Rick Perry. Matthew McConaughey. Walker Texas Ranger.
This was about all I knew about Texas prior to a few weeks ago. The state characterized by its larger than life stereotypes has the honor of being the largest of the continental states and the bane of countless jokes in the East. I'll admit, I have always been under the impression that Texas is little more than a collection of right-wing religious zealots perpetually striving to keep evolution out of our schools and minorities out of our borders. Then, over Syracuse University's spring break, I visited Austin for SXSW.
I was struck immediately by the modern hipness of the city. No one wore 10-gallon hats or cowboy boots. There were no checkered shirts tucked into enormous belt buckles. People in the city were, for the most part, really cool. As I wandered the streets wearing boots, jeans and a jacket leftover from a morning flight out of snowy Syracuse, I felt eerily out of place in the stylish young city. Tattooed and pierced hipsters rode by on petticabs and sipped coffee or margaritas at the countless street-side cafes.
I happened to be in Austin for the film portion of SXSW, taking place March 9-16, but the festival also hosts a music and interactive portion. I arrived Wednesday, March 7 in order to scope out the scene prior to the festivities (plus airfare was way cheaper then). That day I discovered Austin's legendary 6th St. district--a few crowded blocks downtown jam-packed with bars, restaurants, movie theaters and lots and lots of music venues. Every bar in Austin, it seems, has a stage and sound system ready to host live music. And with the festival going on all around us, the music was endless.
The music portion of SXSW started Tuesday, March 13. The end of the interactive conference and the beginning of the music festival swept Austin like an unceremonious changing of the guard. The geeks and techies that had dominated downtown that first weekend were slowly being replaced by dreadlocks and hemp miniskirts. Whereas stragglers on the street had once tried to hand out free fliers for parties and swag for conference attendees, they now asked for spare cigarettes or concert tickets.
The nightlife--while never lacking in Austin--boomed during the music festival. Live music poured out of every establishment on 6th St. Double decker buses that drove by carting portable parties and live DJs on the upper level. Street musicians (good ones) entertained on every corner. I had the chance to see a few particularly good shows at Pete's Piano Bar and Stubbs BBQ.
From what I've been told repeatedly, Austin is a film town. The theaters alone prove this point. Growing up in Syracuse, I've become accustomed to the uninspired monotony and consistency of Regal Cinemas in shopping malls. Austin, on the other hand, is home to the Alamo Draughthouse theaters--a chain of locally-owned independent theaters. The Draughthouse serves food and beer (and Guinness milkshakes, with which I became quite familiar) throughout the films and offers moviegoers a unique experience. Each film opens with a clever clip and harsh warning about talking, texting or tweeting during films. And they're serious: if you get caught doing either, you're out.
The interactive portion of SXSW is basically just an excuse to get together, meet people and party. And Austin knows how to party. Drinking commences every evening around 4 or 5 p.m. with margaritas or beers outdoors somewhere. Nearly every bar has some type of outdoor patio or lawn where patrons can smoke, play yard games and have bonfires. The geeks offer apps for individual parties, Foursquare and Twitter incentives and every other technological marketing gag you can think of to attract attendees. And it works. The streets bump until all hours of the night with people just looking to have a good time.
And everywhere in Austin there is great food. Aside from the food trucks on every block and great BBQ joints, they've got some unique spots, like a place called Gourdoughs Specialty Donuts: a gourmet doughnut shop. Gourdoughs offers enormous, calorie-loaded doughnuts like the "Black Out," a chocolate doughnut covered in fudge, chocolate syrup and chocolate chips. Or, for something a bit healthier, there's the "Mother Clucker," a fresh doughnut topped with fried chicken strips and honey butter. Gourdoughs was exactly what I expected from my trip to Texas.
Photos by Chris Baker
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