South By Southwest recap: Tampa Bay bands shine in Austin's spotlight
The Tampa Bay music scene was well represented in Austin, Texas over the weekend at South by Southwest, the massive annual conference that hosted thousands of bands (2,500 or so with official showcases, and countless others with unofficial gigs) from across the globe.
Around 10 acts from Tampa, St. Pete, Largo, Spring Hill and Clearwater took to stages, parking lots, patios, street corners, bars and just about any other spot they could find to perform rock, hip-hop, folk and pop-punk for both event patrons and passersby.
On average, local acts drove more than 18 hours with vehicles stuffed full of gear, merch and other marketing materials to play the city that touts itself as the "live music capital of the world" and proudly urges its community to "keep Austin weird."
When you take into account fuel costs (a Bay area band can easily rack up $600 in gas towing trailers, etc.) food and lodging expenses, and the constant scheduling and organizational headaches, doing SXSW in Austin ain't cheap, and it ain't easy.
So what makes it all worth it?
For Tampa's Sleepy Vikings (above), a trailblazing, shoe-gazing act that's already logged some major road miles with gigs at New York's CMJ and Athens Pop Fest, it's all about the networking.
"The connections you make here are unlike anywhere else," said lead vocalist Tessa McKenna.
"If you're in this for the money, that's not so much going to happen," added guitarist and vocalist Julian Conner. "If you're here to meet people, though, you're in the right place."
The group played a somewhat unconventional venue, an Australian-themed sports bar complete with beach volleyball courts. Still, the group's hazy tunes about making long hauls with the windows down, and one heck of a Danzig cover, seemed in their right place.
The crowd was light, but McKenna and Conner never seemed to mind. Besides, the trip served as a rockin' honeymoon of sorts after the couple tied the knot a few weeks ago.
For The Human Condition, a Bay area group who played a strummy, toe-tappin' folk-rock set in the parking lot of Mel's Meals, the sentiments were similar.
"When we pick up that one person on the mailing list and establish a relationship with them down the road, it's really rewarding," said frontman Dean Johanesen, a three-year SXSW veteran who helped raise funds through Kickstarter for The Human Condition's trip.
"To get to experience all of this, and to get a few bucks, a bar tab and free fajitas - to me, it's like we're kings out here," added guitarist Dave Berry.
Johanesen was also invited to speak and perform on Austin radio station KOOP 91.7 FM. Not a bad bonus.
For lone hip-hop representatives Laws and Mason Caine of Pasco County, the SXSW experience was all about representing the Bay and rapping for whoever wanted to listen. It also involved some sprinting down a bustling Sixth street to make their next set time, moshing with Academy Award-winner and Three Six Mafia rapper Juicy J, and being on a bill with Brother Ali and Mobb Deep.
"We're just trying to survive -- keep our names out there," said Laws. "And there's always those small perks -- when a girl comes and talks to me after my set, that doesn't hurt either."
Former St. Pete resident Nate Hassan, who played in local funk-rock band 28 Gates years back, now plays drums with a breakout Mariachi punk act out of New York City called Outernational. Hassan and Outernational enjoyed one of SXSW's most buzzed-about moments when they jammed out with Tom Morello during Morello's "Occupy SXSW" street session.
Set It Off, the Clearwater band recently signed to national label Equal Vision Records (home to Say Anything, Chiodos and Eisley), catered to a younger crowd at the Lucky Thirteen club on Sixth. And Largo/St. Pete act Alexander and the Grapes, a Fleet Foxy folk act with some serious songwriting chops, played multiple shows and documented their entire experience with Polaroids. After opting for the official artist wristband (which grants artists access into any of the official showcases) over being paid for their gigs, they got to check out Glen Hansard and M. Ward.
But if there was one man who best made Tampa Bay's presence known at SXSW, it was New Granada label head and drummer Keith Ulrey (who brought the aforementioned Sleepy Vikings, Rec Center and Alexander and the Grapes to SXSW).
"Being a part of SXSW as an official participating record label is very gratifying," he said. "It's not a matter of taking it to the next level or helping a band be discovered. Those things rarely happen anymore. I'm just happy to be a part of it, to showcase the label and the acts."
Following an inspiring Springsteen keynote speech that encouraged young bands to "learn how to bring it live, night after night," St. Pete city council member Steve Kornell said something to me in passing that we all just might think about.
"You know, one day I think we could really do something huge like this with our music scene, too."
-- Review/photos by Carole Liparoto, tbt*
SLEEPY VIKINGS (AND THEIR GEAR):
LAWS AND MASON CAINE:
THE HUMAN CONDITION:
SET IT OFF: