by Kim Voynar
[Read Part One.] While there’s a lot to be said for justifying your business trip to SXSW on the merits of the panels, the networking and the programming alone, there’s no denying that part of the appeal of the fest as a place to both work and play is the diverse range of people who descend upon Austin each March. SXSW has grown from a little music industry fest of about 700 attendees in 1987 into a mammoth, diverse event encompassing Music, Film and Interactive sections today. During the festival, it can feel like every single attendee is either crowding Sixth Street, spilling out of bars, or shuffling from panel to panel at the Austin Convention Center, bleary eyes always on the lookout for an elusive empty outlet to charge up devices between things to do.
Here’s a look at the numbers: The 2014 fest attendee breakdown was 27,991 registrants and Artist wristbands for Music, 18,747 for Film, and 32,798 for Interactive. Media participation in the fest pretty much mirrored those breakdowns last year, with 2,821 media attending for Music, 3,198 for Interactive, and 2,084 for Film. While the industry-heavy nature of the fest makes SXSW a great place to keep up on developing trends on the tech and business side of things, it’s also a great place at which to people-watch over cocktails, sample a wide array of delicious foods, and get a feel for emerging trends in style and fashion as well.
The best places to people-watch during SXSW depend largely on what you’re watching for. Star-chasers hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorites hover near the red carpets of premiere screenings and outside official music venues, waiting for the luxury SUVs to appear and unload their fashionable, well-coiffed cargo, but if you really want to catch a glimpse of the most interesting people (some of whom you won’t even recognize as “famous”—but trust me, they are all around you) a few of the hottest places to hang out are the Driskill Hotel bar, the Four Seasons, and the bars at the Intercontinental and the shiny new Marriott, which just opened this year.
And of course, there are the parties. SXSocial keeps festival attendees in the know about many of the parties, but sometimes your best bet is staying in touch with your friend network or talking to folks in line to tune into the latest buzz. This year I accidentally stumbled upon a “Cat Party” for an Animal Planet show, and that turned out to be my favorite party of the fest. There was no guest list, they had an awesome ‘90s cover band out of LA called the Spazmatics, and everyone was wearing green neon cat ears and singing along to “Jessie’s Girl.” What’s not to like about that? I so wanted to check out an ongoing fest party happening on the RVIPLounge—a nightly karaoke party in a big luxury bus draped in sparkly lights— but sadly never managed to muster the late-night energy required to migrate over to 4th and Guadalupe after midnight. Next year, next year.
Overall, the bigger festival parties tend to be loud, crowded and full of drunk people, things you can also see in abundance at SXSW on 6th Street every night of the festival without waiting in a long line. However, unless you are 22 or want to remember what it was like to be young, stupid, and ridiculously drunk in public, I advise avoiding 6th Street late at night during SXSW like the plague, and that goes double once Music starts. Instead, go have a civilized dinner with friends at a place where you can enjoy some of Austin’s excellent fare, or check out a bar off the beaten path. Many bars that aren’t official music venues book some excellent bands during SXSW, so even if you can’t afford to be there on a badge, you can find great music.
In between all your working and drinking, you need to keep fed during a festival, and fortunately there are plenty of options in Austin. If you want to start a fight, just get three or four locals together and ask them where the best BBQ in Austin is— you’re sure to get an earful. Franklin’s is so popular that you can find ads on Craigslist offering $200 for someone to stand in line for hours, buy ribs and deliver them. Salt Lick is out of the way but still a popular destination; they have a big fire pit right in the middle of the restaurant, so you come out smelling like you were just cooked alongside your dinner, and they’ll bring you a plate of something called “burnt ends” that the guys in my friend group go nuts over. Local artisan beers are a big thing in Austin, too, so if you’re a beer drinker you’ll have many opportunities to wash down your ribs with the best local brews.
Of course, there’s plenty of Tex-Mex and margaritas around Austin, although to be honest, I still haven’t found what I consider really amazing Tex-Mex at any sit-down establishment there. I have sampled some of the taqueria food trucks, though, and if you’re willing to take a chance on food truck fare you can find some excellent street tacos around. If you’re into burgers, milkshakes and such, catching a screening at an Alamo theater is always a great bet. Alas, I’m off sugar and did not consume one myself this year, but the memories of Alamo Milkshakes Past haunt my dreams. Royal Blue Grocery on Congress was a lunch-time staple for me, in part because they have Stumptown Coffee and that made my Pacific Northwest heart happy, and in part because they also have the best sandwiches I’ve found in Austin. If the day is nice you can sit out on their patio and scene-watch while you enjoy your delicious sandwich.
On the swankier side of things, I had some fabulous oysters and other such fare at both Clark’s Oyster Bar and Truluck’s. We didn’t manage to score a reservation at Uchi, famed for amazing sushi, on this trip, but I enjoyed many terrific tapas plates and artisan cocktails at both Swift’s Attic at 3rd and Congress and at the Driskill Bar. Having undertaken a serious effort to find the best brussels sprouts in Austin during this year’s fest (because I like living on the edge), I have crowned the Driskill’s amazing sprouts, which have a to-die-for soy-based sauce and chorizo in the mix, the winner by a fairly decent margin to my second-place choice, Swift’s. One of my other late-night fest-noshing staples is french fries, and the fries at the Corner Bar at Marriott are the best I found this year—I like my fries to be thin, crispy and salty. But the Driskill also does great fries, and they serve them with a truffle mayo that, combined with a Moscow Mule and people-watching at 1:00 a.m., is pretty close to fest nirvana. So they edge out Marriott on overall fry points.
The Austin Convention Center—one of my favorite places for people-watching because everyone ends up there during the fest—is a complex mish-mash of clashing personal styles and career industries thrown together into giant fashion melting pot. Tech dudes uniformed in pleated dockers and spandy-new corporate-branded polo shirts wait in line for Convergence panels and mingle at parties side-by-side with impressively mustached film industry hipsters arrayed in a seemingly endless supply of plaid button downs with skinny jeans and well-worn Chucks (bonus points for authentic 1970s Western-style plaids scored at a thrift store!). On the femme side of the style equation, while “business casual” in shades of beige tended to define the look of most of the women I saw working on the Interactive side of things, the manic-pixie-dream-girl type apparently still abounds in the film and music industries, although the Barbarella-era Jane Fonda look seems to be gaining a bit of a toehold.
I saw (and wore myself) many jean-shorts-with-boots combos, and there were plenty of authentic and vintage-inspired dresses to admire; interestingly, there was a noticeable leaning away from the more 1940s-50s vintage/Rockabilly look that’s dominated the scene the past few years, in favor of more ‘70s-inspired looks: I saw lots of heavy bangs; long straight hair; flowing scarves; long hippie dresses and skirts; and fabulous, oversized, round sunglasses (a must in sunny Austin, whether you’re a star-in-hiding or just an Average Jane trying to look like one).
In one bar hallway coming out of the restroom, I had an engaging conversation with a very colorful gentleman dressed in nothing but a cape and a red-white-and-blue g-string contraption that seemed alarmingly on the edge of a wardrobe malfunction. (“Of course you found him,” my bar-hopping companion said wryly.) Hey, his style was certainly interesting and way beyond beige, and for me G-String Guy personifies the free spirit of Austin and SXSW, where divergent folks can mix and mingle freely in the late-night streets, their looks proclaiming who they are … or who they’d like to be. Where else but at SXSW can you see such a diverse array of style, sensibility and unbridled optimism for the pursuit of the dream, all in one place? It’s a beautiful thing, Austin. Keep SXSW weird.
Kim Voynar is film critic and features editor for Movie City News. When she’s not watching a film or writing a review, she stays busy with a life that includes six kids, two dogs and two hamsters under one roof; homeschooling; and theater. Occasionally, she sleeps.