As media coverage of the South By Southwest music festival (or SXSW, for short) has grown over the past several years, I’ve had more people ask me to describe the annual Austin, Texas extravaganza. Yes, a lot of bands do play it. Yes, a lot of journalists cover it. But for me, the event is several festivals in one. You can cover it from one angle, while someone else can have an entirely different experience. It’s really up to you, and what you do with your time there.
Wednesday began for me with recovery from the previous day’s 18-hour drive, eventually making my into town in the afternoon. The festival’s home base is the Austin Convention Center, filled to the rafters with volunteers, bands, trade show folks, and various other media types. There seems to be a turnover taking place amongst SXSW media, with the older veterans making way for wide-eyed college kids and their assistants. While it’s nice to work with journalists that have yet to be turned cynical by the world, they have a sense of entitlement that includes never reading the ground rules for shooting events, or even knowing how their camera works in manual focus. More than one event I shot during the week has frequently interrupted by someone’s red focus light. I hold my 1976 Canon AE-1 camera with pride, and off I go.
While I’ve always shot the Austin Music Awards in previous years, the Music Hall’s recent redesign makes it a pain to shoot, so I spend most of my time there hanging around backstage, taking photos and swiping food from the caterers. I then made my way over to Stubbs’, getting there in time to enjoy a set from the Heartless Bastards.
Next up was North Carolina’s own Avett Brothers, who shined despite a shortened set, due to sound problems with the venue. Capping off the evening was the Decemberists, who were debuting their new album in its entirety. If the indie kids haven’t listened yet to pre-Dark Side era Pink Floyd, they should soon, because that’s what Colin Meloy and Co. are digging on the new album. Some of it works, and some of it may work better on record.
Thursday begins in the early afternoon, with a keynote address from Quincy Jones. Unlike the keynote speeches of recent years, Jones comes with a prepared speech, and gives a good presentation, accordingly. After wandering around the trade show area, I go to the press room to check email, only to find that Devo are holding court with a press conference. For over an hour, the media and I have fun with the band, running around like journalistic nerds interviewing their favorite band.
Thursday evening is highlighted by sets from Andrew Bird, Gomez and Akron/Family. Another problem with festivals of this size is the lack of sound preparation. Musicians come with their full stage setup, and are forced to put it together in twenty minutes, play for less than an hour, then set up for the next band in twenty minutes. Some bands pull it off, and others struggle.
Friday night starts early in the morning, as I have managed to land a photo shoot with the Sonics, one of my favorite bands. The group recently reunited after forty years apart, and their set at SXSW is probably the one show I’ve been looking forward to the most. The shoot goes well, and I get the band to sign my copy of their 1966 album Boom, and we spend another hour talking and having fun after the shoot. This, for me, is the reason I come to Austin every year. Forget the mass media, forget the Rachel Ray and Kanye West attention-seeking types. I’ve come to shoot something that I couldn’t do in almost any other place and venue, and hopefully have a good time doing it.
The Sonics do not disappoint that night, playing a roaringly loud 40-minute set that blows away every other show that I see that night. That includes the Felice Brothers, who should have thrived with playing under a large outdoor tent, but instead came across as under-rehearsed. Friends tell me later that I should give them another chance, and I might, but with the Sonics still ringing in my ears, I head off for some sleep.
Saturday begins with an appearance for the Hold Steady, who are being interviewed by their producer, who admits to nursing an extreme hangover. The producer refers to SXSW as “Disney World for alcoholics,” which is true for one segment of the festival regulars. I then bounce over to a sneak preview of the Neil Young Archives, which will finally be out in June. While I don’t plan on spending $300 for the set, the wealth of early film footage of Neil is just plain stunning.
I then go over to a panel discussion on the Woodstock festival, with numerous Woodstock musicians and filmmakers in attendance. I also attend the panel’s after-party, where I happily feed my face with free hot dogs and barbecue, and take some photos, too. I cap the night off by seeing P. J. Harvey and John Parish at Stubbs’ (good show, but too much media there), and songwriting legend Jimmy Webb playing for the first time ever with his kids. Call me a music geek, but hearing “Wichita Lineman” sung by the man that wrote it was the best way for me to bring the festival to a close.