I saw Bill Murray last night. Then I saw a UFO. They have to be related.
You’ve probably read something about South by Southwest’s gradual shift away from industry business and towards becoming a proper destination festival for any music fan on spring break. That much seems as true as ever this year. Day parties, largely free and featuring reshuffled lineups from the evening showcases, rule the afternoons, and depending on your penchant for standing on line, you can get into a good bit of this other nighttime stuff gratis even without a badge or wristband. It can be frustrating, wading through crowds of kids all hopped up on SoCo and Mountain Dew Amp and Japandroids when you’re trying to get some work done, but I get it; hell, I’d come here just to come here, too. I was talking with a buddy yesterday about what it’d take to pile a few friends in a car, Priceline a cheap motel in the outskirts, hop from day party to day party and maybe pick a showcase worth sticking with every night; I think we worked it out to about $60 a day without a wristband. That’s cheaper than Lolla, Coachella, Bonnaroo, you name it; plus the lineup’s what you make it, and you might get a free empanada out of the deal.
The French Legation Museum is a little slice of heaven a ways removed from the downtown chaos, a grassy hill on a mellow street, more picnic area than concert venue. It’s always free, and the lineup they’ve amassed today and yesterday’s as good as any down here. People bring their kids, their dogs, their hacky sacks, and if I had any of those things, I would too. It was here, in the sunshine, toddlers aplenty, that I caught Wisconsin garage-goth up-and-comer Zola Jesus and her band, Lou Diamond Cool. You’re familiar with cognitive dissonance, yes? Try this: Zola, a not very large person dressed in all black everything, starts her set by walking into the crowd and growling her way through one of her slow-churning death trips like it was 3 in the morning and we were all in a sub-basement with the lights blacked out. Zola Jesus cares not for your puny sun, and seemed largely unconcerned with freaking out your puny son, either. The set was fantasticher songs are quickly becoming epic in scope, and they earn every twist and turnand the crowd largely stuck with her, but it was certainly a prime example of the rift between industry priorities (and Zola Jesus, to a certain segment of the folks here, is indeed a big priority) and what most people want from their music. We record geeks can tell you Zola Jesus is the hot shit, and maybe we’re right, but that’s not going to get you to buy her record when she made your baby cry or stepped on your picnic blanket.
I put in a little time at the Fader Fort, watching quite a crowd watch gloopy chillwavers Neon Indian bend their songs out of shape; again, free of charge. I stumbled over to Ms. Bea’s to catch the last bit of Explode Into Colors’ chunky set; no money exchanged hands, although I would’ve given them a dollar to play another song. I caught Japandroids and No Age downtown; myriad sound problems had Japandroids a little thrown, but the price was right. Some nice lady offered me an energy drink just for walking past her. Nearly everything I did yesterday but skip the line at the Sub Pop showcase, I could’ve done without a badge, for no money. You get what you pay for– Mountain Dew Amp sucks– but you get it, because they give it to you. Sure, it’s all just a long string of advertisements, but a couple-three SoCo and Liptons are as good as any pop-up blocker.
That Sub Pop showcase was kind of a doozy, by the by, very much worth the $13 they were charging some at the door; copyright-flaunting power-poppers Happy Birthday turned in a sloppy set that suggests more depth than their pretty good new record, Male Bonding do the tuneful ripcord thing not unlike my beloved Times New Viking but with way less weed on their breath, and the spindly soft-focus Avi Buffalo have hit upon a lovely middlepoint between “Feel Flows” and Marquee Moon. I mean, $13 is about as much as you’d pay to see any one of those bands anywhere else, and there was a whole ‘nother showcase going on in the next room. Not a bad deal for a Thursday night, no matter which side of the rope you’re standing on. One thing lost in a lot of SXSW reports I read is what the crowd appeared to think of the bands; not your blogger friends or your publicist hombres, but the people who trekked down there just to have a good time. That crowd is comprised entirely of the people that supposedly buy these records at the center of all this business, and while they’re not always keeping up their end of the bargain, we maybe do them a disservice by ignoring their needs. Perhaps the gradual shift towards a more fan-friendly SXSW is a move in the right direction, a thank you to the people who still give enough of a shit about music to schlep around in the hot sun for it. Makes sense to me.
Of course, none of this quite explains the presence of one Bill “Ghostbustin’-Ass” Murray at the Growlers show last night; or maybe it does. Stories of Murray’s occasional appearance at random keggers are the stuff of legend, but in the post-Flickr era, there’s proof this very funny person just likes to go out and do stuff. Once the shock wore off– we were partying with Phil Connors, after all– we all kind of kept watching Bill, who kind of kept watching the Growlers, like anybody would; when the crowd got a little rowdy (more his fault than the band’s, I’d reckon), he got rowdy right along with it, crashing into folks, smiling all the while. As soon as the set ended, he and a female companion made quick moves out of the crowd and headed straight to the bar to hold court; this guy was not there to be a celebrity, and certainly not interested in being coddled. Peter Venkman, like every kid in a wristband, just wanted to have a drink and see the show. And why shouldn’t a fun guy like Bill Murray come to South by Southwest and see a pretty good garage band? It’s certainly no weirder than that freaky Zola Jesus person playing a garden party.
Heading back to my car, I saw a strange lightfour lights, reallyin the sky, absolutely immobile, not unlike that swirl that hangs over Sigourney Weaver’s apartment in the first Ghostbusters before she turns into a dog. I took a picture, but like any good UFO footage, it’s too blurry to be believed. Bill fucking Murray, man.