On March 16th, I arrive in Austin, Texas – as I do every year at about this time – for the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference. This is an anniversary – their 25th, my 21st. I do not plan to do anything different than I did my first 20 times around. I will see and hear as much music as possible – and I will finish on Sunday night with my annual closing dose of Alejandro Escovedo at the Continental Club. In between, Austin will be overrun with aspiring singer-songwriters, indie-rock bands that have driven hundreds of miles in vans running mostly on fumes and major acts who have discovered, in SXSW, the year’s premiere nexus of live music and serious business.
At my first SXSW’s, in the early Nineties, the conference was small enough to fit into one hotel – the Hyatt Regency – and most of the rock action was in the bars on East 6th Street. The big names were from around town – Doug Sahm, with the Texas Tornados; Roky Erickson, singer of Austin psychedelic heroes the 13th Floor Elevators; the near-supergroup Arc Angels, featuring two future Dylan and Clapton guitarists, Charlie Sexton and Doyle Bramhall II (respectively), and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan’s rhythm section. But with Johnny Cash’s now-legendary solo performance at the punk club Emo’s in 1994, SXSW became a destination for stars and heritage performers ready and delighted to connect outside the normal touring channels. My Morning Jacket, R.E.M., Metallica, Robert Plant, Kanye West and the Decemberists are among the acts that have played high-profile SXSW gigs in recent years.
This week, Queens of the Stone Age celebrate the reissue of their 1998 self-titled debut album with a headlining appearance – their first gig in three years – at Rolling Stone‘s March 16th all-night showcase at La Zona Rosa, on a bill with J Mascis, once of Dinosaur Jr, and Austin acid-drone masters the Black Angels. Janelle Monae will be at La Zona Rosa the next night, topping a Rolling Stone hip-hop and R&B bill with B.o.B. and Wiz Khalifa. (Note that this lineup has changed; Cee Lo and Lupe Fiasco will no longer be performing.) The Strokes will play for free on the 17th at Auditorium Shores, and Kanye West, determined not to be left out of any gathering of a hundred people or more, has just announced a return engagement.
Why SXSW Still Matters
There was a time when there was a fully operational major-label music industry, and artists came to SXSW to get signed. Everyone else came to say they saw the Next Big Thing, in a bar after tanking up on killin’ barbecue. I came with a different strategy – looking for my own next thrill, the music I didn’t know yet, working off instincts and tips from colleagues and the good local friends I’ve made over the years. That is how I fell over – and in love with – the Black Angels, the Denton, Texas orchestral-guitar quartet Explosions in the Sky and the Austin power-blues trio Amplified Heat. One year, at an outdoor party, two brothers from a Mexican-American garage-pop group, Hacienda, introduced themselves to me, talked about their love of rock history and criticism and promised to let me know when their new album would be done. They did. They made it with Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. And I wrote about it.
I expect to spend much of this year’s SXSW walking all over town, hoping for more of that serendipity, on my way to the traditional finish: Escovedo at the Continental. I will follow my usual habits – trying to make the early-evening sets, when much of the conference population is at dinner or propping up a hotel bar; standing in line for a show when it’s worth it; walking down the street to something else if it’s not; and hanging for full sets. If someone’s driven halfway across America to play 35 minutes of their life’s work with no soundcheck, that’s the least I can do.
I have few firm plans, aside from QOTSA, the Strokes and a long visit to Waterloo Records. But this is some of what I’m thinking about: Josh T. Pearson, ex-singer-guitarist of the holy-fire power trio Life to Experience, making his solo bow on behalf of a haunted and compelling solo album, Last of the Country Gentlemen; British garage-roots terrors the Jim Jones Revue; Danish mods Thee Attacks; a Washington, D.C. math-rock group called Animals as Leaders; and a reunion, at the Austin Music Awards, of the Sixties Texas psychedelic band Bubble Puppy, who will surely play their ’69 smash, “Hot Smoke and Sassafras” – originally issued by an independent label, International Artists. At SXSW, that is one circle that remains unbroken.