I’ve been attending the South by Southwest Music, Film and Interactive Conference since 1996, and even then the complaints were the same: It’s gotten too big, it’s gotten too corporate, it’s a ripoff for the working musician and a paid vacation for industry weasels. But 2014 may actually be the year that SXSW reached some kind of tipping point, not just because of the tragedy that marred the event (a drunk driver in a stolen car plowed through a barricade, killing three people and injuring dozens more), but because it’s nearly impossible to imagine it getting any bigger or more corporate.
For 10 days in March the city of Austin is swallowed whole, sprouting branded pop-up venues on every corner. (You’ll know you’ve met someone who’s only been to Austin during South-by if they recommend you check out “the Spotify House.”) The defining moment of absurdity came when the city had to step in to prevent Lady Gaga from performing in the giant Doritos machine erected near the convention center due to overcrowding concerns. (The show was relocated to the more spacious Stubb’s, where VIPs and the lucky rabble were treated to “pop art” featuring induced vomiting, all sponsored by Frito-Lay.)
That’s the bad news. The good news is, it’s still possible to have a hell of a lot of fun at SXSW, especially if you set aside any worries about getting into the hot-ticket shows and simply drift through the less-crowded day parties and wristband events. The Yard Dog on South Congress, always a good-time, day-drinking venue, hosted an afternoon bash featuring Drivin’ N Cryin’, who brought the roof down with a blazing take on “When the Whip Comes Down.” On trendy Rainey Street, the Shady Rest Band from just down the road in San Marcos were unfazed playing their pleasantly twangy ditties for eight to 10 people at a time. Far off the beaten path at the venerable Carousel Lounge, People’s Blues of Richmond cranked out a psychedelic circus of funk-rock in an appropriately Lynchian setting. In a packed, sweaty B.D. Riley’s on Sixth, reunited ‘80s postpunk band the Pedaljets turned back the clock with a tight set of hits that never were.
The Friday night highlight was surprisingly accessible, as the Paramount Theater still had plenty of empty seats as a ramshackle but heartfelt Lou Reed tribute show got underway. Co-hosted by Alejandro Escovedo (The True Believers) and Richard Barone (The Bongos), and backed by an all-star house band including Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group and Clem Burke of Blondie, the show featured some appropriately oddball detours, such as Andy Warhol favorite Joe Dallesandro reciting “Smalltown” and drag queen Sharon Needles performing “Candy Says.” Highlights included Cheetah Chrome’s raucous “Romeo Had Juliet,” Bobby Bare Jr.’s My Morning Jacket-inspired take on “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” and Escovedo and Barone bashing out “White Light/White Heat.”
Old school rockers were on hand in abundance, with two very different veteran acts in town to accompany rockumentaries based on their careers. Soul Boys of the Western World was a pleasant surprise for anyone (like your humble Rocker correspondent) who thought of Spandau Ballet as just another 80’s one-hit wonder. A much bigger deal in England, the band was present for a number of the decade’s seminal pop events, from the rise of MTV to the second British Invasion to Live Aid. Comprised entirely of archival footage, it’s a nostalgia trip that wraps up in familiar fashion: breakup, acrimonious lawsuits, and lucrative reunion, complete with SXSW performance. Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty finds its subject not only still alive, but surprisingly better off than he’s been in years. That’s not to say he’s in great shape, just that years of drug abuse had taken their toll to the point that he weighed 90 pounds and appeared to have only weeks to live. He survived, however, and is back to touring, including an appearance at SXSW. He did not perform in the giant Doritos machine, however, and any vomiting was purely incidental.