So I realized on that sunny afternoon in Austin that as SXSW turned 25 the changes I had feared and dreaded in previous years had already taken place and I no longer had
anything to fret about. Last year's existential soul searching brought on by the fact that none of the young people I met knew anything about Alex Chilton was now irrelevant.
Chilton's sad passing just before he was to recapture his international mojo at last year's SXSW was a metaphor for the passing of the entire music industry. I am no longer irrelevant, along with all the trappings of my era. I am now post-relevant. Even if I were to wholeheartedly embrace the new culture of SXSW that the style-hive denizens of a newly branded 6th Street represent I would still be post-relevant, which is much better than being irrelevant, believe me. So I was more free at SXSW than I had been since its earliest days, when it was my hive and we all made honey while the sun shined hard. Cut free from the necessity of contemporary social networking and going to parties where my best hope might be to hold forth as a curiosity, I was able to simply enjoy my explorations of SXSW.
Though few SXSW experiences can be repeated, I have become a creature of
habit at the festival, touching certain places I can count on to sustain me. My first official stop after bag pickup is always the BMI "Howdy Texas" party at Stubbs, where I have seen great musicians year after year. This year was no different. Openers the Fabulous Ginn Sisters lived up to their name -- good songs, excellent vocals, one of them played flute, adding an exotic touch to the Texas mix. The finale was a rough and tumble set of real western music from Mr. Dale Watson. I always enjoy his deep tenor and the dance music twang of his band, and if hipster locals like to dismiss him as "Mini-Merle" well that's actually a compliment if you ask me. The guy's a good songwriter and that's something about Austin that even the Bush kingdom was not able to eradicate. Being post-relevant also allows you to feel really uncomfortable about the Big Brother politics lurking over everything here. You don't ever have to go to the Fader Fort and you never have to explain why. Even better you don't have to write about it.
Next stop: Michael Hall’s annual Swollen Circus show at a new venue, ND at 501 Studios. The Hole in the Wall was always a great place for this event, but the larger space suited it well and allowed it to overlap with SXSW Film. The show began with a documentary film, “Drive Somewhere,” about the Florida band the Vulgar Boatmen. People sat in straightbacked chairs watching the film while some of the musicians on screen were loading in their quipment for the show to follow. It was surreal to watch a giant image of Walter Salas-Humara on screen while standing next to him and having people shush you for talking. No one was asking for quiet later that night when Salas-Humara and the Silos took the stage to showcase material from a new album, Florizona, that includes such outstanding songs as "On Your Way Home" and the show-stopping "Teenage Prayer." Members of the Silos also backed Syd Straw for a great set in which Straw performed a dramatic, heart-wrenching love song to her dog. Hall's band The Savage Trip was also a delight, and I was very impressed with a great group from Brooklyn, The Madison Square Gardeners (don't judge them by the name). The Mastersons were also fun. Only drag on the night were the Chapin Sisters, who would have been better off on American Idol.
Friday, March 25, 2011
Had to wait a few days before posting about SXSW just because I didn't want to be part of the social networking tsunami responding to it. Have to say it's amazing considering Twitter just debuted there three years ago. When I arrived in Austin on the 15th I caught a heady feeling among the attendees that really gave me a sense of deja vu. The energy and excitement of discovery among the young people who'd come for the event was palpable, and it reminded me of the way I felt the first few years of the festival, which I've been coming to since the beginning. SXSW was always about discovery and about forming a community among like minded people who would never meet each other under any other circumstances. The first few years offered a dramatic contrast to the main music business conference, the New Music Seminar in New York. Back then the corporate giants of the entertainment industry ruled popular music and the indie bands and alternative weekly magazines that powered SXSW created a true alternative reality. The early years were revelatory to me. I was a music columnist for the wire service UPI and SXSW introduced me to a whole array of Texas rock & roll that I wasn't aware of, great bands like the Wild Seeds and the True Believers, really interesting stuff like the Killer Bees and Ponty Bone and the amazing Carolyn Wonderland. Over the years I have never lost that sense of discovery at SXSW. Every year something hits me from out of the blue. I'm going to post a series of observations about the 25th annual SXSW over the next week or so.