The Ridges At SXSW: A Pilgrimage

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Hundreds of thousands of musicians, journalists, industry professionals and fans flock to Austin, Texas, every March for one of the world’s most important music festivals: South by Southwest.

For some, it’s business. For others, it’s just fun. And for your next favorite, still-unknown, going-for-it band, it’s a pilgrimage.

That’s what it was for our Athens-based orchestral folk-rock band The Ridges, and we loved every second of it.

A right of passage for any serious new band, SXSW’s endless possibilities for important connections, game-changing opportunities and career-defining lucky breaks is unparalleled. It’s a musical melting pot where you can meet anybody who’s anybody if you happen to be in the right place at the right time.

The hype is uncontrollable. The allure is obvious. The reality is… well… realistic. Sure, anything could happen–it probably won’t. But that’s not why you go. You go because it’s fun. You go because it grows your band. You go because you want to go. And, let me tell you, you want to go. It’s incredible.

The Tour

We hit the road for Austin on Monday, March 4–one week before SXSW–to play seven shows on our way to Texas: Indianapolis, Lexington, Cincinnati, Columbus, Louisville, Chattanooga and Nashville. At this point, we’d already accomplished what we’d set out to do – we were on tour.

With a rotating lineup of musicians, we often perform with upwards of 10 members, but for this tour we settled on piling seven of us into one van: Chris Handley (Bass), Connor Hunt (Cello), Andrew Poulsen (Banjo), Chris Wallbrech (Drums), Ian LeSage (Horns), Talor Smith (Cello), Victor Rasgaitis (Guitar) and Susan B. Vanthony (Van).

The Seedy Seeds

We were beyond thrilled to be on the road, playing every night, and sleeping on our old friends’ floors, but four of our seven tour stops were in cities that we had never played before and most of us had never even been to. Luckily, we had our good friends, experienced road warriors and SXSW veterans The Seedy Seeds as tour mates.

Despite Margaret having sliced off the tip of her index finger in a kitchen mishap the week before the tour, they managed to fill the room with enthralling electro-folk sets night after night and we had a blast hanging out with them.

The Sponsorship

And now, the first example of how anything can happen at SXSW…

What began with us booking a showcase at a day party for the popular (and really cool) iPhone photography app Hipstamatic turned into a two-week Ridges takeover of the brand’s @Hipstamatic Twitter account. We documented the entire tour for their 28,000-plus followers by tweeting daily photos from the road and the festival. Look for our favorite shots to be featured in the next issue of Snap Magazine and check out the full collection on our Facebook page.

The Tour Highlight

We’d been trying to coordinate a show with Brooklyn’s chamber rocking Miracles of Modern Science (above) for a while and were finally able to join forces at a tour stop in Nashville, Tenn. The show, presented by a great Nashville group called Cause A Scene, was an intimate house show just outside of downtown.

We already knew that it was going to be awesome, but then we were met with two surprises: First, a homemade ice cream truck showed up! Then, two of our friends from Ohio, Alex and Laura, happened to be in town for the weekend and decided to catch our set! Just add an inspiring performance by one of our favorite bands and you’ve got yourself a tour highlight.

The Festival

Arriving in Austin during SXSW, it’s immediately apparent that this place is completely and utterly ridiculous. To describe the event–which includes music of every possible genre pummeling you from every direction, thousands of people crawling over each other to get to the next show and electricity humming in the air–as "overwhelming" would be a gross understatement.

It’s an all-encompassing experience, the likes of which are only understood by bees in a hive. Luckily, some of us are kind of into that. We like meeting people. We like music. We even like running into cool people we played with over a year ago in Indianapolis and catching up with them while they wait for a Guinness truck to stop blocking his van in–like we did with the most incredible singer-songwriting cellist south of the Ohio River, Ben Sollee.

The Best Showcase

We had seven showcases in five days at SXSW. We played shows in East Austin, the West side, to the North, and even right in the downtown heart of the festival on East Sixth Street. We played in the morning, the afternoon, and at night. After all, that’s why we were there: To play. So, we did. And it was unbelievable.

By the time we played our final set on Saturday evening, we were used to the whirlwind intensity and unusual circumstances of a SXSW showcase, but at our first show on Tuesday afternoon, we didn’t know what to expect. It was the Haus of Hipstamatic Morning After Brunch–a show that we’d been building up to with our Twitter takeover–and I can’t explain how excited we were to be there.

The small house had been painted yellow and black, a stage had been built in the back yard, and there were free breakfast tacos and drinks for anyone who could get in. The line was around the block. It’s hard to say which showcase was the best, but we’ll never forget our first.

Running a close second for most-fun showcase was our MidCoast Takeover set at Shangri-La on Saturday afternoon. The crowd was smaller, but the venue was gorgeous, the stage was bigger (it even featured a light show of our name directly behind us), and the sound was incredible. Our entire set was even streamed live online and can be watched in full here:

The Worst Showcase

Booking any show from 1,000 miles away has its risks and, despite a string of amazing shows, that risk finally caught up with us at "ToneFest."

What was supposed to be an afternoon showcase with dozens of great bands turned out to be a total flop. We got suspicious when we realized that the venue was 30 minutes outside of the city, but we got worried when we couldn’t even find the place.

With the booker not answering his phone and our GPS practically yelling at us to "turn around–it’s not worth it," we stumbled upon the empty party center along a gravely back road. We were here. But nobody else was. We eventually found the booker sitting alone inside with a 4-channel PA and an unmistakable look of embarrassment. Moments later, the showcase was cancelled and we headed back to the city. Lesson learned.

The Best Thing That We Saw

Due to our own jam-packed showcase schedule, we didn’t have a lot of time to see bands play at SXSW. We did, however, fulfill what had been a dream of mine for years: Seeing Austin’s 18-piece orchestral rock collective Mother Falcon live. I have never been speechless about anything in my life, but after this show I literally could not form coherent sentences. In fact, I still can’t put it into words while thinking about it. It was love.

The "Only at SXSW" Moment

We were watching a fantastic set from Lord Huron when my friend Brian texted me: "We are interviewing a few bands for Verizon Wireless over here at Willie Nelson’s recording studio if you guys want to be interviewed."

Ten minutes later, we were touring the most beautiful recording studio we’d ever seen and being interviewed by a Viking descendent named Nar. Within another five minutes, the interview was over and we were invited to hang out at the party outside.

The party, as it turned out, was a private event featuring free top shelf whiskey, complementary hand-rolled Cuban cigars, an oyster bar, a set from He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister and even birthday cake! Oh yeah, and everybody was eight feet-tall. We had absolutely no idea what was going on, but did know two things for sure:

1. We definitely weren’t supposed to be there and

2. We definitely weren’t leaving.

It was the birthday cake that eventually gave it away: We were at an owner of the Boston Celtics’ birthday party. Yeah, really. And if you’re wondering, yes, Jim is a great guy! Aside from being awesome to hang out with all night, he even tossed up a couple of hundreds dollar bills to help with tour expenses. Only at SXSW.

The Athens Connection

When they say, "it’s all about who you know," they aren’t kidding. As it just so happens, we know some pretty incredible people and most of them are Bobcats. We saw a handful of Athens friends in Austin including 3 Elliott Studio's Josh Antonuccio, who wrote a similar recap of his SXSW experience for WOUB which includes some very kind words about our final set at the festival (thanks, Josh!).

But this tour truly would not have been possible if it hadn’t been for the incredible generosity and hospitality of our friend and OU alumna, Ellen Cox. We can’t thank Ellen and her parents enough for hosting us at their beautiful Austin home for an entire week while we lived out our dreams.

We’ve never been shy about owing everything that we have to the city of Athens and this is just one more example of why our little corner of Appalachia is our favorite place on Earth.

Victor Rasgaitis is a lifelong music advocate, an accomplished audience participant, and a member of the Athens-proud orchestral folk-rock band The Ridges.

All photos courtesy of The Ridges and Victor Rasgaitis except Miracles of Modern Science (www.enpaperblog.com) and SXSW crowd (www.hipstercrite.com).