The show, as they say, must go on, and that’s what happened at SXSW in the wake of the shocking hit-and-run that occurred Wednesday night. Thursday morning, whether the strip of music venues alongside Red River would open was still an open question: Mohawk and Cheer Up Charlie’s, the venues outside of which the incident happened, were closed despite the slate of day-parties that had been scheduled, and clean-up crews worked on picking up the debris. Further down the block, in front of Stubb’s, the former Emo’s (operating as The Main for SXSW), and other spaces, crowds still gathered—though they did most of their line-waiting on the sidewalk, rather than from the street.
Throughout Austin, there was a strange mix of people out to party and dealing with the stress of the fact that people were killed just blocks from where they were having fun.
Old 97’s frontman Rhett Miller had to play his first show on Thursday at seven in the morning, and he’d gotten to bed late the night before—he had arrived at the scene on Red River shortly after it happened. Talking to him at 4:30 in the afternoon, after his fourth show of the day, it was clear that there was a weird balance of coping and soldiering-on at work.
“I was going to go see [L.A. punk band] X, but I got there late,” Miller said. “I got there three minutes after it happened, and I was standing there in the middle of Red River going, ‘What the fuck?’ Police were pulling up, people were doing CPR, they were running around putting up police tape, and there were bodies everywhere. I thought there were eleven dead people. Thank god they weren’t all dead, but they were clearly critically injured. All the people who weren’t on the ground were either sobbing, or just staring at nothing.”
Even away from Red River, it was almost possible to forget about the incident. There was a surplus of caution on hand in places it hadn’t been present the day before. Down by the MTV Woodies Festival, cones lined the street to indicate to pedestrians where it would be safe to walk, and where they needed to yield to cars. Official SXSW volunteers warned people not to jaywalk. It was as if the festival knew that an unpredictable, random act like what occured Wednesday night was unpreventable, but they were going to do their best to keep people safe.
Meanwhile, though, they show did go on, and it wasn’t all colored through the perspective of the violence the night before. At the Woodies in the late afternoon, people drank the free Shiner and ate the free Salt Lick BBQ as Wild Cub kicked off the festivities. And it was festive, as it should have been. For all the legitimate criticism about the intensive branding that accompanies SXSW, and the toxic cloud of entitlement that the festival tends to inspire in people who’ve spent the week getting a lot of things for free, there’s more to the story, too. SXSW is a festival of music, and art, and community, too—and those are the things that help people cope with the senselessness of death and violence and tragedy.
So yes, the brands were still present, but the focus appeared to be on the bands and the rappers and the films, and all of the artistic, creative things that people take comfort in when the world is harsh. Minnesota singer-songwriter Haley Bonar played at Central Presbyterian Church in the early part of the night, filling the room with beautiful melodies; all over downtown, other venues were filled with other artists, and the experience of live music that can be so easily commodified—especially at an event like SXSW—felt a bit more intimate.
By the early evening, SXSW announced that the scheduled programming at Cheer Up Charlie’s and Mohawk, which had been in question, would continue. The festival—and Austin police—suggested that the decision to do so was also a matter of public safety: a lot of people had made plans to be at those venues that night, and putting a thousand or more people on the street wouldn’t solve anything.
“My staff and myself are broken hearted for not only the victims and families of this senseless tragedy, but also for our beloved Red River and this entire community,” Mohawk owner James Moody said in a press release that announced the performances and the formation of the SXSW Cares donation relief fund. “This is our number one priority—their care and support We are a community that exists far beyond the ten days of SXSW. Our intent is to come together to help the families of each and every one of the victims.”
Moody—and Cheer Up Charlie’s owner Tamara Hoover—are both strongly community-minded business owners who operate with a great deal of integrity, and if there is such a thing as a stroke of luck in this tragedy, it’s that the incident occurred near people who could be trusted to make the decisions about how to proceed with full awareness of the responsibility involved.
And so almost by definition, the events that occurred on Red River—and throughout the city—on Thursday night became celebrations of life. The Mohawk was home to the showcase from A$AP Mob, the Harlem hip hop collective that’s home to A$AP Rocky, A$AP Ferg, and others. The group’s performance, which occurred after a midnight moment of silence, was life-affirming for those in attendance. So were the electronic and rock acts playing at Cheer Up Charlie’s.
So was the much-criticized event down the block at Stubb’s, where Lady Gaga was receiving a reported 7-figure check at a show that required fans to humble themselves in honor of Doritos to attend. Outside of the venue, police kept hundreds of fans safe on the street as they listened to the muddy sound drifting from outside of the venue. Others gathered atop the parking garage across from the venue, there to catch what they could of the singer’s performance. Say what you will about the way in which the Gaga show was promoted, but the hundreds of people who stood outside the venue to see and hear what they could—as the festival and the city allowed them to gather—were there because the music meant something to them.
It was the same all over town, and that’s a part of SXSW that existed before the branded events started co-opting the bulk of the eyeballs on the festival and will continue to exist even after Samsung or somebody books a joint performance by Beyonce and Paul McCartney for the 2015 festival or whatever. The music matters, and in the wake of tragedy, it matters even more.
That was the experience I had after leaving Haley Bonar’s set to hustle down to Buffalo Billiards to catch Rhett Miller’s fifth and final performance of the day. Miller is one of my favorite artists, someone whose music has been a big part of my enjoyment of good times in life and a comfort in bad times. The fact that, as I—like so many other people at SXSW—was processing the complicated question of whether or not it was okay to be at a big party that, the night before, had turned into the scene of a violent crime that hurt a lot of people, I had the opportunity to be in the room as Miller played his songs was an incredible gift.
Miller played a mix of material from the Old 97’s forthcoming album and old crowd favorites. He referenced what he had witnessed on Red River the night before when introducing the ballad “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes” from the band’s 1994 debut, and then the room turned into a singalong for Old 97’s hits “Barrier Reef” and “Doreen.” It was a night when singing along felt a little more vital, and that’s an experience of SXSW 2014, too.