Things get a little more complicated every year. On Monday morning following the ten-day extravaganza known as SXSW, people leaving town through the Austin airport were backed up in long lines for security screenings that went clear outdoors. That’s because people have finally figured out that sticking around for Sunday night’s festivities is a far better option than leaving earlier. With that said, the increased synergy of combined music, film and interactive festivals make the overall SXSW experience feel a little bit tougher and a whole lot busier each year. Piling on almost 2,000 bands, a thriving convention center, countless movies playing all over town, free day parties, exclusive after-hours entertainment, comedy gigs, award shows, industry panels and media promotions of every description, the formal SXSW experience can be a bit daunting.
But that ain’t all – with the music component capturing the imagination of a growing multitude of hardcore, non-industry music fans, Austin is now a spring break destination for a burgeoning youth movement and ground-zero party central for any and all comers. The perfect storm occurs mid-week when 6th Street revelers celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on top of everything else, but the whole darn festival feels pretty indistinguishable with its nonstop barrage of parties, booze, dope, music and food. The downtown scene is so over the top and oppressive that South Austin has become an alternate destination for the crunchy granola Americana scene with roots-rockers and new folkies eschewing the badge-ridden conference for backyard barbeques and live entertainment provided by dedicated music labels like Bloodshot Records.
But the gathering of tribes didn’t end there – oh no. The aforementioned youth movement set up camp in East Austin on the far side of Highway 35, with the villagers most prominently based at the Fader/Fort encampment where industry badges are an afterthought and makeshift concert stages feature a nonstop stream of indie-rock favorites a la Pitchfork. Naturally, Twitter and all manner of smart-phones made any nearby happening a possibility and last minute super-secret after-hours gigs were only a text away. Rest assured weed continues to be omnipresent in Austin, with more and more top-quality homegrown filtering through town than ever before. And as far as the interactive component of the festival doubling in size since last year, what part of the entertainment industry doesn’t rely on technology these days? So, expect the interactive festival to continue to expand exponentially.
The SXSW film festival has been a bit sluggish in recent years, and although the energy level wasn’t down in the dirt, the featured flicks rarely lived up to their massive hype. The fest opened with the premiere of Kick-Ass, a clever action-comedy hybrid that blends nerd-superhero obsessions, Tarantino-esque fight choreography and grind-grisly violence. The film was okay, but if that McLovin guy wears a cape one more time I’m going to get pissed. Along those lines, I skipped the premiere of MacGruber starring SNL’s Will Forte but heard that it was a hoot. A young and druggy crowd turned up in force for the documentary Dirty Pictures, which is the straightforward story of Dr. Alexander Shulgin, the chemist who identified the effects of MDMA (y’know, Ecstasy). Shulgin always used himself and his wife as test subjects for these synthetic drugs, which made him a bit of a pariah – but the convention kids all loved the Shulgins who accompanied the filmmaker for the film’s Austin premier. Their after-party was a bit of a rave, but the music was such relentless booming techno that I left before it really got started. Wrong drugs.
The documentary American: The Bill Hicks Story about the late Texas-born comedian was informative, as was And Everything Is Going Fine, which is director Steven Soderberg’s homage documenting the life monologues of Spalding Gray. In the music film department: two thumbs up for Lemmy, which captures the singer/bassist and longtime leader of Motorhead in all of his (simplistic) rock & roll glory. Ain’t In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm is a narrow but current perspective on the world famous singer/drummer years after the sad demise of his old group, The Band. Suggestion: catch Levon’s weekend musical “Rambles” up on his Woodstock farm before it’s too late. In other news, the documentary When You’re Strange: A Film About The Doors brought guitarist Robbie Krieger down to Austin, and he sat in and played “Roadhouse Blues” with none other than the Stone Temple Pilots. The long-awaited movie about the young rock girl group The Runaways starring Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart was forgettable except for Michael Shannon’s snarling portrayal of the band’s jaded Machiavellian manager/producer, Kim Fowley.
The SXSW film fest has also established a solid tradition with their outrageous midnight movie series, and had a degree of success this year with the comical bubba/slasher-satire Tucker & Dale vs. Evil and the very clever and bodacious Elektra Luxx which is part two of director Sebastian Gutierrez’s porn-satire trilogy. On the dope tip, don’t forget Ed Norton’s double performance in Leaves Of Grass and director Bernard Rose’s bizarre Mr. Nice with Chloë Sevigny and Crispin Glover. Sadly, the music fest started to kick in and I totally missed a sneak preview at the dope-dealer documentary Total Badass. The same goes for the tweak-film-freak documentary, American Grindhouse – maybe next time. And thank goodness for the IFC Crossroads House, a sanctuary from the relentless street activity and streaming with movie activity of all sorts.
By the time the music festival was rolling I was totally baked and my spirits were already on the wane. Then came the sad news of musician Alex Chilton’s death, which was made all the more staggering by the fact that Chilton and his band Big Star were slated to play SXSW that weekend. I took the news rather hard, and subsequently lost myself in Austin that night wandering from venue to venue, stumbling into a great DJ gig featuring Madlib and some brain-burning space rock by the psychedelic Japanese noise-masters, Acid Mothers Temple. In the days that followed I caught the former Kink, Ray Davies, who played a great set of wonderful songs and regaled the crowd with some snappy chatter and a heartfelt Alex Chilton story to boot. Austin legend and acid-schizoid survivor Roky Erickson played with Okkervil River – performing some old favorites and new tunes off of Roky’s forthcoming CD before closing with the 13th Floor Elevator’s classic rave-out, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”
And speaking of South Austin, I certainly recommend going over the river to South Congress, where the strip contains great places like Guerro’s, Jo’s Coffee, the Continental Club, and the Yard Dog, all of which were hosting music parties and gigs all week long. I personally caught Alejandro Escovedo and his Orchestra on an outdoor stage in front of huge crowd. According to industry chatter, Alejandro’s new CD is a winner with guest appearances by Springsteen and Escovedo-idol/Mott madman Ian Hunter. The new songs sounded rough but Al and the band still knocked it out and everybody went home happy. That performance was reprised on Sunday night at the Continental, where Alejandro and his many friends usher out another SXSW by rocking themselves into oblivion. Special guests included the big hair of Michael Monroe and his royal highness, guitarist Lenny Kaye.
For me, the end of the festival came Saturday night at the Big Star show downtown at Antone’s. What was supposed to be just another gig turned out to be a rock & roll wake of great quality. Original and current drummer Jody Stephens played with his bandmates Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, performing all of the great stuff from the Big Star songbook. Naturally, the special guests started coming up and it just didn’t stop. Original bassist Andy Hummel came all the way from the Netherlands to play on a few tunes. Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets was there, followed by the likes of Chris Stamey, M. Ward, Mike Mills (of R.E.M), John Doe, Sondre Lerche, Chuck Prophet and Evan Dando. The high point might have been young Lerche’s version of “The Ballad Of El Goodo,” but who can say for sure? I even remember that the band closed out with Susan Cowsill, the beautiful Watson Sisters, and Mike Mills all singing “September Gurls.” It was beautiful, some folks even had tears in their eyes, and then we all got the hell out of there.