I’m running through the streets of Austin, Texas as lightning crackles all around me and alerts for a Tornado Watch blare on my phone.
It’s the middle of the South by Southwest festival and I’m here to take in the sights and sounds of a city annually transformed. However, the only sight and sound before my eyes now are fierce bolts, lighting up sky one after another in quick succession as if it was the tired climax of a cliche Marvel movie and the forces of good and evil are battling above my head.
Earlier in the night, I was at a local venue called The Courtyard (formerly known as Cedar Street Courtyard). Its moniker comes from the fact there are two bars that flank either side of a, you guessed it, courtyard. The British Music Embassy took over this space all week, a confab supported by the ultra-luxury English speaker brand Bowers and Wilkins, which are showcasing all of today’s buzziest artists who hail from across the pond. They’ve made their way from the land of fish and chips to the land of pork and beans. Unfortunately, the venue was just evacuated and high-taling it back to my hotel room.
Before the weather unleashed its furious temper, the band Sipho had just delivered a performance the epitome of modern British rock: understated, guitar-driven, and somewhat cerebral. After the show and before I fled on foot, I opted for a seltzer, my drink of choice tonight. The fresh bubbles give my liver a sabbatical, and if I’m out socializing it’s better to order a seltzer (which could also appear to be a vodka or tequila soda), instead of holding a pathetic glass of lukewarm water, to risk heckling from the bar-goers around me. My seltzer-ordering adventures sometimes get me into trouble: some bartenders automatically give me a White Claw; other times I must clarify that I want “soda water” with “no alcohol.”
Here I’m given a massive plastic cup with the classic seltzer accouterments: a slice each of lime and lemon, and I wearily ask the bartender what I owe her. She looks at me as if I asked if I could take off my pants; a quizzical look as if to say, “You are absolutely insane.” “We don’t charge for seltzer,” she tells me. I’m visiting from New York City after all, a metropolis so expensive that after just walking down the block for a quick bodega run you find yourself having somehow spent $30. “I’ve been charged $6 for seltzer in New York,” I tell her. A look of pity comes across her empathetic face, and it looks like I’ve ruined her day at the mere thought that people live like that.
Before the impending threat of a tornado had me thinking that I should probably write up a will, my week in Austin was awash with hearty food, frosty drinks and loud music. The night before, I visited an expansive restaurant called Aba. It’s a multi-level labyrinth of spaces to sit and relax the night away, from cozy interiors to outdoor seating and bills itself as a Mediterranean restaurant (‘aba’ means father in hebrew), with a menu just as large as its confines. Among them, a bevy of zero proof cocktails, like their Faux Loma (house-made pineapple fresno cordial, lime, and a greek grapefruit soda). Elsewhere on the menu, they also have massive ‘groupies,’ which are cocktail pitchers fit for a crowd including Locals Only (gin, melon, coconut and lime). I ordered a Penicillin, a new favorite I discovered while at the Los Angeles restaurant Superba. The smokieness along with its trademark ginger flavor has been regularly hitting the spot ever since.
Austin is a city that has birthed a ton of beloved commodities across spectrums ranging from alcohol (the aforementioned White Claw as well as Tito’s Vodka are based here) as well as cultural. Along with stars like Ethan Hawke and director Robert Rodriguez, South by Southwest delivers the city’s greatest impact on culture; debuting bands, premiering movies and conveying ideas that tend to penetrate the zeitgeist far beyond the Texas borders every spring. That’s part of the reason why people from all over the world descend on it, including my new British friends at Bowers and Wilkins. After lunch at Tacodeli (known for their margaritas, micheladas and horchata), the audio company invites me to hear what they bill as a one-of-a-kind high fidelity speaker system. It’s an impressive brand (their speakers are used at Abbey Road!) and the system, which is so delicate it takes a handful of engineers who flew in from England tender love and care to maintain it. The work is well worth it: I ask if they could play Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me” and it sounds like I’m hearing a song if I’ve known my entire life for the first time.
That’s part of the reason why The Courtyard was evacuated; with lightning in the area, they didn’t want to take the chance that the precious contraption would be zapped. As the bolts strike above me, I run back to my hotel and arrive just in time for a massive rainstorm.
The next day, over brunch at The Grey Market (where local Austin brewery Meanwhile is poured from the taps), I ruminate on my week. Hoping the weather cooperates, I’m already thinking about my trip back.