It's late, late, late on a Friday night in Texas and I just threw my first SXSW show – an unofficial house party featuring 14 bands. It's a group effort: I co-produced the line-up with friends from WNYU and some kids from Austin, who moved all of their furniture into their backyard, a 10-minute drive from downtown. Bands have been playing on a makeshift stage under a geometric dome of silver poles, Christmas lights, and orange streamers. We've had hundreds of kids show up, drained at least eight kegs, and then everything moved inside. Now Brooklyn's Cult of Youth and Pop 1280 are burning through dark, heavy sets to a full living room while the clock pounds on toward 3 am.
Every year, on the fringes of the corporate-sponsored indie-rock mega-fest in Texas, these makeshift shows spring up in houses, backyards, vacant lots, and bars — a countercultural festival of gigs in the outskirts. Not only is it possible to go all-unofficial in Austin, but now, in the festival's 25th official year, many bands prefer it that way. "I reckon you could come to SXSW and never see the center of town," says Marty Frawley, the singer of the Australian garage-pop band the Twerps. He's sitting on the floor in the house, just before his band plays out back. "All of the fun stuff seems to be happening out here. These shows are more personal and relaxed."
"It's absolutely worth it to go down to SXSW even if you don't have a badge," says Ric Leichtung. He's a 24-year-old DIY show booker in Brooklyn who writes the blog International Tapes and edits Pitchfork sister-site Altered Zones. My unbadged version of SXSW 2011 started on Wednesday with two shows he booked: one curated by Altered Zones (including an excellent set by Los Angeles's Puro Instincto), the other curated by International Tapes (where I happened upon a great band called Dead Gaze, from Mississippi, who sounded like a poppier Titus Andronicus).
Leichtung has booked DIY shows at SXSW since 2009, including buzzed-about bridge shows with Vivian Girls and Thee Oh Sees. His favorite show of this year's SXSW was Religious Girls, who played spontaneously with a generator to a small crowd behind a Wendy's. "That sort of DIY mentality is what South by Southwest should be about — the most special and intimate performances happen at the unofficial shows."
I know what he means: on Thursday, at a backyard show, I'd found a fantastic garage-rock band called Dizzy Eyes, from Vancouver, with a seven-inch out on Hardly Art. They were playing on a bill with Strange Boys, Fungi Girls, Hunx and his Punx, and a dozen others. It was a 20-minute walk from the center of SXSW, and their backyard was unlit, so no one could see what was going on. I bounced back and forth between the house and a Sacred Bones label showcase at a bar called Beerland, where Moon Duo were performing with Pop 1280 and Zola Jesus — at one point, Human Eye played on the venue's porch to a sidewalk flooded with kids.