Like a pop culture Rorschach test or a music-world Disneyland with infinite eTicket rides, Austin's South by Southwest Music Festival can be all things to all people.
Focus on the proliferation of corporate sponsors, or the folks myopically tweeting from the back of bicycle-driven rickshaws, and you might view SXSW as the epitome of everything that's wrong with the music industry.
Or you could sample an infinitely diverse array of performances from bands who make this annual pilgrimage to the "Live Music Capital of the World," and decide that SXSW is everything that's right about it.
Personally, I've always fallen into the latter camp.
Granted, the corporate presence in and around the Austin Convention Center isn't exactly subtle: The pop-up Apple store was inevitable, of course, but the CNN Grill? Or the American Apparel outlet sale right across from the $5 cupcake stand?
How about the HP Mobile Park, a so-called "content incubator" that's really just an expanse of AstroTurf with bad DJ music and a bunch of HP printers housed in Airstream trailers?
But look beyond the compulsive branding at this years's music event — which ran from March 15 through 20, though the first and last days are generally uneventful — and you'll find the most amazing collection of musicians in one place, at one time, ever.
A few quick statistics suggest the measure of SXSW's success. Since it started in 1987, the music event has grown from 700 attendees to more than 13,000. And the acts who come there to perform have gone from fewer than 200 to more than 2,000. Back in 1987, tickets were just $10; this year, wristbands that gave you access to showcases only were $165, while non-discounted $750 badges got you first priority at shows plus admission to panels, speeches and trade shows.
SXSW has also given birth to separate film and interactive conferences, which makes sense given the degree to which film soundtracks and social media outreach have become part of musicians' lives. But it's the original music event that turned 25 this year, and continues to expand even as the industry contracts.
It's only my first night at SXSW and my carefully laid plans have already been thwarted by Duran Duran. The idea was to go see rising rap artist Blueprint, then catch the U.K. folk-rock upstarts Erland & the Carnival, before heading over to Stubb's Bar-B-Q to hear much-buzzed electronic composer James Blake and no-less-buzzed Chicago power-pop trio Smith Westerns.
Over the course of six visits, I've adopted a few SXSW strategies that work for me. First, in order to maximize discovery of new acts, I tend to avoid performers I've already seen. (So no Janelle Monáe, even though she's brilliant and a more-than-worthy stand-in after Cee-Lo Green's cancellation.) Second, and for much the same reason, I tend to check out emerging acts rather than big stars. (So no Kanye.)
The first half of Wednesday night's itinerary went as planned. What I didn't take into account was the blocks-long line of overflow Duran Duran fans, who showed up hours early hoping to gain entry to the '80s rock band's nostalgic orgasmatron.
And that, I think, is where the magic of SXSW kicks in. In need of a backup plan, I tap away at my conference iPhone app. (Hey, laugh all you want, but trust me, it beats carrying around a folded map and a crumpled copy of the Austin Chronicle.) I find my alternative and, like a guided missile of the Lord Jesus Christ, I am off to church.
Now, just to put this all in perspective, consider the fact that Austin's Sixth Street, as the epicenter of live showcases during SXSW, annually becomes the most conspicuous altar to drunken debauchery this side of New Orleans' Bourbon Street. Which is, of course, entirely in keeping with the lifestyle of musicians who tend to enjoy that kind of thing as much as, or more than, most.
But walk just two blocks north, and there's a different kind of transformation that takes place. A few years ago, the 75 or so bars, clubs and concert halls that serve as official SXSW music venues diversified in an unexpected way, thanks to the addition of two Eighth Street churches.
It's in the hushed surroundings of Central Presbyterian that I catch Texas-born genius Josh T. Pearson, whose performance combines the introversion of Nick Drake with the on-the-edge eccentricity of Tim Buckley's later years.
Pearson was first "discovered" during SXSW some 10 years ago, when Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins saw his former band Lift to Experience. After being signed to the duo's Bella Union label, Lift to Experience released its lone album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, and so impressed BBC legend John Peel that he featured the band on no less three Peel radio sessions.
Following Lift to Experience's short lifespan, Pearson reportedly "spent many years in the wilderness," although he did appear on a Bat for Lashes album and recorded a version of "I'm So Lonesome I could Cry" for a split seven-inch single with the Dirty Three. Turns out his music works really well in a church, as does his droll advice to the audience about the SXSW experience. "Don't get drunk and hung over," he says. "That would ruin it."
After listening to Pearson, I stick around church long enough to watch a Brooklyn band called the Loom carefully tune about a dozen guitars. I even have time to see a couple of songs, which are really good in a chamber-folk-rock kinda way, before heading down to the slightly less hushed St. David's Historic Sanctuary, where the revered Duluth, Minn., band Low takes the altar.
"This one's for the people in Japan who are missing people right now," says frontman Alan Sparhawk as he introduces "Monkey."
Like most Low songs, its lyrics are elliptical at best, yet consistent with the quietly intense beauty of the band's music. But Sparhawk does hint at the sentiment behind its chorus in a quote I found online: "The line, 'Tonight you will be mine, tonight the monkey dies' — it's sort of indulgence and denial and, at the same time, that moment when you either go on one side or the other of the knife."
Tantrums & Hookers
Even if I had the space to go into detail about the 25 or so acts I ended up catching during my 3½ days in Austin, it would still cover less than 2 percent of the artists who actually were performing there.
Still, I would be remiss not to describe a few of the shows that made me especially happy for the existence of music.
There was Fitz & the Tantrums, who update the sharp-dressed soul tradition of Otis Redding, Martin Fry and Mayer Hawthorne, and managed to coax thousands of fans to "get down" — literally, on their haunches — before jumping up to feverishly sing along on the last chorus.
Or Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers, whose New Jersey-native frontwoman wielded the harmonium she learned to play growing up in an Indian household. Dressed in a sleeveless John Lee Hooker T-shirt — so that's where the name comes from — Ray captured the spirit of the best early '80s New York punk, belting out street-smart originals that were tough, passionate and literate.
Or Braids, a young Canadian band whose debut album, released in January, is causing a critical stir with its rekindling of the gossamer shoegazing aesthetic pioneered by the aforementioned Cocteau Twins. (Note: look for upcoming Indy interviews with Braid, Blueprint, Fitz & the Tantrums, and Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers, all of whom will soon be coming through Colorado.)
Even Panic! at the Disco, whose nearby performance I mostly caught in order to fill the hour between Braids and Ha Ha Tonka, was surprisingly good, especially when debuting a new song called "Ready to Go."
And then there were the bands that help keep Austin weird — yes, this is where the slogan first originated. Which is not to say that the city needs much help in that regard. For instance, there's Austin's homegrown Invincible Czars, upon whom I stumbled at an "intimate" dive called Skinny's Ballroom. If you like bands that play ska versions of Iron Maiden's "The Prisoner" with extremely tall, vinyl-clad nuns playing saxophones, you won't find a better one than this.
On the imported weirdness front, there was the Zappa-gone-New-Wave, avant-garde but strangely tuneful, fairly creepy yet almost poignant madness of Gary Wilson, who was described to me by a girl in the adjacent club as "that guy with the fucked-up costumes."
One of the joys of SXSW is that the experience is infinitely customizable and, by necessity, infinitely malleable. Musicians and the special world they inhabit are rarely stable, so it's always amazed me how brilliantly this mostly volunteer organization pulls the whole thing off. And any disappointments — English soulstress Ebony Bones not showing up for her showcase, me not getting word that Snoop Dog, Mayer Hawthorne and others would be playing a set in honor of Nate Dogg, who'd passed away a few days earlier — were offset by all that was there to take their place.
The hidden SXSW
Of course, no SXSW story would be complete without mention of the unofficial festival that's held along Congress Avenue in South Austin. A neighborhood that was largely home to prostitutes and drug dealers before galleries, venues and restaurants moved in, it's now the focal point for the city's most creative denizens.
South Congress Avenue has become ground zero for the week's best free, no-badges-required performances. You can see former Mekon Jon Langford playing among the art brut sculptures out behind Yard Dog; catch rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson playing outside Jo's Hot Coffee and Good Food; or see any number of other bands in the St. Vincent de Paul parking lot.
My own South Congress revelation came via a performance by Hacienda, four Mexican-American kids from San Antonio who revere the Sir Douglas Quintet, and play the shit out of their guitar, bass, drums and vintage Farfisa organ.
According to a musician friend, Hacienda is part of a newly emerging San Antonio music scene that includes the equally talented Girl in a Coma. The young Latina trio has already earned comparisons to both Björk and Patsy Cline, and also recorded a transcendent version of Joy Division's "Transmission." Austin's poorer cousin may have started its own ironic campaign called "Keep San Antonio Lame," but it's way too late for that.
There's comfort in knowing that, as the music industry continues to implode, the music itself is expanding at unprecedented rates. And SXSW is the perfect embodiment of that phenomenon.
The next 25 years should be good ones.