Webb: Actually, Austin's zillion festivals are good
Around this time of year, you usually can find me making a banquet out of Oreos in the newsroom, keeping my shoulders hunched to high heaven and muttering to anyone unlucky enough to know me: “It’s just too much.”
Well, I haven't been in the newsroom in a while, and no one would ever say there's been "too much" going on in the live entertainment scene lately.
The pandemic stopped time for our entertainment scene, and a long time has passed since we’ve had a truly proper festival season in Austin. All of a sudden now, even if things still don’t feel like they used to, and the better of us are trying to figure out how to keep each other safe, it’s come racing back. A pretty spectacular whiplash, if you ask me.
And I know we like to complain — it’s an Austinite’s favorite leisure activity. In a city that can’t stop giving itself population transfusions, traffic quagmires and skyline facelifts, though?
The festivals are good.
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By the time you read this, Austin City Limits Music Festival will have returned, Oct. 1-3 and 8-10, sandwiched between a cannonball run of the city’s resurgent cultural events. We always joke about there being too many festivals in Austin. Hardy har har to you, said the fall when a year and a half of pandemic-delayed parties rushed to return.
AGLIFF, the annual queer film festival, kinda kicked us off in August. With vaccines in arms, organizers had planned a grand return to gay parties and in-person cinema. Then the delta variant of the coronavirus — coupled with self-sabotaging public health restrictions from the state and the sins of misinformation, to say it plain — caused a surge, and aGLIFF scaled back again.
But they still brought drag queens to a drive-in movie, so, all things are relative.
Moontower Comedy Festival — normally in the spring — squeezed into September. As has become the norm, the fest required attendees show either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result. I won’t lie: Squeezing next to other comedy fans in the tight (but historic!) Paramount Theatre made me a little nervous, if just from being out of practice.
Still, there’s just something about the laughter of hundreds echoing off the walls in the same room where Harry Houdini once performed that beats watching stand-up on Zoom.
On Sept. 24, comedy icon Margaret Cho had us folded over in our seats at the Paramount. Cho’s surprise guest, Jonathan Van Ness (her longtime hair stylist and current Austin resident, while the new season of Netflix’s “Queer Eye” films here), really made the room pulse. Nothing like a good ol’ fashioned celebrity surprise to make you glad you live in this city.
Bob the Drag Queen followed up Cho with a free-wheeling midnight set, and Jacqueline Novak’s kinetic, poetic “Get On Your Knees” show made us all scream at the Stateside Theatre the next night.
Moontower overlapped with Alamo Drafthouse’s celebration of genre flicks, Fantastic Fest. Virtual film festivals are great, but you usually don’t get Palme d’Or winners from Cannes that way, like “Titane,” which made its U.S. premiere opening the fest on Sept. 23.
Filmmaker Julia Ducournau told the Austin festival crowd how glad she was to show “Titane” in theaters, saying it was “good to start this machine again, together.” Then, she proceeded to show us a twisted slasher-thriller where a lady has sexual relations with a car. Truly, there is nothing like that festival.
I had to jet from a Sept. 25 screening of A24 fantasy “Lamb” before the Q&A in order to get to Novak’s Moontower show. I squeezed past actress Noomi Rapace, on her way to the mic, as I snuck through the dark, dim hallway of the Drafthouse theater. You didn’t find yourself in many confined spaces with international movie stars in 2020, unless you were married to one.
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Now, the two weekends of ACL Fest are taking up their usual first half of October, unless something has gone awry since this writing. As it approaches, I’ve been thinking about the big memories that living in Austin, the festival capital of the world, has blessed me with.
There was the one time that I was walking with my friend and colleague, Sharon Chapman, and we were talking about how hot the Irish singer-songwriter Hozier is, when we looked up and realized we were actually walking next to all 6 feet, 5 inches of Hozier.
And how could I forget when I used a urinal next to indie-pop singer Borns.
We get to breathe for a hot autumn minute before Austin Film Festival and Texas Book Festival do their usual one-two step later in the month. Sprinkled here and there: Austin Food + Wine Festival, rock crawl Levitation, and sure, the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix out at the racetrack, if you want to count it. (Billy Joel will be there, so why not.)
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We’re all holding our breath for next year, I think. South by Southwest, whose name will unfortunately always be tied to the Beginning of All This, plans to make a physical return next year, after two years of more muted digital programming. And Moontower just announced it’s back on for April, this time partnering with international comedy force Just For Laughs and rebranding as Moontower Just For Laughs Austin.
I hope that you don’t get the impression that these festivals, and their return, are only as special as a star sighting or two. It’s no secret that I place an unholy amount of importance on pop culture; just look at how I get my W2 every year.
I do truly believe that all manner of arts and cultural expression help me become a better person, and more of myself – movies on the big screen, songs streaming out of speakers, anyone performing a little piece of themselves on a stage while people shut up for a minute and have honest reactions to what they witness, perhaps lubricated by an expensive plastic cup of wine.
And these big, huge, sprawling, money-bloated festivals are, whether you like the idea or not, just signposts of living in Austin. There are big parties thrown around the city every year, inviting some of the most exciting artists in the world, and they happen in our home. How could you not mark your life by the wild, the weird and the wonderful times that allows you to experience?
To be sure, they’re also signs of immense privilege. The more accessible their programming is to the city’s residents, the better. Especially for a monolith like ACL Fest, which takes over public park land, it would be nice to see more ways for the public to tap into the magic without shelling out exorbitant sums.
Life is short, and it’s hard, and it’s often quite sad. Two hours in front of your favorite musician, screaming the words in sweaty stereo, is nothing short of the divine in the world. And to think, you live in the precise moment in human history, and in the precise place, where that’s infinitely possible. This is all just a call for appreciation.
Of course it’s too much. But what, you wanted not enough?