Austin at the Domain is still available, and it is 10,000 points per night.  With SPG’s fifth night free for award bookings, this brings the hotel stay for the entire 10-night festival down to just 8,000 points per night.

Proof that I'm not crazy. Source: Screenshot of SPG website

Proof that I’m not crazy. Source: Screenshot of SPG website

To give you a sense of what a crazy good deal this is, Lucky at One Mile at a Time values Starpoints at 2.2 cents each or more, and The Points Guy says 2.5 cents each.  The going rate for this hotel over the conference period is a whopping $499 per night.  Without adding in the taxes, etc., you would normally have to pay for the hotel, the stay values the Starpoints at a minimum 6.3 cents each.  Awesome!  I’m not going to lie, you are at The Domain, which is not downtown where the vast majority of the action is.  But the hotel is on the SXSW hotel shuttle route, so you aren’t out of luck.  Hurry, hurry, hurry, because this won’t last long!

As a side note: there are pretty slim pickings anywhere near downtown.  But if you are swimming or more like drowning in HHonors points, the Embassy Suites in Downton/Town Lake is still available for 40,000 points per night as well.

—-

This article first appeared on roadeightyfive.com.