Live Review: SXSW 2009 Austin, Texas
If I was going to advise a festival virgin on ways to plan for the extravaganza that is South by South West, it would be – BE PREPARED!
The choice is overwhelming and about two weeks is truly needed to see everything on the wish-list. Five days is not enough, but it has to do. There are almost 2000 bands and 88 venues across the Texan capital in this week of March.
First impressions of Austin are complimentary; it’s a city roughly the size of Geelong (Victoria), with accommodating and friendly locals. During SXSW the main drag, 6th Street, is cut off from the rest of the city and it’s here where the heart of the festival is found. Almost every possible venue along the length of 6th Street is devoted to live music and there are many genres to choose from, including rock, blues, country, classical and soul. Buskers are a feature also, and make use of street corners and roads alike. Other venues radiate from 6th Street like a melodic spider’s web.
On day one, armed with our pocket-sized guide, we made our way to our first lot of gigs. Mornings are the time to head to the Convention Centre to hear the keynote speakers, all providing fantastic insight into the topic of their choice. Artists such as Jarvis Cocker waxed lyrical on “an investigation into the role of lyrics in popular song”. His dry, comedic style included a discussion of the FBI investigation into the words of 'Louis, Louis' and how they spent 31 months trying to decipher lyrics such as, “Louis, Louis, grab her way down low.” This continued on with many examples and Cocker concluded that lyrics are good just “because they are”.
Quincy Jones was the SXSW featured speaker, with the breadth and depth of his experience felt by all in the conference room. Jones’ talk went for almost three hours, as he spoke about the highlights in his career, his influences and recent passion to keep the music industry alive by acknowledging the integrity of the artist.
In among his storytelling, we were provided with inspirational snippets that have become the mainstay of his life experiences. These include the concern over artists becoming famous without the grounding or stability to sustain them. He said, “[Artists] must be spiritually grounded to be ready for success. You either think you deserve it or you don’t. Are you ready for the higher power?” He obviously has witnessed the demise of talent such as Michael Jackson and others, and realises what success can bring and take away.
Little Steven Van Zandt reiterated Quincy’s words in his keynote speech, but his concern zeroed in on the demise of the live music scene in the USA, and elsewhere, believing the current state of affairs is “sucking major moose cock”. His passion is as absolute as Jones’, but his focus was on the artificial acceleration of artists in the biz from little known, to overnight success, without having played live. His radio station, based in the North East of USA, focuses on the rise of new talent and the nurturing of live music venues where bands can hone their skills and then embark on the monster that is success. He cites the popularity of his own E Street Band, who played in clubs for seven years before becoming known. He believes, “ya gotta get people outta their seats and make ‘em dance”, in order to understand the impact music has on the punter.
The live TV broadcasts from DirectTV SXSW Live are a feature of the Austin Convention Centre, and although a little sterile compared to the other venues, the choice of bands are hard to ignore. The Bat Bar and the Lone Star Lounge both featured a great range of music, such as The Von Bondies, Oak Ridge Boys, Ben Harper, Echo and the Bunnymen, Ed Harcourt, Tinted Windows and many, many more. Lines were huge, snaking their way around the ground level of the centre, but almost always the venues accommodated all badge holders and the average punter who had come to see their favourite act.
Detroit-based Von Bondies were a highlight, proving that the concept of a four-piece band with numerous vocalists provides variety and energy that is difficult to beat. Echo and the Bunnymen proved they still had it with a fantastic set list that included favourites 'Going Up', 'Crocodiles', 'The Killing Moon' and'The Cutter'.
The Aussie BBQ is a popular place, not only for overwhelmed artists, but those visiting from the land down-under. The BBQ provided hot dogs, salad, alcohol and a smorgasbord of talent, including Josh Pyke, The Grates, The Drones, The Temper Trap and Gabriella Cilmi. Cilmi also supported Tori Amos the night previous at La Zona Rosa, proving that the pop princess has a little more grunt and blues in her repertoire (finishing with a surprising'Whole Lotta Love'), which was appreciated by the audience. Amos was her typically esoteric self, providing a smattering of new releases relying on her dual piano gymnastics while comfortably purring into the microphone throughout.
For anyone visiting the SXSW festival, the Austin Music Awards are a must-see. The awards ceremony is held at the Austin Music Hall and celebrates the talents of local artists of all genres. For a visitor it’s a fantastic insight into what’s available in this music-loving city.
Singer Ruthie Foster, was one such artist whose soulful style was well rewarded, but the local favourite was a young bloke named Bob Schneider, whose ability to bring together different generations with his varied styles was masterful.
Major award recipients include Alejandro Escovedo (Musician of the Year), The Black and White Years (Best New Band) and the aforementioned Bob Schneider and Lonelyland (Band of the Year) . But it wasn’t all country and western; the highlight of the night for any old-school punk was The Dicks’ induction into the Austin Music Awards Hall of Fame, the award being presented by David Yow (Jesus Lizard), who subsequently joined them on stage for 'Wheelchair Epidemic' before The Dicks finished with 'Dicks Hate The Police'!
Venues scattered across the city included Maggie Mae’s, Dirty Dog Bar, Smokin’ Music and Red Eyed Fly. One music venue, in particular, which was a favourite with locals and visitors alike was Stubbs. This indoor/outdoor space held many of the big acts, such as The Decemberists, Metallica and PJ Harvey. This typically demonstrates the range of genres that the festival accommodates and just in the one place.
PJ Harvey’s gig with John Parish included 'Electric Touch', 'Parachute' and the impressive 'White Lies' as supports, and her true-to-form, experimental approach proved a fitting end to the festival. The diminutive performer growled like a puma and sang like a bird, and handled one demented heckler with the grace and professionalism for which she is known. Definitely a highlight.
So SXSW is laid to rest for another 12 months. The celebrity sightings (Billy Bob Thornton, Matthew McConaughey, Janeane Garofalo), the endless parties, the hot dogs and Tex Mex food on offer, the hospitality and, of course, the music, represents all that is Texas – big, brash and downright satisfying.
Thank you, Austin; we had a ball.