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Free Week 2014: Observations and snapshots

Deborah Sengupta

Editor’s note: This article was originally published January 12, 2014

The first time I found myself completely swept up in the magic of Free Week 2014 was the first night I stepped out into it. During a fumbled search for an ID at Empire Control Room the doorman remarked that the club was almost at capacity. It was shortly after 9 p.m. on January 3, a very frosty Friday – the kind of a night that tests both the stamina and the winter wardrobe of the average Austin club-goer.

Inside, the club steamed with energy as Holiday Mountain, a band of Berklee College of Music alums who relocated to Austin last year, bubbled up delightful loops of dub and electro dance grooves. Overheated revelers stashed coats behind speaker stacks at the back of the club so they could properly get down. Laura Patiño’s wildly adventurous vocalizations coupled with her effusive energy coaxed the crowd into jubilant gyrations. The vibe was fantastic.

As Holiday Mountain closed their set we left the club, hustling toward the Mohawk to catch the end of Hard Proof’s set (spoiler alert: they killed it). There was a line out the door at least 30 people deep. It felt like SXSW, except the crowd wasn’t pushing to see the latest buzzy blogger fave, but local high-octane bluegrass outfit Whisky Shivers.

After a bit of digging revealed that many bands are, in fact, paid for performances during Free Week, and the ones that aren’t are mostly happy for the exposure or cool with supporting the clubs that support them, I had only one reservation going into Free Week 2014. We Austinites are terribly spoiled. Music floats forth from every other window of the city. There’s a good chance your barista fronts a band and your bartender probably owns at least one guitar. We often take it for granted. Sometimes we treat it as a right. Along with breakfast tacos on every corner and 70 degree days in January we expect to be able to walk into a club almost any night of the week and hear something amazing. We take it in trade for high rent, low wages and terrible traffic.

It’s tough to get by in Austin and consequently Austin crowds are terribly cheap. We balk if we have to pay more than five dollars for a show, even if there are ten people in the band. Friends of bands try to talk their way in even when they know their musician homie is struggling to pay his rent. I get it. I’ve absolutely been guilty during the brokest moments in my life as an Austin music lover. But at some point we have to recognize that it’s important to put your money where your heart is. Didn’t Beyonce just teach us that sometimes you have to suck it up and buy the album? Sometimes you have to forgo a drink at the bar to pay your way in. I worried that Free Week might reinforce our bad behavior.

But the level of sheer excitement witnessed on the streets throughout Free Week 2014 quieted those fears. The experience seems to energize Austin, bringing together musicians (including Spoon frontman Britt Daniel who was hanging around Red 7 last Thursday) club regulars and out-of-practice fanatics who finally got around to hiring a sitter so they could hit the clubs like they used to. The clubs were packed, bartenders were busy and social networks were buzzing. Fans filled the streets bouncing around between clubs. The whole scene was inspiring.

I feel confident that many bands found new fans and boosters and many Austinites rekindled a love of the clubs. If we manage to carry 20 percent of that energy over into the rest of the year we’re starting 2014 in a very good place.

A few Free Week snapshots:

The scene at Spynx’s Thursday show at the Mohawk was crazy. The band, clad in matching white skinny jeans with a emblazoned with a gold lame leopard print pattern, vamped it up with tambourine duets and dance moves. At one point two twenty-something white kids in the crowd wearing tight houndstooth patterned pants took their shoes off and began bouncing around in what looked like the happiest mosh pit in the world.

Not kidding about the musical mad scientist thing. Standing onstage before the set he seemed so unassuming. Watching him create compositions with vigorous electronic drum patterns and distorted vocal loops was utterly fascinating.

Only caught the end of The Digital Wild’s set but their sound was very soulful. Intriguing. They celebrate a CD release at the Mohawk on Friday. Cover is $6 ($8 under 21), but they joked from the stage to see them if you can’t afford that and they’ll try to get you in.

The crowd for Latasha Lee’s set was so interesting. Diverse in terms of race, gender and age. A fifty-something couple standing behind me was talking about a favorite Bob Schneider show from the 90s shortly before the self-proclaimed Princess of Austin Soul took the stage.