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SXSW Goes to 20 

The music industry is full of grizzled rock survivors muttering about how things aren't what they once were, and Austin, Texas' South By Southwest conference (and blowout party weekend) is a grand example of something the grumblers are actually right about. Once a laid-back convergence of cool, in its 20th year, the event has turned into a media frenzy cranked up to 11. There's a full-on film festival that's notable in its own right, an interactive weekend focusing on various cutting-edge forms of digital media dissemination, and lots (and lots) of business. In one hour of having coffee at the Austin Convention Center Hilton's Starbucks patio, a friend and I overheard three separate business meetings. They were all pressed for time. They were all happy to get a chance to sit down and just really talk. They were all excited about growing their brands. And for our eavesdropping part, we couldn't figure out what any of them were shilling.

It's not surprising that a grassroots arts event with any real worth to it will eventually lose its grip on the reins and turn into something utterly different from its original vision. What's probably more surprising is that SXSW -- overwhelming monster that it is -- is not only still pretty awesome, pound for pound, but it still maintains serious relevance for musicians on every level of the industry ladder. With a sense of history (last year's keynote speaker was Neil Young; this year's was Pete Townshend) that mitigates its fondness for the buzz band, there literally is not just something for everyone, but enough for everyone to make everyone very, very tired, catatonic from sensory overload and worried they didn't get it all in. Side festivals (all with semi-clever "This By That and the Other" monikers) buttress the main event. Headliners play to tiny houses during the day, and unclassifiable oddities get showcases with equal attention as magazine-cover chart-toppers. Not to get too warm and fuzzy, but it gives you some faith in the music business. (Also [see: hour spent on the patio outside the Convention Center Hilton] there are probably not less than 10,000 cute, shaggy-haired dudes with skinny jeans and guitars in attendance.) Speedy, queer English punk rockers the Buzzocks played a stellar set at SPIN magazine's afternoon barbecue at Stubb's. I also got to catch a drone-y Seattle act, the Black Angels, that sounded like a hybrid of the Velvet Underground and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, with heavily Jim Morrison-influenced vocals, as well as neo-soul acts the Detroit Cobras warming up the stage for the Mekons' Jon Langford and the powerful alt-country rock of his Waco Brothers, all while doing due diligence checking in on hometown acts without having to walk more than a hundred yards in between. Not bad.

Last year at SXSW, New Orleans (post-K) had a particularly special presence. A whole afternoon and evening were donated to a free outdoor concert at the sprawling Town Lake space, featuring, among others, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and members of the New Orleans Social Club. That level of deliberate New Orleans presence wasn't repeated, although Jazz and Heritage Foundation Director of Programs, Marketing and Communications Scott Aiges played host at an afternoon crawfish boil sponsored by the Jazz and Heritage Foundation, Putumayo World Music and Bug Music. Offbeat magazine played host for some New Orleans artists as a co-sponsor of the festival.

During an interview last year between SXSW and Jazz Fest, consummate entertainer and music businessman Allen Toussaint said something that resonated heavily with me: that Katrina, unintentionally, served as a superlative booking agent for New Orleans acts. This year -- and we're probably better for it -- we didn't get to (or have to) play the hurricane card. Bands like shaggy punk rockers Die Rotzz, the post-K garage-rock marauders the Black Rose Band, rhythm and blues string spanker Guitar Lightnin' Lee and Ninth Ward weirdo MC Trachiotomy -- who tend to make their own way in the world without official Crescent City sanction -- all slayed assembled audiences without being under a New Orleans umbrella. The reclusive and bizarre ball of energy that is blues pianist Bobby Lounge (like Roosevelt Sykes meeting Tom Lehrer on the final-spin cycle of the dryer) played to a packed house of fresh converts at the Continental Club. And probably most notably, the two Ponderosa Stomp showcases took the unsung heroes of rock and soul, dusted them off and put them on a stage again, but this time it was in front of the kind of critical and booking bigwigs who could genuinely see the surviving soul power of acts like Texan blues guitarist Barbara Lynn and hopefully put them to work on the rest of the world's stages. Let's hope the kick in the pants Katrina gave to New Orleans' widespread musical agoraphobia keeps the momentum it showed in spades in Austin this year.

click to enlarge New Orleans'; eccentric Bobby Lounge played to a packed - house at Austin's Continental Club.
  • New Orleans'; eccentric Bobby Lounge played to a packed house at Austin's Continental Club.
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