As the last weeks of March approach, all eyes are on Austin’s South by Southwest Festival. For Jim Anderson, a dedicated music fan from the Linden Hills neighborhood of Minneapolis, the conference itself isn’t even the real draw. Instead, he seeks the music on the periphery of the festival—the artists in little-known clubs and dive bars around town.
This year, Anderson is celebrating his 20th SXSW anniversary. Every year for two decades, Anderson has consistently made the trip to Texas, barring one year when a broken bone in his foot grounded him. He’s lucky, because one of his friends is a Texas resident, and that friend has always let him in on the secrets only locals might know about the festival.
In keeping with that “insider experience,” Anderson’s SXSW is unorthodox. He never buys a wristband or badge to the festival—instead, his focus is music in other areas of Austin. He used to purchase wristbands, but the last straw for him was when he and a friend, both wearing wristbands, waited in line for R.E.M. many years ago. There were two queues, one for badge-bearers and one for those with wristbands; only six people separated Anderson and the entrance over in the wristband line, but just as a group of badge holders showed up to the nearly packed venue, he knew it was a lost cause. Ever since, he’s relied on his own wits and those of his friends to plan their own festival experience, and he’s rarely disappointed.
There are four main areas that Anderson and his group frequent during the festival dates. The first is South Congress, or “SoCo,” which boasts sites like Yard Dog Art Gallery and thrift-shop-turned-venue St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store. “Toward the bottom of the hill,” as Anderson puts it, there’s a coffee bar and the Driskill Hotel, which is where Anderson saw Mark Olson and Gary Louris from the Jayhawks perform in 2009. On Austin’s East Side, by I-35, dive bars draw patrons who want to hear a host of new bands. Lastly, the heart of downtown is packed with clubs, especially those geared toward punk rock fans.
Ready to celebrate his 65th birthday in Austin, Anderson acknowledges, “I’m too old to mosh.” However, he still enjoys punk rock, just like most other genres of music. Although his musical “sweet spot” is Americana, he’s open to trying as much new music as possible in order to discover new favorites. About 15 years ago, he heard My Morning Jacket at SXSW, long before their popularity started ramping up for the rest of the world. And recently, he was impressed by Boston psychedelic indie band Quilt, who performed a Tiny Desk Concert for NPR last year.
Other highlights include Japan Nite, which spotlights about a half dozen bands that cross the Pacific to perform in Austin. Artists represent countries like South Korea and Australia, making SXSW a truly international experience for those who seek it out.
Every morning during the festival, Anderson sits down with his friends and plans out the day: which area to visit, where to park, and which artists to hopefully see. They make sure to wear good shoes and bring ear plugs, since they prioritize being comfortable and protecting their hearing as much as they can. They’ve dropped the focus they once had on food, since shows now abound during mealtimes instead of just occurring at night. But still, as Anderson put it, “Sometimes the barbecue does find you.”
For Anderson, almost anything is worth a listen, and the festival is less about seeing big-name bands than enjoying the talent that congregates in the music conference’s town. Though wristband and badge prices may have skyrocketed since Anderson began attending SXSW, some showcases are still worth their cover charge—where space is available, some official showcases sell admission on an a la carte basis—and there are hundreds of other concerts he still finds worthwhile. For those lucky enough to be in Texas this week, Anderson has great advice: come prepared and, most importantly, be open to anything.
Listen to The Current on Friday from noon to 6:00 p.m. for a live broadcast of the Public Radio Day Stage concert at SXSW, and watch our website for updates from Jim McGuinn, David Safar, and reporter Bridget Bennett.
Cecilia Johnson is studying English and Spanish at Hamline University. Her favorite things include Korean food, poetry, and Angers, France.