Vita and the Woolf | Photo by John Vettese
In the van with Vita and the Woolf: A SXSW photo story
“I think we’re parked by that organic coffee shop up the street,” said Adam Shumski. We’re wandering alongside Interstate 35, the highway that divides east and west Austin, and the traffic is intense. During the annual SXSW music festival, the highway effectively becomes a parking lot that slowly trudges out of downtown Austin with vehicles and trailers jutting in at every angle.
Shumski’s band Vita and the Woolf didn’t take any chances. Rather than attempt to negotiate the fray of the downtown, their driver (and unofficial tour documentarian) Jay Miller left their van locked up on the east side of town, though the specific intersection eludes them at the moment.
Up ahead, Miller is jogging alongside Vita’s frontwoman Jennifer Pague; they’re hustling since it’s 1:45 and their gig at in.gredients – an independent grocery not unlike Weaver’s Way in Philly – is at 2:00. Time is of the essence, and it’s not till we get in the car, get the air conditioner cranked and get the GPS punched in with the proper coordinates that everybody breathes a sigh of relief.
The band is pretty much playing unofficial showcases on this SXSW run, and this particular showcase is seriously off-the-grid. There’s a modest crowd and a few leashed dogs in the open-air pop-up stage in front of in.gredients, but Pague and the band take the show no less seriously than they would for a packed house at Boot and Saddle. As soon as Miller pulls the van in the parking lot, Pague grabs her keyboard, stand and shoulder bag and makes a mad dash to meet the promoter. It’s 2:01 at this point, and she doesn’t want to look bad.
Shumski and keyboard player / bassist Bobby Cleveland stay behind to de-Tetris the van.
The decision is promptly made to, given the time crunch and stage constraints, make this set a bit more of a stripped down affair.
The crowd is into the set, which mixes older numbers from Fang Song with newer tunes from the EP the band is currently Kickstarting to record. To these listeners, though, they’re all new songs. Somebody asks for a CD afterwards. There is good beer inside and takeout tacos across the street. The small-batch salted caramel ice cream is delicious.
At around four, the van is loaded up again and we launch off to the next destination: Whisler’s, a quaint eatery / drinkery a little bit closer to downtown but still on the east side of Austin. I help the band load in and we stash their gear under the staircase and scan the courtyard; much bigger crowd for this show.
The perils of touring to SXSW as an independent artist without an official show are that you can very well travel hundreds of miles to play to no one. Or to just your friends. Pague, Shumski and Cleveland made the trek and, among their other shows, did their thing for this audience of daydrinking music fans who did not know Vita and the Woolf but dug what they heard. A few moments into the heavy soul of “Bury You,” I notice a dude next to me nod his head at Pague’s delivery say to a friend “Wow – she’s got pipes.”
Vita and the Woolf rocked a half hour set at Whisler’s as the Thursday sun began to set over Austin. After they wrapped, they again stuck around to mingle. This is important for any artist at any show, but especially at SXSW where forging an artist-audience connection needs to happen with more than just music.
Hayley Rosenblum from Kickstarter came out to the showcase; Vita and the Woolf’s campaign was given the spotlight treatment on the crowdfunding site not long before SXSW, so Pague was pretty psyched to meet her.
Later, she taked to new fans and old friends; download cards were swapped, email addresses were exchanged. Vague plans were made for a pop-up show later that night at a house party on the outer reaches of Austin.
After the van was packed up, we parted ways and Vita and the Woolf pulled off into the Austin evening. Two more days of showcases, then another week of tour but a whole lot of drive and optimism in the tank.