Photos by members of Group of the Altos, Matt Kosinski and myself
What a week! If we haven’t met, I’m Amelinda – Digital Content Coordinator for Radio Milwaukee and a musician in Group of the Altos, Nightgown and sometimes Winter Bear. I traveled to this year’s South-By-Southwest Music Festival with Milwaukee band Group of the Altos, in which I play synth-bass, viola and vocals.
If you haven’t visited the festival in the past, you’ve still likely heard of it. Even this far from the Austin, TX extravaganza, Milwaukee is still often represented either with spectators or musicians. However, this year, many have noted a drop in Milwaukee’s music presence. The trip can be costly in gas or airfare, hotel, food, etc. and payments are either a small stipend or wristbands to the event. If you are performing on an unofficial stage, that often means no payment at all. Many go for the hub of press and music business spectators, hoping for that “break,” but in our case, we go just for the fun of it.
Day one (Tuesday)
We loaded the suitcases, sleeping bags, and oodles of music gear of 15 people into a trailer on the Altos bus, “Black Betty.” The drive was full of excitement and anticipation for the coming trip, and we were so looking forward to tacos that we stopped off for Mexican somewhere in Missouri. In a food coma, we realized that while we have two bunk beds, sleeping was a little difficult on the 20-something hour drive. We got a little crazy and had a drunk “Power Hour” sing-a-long session and quickly re-gained the tour camaraderie we haven’t had in awhile.
Day two part one (Wednesday)
We finally arrive in Austin after too many gas station chips and bad coffee. We rented the same house that we had stayed in the other two years we were at SXSW. It felt just like home, and we unloaded and longed for the pool. At registration, we learned our first time as an “official” band was useful as we were able to receive parking passes and wristbands to access perks like free food, drinks, massages and surprisingly high-end freebies. Bonus was shouting “Doot doola doot doo!” at Nardwuar on the escalator and getting his “doot doot!” in reply. See the gallery for some of the freebies we picked up:
Day two part two (Wednesday/early Thursday)
Our official showcase was at a comedy/play house called the Hideout Theatre, nicely located around the fringe of the main drag. We tried to keep up our energy for our midnight time slot, aided by previous bill-mates LITE from Japan and new friends Run Golden Boys from Mexico. Perhaps the long drive, lack of sleep or too much tequila proved to make our threshold for technical difficulties a little low. During un-ending feedback issues and tricky stage layout (horn players stood on amp cases), we didn’t quite feel our usual cohesion. Of course, that was the night the press came to see us and we are grateful for their presence and surprisingly kind reviews.
Day three part one (Thursday)
Surviving our first performance, we were ready for the rest of our three shows in 20 hours with a little more coffee and helped along with sunshine and warm weather. The 10AM load-in time was a little rough, but seeing Milwaukeeans Thomas Gilbert (GGOOLLDD) with his lady Anh, Breaking and Entering blogger Allen Halas, Scott Schoenbeck (The Josh Berwanger Band, Dashboard Confessional), and other friends really boosted our morale. The event was put on by The Onion A. V. Club and was booked by ex-Milwaukeean Josh Modell and included San Fermin, Deerhoof, The Twilight Sad, Mac McCaughan (Superchunk) and the Velvet Teens. Despite spits of rain, the sound was great and we had a wonderful time. With the awesome line-up, we pretty much stayed put here. I did wander off for some excellent food from the East Side King food truck. While on that adventure, I ended up doing a game show with Vans and gaining a free pair of custom shoes. That’s what we’re there for, right? The free stuff?
Day three part two (Thursday night)
After another series of loading and unloading again (as a 15 piece with multi-instrumentalists, we have a LOT of gear), we arrive at our final venue, an unassuming, dusty yard in an alley way. We were expecting a pleasant time, since we were invited by dear musical pals Fox & the Bird from Denton, (who some Bay Viewers may remember performing around the neighborhood one summer on stranger’s porches and Groppi’s.) The plot of land had vintage trailers, storage containers and cement block housing. Our lovely host had an indigo dye workshop going, vegan taco buffet and even some pet chickens milling about. We arrived just in time for Milwaukee’s Temple, which kicked off a surprising evening of friendly faces and perhaps even more surprising, really great sound quality! Among the Milwaukeeans at this intimate affair were all members of Jaill, Temple, Kiran from Q the Sun and his girlfriend Amanda, DJ Moses (Higher Education, Kia Rap Princess), Steve Roche, and our own friendly neighborhood chiropractor “Dr. Z” and her husband. We also had a reunion with Jonathan Paul Minor (ex-Pele, Collections of Colonies of Bees) and troubadour Christopher Paul Stelling (Anti Records,) whom we often find ourselves happily sharing bills around the country with. As it turns out, Group of the Altos does not need huge soundboards with a million DIs. Whether it was by magic, or just sheer fun, the sound felt great and we had a really lovely time.
Day four part one (Friday)
As someone who has worked for years in the field of digital and “content marketing,” it was starting to get exhausting being surrounded by all the branding and marketing efforts. Some pairing of bands and stages was a bit baffling and really quite hilarious. I really couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw “Rachel Ray’s Rockin’ Feedback Party” but I guess it really does exist.
I just kept thinking of the buzzwords “synergy” and “experiential marketing.” It’s easy enough to pass by on your way to your next stop, but by this day it was starting to wear on me. I started really wondering exactly what sort of corporate entity we are participating in as artists. Of course we knew what we were getting into, but I was avoiding thinking about it until now.
We all are fans of Earl Sweatshirt, so we headed to Thrasher’s skatepark/venue to gather in the rain and wait for his set. Turns out, he was a little underwhelming live, but London-based opener Vince Staples was impressive. It was great to have found a new hip-hop artist to look up later. By this time the rain was a heavy downpour, but we were smart enough to have started the day at Target and had all purchased rain ponchos for the occasion.
Day four part two (Friday night)
After a day of rain, we were ready to be dry. Luckily, Milwaukee’s GGOOLLDD were performing indoors at the Spider House Ballroom. We may have been slightly delirious from lack of proper sleep, but we sure had our dance pants on in full effect for their synth-pop goodness. Following their set, ex-Milwaukeean Jeremy Rogers performed with his band BUHU and Margaret Butler returned to the stage for guest vocals.
Day five (Saturday)
A drizzle of rain dampened the fun slightly, but we were all still pretty happy to enjoy above-freezing weather, looking forward to our band-mate Klassik doing his thing in a Chicago/Midwest set. We hid out from the rain a bit at the Artist Lounge for free coffee and massages. We ran into Tanner from Trapper Schoepp and the Shades. While the boys were getting elbows in their sore shoulders, the ladies headed to the MAC footprint and received makeovers and free makeup to take home. Feeling renewed, we went back to the damp revelry on 6th Street and cheered on Klassik. We ran into Allen of Breaking and Entering again, and I was happy to see him covering multiple Milwaukee musicians on his trip. The rest of the afternoon/evening I spent at the Burger Records complex of venues at Hotel Vegas and got muddied up watching some great garage pop and dirty rock you can expect from a Burger showcase. I recommend catching the high-energy retro rock of Twin Peaks this Friday, March 27th opening for Benjamin Booker at Turner Hall Ballroom. The Altos went inside for a set from Milwaukee’s Jaill and we got in a good sweaty dance party.
Day six (Sunday)
We slowly packed up our gear for the inevitable ride back home. We laid on hammocks poolside and tried to soak up the last rays of sun before trudging on board Black Betty. Not ready to leave Texas too soon, we made a pit stop at meat heaven, Salt Lick BBQ. As a vegan, I was less enthused, but everyone else seemed to happily mow down some ribs, sausage and brisket. I enjoyed popcorn, lemonade and hot sun. Back on the bus, we were in for another long haul, but dropped a few off at airports for their Monday work days. We grew more and more into the reality of Wisconsin weather as the air got colder and colder with fat flakes of snow bearing down on northern Illinois. A rest stop with our feet buried in snow elicited groans and primal screams, but we made it to Milwaukee safe and sound and back in the arms of the loved ones we left behind.
Until next time…