Music: Living On The Edge, Or Austin City (No) Limits

March 20, 2015



Easter in Texas is always a little strange for me. It starts with Mardi Gras and ends with a posh brunch. Easter Sunday is one of the few when normally informal church folks don suits and ties, making everything that little bit more inaccessible to those who might be new. And right there, smack bang in the middle, is Spring Break. For many young, ostensibly church-going Texans, that means a week off from the faith amid the beered-up beaches of the Gulf Coast. Here in Austin, it means South By Southwest.

SXSW is great fun, an extravaganza that splits sombre Lent in two. For ten days the city is taken over by creative types – filmmakers first, then entrepreneurs and finally musicians. It’s not free, but there’s plenty of free stuff to do. And if you don’t mind lines and covers, you can pay as you go. I do mind lines and covers. I’m cheap and impatient. But being a local, I’ve learned how to play the game a little bit. I RSVP early. I wear a jacket with my jeans, an effective “important creative person” disguise. I’ve even jumped the odd fence. However this year, my strategy was a little different – I’m calling it “Periphery over Centre.”

Sounds dull right? Here’s how it works.

Avoid the centre at all costs. Leave downtown alone. It’s chock full of cops, vendors and selfie sticks.  Thousands of people, many of them too young to have moustaches but too old to be wearing a vest, seem to be doing little else than waiting in line for the next big thing. But being now slightly older (and obviously grumpier) I understand that the next big thing is actually just the next medium-sized thing with an already-approaching shelf life. (That’s the point of cool isn’t it? The goal posts move as soon as you kick the penalty.)

But the periphery – east of downtown, south of the river, north of campus – that’s where it’s at. Not in the sense of the connoisseur who seeks out the most arcane, awful take on a given thing and then boasts about it. (How many hipsters does it take to change a light bulb? It’s a really obscure number, you’ve probably never heard of it…) No. I mean in the sense of where the cool kids ain’t at. (Well some of them are, but you get the point.)

Because the SXSW spirit catches the whole city, there’s music everywhere. Because downtown can only house so many bands, the talent spillover is impressive. And because downtown has a bias to the flashy, gimmicky, half-baked and gorgeous, the periphery is full of surprises: musically mature, engaging, not-too-cool-for-school surprises avec long-regretted tattoos and a fair few love handles.

You can (kinda) park at the periphery. You can (kinda) take your kids to the periphery. You’re certainly not paying $8 for a beer at the periphery. (Unless it’s Belgian.)

So that’s been my style this year. I’ve seen great bands and had interesting conversations. But back to Easter. After all, shouldn’t I be wearing a horse hair shirt this close to Holy Week? Probably. It’s funny how Lent can haunt you, especially when you’re bad at it. But God is good. He has a way of inspiring your thoughts even (always?) when you don’t deserve it.

Cycling from one gig to another, I had to cross through the centre to get from one side of the periphery to another. It was trouble. If people weren’t laughing at the kid seat on the back of my bike, pedicabs were annoyed at having to share the road with me. It was a wash of noise, all congealing into one ironic synth rock anthem. And then Lent showed up.

I was reminded that God has a bias to the periphery. That he’s unimpressed with the centre. I was reminded that Jesus avoided the centre, sticking to the periphery – to Galilee or the desert. He preferred the company of the marginalised to those who considered themselves important. But when the centre formed around him, he healed, taught and then withdrew. If Jesus was as SXSW, would he be on 6th Street, or East 38th? Even though he could effectively skip every line by walking through walls or on crowds, I think he’d be where we usually find him – the periphery. And with us: the no-longer-perhaps-never-were-cool kids.

Unless it was Holy Week. The he’d be at the centre. For what happens at Holy Week has to happen at the centre.

This is where Jesus stops playing small town gigs and puts on his palm Sunday showcase. This is the where He gets into a bar fight at the temple because the wait staff are gouging the non-locals. This is where his newly acquired fanbase evaporates. This is where the band splits up, the bass player turns him in and the drummer claims he never knew him. This is where the cops from Ferguson show up and take him to the governor. This is where he loses battle of the bands with Barrabas.

This is where he dies.

But we all know how it ends. And that’s where the metaphor’s wineskin cracks open, and the reality of resurrection spills onto the ground.