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SXSW Recap: Highlights, Lowlight and Gaylights of 10 Days in Austin


Rae Votta decamped from New York to Austin to take in 10 days of the South By Southwest Interactive, Film and Music Festival.'She scoured the city for the best, the worst, and the gayest Austin had to offer.'Here are her findings:

Best Celebrity Sighting: Over the past few years SXSW has become a hotbed for celebrities and they're always lurking.'At the CNN Grill I saw the top of Conan O'Brien's head as he headed out to the premiere of his movie, and John Oliver was back by the bathrooms emptying his pockets for some kind of photo opp.'Last year Billy Murray seemed to show up everywhere, but this time he was nowhere to be found.'However, the best sighting of the 10 days took place at the FunnyorDie/Tumblr party.'We had shuttled out to a non-downtown bowling alley and bar to schmooze with Internet elite during Interactive week and were just about to head back to the city when a mass text came through our phones -- "Don Draper is here!"'Immediately we began our search for the amazing Jon Hamm, and as my two companions loudly proclaimed "LET'S GO STALK DON DRAPER" I saw Hamm coming straight at us within hearing distance. I did the first thing I could think of -- scream "NO!" in his general direction.' He stopped right next to us to casually chat with a friend and I scurried away, face down.' Not exactly the impression I'd hoped to leave on Mr. Draper.' I'll never get a job in advertising now.

Best After-Hours Hangout: - A dear friend of mine was a sponsored blogger for HP Printers and was being housed in a pop-up trailer park right by the convention center.' By day it was the ideal place for Frisbee and free snacks, but after hours you had to know someone in the park to get inside.' When bars started closing down at 2 am, this New Yorker still had at least 2 hours of party left in her and so we went to the trailer park for late night chats and bocce ball sessions.'We ended up playing a game right next to Michal Cera (my second choice for best celebrity sighting), whose band, Mr. Heavenly, was also staying in the trailer park.'Despite talking to all the members at various points, I never got a chance to see them perform. (An honorable mention goes to the secret loft party I attended Friday night, but I can't tell you more or it won't remain a secret.)

Event I Was Most Sad To Miss: This one is a definite toss-up.'I went by the AXE Chop Shop set up during StyleX, the fashion compontent of SXSW this year, to hang out with one of my favortie breaking bands, Neon Trees.'Unfortunately, schedules were muddled and I didn't get to see them then, or at their show later that evening thanks to more scheduling conflicts.'The band is touring with My Chemical Romance this spring and that promises to be a more explosive show than anything SXSW can pull off, so I'm not too heartbroken.'My other big miss of the weekend was Panic! At The Disco's only set at Stubb's on Saturday night.'Guestlist confusion left me out on the street instead of inside hoping for them to debut some more new tracks from their just-released Vices and Virtures, which has been on repeat in my iTunes all week.'But this is SXSW, even the best laid plans are thwarted and you miss more than you actually see in the constant schedule-shuffle and group coordination.

Best Free Drink: The staple of SXSW is free booze. Every event you go to has some sort of open bar, some better than others.'This year I drank way too many blue lemonade concoctions; I'm afraid my tongue is still discolored even a week later.'My favorite free drink situation was a tie between the Gizmodo party, where I could order top shelf dirty martinis while sitting on a rooftop, or the specialty drink at CNN Grill that was a play on my favorite home drink -- white cranberry vodka and St. Germaine.'As you can guess, I like to keep it classy at SXSW.

Best Free BBQ: I had BBQ on nachos, BBQ on a bacon infused waffle and BBQ in a taco, but the simple BBQ ribs from Salt Lick were the best of the bunch all week.'You can't go wrong with a classic.'And luckily a party brought it in as catering so I didn't have to take the hour-long drive to the middle of nowhere to enter BBQ heaven.

Coolest Branded Experience: Branding is out in full force for SXSW, sponsoring everything they can get their names on.'I tried out as many events as struck my fancy, and while the HP Mobile Park was a nice overall experience, a lot of the fun depended on the crowd of people you were with.'On the other hand, GE's Carosolar -- a solar powered carousel set up in the thick of the SXSW party district -- was fun even if you were alone.'They also had free artisan ice cream sandwiches from Coolhaus and phone recharge stations, making it the ideal place to stop by whenever you need to recharge (your phone or yourself).

Strangest Place I Found Myself: As a self-proclaimed karaoke aficionado in NYC, I knew I had to check out the premiere Karaoke experience at SXSW, the Karaoke RV.'What I found was a slightly dinky RV without any air conditioning, over-packed with revelers.'When I first got on the only place I could find to sit was a closet converted into a tiki bar, which was slightly isolating. Once more seats in the back opened up, however, I enjoyed the limitless free drinks and interesting conversation with random people who stumbled upon the RV.'The only real downside was it was hard to make it to the front where you could actually sing, and after sweating off at least three pounds in the virtual sauna we disembarked and took a leisurely pedicab across town to cool off and catch the end of Diplo's set at an abandoned Power Plant.

Saddest Queer Moment: I only made it to one film during SXSW, and I had high hopes.'Blacktino was billed as a coming of age tale about a half-black, half-Latino boy in Texas who finds his voice in the theater department of his school. Unfortunately the film suffered from terrible writing, terrible acting and terrible everything. When a film is about theater kids you always hope for a great gay character, but in Blacktino the out gay student was a cardboard cutout stereotype, and one of the biggest gags was that the lead character assumed his female best friend was a lesbian and that's why he didn't pay attention to her.'The film was filled with two hours of frustration on so many levels, but I was most annoyed to be robbed of even a tiny gay silver lining.

Completely New Experience: I was asked to work my first red carpet during SXSW, as a talent escort for mtvU's Woodie Awards, which made their inaugural appearance in Austin.'I learned the fine art of moving celebrities along the press lines, pronouncing names correctly, and keeping my walkie talkie from turning on during any inappropriate moments' -- plus I got to check out a fun awards show and see Foo Fighters, Sleigh Bells, Donald Glover and Odd Future all perform without waiting in terrifying lines. I am, however, dreading ever seeing any interviews with me awkwardly standing around in the background of the carpet.'If anyone finds one, don't tell me.

Moment I Saw My Life Flash Before My Eyes: Crowds get intense during SXSW Music, espeically events open to non-badge holders, which are packed with long lines snaking along Austin's sidewalks.'This was the case for MTV's Garage Event, a one-day-only showcase with several bands who were playing bigger, closed to the public events throughout the weekend.'I managed to get inside just in time for headliners Matt and Kim. I grabbed a deep fried Snickers bar and stood as far back as possible because once the set got going, the crowd was so enthusiastic they made the cement parking structure we were on start to shake.'The first time it happened it was charming, but three songs in and I had to get on solid ground because while an interesting story, I don't really want to die in a SXSW-related catastrophe.

Gays At SXSW: This year was really lacking queer bands and films, at least that I heard about.' Instead I had to enjoy the small gay moments -- meeting someone gay and realizing we know all the same people because all gays know each other, telling queer girls I work for Out as a flirting tactic (not really successful).'I did go to the biggest "gay" event,

Perez Hilton's One Night in Austin, but the crowd was mostly straight dudes who were vicious about getting their free drinks.'And, of course, the gayest of all things I did at SXSW this year -- take a night off to sit in my hotel room and watch and recap Glee's big gay kiss.

Band I Saw For The First Time: While this is mildly cheating since I'd seen his old band, Fall Out Boy, a number of times, SXSW was the first chance I got to check out Pete Wentz's new group, Black Cards.' After an extremely long day where I walked by my hotel and almost gave up and went to bed, I rallied and found my way to Maggie Mae's for the group's one and only set at SXSW.'I'm extremely glad I did, as Black Cards is more energetic and world-beat than I'd expected and they definitely kept me dancing and smiling until last call.'The band even handcuffed one enthusiastic fan to their lead singer and invited the entire crowd up on stage for their final number.'Is emo officially dead if Pete Wentz doesn't play it anymore?'I'm not sure, but I'll definitely check his new band out again.

Band I Saw For The Millionth Time And Loved: My favorite unsigned band, Empires, came back to SXSW again this year, playing a staggering seven shows in four days.'I caught three, all completely different (sleepy breakfast show, evening Chicago-bands showcase and midday outside-of-downtown dingy rock bar show) and all completely wonderful. The band is currently in the second round of
Rolling Stone's Cover Contest, up for a chance at a record deal and the cover of an upcoming issue of Rolling Stone.' Hopefully by SXSW time next year I'll be seeing them headline Stubbs.

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Rae Votta