SXSW 2015 Tour: Tacos and Bibimbap and Also Some Music

After a hearty breakfast, we buckle down for a long drive. Google Maps says eight hours, and it will end up being more like ten. This is one of those occasions when I’m glad to have a bunch of work to do to pass the time. We stop to pee what feels like thirty times and I eat some things that are best left undocumented. Our first gig is the Western Vinyl showcase at The Hideout Theater. This is our first gig on the tour with an actual green room, and we immediately sprawl out on the hardwood floor to stretch. Everyone feels like shit. We are grunting and cracking and stepping on each other and pulling limbs and the whole thing is just a mess. I, for one, also smell pretty bad. After about twenty minutes I start to feel a little better. I lay down right on the floor and feel my vertebrae start to line up. Not all the way, that won’t happen until I get home and sleep in a bed for several consecutive nights and maybe do some yoga, but enough to feel like progress has been made. A festival volunteer sits in the green room. Is she literally just here to ensure that everyone is in the green room right before showtime? It seems that way. A boring job, which I hope is made more entertaining by watching my battered corpus attempt to move in a physically healthy manner. It is a bizarrely intimate moment to share with a stranger, the spectacle of a bunch of bodies that routinely travel together attempting to right themselves. I am dazed from being in the van all day, and nauseous in a peculiar manner that feels located in my head rather than my stomach. Before I played music I always thought of a green room as an extravagance, the province of divas too arrogant and spoiled to interact with normal folk. After having been on several tours of varying lengths, I now acknowledge that it is all but necessary for the mental health of the performers. Just having a place you can go to collect your thoughts for even an hour or so is such a luxury, and if you can lie down, even better. Touring involves way less alone time than even the most extroverted person is accustomed to. In a similar vein, we have secured two rooms at a Motel 6 for the duration of our stay in Austin. As the guy who handles the money, I initially objected to this plan, but lying on the hardwood floor feeling my shoulder crack in ways it shouldn’t I am very glad I was overruled. Everyone sleeps in a bed. We may be doing six shows in 48 hours, but at least everyone sleeps in a bed.

The show goes well, I think. People seem to like it and the sound is great. I don’t know anymore, I have been in a van all day and I’m so out of it I don’t even use my drink tickets to obtain free beer. Being able to hear everything is rare, and we’re able to do some stuff with dynamics that isn’t usually possible. Loading out from the show, I hear a sound. Someone is playing psychedelic prog fusion music, audible above the background noise of the festival. Wow, it’s actually pretty loud. Is it getting louder? Is it getting closer?

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The psychedelic prog fusion music is coming from inside the bus festooned with hieroglyphics. The band is playing inside the bus. The band can be seen on the blue side, and on the red side are people who appear to have voluntarily entered this bus to get even closer to the funky grooves. Downtown Austin right now is already a brutal sensory onslaught. Bottles are breaking, lights are flashing, car stereos are blasting, the intoxicated are stumbling, food trucks face block-long lines, straight girls grab each others’ asses and take ass-selfies for packs of hooting males in graphic tees, a thousand thousand corporate logos litter the sky. The idea of getting into a slow-moving vehicle to traverse this maze of horrors accompanied by this music is so far from anything I or anyone I know would do I just have to laugh. When Sartre said “hell is other people,” he was talking about this bus. After all, if hell is other people, hell is also you. Fuck, that is probably exactly the sort of conversation taking place on the bus. Time for bed.

Our lodging for the night is a Motel 6, graciously procured far in advance at a non-usurious rate by Brian from the label. Lodging during SXSW is big business; it is not at all uncommon to spend thousands renting a place and split it among however many people you can get together. One festival volunteer I talked to says most people she knows move out of town for the duration and use their income from renting to cover anywhere from six to ten months of rent depending on the desirability of their location. That is Adam Smith’s invisible hand giving you a hearty spanking. We are very fortunate to be staying in a normal lodging situation and not going broke on it. Checking in takes a while, as Brian booked a block of rooms for his various bands and the guy behind the counter claims not to know which ones were already checked into. Are you fucking kidding me? How is it possible to not know which rooms have been checked into? Is he being an asshole, or just not very bright, or both? After some back and forth, I decide it is both. He helpfully suggests that I go out and look at the rooms in question to see which ones have their curtains closed. Now that’s customer service. Humans are going to Mars and a doctor can take a kidney out of my body and put it in your body and I am going to run around and look at curtains to see if they are open or closed because this man with a computer full of highly specific information about the operation of this exact hotel can’t figure it out. I am so fucking tired. Is this going to be the thing that does it, that finally drives me mad? “So sad,” my bandmates will say to my distraught family as they watch me stare glassy-eyed into the middle distance muttering to myself, “he made it all the way to the hotel.” Out of options, I leave the office and run around the perimeter of the hotel trying to find all the rooms and evaluate their status. I find the two that are free, and breathlessly make my way back to the office to complete the transaction. I get the keys. We load the gear into the room, as is standard practice for these situations. Somehow, I sleep.

I wake up before the others to take a conference call for work, where it is an hour later than it is in Austin. Unable to fall back asleep, I survey my surroundings. We are next to a highway, so mobility on foot is limited, but off to the right I see an amazing sight: a barbecue restaurant, literally right next door to the motel! It is time for breakfast, ideally in taco form. The place is called Donn’s, and it is fully en pointe. Breakfast appears to be available all day, and you can get a basic egg and cheese taco for a buck fifty. A pleasantly smoky aroma greets the visitor. They have sweet and unsweet tea in a self-serve format, allowing me to make myself a half-sweet while I wait for my food, and a great assortment of both barbecue things and Mexican things. This is exactly the sort of thing I should be eating in Austin. I am paralyzed with indecision looking at the menu.

Eventually, I settle on three tacos: brisket and bean, chorizo and egg, and chicharron and egg with ranchero sauce.

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The brisket and bean is the star of the show. Why are these two things not put together in taco form more often? The brisket itself has a strong smoke flavor which melds nicely with the fatty refried beans. Salsa verde adds sharpness. Chicharron and egg with ranchero is tasty, but a little odd to my palate. I love chicharron as a snack, but I think of it as a crispy thing, and as soon as you add wet eggs and sauce it becomes more chewy. This is a totally valid way to enjoy chicharron, but it’s not my style. It takes it that step too close to just chomping on chewy fat, which having been raised a vegetarian I still haven’t quite gotten used to, and that texture plus the scrambled egg texture does something I don’t like. Flavorwise, though, it is a success. Chorizo and egg is delicious, but not super exciting; it’s just chorizo and egg. It’s definitely a rather different chorizo than you get back home, more brown than red in color and with a sharper flavor. The restaurant has two barbecue sauces, a molasses-based honey barbecue I find a little too sweet and a vinegary hot sauce involving both pickle juice and jalapeno juice which is perfect. All tacos get all sauces. The tortilla is noteworthy, too; a slightly thicker-than-average flour tortilla, pillowy soft and warmed to perfection on the flat-top. It maintains its structural integrity under even the wettest ingredients. Amazing. I did not need to eat three tacos, they are easily one and a half to two times the size of a standard New York taco. Next time I will only get two, and at least one will be brisket and bean.

Our first show is outdoors, and the rain is beating down like it has some strong opinions about the economic and ethical implications of the festival. I am perversely pleased, because I only brought one pair of shoes on tour, a clunky old pair of boots on its last legs, and I finally feel justified for wearing them in the wet and the mud. “It better rain,” I remember thinking to myself when I packed. Careful what you wish for. We are under a tent, but it’s not really doing the job. Things under the tent are wet. Some poor fucker’s drums are completely soaked because they were too close to the edge of the tent. The power strip is visibly wet. I express this concern to the soundman, who advises me to wipe it dry. I was actually more concerned about the water potentially inside the power strip, but I’m not about to say belabor the point. I get to leave after the show is over, and he has to stay here all day listening to people like me bitch about things he has no control over. I dry it as thoroughly as I can and pray I don’t start some sort of electrical fire. It’s a surge protector, right? It’ll protect me from the surge? I don’t know, I always did real bad in science class. I turn the amp on without incident. The amp is awesome, a vintage Sunn head and an 8×10 cabinet. I can feel the air moving behind me. It’s almost enough to distract me from the fact that we might die. I love my sensible, economical Avatar 2×10 cabinet, and it has always been more than enough power for my gigs, but it’s not as viscerally satisfying as a cabinet the size and weight of an adult human. We load in and out through the place where all the Topo Chico is kept, and I resist the urge to steal one. For now.

After the set, I go inside to hang for a bit before our next show. We have several hours to kill. I take some time to call the lady back home and catch up in more depth than is possible via text message. It’s comforting to hear her voice amidst all the chaos. FaceTime is only possible for a minute or so what with everyone hogging the 3G for miles around, but seeing each other’s faces for even a moment does something important. When we hang up I enter the bar to find that Celestial Shore is there, having played earlier at the same show. One of the funny things about SXSW is that it’s ostensibly about exposure and networking, but in practice you’re going to play with people you know because they know the people that booked the show you’re on. Of course, networking and stuff, still happens, but in my experience you’re never that far from a familiar face. Sam and I break away in search of food trucks. The rain has let up temporarily, and we might not have much time. We are disappointed to see many food trucks closed, including Chi’Lantro, which I usually rely on for my Korean fix in this part of town. This seems like a poor economic choice on their part. What the hell, Chi’Lantro? I thought we had something special. We are similarly disappointed about the non-open status of a very promising-smelling brisket truck. Finally, success: a Korean truck across the street is open. That is the thing.

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We both get bibimbap. Bibimbap is probably the perfect food. If I had to only eat one food forever, this might be it. It is the best compromise between deliciousness and nutritive value. Every bite is different, and every food group and flavor is represented. The ingredients remain distinct from one another, but are so complementary as to create an effect greater than the sum of the parts. Delicious pickled and/or marinated vegetables, perfectly-done rice, savory bulgogi, and a fried egg on top, yolk still quivering, dusted with sesame seeds. The thing in the plastic container is chili garlic sauce, which I use all of. This is a very good example of bibimbap, I must say. If you’re not going to the actual restaurant and getting it in the stone bowl, this is about as good as you’ll get. I am fully sated, and there is not a grain of rice left behind.

Eventually we head off to the next show, an all-day affair featuring a bunch more friends and colleagues. Our show is very late, and we still have to kill a lot of time. I make the rounds, catching up and shooting the shit and exchanging road stories. Even after all this, talking at great length to people I genuinely want to see, there is a lot of time to kill. Hours. I don’t want to start drinking, because even at a slow pace I’d be wasted by set time. Fortunately I run into Carlos having the same dilemma, and we decide to set out in search of food. Almost immediately, we find the obvious choice: Kerbey Lane. We both remember Stephanie having spoken very highly of it, and it is exactly the sort of bougie diner experience I feel like treating myself to in a festival atmosphere. Breakfast all night. The menu has way too many pages, and I am again paralyzed with indecision. Eventually I settle on this monstrosity, and I am not disappointed.

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What you see here is a sort of benedict, using a biscuit instead of an English muffin as the bread. On top of the biscuit, instead of ham, is a crispy chicken cutlet. On top of the cutlet is an egg over easy, and on top of the egg is green chile sauce. I go with black beans on the side. This meal is a new level of decadence, even for me. This is on some Roman emperor shit. I can imagine Nero eating this while getting a blowjob and ordering his slaves to fight each other to the death. Every individual element of this meal is either extremely smelly or very bad for you, and it is fucking delicious. The chicken stays spectacularly crispy throughout, despite the eggs and chile atop. The biscuits are of a high quality, fluffy and buttery. Green chile sauce adds a nice slow burn, not aggressive but definitely noticeable. The red onions are not merely garnish, but add a certain piquancy, and I carefully apportion them over the course of the meal. I just dump the black beans on top and go for it, trying to get every ingredient into every bite. It is amazing. I drink a bunch of coffee, too, because fuck it, it will be at least six hours before I can even try to sleep. We are joined by other members of the Ava Luna and Krill touring parties, getting Jonah’s attention by knocking on the window as he walks past. This is the place to be. Becca sees what I am eating and, after briefly hesitating due to health concerns, orders the exact same thing. She, too, is well pleased with her decision.

Eventually we make our way back to the venue, now with an acceptable amount of time to pass. I order a Lone Star, which is what people drink in Texas instead of Rolling Rock. It does the job. Some combination of the vibe, the stage, and the sound makes this show feel really good. It’s hard to always muster the right energy in a festival setting, but tonight we are on. I feel great. I have another Lone Star. Our mellow is abruptly harshed upon by closing time. I have never experience this before, but at this particular bar you actually get your drinks taken away after a certain time passes and really not very much notice is given at all. I chug my nightcap, a dry cider, much faster than I normally would, because waste not want not. I’m sure they’re just following some local ordinance but it feels hostile and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I try to find the empathy. They’ve been here all day pouring Lone Stars into our gross mouths. Now they get to go home. Now I get to go home, to Motel 6, where the light is left on for one.

In the morning, I make another trip to Donn’s, this time with Julian in tow. Knowing that my tastes in food run towards the decadent, he is skeptical. “Is this just a place that you like, or would, like, normal people also enjoy it?” He is quickly won over by the cheap breakfast tacos. If you’re not trying to eat meat, you can have two tacos and a coffee for four dollars. We are a long way from New York. Thinking I’ve learned something from last time, I only order two tacos, brisket and bean. The brisket comes sliced instead of chopped this time, and is even better than the previous day. They are so good, I want more. Am I going to order two more tacos right now? I am. I feel like I can do it. I feel like I should.

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I am sorely tempted to get brisket and bean again, but I figure in the interest of broadening horizons I ought to switch it up. Oh, but the brisket is so good. I compromise and get a brisket and potato and a barbacoa de cabeza. The brisket and potato is excellent, but I like the bean better. The barbacoa de cabeza is a whole different animal. I don’t know how to describe it other than “meaty”; it is the meatiest meat I have encountered in some time. Meat stewed in meat, imparting meat with a greater depth of meat-like qualities. It is extremely heavy and moist, and there are a few funky nonstandard flavors floating around in there to ensure the eater that this is, indeed, cabeza, full of connective tissue and et cetera. Chipotle barbacoa, this is not. I bet that shit is just brisket. As with all the other tacos, the salsa verde adds welcome contrast. This is a good taco but I feel like I’m not real enough for it. I couldn’t have more than one in a sitting. It’s just so fucking meaty. I have now eaten four tacos. How did it come to this? I did this to myself. We are each the author of our own disaster. I want to curl up in the fetal position and nap, but instead I’m going to go play three shows. Off to a great start over here.

Our first stop is outdoors, again, on the very same stage where I thought we might die last time. It is raining less hard, so I am less worried. It is later in the day than last time, late enough to treat myself to a draft cocktail from Juiceland. We usually go to Juiceland when we visit Austin, so it’s pretty cool to have it come to us. I have a bourbon punch, which is delicious but a little sweet because it involves pineapple. Carlos gets a variation on a margarita which involves kale and cucumber, and that is a delicious thing I am going to try and rip off as soon as I get home. Fresh juice and alcohol! It’s brilliant! It’s the same as, like, not having a drink, right? After our set someone tips us off that there is a cooler full of juice for bands. I get this amazing thing involving watermelon and beet and lime and salt which is a fucking revelation, salt in a juice. Delicious. A great way to get some nutrients in my body, because there is no earthly way I’m eating anything anytime soon.

Our second gig is mercifully indoors. More friends and acquaintances from all over the country are there, playing or just hanging. SXSW kind of feels like a high school reunion, only way less time has passed and you like a much higher percentage of the people. I am just now getting to a place where I might want to eat something, and the presence of an East Side King truck in the backyard of the bar convinces me I’ve got the right idea. I have seen Ellen of Palehound eating something from it, and been sorely tempted. The thing I want is a roasted brussels sprout salad.

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It does not disappoint. The sprouts are roasted to perfection, and dressed with a nice blend of sweet and spicy. Definitely some fresh herbs floating around in there too, including cilantro. The really inspired touch is on top, a piece of deep-fried bun cut into slices. Sort of an Asian fusion crouton, providing textural contrast and soaking up dressing. That is some next level shit. Our friend Greg also graciously offers us some amazing deep-fried beets. I am sated.

Our final gig is at Chain Drive, where we played last year. Apparently the location has moved, and the decor is brand new and rather chintzier than I remember. On a flavor kick after my amazing juice and salad experiences today, I order a Campari. They don’t have Campari, and I feel like an asshole. Seriously, though, what kind of bar doesn’t have Campari? Every bar has tons of bottles of weird bullshit nobody ever orders, and that is supposed to be one of them, for when I order it. I order a whiskey instead. Everybody has that. Chain Drive is a gay bar, and this time of year is probably the highest concentration of straight males to patronize it. Julian overhears one would-be patron tell his friend that “it smells like B.O. in there” as they leave. Speaking for myself, I have to agree with him. Sorry, gay men of Austin, we’re blowing up your spot this weekend. Soon we’ll all be in vans back to points unknown and you can have Chain Drive back and a way higher percentage of its occupants can have had showers recently. For the record, readers, I’ve been showering every day, but the festival experience has a way of making you smell bad almost immediately. The show this year is fun, but it feels lower-key. One stage instead of two, and it seems to be mostly just festival-goers rather than festival-goers plus everyone who would normally be there. In my current frazzled state, I am quite pleased with this situation. The show is run by our old friend Tyler of Meth Dad, who I feel like I run into a lot even though he lives in Nashville. In fact, we’ll be playing at his place in Nashville in just a few days. Tyler is the kind of standup guy who will offer you his bed to sleep in and go sleep on the floor himself. It’s always good to see him, and Zorch, and Terror Pigeon Dance Revolt, and a whole host of others. We make a plan to hang out with Zorch the following day.

It’s very late by the time we get out of there, 2 or 3 in the morning, and everyone who has not been recklessly eating all day is starving. At first we try Kerbey Lane, but it immediately becomes clear that every other drunk asshole who enjoys music had the same idea, and the wait is simply not acceptable. The group’s desire to eat clashes with its desire to pass out immediately. We just played three shows! Pretty much one after another, with loading and everything! I, for one, am running on fumes, literally and figuratively. What are we going to do? Suddenly, Julian remembers something from when he lived in Austin many years back: La Mexicana Bakery.

In addition to baked goods, La Mexicana offers the standard Mexican fare like tacos and tortas and such. I order a torta with chorizo, refried beans, and queso fresco. I thought it would come with the normal torta fixins, but it does not. It is just what I asked for, on a torta.

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Despite this minor disappointment, it is delicious. The torta roll is impressive in itself, not at all like what you get back home. There is a delicate flakiness to the exterior, almost like a croissant, and the whole thing feels lighter. Despite this lightness, it soaks up all the chorizo grease nicely. I will have to come back and be more explicit about my desires at a time when they’re not slammed with wasted people at three in the morning. It hits the spot.

Most Mexican pastries rub me the wrong way, as they contain excessive quantities of white flour and white sugar. But some of these things look really good, and everyone gets at least one to share. This leads to a positively crumb-laden table. I wipe up as best I can and leave a tip on the way out.

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Of the cookies purchased, the one on the left is the winner. We debate at great length what it might be. It looks like gingerbread, and has a similar texture, but there is no ginger. Is there molasses? Quite possibly. There are raisins in it. What is it? My receipt is no help. I am not about to get back in that line to ask, or be perceived as skipping it by this crowd. What mysterious Mexican delicacy is this? The mystery remains unsolved. The bakery’s website calls it simply “fruitbars”, the only English word on the “pan dulce” menu if I’m not mistaken. It might just be unique to this particular restaurant. Get that, if you go there. But Stephanie wins dessert with this tres leches concoction.

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This is straight milk fat and spices with nuts. It is an awesome texture, bread pudding meets creme brulee. Everyone has a spoonful or two. It is not too sweet but I can tell it is extremely bad for me. I can’t imagine eating a whole one. About half gets saved for later, and I sincerely hope it survives the journey.

I don’t even want to look at the clock when my head finally hits the pillow. There will be no show the next day, but we do have to get to Nashville for a gig Monday, so it will be a long day of driving. I ate too much pastry. Somehow, we failed to do laundry, and I am out of socks and underwear. In a few short hours, I’ll be back in the van. I have weird dreams I mostly don’t remember.

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