Ah, the SXSW report... What journalist going there isn't asked to file one and figure out a new angle to this sprawling fest? What's there to say about over a thousand performers except that there's a lot of diversity? Also, even the most hearty of souls (say myself, about five years ago) is only going to see a fraction of what they hoped to. And yet we return to Austin yearly for what's estimated to be the biggest music festival in the galaxy. When I asked friends what were some of the highlights after a few days there, the answer was usually the same: stoned silence followed by "it's kind of blur now..."
And so it was but a good blur to be sure. In a 3-4 day period, I'll catch about 30-40 bands with the unofficial rule being that if you see 3-5 songs then you've "seen" a band. Like any good fest, you'll gobble up as much as you can by flashing a wristband or (better yet) a badge to get into all the clubs lined up on 6th street. You'll even maybe try to catch two 8 o'clock bands playing at clubs close to each other, some literally next door- i.e. I walked from Love Is All to the Willowz in a less than a minute and then had time to walk down the street to see Atmosphere at a third place. Other venues have multi-stages so that the time is cut down even more- Emo's Main Stage to Emo Jr is quick walk through the same complex (ditto the two stages each at Velvet Spade and Habana).
One reason I might have blurred out is because I had a phone to record snippets of many of the shows, thanks to the nice people at SXSW who asked me to do a video blog. While battery power was a dicey issue sometimes, the last one I was given had about 1 hour of record time on it. That meant that not only could I capture great moments on stage (Princess Superstar pulling down a roadie's pants, Kid 606 throwing a beer in my face) but I could also do on the spot interviews with R&B legend/wildman Andre Williams, Mekons/Waco gadly Jon Langford and the ever-quotable Jello Biafra among others. Just the thought of doing the talks on the fly without having to transcript, type up and format them was just so damn liberating. And as long as I could add captions to the concert excerpts that I shot, I could create an almost instantaneous travelogue of what I was experience each night. Expect to see more of these all around. Bloody great idea, especially for an event like this where it can be literally brought to life more than most text entries (like this), despite the dodgy camera angles and lighting that sometimes effected output.
And oh yeah, I did a panel. Great bunch of people there from Fluxblog, Music For Robots, Pitchfork, Her Jazz and Brooklyn Vegan. Despite the deluge of day shows, we even got a good turn out. Unfortunately because I had to moderate and bring up websites on a laptop/screen, I didn't even get to hear the full impetus of some of the answers there. We did get to cover the riches we didn't make as bloggers, the makings of a good blog, the pressures of updating daily, the focus of text/video over text, how to get a blog notices, the future of blogs and the surprisingly small overall Net readership (which still trumps the number of blogs that still survive a few months after starting). The long promised pie fight didn't materialize but during the Q&A session, Maria T let some sparks fly when the topic of selling out came up (she didn't exactly buy it, so to speak). Probably the best discussion came before the panel and which we didn't have time to include there- how much music each of us is sent that's totally inappropriate to what's being covered at a blog. For anyone who does respect the parameters, their work is taken much more seriously. Probably the best question that I heard was from a promoter who wondered why the focus seems to be on indie music in this realm and where the hip hop blogs are. There are some fine ones out there (Jeff Chang, Cocaine Blunts, Hip Hop Blogs) but they usually don't have the profile of the rock ones. It's a matter of time before that changes though, rest assured, and that'll be a good thing.
Speaking of hip hop, other than metal and drone music (an incredible bill by Table of the Elements that included a Rhys Chatham guitar orchestra), rap had the strongest presence that I've seen at SXSW so far though there were always stray showcases: not just a secret Beastie Boys show but also a show of strength by Wu Tang, Immortal Technique, Brother Ali, Atmosphere, Busdriver and Swollen Members, all of whom did amazing shows there. Maybe it was the proximity of the hot Dallas scene but it was inevitable that rap had to start getting its due at a huge showcase like this.
Along with the size of the official showcase, the unofficial day shows have also exploded. Some of the SXSW people groused a bit about this stealing their thunder but my view is that they feed well off of each other. The day parties wouldn't be there without SXSW and these same daytime events help to draw attention (and attendees) to SXSW itself. What this also provided was an extra chance to see some bands you couldn't catch during the evening (because of set times or geography)- my favorite was the newly-reunited Bats spinning their beautiful tunes at a local record store. Just to give you an idea about how extensive these day shows were, even though the store was 10-15 minute drive out of town, there happened to be two other day showcases right next door.
One thing that I wish I had more time to explore while I was there was the local angle of Austin itself. Even though the self-proclaimed music capital of the world has it over many major U.S. cities in terms of being music/club/performer friendly, some Austinites grumble that there are problems there. Clubs do get harassed sometimes because of the usual noise or crowding complaints (I wanted to interview some of the firemen or police about this but they declined). Also the disease of gentrification is eating away at the city- there is less and less affordable housing in the downtown area, which is bad news for artists, which is eventually going to mean bad news for the music community.
And that's about all I can remember or think of after four days with little sleep and running around along with 100's of e-mails waiting for me at home. Nevertheless, as my girlfriend noted, I'm already looking forward to 12 months from now when I do it all again. Like I said, it's a good blur...