Smaller Fests in Marfa and McAllen Offer Easy SXSW Alternatives

The historic Ballroom Marfa, site of Marfa Myths
The historic Ballroom Marfa, site of Marfa Myths
Photo courtesy of Marfa Myths

This weekend marks the start of SXSW in Austin, where thousands of bands come to Austin, Texas from around the world to play in industry showcases. For music lovers, it's an enticing experience, but also overwhelming. Most hotels are booked months in advance, traffic around the events is worse than Houston rush hour, and nearly every venue has a line that may take hours before you see the band you're looking for.

Over the past few years, spillover festivals -- smaller events where bands from SXSW play nearby cities the same week -- have become prevalent in cities around Texas. This year two such festivals, Marfa Myths in Marfa and Galax Z Fair in McAllen, present an opportunity to catch rare performances in unique settings without having to deal with the heavy crowds and hectic atmosphere that SXSW often brings.

Marfa has worked to establish itself as an artistic haven in West Texas, and last year's inaugural Marfa Myths festival helped further that notion. Organized by Nicki Ittner of Ballroom Marfa, a cultural arts space in the city, and Keith Abrahmsson of the independent record label Mexican Summer, the festival brings in musical acts from around the world for a weekend of intimate concerts and art displays. This year's lineup, which takes place tonight through Sunday, includes performances from bands like Iceage, Grouper, Tamayrn, Steve Gunn, a recording residency featuring Connan Mockasin and Dev Hynes a.k.a Blood Orange, as well as installations from artists like Gregg Kowalsky and Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.

"As someone who's gone to SXSW for many years, it's a massive entity now, and I think it's not better or worse than what we're doing with Marfa Myths, but we're tyring to do something totally different," says Abrahamsson. "It's going to be a lot more intimate."

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According to Ittner, the event brought in several hundred people last year to the city, bringing in an impactful but not overwhelming tourist presence that involves the community.

"We're working with many community partners, [to] offer a local discount and do a lot to make it friendly," Ittner says. "A lot of the locals are participating in some way. We don't want to make it something that pops down in Marfa and leaves."

The festival offers opportunities that SXSW doesn't, as artists like Grouper and Dev Hynes are participating in this but not making the trip to Austin. Abrahamsson indicates that it was important to make Marfa Myths more than a spillover fest and offer something that SXSW couldn't. One is the atmosphere of being in a remote location, an eight-hour drive from Houston and a three hours by car from the nearest airport.

"It's really hard to get to, but there's something attractive about being so far away and isolated," Ittner says. "It's very surprising, and as a resident, you learn you don't need all those conveniences. It's so nice to have quiet and not have all that noise. It's kind of a relief and I think people are drawn to that, having the time and space to be in the moment."

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Smaller Fests in Marfa and McAllen Offer Easy SXSW Alternatives

Right after Marfa Myths, on March 16 and 17 (next Monday and Tuesday), the fourth installment of Galax Z Fair in McAllen will kick off. The festival is organized by local promoter Patrick Garcia and features a carefully curated lineup of some of the best bands playing SXSW, including international acts such as Denmark's Lust For Youth and Iceage, Sweden's Makthaverskan, and New Zealand's Yumi Zouma, alongside domestic acts like Girlpool, Screaming Females, Alex G, Downtown Boys, Elvis Depressedly and more. In previous years, Garcia has booked bigger acts like Twin Shadow, Against Me!, and Of Montreal, but wanted to build this year's lineup around bands he personally loved rather than those he thought would draw a larger crowd.

"I didn't want this to be a festival that was about what sort of popularity or size I would book next, because that wasn't growth to me," Garcia says. "It's a very personal lineup for me. I know a lot of people were weirded out because they don't recognize so many of these artists. I don't feel weird excessively promoting it because it feels like sharing a mixtape."

Garcia has been working for years as a promoter, trying to get bands to play South Texas who typically only play bigger cities like Houston, Dallas or Austin. His efforts are helping to grow the scene in the Valley, he says.

"It's growing because I feel these bands are coming down a little more consistently and seeing how enthusiastic the crowds are down here," explains Garcia. "these bands are telling their friends and tour buddies and agents that it's a great place, an untapped market."

While Garcia has been able to book some personal favorite bands, he still deals with a lot of rejection as the trip to McAllen is logistically challenging for many touring bands.

"For every band that gets confirmed there are usually 15 to 25 other bands I reached out to that weren't able to," Garcia says.

According to Garcia, Galax Z Fair offers an alternative to the sprawl of SXSW as a throwback to what SXSW was like many years ago.

"There's more enthusiasm by the crowd and artists, and there's no corporate sponsorships," Garcia says. "It really is a small situation but it does exude that vibe of a SXSW where it is on the streets at different venues in a downtown setting. Yeah, you can see Spoon play for free at Auditorium Shores but you'll be a quarter-mile away. Here, you're paying a humble amount and seeing bands an elbow away from you."

While there are plenty of spillover fests to see bands outside of the crowded atmosphere that of SXSW, such as Spillover Music Fest in Dallas, 35 Denton in Denton, and many shows at Fitzgerald's, Super Happy Fun Land and Walters, and other Houston venues, these two offer a unique alternative to SXSW for music fans who crave a more intimate, secluded atmosphere.

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