As I do in most crowds, I felt uncomfortably out of place waiting for Desert Noises’ outdoor show to start at Austin’s Easy Tiger Bake Shop & Beer Garden during the 2014 South by Southwest music festival. Standing there alone but surrounded by strangers, weighed down with a heavy messenger bag full of the accoutrements of a reporter, all I could think about was my aching feet, my empty stomach and the ever-present buzz of inane chatter.
But then a more-than-slightly-intoxicated girl standing in front of me reminded me of why I was at SXSW in the first place. After the four members of the Provo rock & roll band Desert Noises threw themselves into their joyously energetic set, she took it upon herself to get as many people dancing in front of the stage as she could. But since most of the people in the audience were content to talk to their neighbors or stand aloof with a beer in hand, she finally loudly addressed the entire crowd during a pause between songs, ending with the statement “Not dancing to music is like not praying to God!”
It would be easy to chalk up her actions to the consumption of one or two beers more than she could gracefully handle that afternoon. But she was on to something profound. It was then that I realized that all the people (myself included) who were self-consciously worrying about looking a little sillywhile they let loose and danced to a great song—not just at the Desert Noises show but at SXSW in general—were missing the point of the festival.
With its scores of impossibly trendy attendees all snapping flattering photos of one another and the insanely long lines to get in to watch such & such megastar music act, SXSW can seem like a giant ego-stroke. But at its core, SXSW is about watching bands that you’d previously only known through Spotify and seeing them as actual sweaty humans who are making music happen with their own hands. Or witnessing a local band like Desert Noises bring their music to an entirely fresh audience with confidence and flair. Or even discovering your new favorite band. SXSW is about connecting to music, not just consuming it.
And in the wide range of music I experienced at SXSW, I saw plenty of people, in audiences and bands alike, being affected by the uniting power of music.
As I watched local electro-pop band Mideau perform on a noisy patio, I saw passersby drawn to the sound stop in their tracks and peep over the railing to catch a glimpse of Libbie Linton and Spencer Harrison at work. I saw the look of genuine amazement on the face of lead vocalist/guitarist Brian Sella of New Jersey punk band The Front Bottoms when the fan-filled crowd sang along to almost every lyric of their set. I saw the excitement on the faces of the audience at a show by Missouri’s Ha Ha Tonka when a rowdy rendition of “St. Nick on the Fourth in a Fervor” made the stage shake.
And that connection to music didn’t happen only in “official” SXSW showcases, either. On nearly every street corner and in nearly every doorway on 6th Street, numerous buskers played accordions, cellos, beat-up guitars and saxophones, or even just created foot-tapping beats with an improvised drum set made out of some plastic buckets and upended pots and pans. As they started playing, they’d quickly become surrounded by a ring of interested people, because it didn’t matter if a musician was standing on a stage or sitting in the gutter: They all had music inside of them, waiting to be released.
So when that buzzed girl started dancing at the Desert Noises show without a care in the world, I realized none of my worries really mattered. I closed my eyes, tipped my face up to the sunset-illuminated sky and swayed to the beat.