By Steve Bloom

Photo by Michael Weintrob/ Groovetography

More than 10,000 attendees and a thousand bands inundated Austin, Texas for the 20th annual South by Southwest Music + Film Conference and Festival from March 10-19. HIGH TIMES was there, as usual.

I first attended SXSW in 1994. I skipped 1995, then returned in 1996. I haven’t missed SXSW since. What’s so special about this music and movie conclave in the South? First of all, it’s “spring break” for the music and movie industries. The weather is generally good (it was this year), which is sufficient reason to line up to see bands or movies that might become the next big thing.

SXSW begins with a movie festival that, this year, featured more than 200 films. Among the highlights were Josh Gilbert’s a/k/a Tommy Chong, Ron Mann’s Tales of the Rat Fink, Nathaniel Hornblower’s Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly, Zach Merck’s Punk Like Me, Michael Tully’s Cocaine Angel, Zach Nile & Banker White’s The Refugee All-Stars, Jeff Ross’ Patriot Act, and Steven Cantor & Matt Galkin’s loudQUIETloud: A Film About the Pixies.

After five days of movies, SXSW switches gears and becomes the music festival it’s mostly known for. That’s when the hordes of pale-skinned tattooed rockers descend on Austin.

After five years at the Vibe on E. 6 St., the HIGH TIMES party moved to Red Eyed Fly on the Red River club strip, right across the street from Stubb’s. The party also changed dates, from Saturday to Thursday. The 10th Annual HIGH TIMES Party @ SXSW featured a strong band lineup, lots of pro-pot groups and plenty of open smoking. The South Austin Jug Band, fresh from winning Best Bluegrass Band at the Austin Music Awards the night before, headlined the show. They were preceded by the Capitol Years, Greyhounds, Crimson Sweet, Your Highness Electric and the Trees. Jet emceed the six-hour show, and speeches were given by Texas NORML’s Judie Niskala, Allen Cote and Josh Shinberg, and yours truly. Special guests included KLBJ’s Charlie Hodge, comedian/director Jeff Ross, Austin-based director Bob Ray (Rock Opera and the upcoming Hell on Wheels), and such bands as Steel Train, Amplified Heat, Hellapeno (Dave Derrick's new band), the Brakes and Crank County Daredevils.

Surprise gigs were the big deal at this year’s music festival. With the Beastie Boys in town for their concert movie, Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That, it was inevitable that they’d perform somewhere, and indeed they did, at Stubb’s. Another surprise was the Flaming Lips’ shows at Fox & Hound and Eternal. Just prior to the latter show, dapper bandleader Wayne Coyne was seen walking down the crowded 6 St. in his custom plastic bubble. People followed this Pied Piper of rock until he finally climbed out of it and slipped into the club’s back door. My Chemical Romance also played an unannounced gig at Emo’s.

Perhaps the biggest buzz show at SXSW was the Artic Monkeys’ Austin debut. Though these highly-hyped Brits didn’t quite live up to their intense advance billing, they were well worth the wait; if they stick around long enough they might just become the new Oasis.

My personal discovery was a local power trio, Amplifed Heat, comprised of the Ortiz Brothers; they could be the next Los Lonely Boys.

While some came for Morrissey, Dashboard Confessional or Kris Kristofferson, I looked most forward to seeing the Pretenders, who closed the festival with a tight set that ended with “The Talk of the Town” and “Mystery Achievement.”

Between the music, the movies, the countless beers (mostly Shiner Bock) and endless Tex-Mex meals, SXSW was a blast. I can’t wait to go back.