SXSW Riot

2003 SXSW- The Oxbow Incident

I rode down to Austin from Denton with my five friends; they call themselves, when they are together with musical instruments, Shaolin Death Squad. They had an early afternoon show at SXSW. They needed help carrying instruments and other such activities. I was just the man for the job. After ending their afternoon show, the fellas packed it up and headed to a friend’s house. He agreed to put us all up (8 people in total), much to my surprise. We walked about a half mile to the closest bus stop. One cool thing about Austin is the buses run well into the night, especially during SXSW. We had no intention of being able to drive anywhere after the nights activities. It’s what you do at the showcases: drink and watch bands.

On the bus we encountered a man about town, though some may call him a bum, but for sure he was no stranger to malt liquor. He had an unopened bottle stashed away in his pocket. He asked us all sorts of questions in a very loud voice for all to hear: “Were we a band? What kind of music do you play? Did we know this one song that went like…?”  Oh yes he did attempt to sing us the song in his head, be it a real song or one he made up. I’m pretty sure he had a harmonica. In Austin, even the bums are musicians.

We were quick to lose our bus friend and walk on to 6th street. Few places compare to such nighttime diversions. Rock clubs, jazz clubs, dance clubs, comedy clubs, all can be found on a 5 block radius. Thousands of people descend upon the city so the streets were packed. We had dinner somewhere. I think this was the night I had a burger and watched a bad ass kung fu movie; it didn’t need words, you got the story on images. I think it was called, “Lone Bear and Cub.” We had been drinking pretty heavily by this point. We heard House Harkonnen had a showcase at this place off Red River. We loitered around the door while we tried to reach our contact. Soon after what seemed like an hour, they appeared to wave us through: we were on the list.

This place was very large, cavernous venue. You didn’t notice how big it was from the street. I would bet it was a full block deep. We walked through the club, passing bars and a stage. Soon, through a door in the back, it opened up into a larger, outdoor venue. There were bars all around with walkways leading down to the stage. I cracked open another beer; the place was packed. A Japanese band was finishing up their set and they were all impossibly thin, the drummer stood on his drum kit and pounded his over sized gong to create an amazing hum. They were Boris.

We didn’t hear their name. but they came out very unassumingly around 1AM. A thin guitar player dressed all in black, a very skinny bassist that looked like a jazz cat what with long, stringy hair, and the drummer looked like he was more inclined to play Jimmy Buffet tunes in his shorts, polo shirt and short cropped hair. Then the singer strode out. He stood over six feet tall, wearing all white, ears taped up like a street fighter. His hair stood up on end about five inches into the air and resembled a birds’ nest; he was the biggest, meanest, toughest, dude I have ever seen. He said and sang nothing, he just stood there, head nodding to the music…then he screamed a banshee wail that got everyone’s attention. He screamed, sang, rapped, and crooned depending on what emotion the song needed. I turned to my friend, Matt, who also turned to me, “WTF was this? Who are these guys? We need to get the others.” A few texts and the rest of the fellas came out to the see the spectacle unfold.

They continued playing very angular, dense staccato music; a pit broke out, not as violent as I have seen in the past, more like a blender on puree: bodies moving together in a tight circle, a few people crowd surfing. With each song, the singer unbuttoned his shirt and/or pants. After a couple songs, he was shirtless and completely menacing: large pentagram tattoos emblazoned on both collarbones, lightning bolts down the backs of both forearms. He stalked the stage back and forth, staring down everyone in the audience, throwing daggers with his eyes. I was stationed a good 30 feet or so from the stage and I was concerned. The air was electric, full of ozone or some sort of unexplainable energy. Everyone could feel the tension build with each song. All I heard between songs was, “Who are these guys?” Finally, I went up to the stage but I couldn’t tell which sign to read for that evening’s line up. While I was close to the stage, I stopped for a moment and watched the singer who was now wearing a just a black wife beater and had his pants unbuttoned. He looked my way and I felt a tingle up and down my back. I knew this was not a guy who you wanted to piss off. Like a wild animal, you are never to glare directly at their eyes as it’s a sign of aggression, so was this moment. I got out of there before his pants dropped.

It took about the length of one of their slower songs for him to wiggle his way out of his pants to reveal black, Speedo style underwear They start the next song, I see movement on the side of the stage, the pit intensifies. The singer continues, turning not to the crowd, but to the side of the stage as walks over. He stops, glares at someone and then walks back to the middle of the stage. He starts dancing like he is taking a shower, his large hands spreading sweat all over his body, stopping, obviously, on his crotch several times. To say he had a snake in his pants would have been accurate statement; he definitely looked like he was wearing a jockstrap and cup under them Speedos, but he turned around and we saw his crack.

Suddenly, the music stopped; everyone continued playing for a moment, but no sound came from the stage. The guitarist threw his instrument to the ground and stormed off the stage. The singer continued the song, screaming at full volume and yes, I could hear him all the way in the back! A couple brave roadies or club personnel appeared on stage, they motioned with their hands across their throats from left to right; kill it, no more electricity. Someone tried, for unknown reasons, to stop the drummer by pulling him off his kit. He could still reach his drums and his arms flailed hitting cymbals, drums, and people, whatever he could reach. The guitarist and bassist returned with drum sticks and started hitting cymbals as hard has they could. The singer was held back by at least 3-4 people and there is no amount of money, no job that would mean enough for me to volunteer for such a task.

There soon began a commotion to the left of the stage. It looked like some asshat was throwing bottles at another fan or the stage. For sure, a fight broke out. It wasn’t clear who was involved, fans or venue personnel, but it soon escalated. It looked like a scene from a movie: people were throwing whatever they could lay their hands on at the stage or at the staff. The stage hands pushed back; someone was tossed back into the crowd. After several tense minutes of people running in all directions into and out of fights, from behind us rushed more staff, they slammed the doors shut behind them and brandished flashlights, “Everyone leaves now! Out the back door, move!”

We lingered a moment longer watching what appeared to be a full on riot as people ran away from the stage to the back door. Others ran to help fallen or injured fans. It was like nothing I have ever seen before or since. We fast walked to the only way out. We walked across the street from this exit to watch people file out. What had happened? Why did they cut the power and end the show?

This has been my only encounter with the band Oxbow.

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