SXSW Dispatch #1: Gearing Up For My 25th Spring Break In Austin

SXSW Dispatch #1: Gearing Up For My 25th Spring Break In Austin

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AUSTIN—In its 30th year, South by Southwest is hardly recognizable from the intimate, independently-minded music festival that began here in the Texas capital in 1987. 

I know, because I dug up my own coverage from back in the day. My very first report follows below. 

I wasn’t here from the very beginning—a relative latecomer to what has become the worldwide music industry’s largest annual gathering, I didn’t travel to the Lone Star state until 1992. I was an assistant editor at the late, lamented Request magazine at the time, and I didn’t have to write about the festival that year, just soak it all in. But I’ve returned every year since, filing that first report for The Chicago Sun-Times in 1993, and writing about my experiences in the clubs and conference rooms of Austin annually for a quarter of a century now. 

The changes during this time are almost too numerous to count: Combined with the interactive and music festivals, SXSW now essentially shuts Austin down for 10 days, swamping this city with all manner of dreamers and schemers, most eager to “build their brands” in this new-media economy rather than signing to a major label or a Hollywood studio that will grant them stardom. (Oh, they’d still take that, if it were available, but the old star-making machinery hardly exists anymore.) The numbers of attendees and performers in the report below seem laughable now; multiple that by 30 or 40 times for 2016, and many more if we count the mere gawkers. 

Austin has changed, too. The small Bohemian outpost and funky college town has lost much of its character and soul to the forces of gentrification, a source of never-ending angst to its residents. The tone of the annual reports covering that aspect of the festival’s evolution has shifted from feisty griping to a downright panic that the musicians in the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World will all soon by priced out (as evidenced by this piece in The New York Times, and this one in The Guardian). 

In ’93, SXSW considered it quite a coop to have then-Gov. Ann Richards as its keynote speaker. (She had to travel all of 10 city blocks from her office to the convention center.) This year, President Obama spoke to the digital movers and shakers on Friday (Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips reported on that talk here), and I’m rushing to finish these opening comments because the First Lady will soon sit down with Queen Latifah, superstar songwriter for hire Diane Warren, and producer Missy Elliott, a spectacle so strange it simply can’t be missed. 

But spectacle isn’t why I keep coming back—in fact, I’m here despite it. As my Sound Opinions partner Greg Kot agreed when we battled the throngs for our first of many fine Mexican meals in the coming days, the power of the music hasn’t diminished one bit. We both have wish lists of 30 or 40 bands we’re eager to see in the coming days, to say nothing of the inevitable surprises that await us around every corner. As always, those are the stories I can’t wait to tell. But for now, here’s that trip in the wayback machine to 1993. 

AUSTIN, Texas—Most music-business gatherings are conventional affairs, but the seventh South by Southwest Music & Media Conference offered everything from a home-style barbecue with Carlene Carter to onstage body-piercing by Florida thrash band the Genitorturers. 

The convention is the music industry’s second-largest annual event. For five days last week, it brought 3,500 musicians, record company executives and music journalists from across the country to the Texas capital, renowned for its varied and vibrant music scene. 

The New Music Seminar, held in New York each summer, predicts which artists will receive the most hype in the coming months. South by Southwest offers a chance to see which will produce the best music. It features musical styles ranging from country to punk, with the only shortcoming a chronic shortage of hip-hop (especially embarrassing considering the active Houston rap scene). 

The emphasis this year was on local Texas bands, and fewer national groups performed at the 450 showcase gigs. But Chicago bands created much of the excitement, another indication that the city’s music scene is about to enter the national limelight. 

Chicago’s Eleventh Dream Day’s raucous gig Thursday at the Acropolis was among the hottest tickets. The quartet is about to release a new album on Atlantic, but Rick Rizzo’s wrenching guitar leads were much more effective on stage than on record. 

Other Chicago showcases included performances by the wacky roots-rock trio the New Duncan Imperials, the electronic quartet Big Hat, Tribal Opera, the Remainders and spoken-word artist Lisa Buscani. 

Two of the best shows were open only to journalists. Carter premiered songs from her new album Little Love Letters during a dinner at a local rib joint, and wiggy Englishman Robyn Hitchcock held court at a new-age “brain bar,” appropriately sipping a drink called Virtual Reality. Hitchcock performed and talked about his excellent new album Respect, but he denied that the title was a Rodney Dangerfield-style comment on his lack of success. “It’s a man’s life being a cult figure,” he said. 

As always, the conference opened with the Austin Music Awards on Wednesday night. A capacity crowd at Palmer Auditorium sat patiently during the unending presentations for everything from best poster artist to best Austin rock journalist (claimed for the second straight year by former Chicago Sun-Times critic Don McLeese). 

The highlights came late in the evening with a performance by P, a gonzo pickup band featuring Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers and teen heartthrob Johnny Depp, and a surprise appearance by Austin’s psychedelic pioneer Roky Erickson. The former lead singer of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators hasn’t performed in years because of mental problems. But his music still influences many alternative-rockers, as proved by a popular 1990 tribute album, and the sight of the notorious acid casualty on stage won heartfelt applause. 

Erickson seemed bored, standing with his arms folded and yawning frequently. But his pure, soulful voice was strong as ever as he ran through four of his most famous tunes, including “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Two Headed Dog.” He was a hard act to follow, but Texas Gov. Ann Richards did her best during the keynote address Thursday morning. 

Introduced to a group of writers at a reception before her speech, she was surprised to learn what they did. “God, I can’t imagine making a living as a rock critic,” she said. 

South by Southwest included three days of panels, many geared to giving bands practical advice about record deals, touring and music publishing. (Chicago speakers included Nick Miller of JAM Productions and Seymour Guenther of Flying Fish.) But the most talked-about session was a play that pitted Elvis against Col. Tom Parker in a dispute over the manager’s dubious handling of the King’s finances. 

Austin scenester Joe Nick Patoski played the role of former carny hustler Col. Tom to the hilt, scoffing when Elvis’ attorney suggested that managers such as the Beatles’ Brian Epstein had done much better for their artists. “The Beatles came and the Beatles went, but my man still lives!” Col. Tom replied. 

At one panel titled “Is Rock Journalism Relevant?” a 15-year-old reporter from a high school newspaper put a group of critics in their place. “Aren’t you all a little old to write about rock ‘n’ roll?” she asked.