By Mitch Myers
It’s hard to believe that SXSW was actually celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year – but there was a documentary about SXSW at SXSW entitled Outside Industry: SXSW, and they said it’s been twenty-five years so you know that it has to be true. Over this past quarter century SXSW has grown exponentially, adding impressive film and interactive components on top of their original music conference. So now, it’s about ten solid days of organized insanity encompassing all manners of media, commerce, showbiz and hustle.
Since Austin is the state capital and also contains the University of Texas, the city is pretty well prepared for a party. And although SXSW occurs during spring break for the University, SXSW itself has now become a spring break destination for young people all over the United States. No longer do you need a badge or even a wristband to participate in the revelry. For one, there’s an equal and opposite reaction to the downtown music conference scene in South Austin that boasts a huge amount of free music at a variety of venues, including hefty outdoor concerts at Jo’s Coffee and nonstop beer-bash-BBQs at places like the Yard Dog and the Continental Club.
East of Highway 35, massive makeshift happenings at the Fader/Fort blast indie-rock for days, attracting the burgeoning youth culture and approximating downtown Sixth Street in intensity, if not square-foot indulgence. Not only that, but the SXSW Interactive Festival is expanding even faster, attracting many thousands of geeky conventioneers walking around with their smartphones in front of their faces and gobbling up precious bandwidth like penny candy. And let’s not forget that St. Patrick’s Day lands right in the middle of all this SXSW madness – talk about going green!
Going as green as I could, the film festival was a nice way to start my trip. I missed big-distribution flicks like the sci-fi thriller Source Code and the sci-fi comedy Paul in favor of oddball gems like Sebastián Gutiérrez’s Girl Walks Into A Bar, which is the first feature film to be made for the Internet, which means you can watch red-hot Carla Gugino, red-hot Rosario Dawson, Josh Hartnett, red-hot Emmanuelle Chriqui and Danny DeVito on YouTube, right now. Sponsored by Lexus!
I also skipped Rutger Hauer in the grindcore romp, Hobo With A Shotgun, but caught Werner Herzog’s new 3-D documentary, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, which examines these crazy cave paintings in France made by primitive man 35,000 years ago that were somehow hermetically sealed and amazing in their sophistication. For an added visual thrill, Herzog throws in some radioactive albino crocodiles from a nearby nuclear reactor.
Besides all that, Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page were pretty crazy in James Gunn’s Super, a violent and kooky superhero farce where our maladjusted hero dresses up in red, hits bad people with a big metal wrench, and hollers things like “Shut Up Crime!”
Billy Bob Thorton was in Austin for his documentary on Willie Nelson, King Of Luck, and he ended up partying at the Four Seasons with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. I personally got to meet Dave Grohl and George Clinton. Grohl was there for a Foo Fighters documentary and a couple of killer gigs, but Clinton didn’t even perform at SXSW, he was just there to hang out and party. Conan O’Brien was in attendance for the insightful film Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop, and mopey singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith was moping around at his equally personal documentary, Love Shines. John Mellancamp made a surprise appearance at the screening of Kirk Markus’ It’s About You, which is about Mellancamp – his 2009 tour and the making of his recent album.
The best music documentary was probably Danny Clinch’s Live At Preservation Hall: Louisiana Fairytale, which features the history of Preservation Hall Jazz Band, their famous New Orleans haven in the French Quarter, and an amazing live summit with the rock band My Morning Jacket. One of the more charming narrative films was Bag Of Hammers starring Jake Sandvig and Jason Ritter, which starts out like a teen comedy but turns out to be a story of compassion compelling one’s maturity, and the power of families real and imagined.
By the time the SXSW music festival kicked in I was already pretty fried. Still, I managed to see the Greenhornes and was both impressed and confused by their ability to shift musical genres so quickly. Jumping from garage rock to savage soul music and on to retro-styled jamming, the Ohio group even played a cover of the old Yardbirds rave-out, “Lost Woman,” which sounded good to me.
The North Mississippi Allstars played several times while in Austin, and were basically awesome. Back from his stint with the now-defunct Back Crowes, Luther Dickinson was absolutely killing on guitar while brother Cody Dickinson beat the drums (and an electric washboard) with passion and precision. They have a brand new record out, Keys To The Kingdom, but you still have to see these guys perform to appreciate how cool they are, i.e. Southern Rock Lives!
I enjoyed seeing Austin rock veteran Alejandro Escovedo perform outdoors with his Orchestra, but Escovedo’s veteran status couldn’t touch that of Roky Erickson’s, who played the Austin Music Awards with the reconstituted Meat Puppets. Roky received some kind of lifetime achievement award, as did the forgotten Texas psyche-rockers Bubble Puppy, who got back together after forty years just to perform at the Awards show. The band was actually quite good, belting out vintage material like “Beginning” and their underground hard rock hit from 1969, “Hot Smoke and Sasafrass.” Hot smoke – indeed.
I also caught performances by the two divas of Americana, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. Emmylou Harris’ acoustic show at Antone’s was gentle, intimate and a little boring, while Lucinda Williams’ electric gig at the new ACL (Austin City Limits) venue was upbeat, offhand and rocking. Williams closed her set with a version of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” dedicating her protest to the American workers fighting for their union rights.
Finally, I saw old hand Detroit funk guitarist Dennis Coffey with the Adrian Younge Sound Orchestra. Coffey, who played on numerous funk and soul tunes in the 1970s, recorded a million selling instrumental back in the day called “Scorpio,” and the man still has his chops. As a matter of fact, Dennis Coffey was absolutely burning on the guitar as he and the band churned through an ultra-funky catalogue of his amazing sonic accomplishments including Funkadelic’s “I Bet You” and Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Knock My Love.” Honest, this guy is dangerous on the guitar and you should catch him live whenever he performs. He’s got a new record and is touring soon. And thanks to SXSW, I’m ready.