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SXSW Wrap-Up: A 12-Day Odyssey in Austin

SXSW

Twelve days is almost two weeks, which is about half a month, months being sizable fractions of a year, and I have lived 24.978 of those. As much as it makes sense to quantify my time spent in Austin for South by Southwest as a series of days, flying back to NYC yesterday afternoon with barbecue-sauce-stained sweatpants, a twisted ankle, and a 1:1 yawn-to-exhale ratio solidifies the fact that this was a significant chunk of my life.

When I say I arrived in Austin without a single plan, I couldn’t be telling more of the truth. For starters, I left New York City without a hotel reservation, and when I touched down in Texas, I still didn’t have a hotel reservation. This disregard for what the future would hold truly set the tone for my stay in the city. While many a showcase, movie screening, interview, or party made its way to my schedule now and then, it was the things that randomly presented themselves that made this one of the more exhaustive and enjoyable journeys of my life. Yes, each day had its common occurrences — being aroused by a shocked housekeeper, a frantic, 10-minute morning search for my badge, my phone dying promptly at 1:15 a.m. — each also had a moment that stuck out, leading to days that did not run completely together.

Day 1: Thursday, March 8, 4 p.m. — No One’s Here

Upon arriving at my hotel (hey, I found a hotel!), I walked my backpack and duffel bag up to the front desk, slightly expecting my reservation to have not gone through. After saying “Rembert Browne” like I was unsure of my own name, the attendant looked up and said, “Why yes, we have a Rembert Browne here on file for … 11 nights? Is this right?” I responded in the affirmative and the reality of this situation began to sink in. “Are you here for South By?” he asked. Again, I shook my head up and down. “Wow” he mouthed. After another minute, he looked up and said, “Where do you want to stay?”

I didn’t respond, because I didn’t know what that meant. You’re supposed to put me somewhere and that’s it, end of story. After two seconds of silence, he said, “No one’s here. For SXSW at least, you’re the first one.” Alone time, here we come.

Day 2: Friday, March 9, 10 p.m.-11:30 p.m. — The Tech Bar Crawl

After starting off the trip 0-for-1 on socializing at night, I received a text from a college friend who said I had to meet up with him and his colleagues at Square to get a real glimpse into the start-up social scene. I said yes, and half an hour later I joined them at a tech start-up mixer. I knew immediately that this spot was for the cool kids, because everyone’s name tag showed that they either worked for a start-up I’d heard of or an app I’ve downloaded. There was the girl from Klout, the guy from Flipboard, the circle of people from Spotify, and, yes, my mobile payment triumvirate from Square.

We left after about two minutes. Too uppity, I think. To find the common folk, we went to a normal bar. This wasn’t the best of decisions for me to get a taste of the hardcore start-up nerdfest underworld, because the scene was simply 15 people drinking Dos Equis at the bar, calmly nodding their heads to David Guetta remixes. Sensing my anxious desire for a weirder scene — immediately — my friend went on the text-message hunt for the proper party. After a few other stops, we finally found the place. The official SXSW-sponsored Friday-night Interactive party, at The Driskill.

This wasn’t some exclusive event, something you had to have an RSVP for or know the person running the list. Quite the contrary: This was the river delta of Interactive parties. The one everyone goes to because it’s in the “Welcome to SXSW” booklet. This was exactly where I wanted to be. And after a few minutes of pushing my way to the bar, I saw precisely what I wanted to see: a guy flirting with a girl — but to show off the new app he was working on. I became completely fixated on this for 10 minutes; not only was it bolder than anything I’ve ever tried (I’ve got nothing beyond, “Hey, you like me yet?”), it was also working like a charm. What a legend.

Day 3: Saturday, March 10, 3 p.m. — The Encounter

It’s half embarrassing to internally admit it, and half embarrassing to vocally admit it, but I want to be a rock star. There’s no way around it. At the same time, I would be completely satisfied with my face never being on camera or my voice never being recorded. These two notions don’t really go hand-in-hand, but I’m OK with that. It’s why I’ve always loved writing, because you have a good deal of anonymity connected to your work. When Ke$ha releases a new single, she can’t just walk through the mall without multiple people coming up to her, but when I write about movie trailers, at most I’ll get a snarky Gchat message from a reader saying I used “affect” instead of “effect.” (Yes, I compared myself to Ke$ha. It’s what I do.) So you have to imagine the disbelief that rushed over me when, mid-drink, I got a tap on the shoulder from a guy asking if I’m “Rembert Browne.”

I answered back with yes, not admitting that I knew exactly who he was. It was Max Linsky, curator of Longform, and I knew his face simply through the way people recognize each other these days, via Twitter avatar. Again, embarrassing. I don’t know if he overheard my drinking partner say my name, or figured there probably wasn’t anyone else in Austin dressed like Jamie Foxx from The Soloist (as my friend so rudely once stated about my style choices), but it was awesome. Before parting ways, we traded information and a day later we were two young guys, just talking about life.

Day 4: Sunday, March 11, 11 p.m. — The Transition

The only thing I like more than dancing at a party is watching people dance at a party. This was made possible, after a 15-minute hassle at the door from the bouncer, by my entrance into the Foursquare Interactive bash.

Understanding that this was one of my last nights to enjoy SXSW with just the Interactive crowd, I was determined to stay as long as possible and maybe, just maybe, make some friends. I have no problem being by myself at a crowded party, but I’m terribly awkward when it comes to just inserting myself into a group of friends. After 30 minutes of doing loops, I found my friend Grace. This was good. We sat in the back and watched people dance and have a ball. I was starting to get the itch to just get my eagle on, and so I grabbed my friend and we started making our way toward the stage. After every song we pushed up about 15 feet, until six songs went by and we’d made it. In keeping with the tone of the whole Interactive portion, crews of people who worked together were all dancing with each other. And then there was me and Grace. Assuming that awkwardly dancing would be the story of my night, I was beginning to question this decision.

And then “Poison” came on. The only way to describe what happens to me when I hear this song is that, even if played at a funeral — or my funeral — I do the hardest running man you’ve ever seen.

https://www.youtube.com/v/3FDOATozG1s?version=3&hl=en_US

Once it started, a circle formed. With any other song, I would avoid that circle, but not with “Poison.” I just can’t. I jumped inside, was joined by two other members of the Bell Biv DeVoe fan club, and then left. Suddenly finding myself in a conversation with three other people, starting to enjoy this rush of new-found confidence, I told them, “If the DJ’s any good, he’ll transition right into ‘Motown Philly.'” Thirty seconds later, the DJ made me a mini-celebrity by playing “Motown Philly.” The solo running man was replaced by my three new friends and me pretending to be Boyz II Men for anyone in the immediate vicinity. There was no turning back, for the night and the rest of my time in Austin.

Day 5: Monday, March 12, 9:15 p.m. — Me and My GIRLS

Walking into the Jay-Z concert with my First Weekend of Austin MVP Lewis Kay, I couldn’t tell what type of crowd this would be. This was my first — for better or worse — of many VIP experiences I would have during my time in Austin, and I always worry when there are assigned seats for hyped shows. Once the show started, I had Lewis to the left of me, and a crew of women who knew each other, all seemingly around my age, to my right. As the concert pushed through, we repeatedly would stand up and be loud at the same time. After this happened on about five separate occasions, I couldn’t ignore this anymore and started chatting them up. And that’s when Jay-Z started into “Glory,” his song for daughter Blue Ivy Carter.

While the people around us were sitting or quietly standing, the four of us were half holding each other, half making “this is TOO beautiful” gestures toward Shawn Carter. There was a lot of jumping up and down, hands over faces, and mimicking Jay holding up Blue Ivy like Simba on Pride Rock. Why no one else was reacting like this was absurd, but we didn’t care. For all intents and purposes, this was Jay performing for his adoring crowd of four emotional crazies. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any realer, the audio of Blue Ivy crying at the end of the track kicked in. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what me and the girls did, not for fear of our reputations, but because we all blacked out.

Day 6: Tuesday, March 13, 2 p.m. — My Guy Yale

One of the highlights of SXSW was free transportation around Austin via Chevy. They had between 45 and 50 cars out on the road at any given time, looking to take people wherever they needed to go. The previous Friday, I had my first free car experience with a driver named Yale. I knew I liked him immediately, because as soon as he picked me up, he asked my name while simultaneously pulling out a clipboard. I thought he had to document information on who he transported, so I went into the whole spiel, “It’s Rembert Browne with an E on the end, Rembert is R-E-M …” Before I could finish spelling it out, Yale looked at me and said, “Hey, man, I just wanted to know who I was chatting with. That’s all.” Loved this guy. Anyway, we had a great first ride that Friday as he asked me about my time in Austin so far, and I asked him about college.

Fast-forward to Tuesday and I’m looking for a cab to take me back to my hotel. In full tunnel-vision mode, I somehow overlooked the car that was heading my direction. As I stood on the corner, I’m sure looking helpless, I heard a honk. It’s from a Chevy, but there’s someone already in the passenger seat. I run over to see what’s up. It’s Yale. He leans over his passenger and says, “Rembert, go get three pairs of those free sandals on the corner and get in this car before the light turns green.”

I couldn’t believe it. Yale remembered my name. After a millisecond of “he remembered my name” elation, I sprang into action as if I had just received the most fun yet important order from my commanding officer. I turned around, sheepishly asked the two girls for three pairs of sandals and pointed to the car with Yale and passenger, got them, smiled, and then dove in the backseat just as the light turned green. Success. Great success.

Day 7: Wednesday, March 14, 9 a.m. — The Saga Is Over

At 9 a.m., an envelope was slipped under my door and I couldn’t have been happier.

This envelope was so important because it ended a very different 12-day stretch. While I did arrive in Austin on the previous Thursday, my journey to Austin technically started Monday, March 5. On Friday, March 2, my wallet was stolen. It wasn’t until the following Sunday, however, that I realized this was a huge problem with regard to getting on a plane to Austin. Also currently passport-less, I went through the process of reapplying for a Georgia license. Upon doing that, I learned it wouldn’t be delivered for seven to 10 business days. This was bad. Because the DMV was closed until Monday morning, I woke up first thing and spoke with someone. I told her my dilemma and asked her what my options were for getting on a flight on Thursday. Her response: “Sir, I’m afraid you’re gonna have to get down here and pick up a temporary, paper license yourself. That’s the only way.” I hung up, floored, because the reality of the situation had just slapped me in the face. I called my mother at 1:15 p.m. and explained to her what was up. “Mom, I have to fly to Atlanta and get a paper license and fly back before Thursday. This is going to be miserable.” Realizing that her son was slow and still hadn’t figured out this situation, she said, “How are you getting on a plane? Isn’t that the whole point?”

My heart sank. Not only did I need to go to Atlanta, but I somehow had to get down the East Coast by not-plane. This was bad. Devastated, I logged on to the Amtrak website and looked up trains to Atlanta from NYC. There’s one that leaves every day. At 2:15 p.m. And it’s 18 hours long. I looked at my time on my laptop: 1:50 p.m. I threw all of my Apple devices in a backpack, grabbed a banana, and booked it, making the train by about 15 seconds. At 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, I was in my mother’s car en route to IHOP, at 10 a.m. I was at the DMV, by 1 p.m. my paper driver’s license had gotten me through airport security, and at 4:15 p.m. that same day I was sitting on my purple couch, in New York City, saying (aloud) that this stupid festival had better be worth it.

After six days of hassle the saga was finally over. I had a real, plastic driver’s license. My confidence was at an all-time high. Oh, to be 21 again.

Day 8: Thursday, March 15, 6-8 p.m. — Me Time, Feet Time

I like eating alone. Because so much of my time in Austin (and in regular life) involved talking to people, sending texts and e-mails, going to events, and being an overall social person, if it weren’t for my ability to slip back into only-child mode and not speak while enjoying a Caesar salad at my hotel bar, I’d probably go crazy. This was especially true at SXSW, as the city was suddenly being flooded with friends from New York City and Atlanta. Dinner alone at my hotel bar was my daily break from people. My eighth one, however, was notable because of a conversation that startled me out of my two-hour happy place. As I devoured my salad, I had my feet rudely up on the chair next to me. (I was beginning to get way too comfortable in this hotel.) The guy two seats down chuckled and then said aloud, “Looks like you’re having a fun South by Southwest.” I looked around; no one else was there. I nodded my head in agreement (my mouth was so aggressively full of iceberg lettuce that I couldn’t begin to talk) and then noticed that he was pointing to my shoes.

It was the first time I had actually looked at my shoes since I arrived in Austin. “Ha, so this is why my feet hurt?” I had another pair of sneakers in better condition, but these beat-up shoes were now very much a part of my trip. Sure, it felt like I was walking barefoot in glassy sand, but I knew that was just how it was going to be from there on out. If there was anything that represented Day 8 of 12 in Austin, it was these tattered, incorrectly laced, yet still-kind-of-fly Keds. I was too close to the end to abandon them now.

Day 9: Friday, March 16, 11:05-11:20 p.m. — What Up, Gangstaaaaah

Once the word got out that 50 Cent would be performing his classic Get Rich or Die Tryin’ in its entirety, that shot up to the “must-see” lists of many a SXSW spectator. As with many of the evening showcases, I used some press leverage to obtain a spot at the concert. While I felt great about this because it saved about 10-12 hours of cumulative line-standing over the scope of the festival, it also has revealed that I am a horrible member of the VIP crowd. Just the worst. Yes, this is a gross generalization, because there are some people who I’ve been with who share in my “can’t play it cool” shortcomings, but for the most part I really can’t watch a show and stand above thousands of fans losing their minds while I stand above as a stoic onlooker. I am a horrible stoic onlooker.

So after three days of getting less and less capable of not bouncing around like a fool while music was being performed, I tucked my press badge under my shirt, took myself down to the main floor with a few of my friends, and reacted to 50 performing “What Up, Gangsta,” “Patiently Waiting” (with Eminem), and “Many Men” as I did in 2003, like a complete fool.

For 15 minutes, I was back and it felt good. Then my friends left and I went back upstairs. Can’t win ’em all.

Day 10: Saturday, March 17, 2-8 p.m. — The FADER Fort

There’s nothing I like less than networking. It’s just the worst. What I do like, however, is meeting cool people in highly organic ways who end up doing similar stuff. That’s the best. For the entire Music portion of SXSW that’s what FADER mag’s venue, The FADER Fort, became. It was especially true on the final day of their showcase series, with the headliners being “TBA” followed by “Special Guest.”

The interesting thing about SXSW was that there was an onslaught of twentysomethings sent by their various writing outlets to Austin to play, but to also then write about “the play.” We were all having way too much fun, but at some point each day, we had to remove ourselves from the fun and actually continue to not get fired by writing about what we saw. At the Fort on Saturday, I watched (and participated) as many people who fit this occupational description found each other, finally crossing over into that Internet-turned-real-life friendship. Many of us were here to write about the same thing, as often is the case with the young and fun, we were music fans first, writers on assignment second. Yes, many a Twitter handle, cellphone number, e-mail address (and even the occasional business card) were exchanged, but more because people wanted to hang out once we all made it back to New York. That’s the way it should be, I think.

Day 11: Sunday, March 18, 11 p.m. — No One’s Here … Again … Sort of …

It’s my second Sunday, but this time I looked up and the SXSW crowd had cleared out. The festival technically went through the 19th, but very few events were scheduled that day and most people were excitedly hurrying back to their homelands and their own beds. Understanding when I woke up Sunday morning that I still had another day and a half left in Austin, I figured I’d just chill out and start the detox process early. But halfway through, I was contacted by a crew of Austinites I had met at a bar the night before who were wondering what I was doing with my last night in town. Having met them for about 45 minutes the previous evening, I figured that was enough time to declare them “not killers,” so I told them I was down for whatever. After meeting up and having a drink, they decide karaoke at Ego’s was on the agenda for the night. The beauty that followed upon stepping in this place was almost too much for words, but I think it can be summed up in the track list for the evening:

  • “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” — Aerosmith
  • “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” — Trace Adkins
  • “My Girl” — The Temptations
  • “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” — The Darkness (he got a standing ovation)
  • “Heartbreaker” — Mariah Carey
  • “Sex on Fire” — Kings of Leon
  • “Gucci Gucci” — Kreayshawn (sung by Maria, who looked like someone’s aunt, but owned it)
  • “Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover” — Sophie B. Hawkins
  • “Dreaming of You” — Selena
  • “Ode to My Family” — The Cranberries
  • “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” — Bryan Adams
  • “Bohemian Rhapsody” — Queen (a horrible performance by the 15-year HS reunion at the bar)
  • “Boys of Summer” — Don Henley
  • “Straight On” — Heart
  • “Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog

There was an hour-and-a-half wait to get your song played, but finally, after simultaneously suffering through and enjoying the wide range of music that the good book had to offer, my crew got to perform.

“Otis” — Jay-Z/Kanye (performed by Alan. Nailed it. Did both parts, ’cause he can.)

And the night ender:

“Make Me Proud” — Drake featuring Nicki Minaj (performed by Kaci and Michelle, yours truly, and Alan)

While our night did not end with Ego’s, this was the perfect venue to conclude my nightlife portion in Austin. I’ll see you soon, Ego’s. You didn’t even get to hear me belt Eve 6.

Day 12: Monday, March 19, 10 a.m. — Bye, Austin, Thanks for the Free Stuff

What I brought to Austin …

… And what I left Austin with:

In case you can’t make all of it out, that’s:

1 screener
2 bracelets
1 pair of shades
3 buttons
1 fan
3 tech napkins
15 flyers
1 set of car keys
9 wristbands
1 T-shirt
2 badges
1 map
4 stickers
1 bottle opener
3 ticket stubs
25 business cards
2 room keys
4 replacement room keys
1 new license
23 receipts
3 tote bags
9 SXSW brochures
8 USA Todays
1 pair of flip-flops
7 ketchup packets
1 order of banana pudding, aged 1 day
1 order of brisket, aged 1 day
2 #DEWeezy posters

Here’s to checking an extra bag and not being mad. Thanks, Austin.