Every Which Way but South-By
When Charlie Brand, lead singer of the Brooklyn-based rock group Miniature Tigers, planned his band’s Texas schedule for the week of SXSW last year, there was one show he was especially excited about—and it wasn’t in Austin. Brand was looking forward to the Galax Z Fair concert at the historic Cine El Rey in McAllen.
“We get so excited every time we go down to McAllen,” Brand told me.
They’re not the only ones. Fans of indie-rock bands like Miniature Tigers are notoriously hard to excite—so-called hipster culture tends to equate lack of enthusiasm with coolness—but his band, which struggled in its early years to fill venues (“Thirty or forty people would be an awesome night,” he says), and which has now played McAllen four times, has always been enthusiastically received in the Rio Grande Valley. Galax Z Fair, which scheduled Miniature Tigers to open for the successful Athens, Georgia band Of Montreal, didn’t disappoint.
“I have so many memories of that show,” Brand recalls. “People were making art, they gave us paintings. People are just so genuine with their expressions to the band [in McAllen]. They really tell you what the music means to them, and they’re genuine about it. I don’t think bands come down there enough.”
One time that they do, though, is the week of SXSW. And it’s not just McAllen. “Spillover” festivals have sprouted in several farflung parts of the state where alternative arts and culture events are far less abundant than in Austin. In McAllen, Galax Z Fair is entering its second year. The 35 Denton festival (formerly NX35) has given North Texas audiences the chance to see SXSW artists since 2009. The Big Spill, which launched as a multi-venue festival in 2012, brings more than 100 national and local acts to stages in San Antonio over seven days in March. SXSW’s impact SXSW can even be felt as far from Austin as El Paso, where multi-platinum band Green Day, headlining SXSW in Austin, is playing a rare club show at El Paso’s city’s Tricky Falls music venue on March 13 (tickets for that performance sold out in under a minute).
For musicians, playing these spillover festivals on their way to or from Austin just makes sense. “It’s such a good thing to do if you’re coming out of South By,” Brand says. “You’re already nearby.” The opportunity to reach audiences as enthusiastic as those that Miniature Tigers find in McAllen is a bonus, and appeals to bands who want less competition for audience attention—there are more than 2,000 bands on the SXSW schedule this year. “It’s a treat when bands come down to McAllen, so everyone really appreciates it,” Brand says.
Bands pass en masse through the less-trafficked parts of Texas during SXSW week as a matter of simple geography—they have to get to Austin somehow, and many of them drive. Green Day will doubtless arrive via a caravan of buses, but even so, the band’s March tour mark a straight line from Los Angeles to Austin: Pomona, CA; Tempe, AZ; El Paso; and finally Austin for SXSW, where they’ll play the 2,700-capacity Moody Theater for Austin City Limits Live, before heading off for months of arenas, stadiums, and summer festivals across the U.S. and Europe.
The 35 Denton festival, which straddles the weekend before the SXSW music festival kicks off March 12, takes its name from the route—Interstate 35—that many artists will travel to Austin. The four-day event features nearly 100 acts from around the world, almost all of which are also playing SXSW. Dallas promoters Parade Of Flesh, meanwhile, have an all-day event called Spillover in Deep Ellum on Sunday, March 17, featuring bands on their way out of Austin. For the artists, 35 Denton and Spillover are opportunities to make some extra money and perform, instead of just sitting in a van on the long drive to and from Austin.
Tony Presley, who books music at several small venues in Fayetteville, Arkansas, says even his relatively remote college town, more than eight hours from Austin, sees a spike in the number of bands looking to play in town just before SXSW. “We have to turn away a lot of really good bands because there are already two or three other shows in town that night,” he says. “Fayetteville’s not a big enough town to support that many shows.”
Patrick Garcia, the promoter who books Galax Z Fair, mitigates the crush by booking bands for one big all-day festival that takes place at two venues in downtown McAllen. “I was kind of blown away with the opportunities that I’ve had presented, and I ran away with them,” he says. “I had Of Montreal headline Galax Z Fair. That was a really big deal for the Valley. Of Montreal might have been an overplayed act in Austin, but in South Texas, this was unheard of. I view this as a SXSW-esque experience for people who can’t afford to go up there. The reality is that there are a lot of people who can’t afford to drive up to South-By for a week.”
Promoters in San Antonio and McAllen have traditionally shied away from booking the sort of independent and alternative musicians that flock to Austin. But as opportunities to book those acts increase around SXSW, promoters like Garcia and Big Spill cofounder Angel Castorena have an expanded chance to impact the culture in their respective cities. Maybe the biggest indication that they’re accomplishing that goal is that even in the Valley, indie-music fans are getting the chance to turn jaded.
“A lot of people in their mid-twenties freak out about the indie bands,” Garcia says. “But I’ve noticed that there’s a group of younger kids who aren’t really impressed. They’re kind of born into it. They don’t understand that just a few years ago, music of this sort didn’t come down more than once a season, or even once a year.”
When teenagers in McAllen become too cool for the music, you’ll know the SXSW spillover is in full effect.