By Mitch Myers
For some, the SXSW experience is getting redundant. With 25 years of SXSW Music and a solid 20 years of the Film and Interactive components, there are plenty of folks who’ve had their fill of the annual bacchanal in Austin, Texas. Still, for every fallen SXSW soldier, ten new warriors emerge – younger, hungrier, and more sophisticated than their industry predecessors. Plus, the explosion of Interactive attendees is getting more pervasive – at the beginning of the fest I entered the pressroom only to be struck by the deafening silence of people clicking their various tablets, smart phones, and laptops. It was like a freaking library in there.
Really, there were about 800 panels for the Interactive conference leaving no digital stone unturned. But if you aren’t interested in 3M’s Virtual Presenter, following your basic vital signs and health issues with an app, or learning about the latest in 3D printing, maybe we should tend to the music.
Yes, it’s always busy during the first week of Interactive and Film, but when the Music fest finally kicks in, get out of the way! Bigger than ever, consuming mass quantities of live performances is actually getting trickier – too many endless lines. To get the inside track for a big show nowadays you need to have a badge, a special wristband, and a ticket – and it helps to be on the guest list too!
Not to be deterred, I witnessed the spectacle of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds performing at Stubbs BBQ, which was even more crowded than Nick’s one-on-one interview with Ratso Sloman at the Convention Center. The Stubbs show was powerful and foreboding, with the band barely touching on their new album, Push The Sky Away. Also hustling a new CD were industry veterans Depeche Mode, who played a surprise gig at the Brazos Theater to hype their forthcoming release Delta Machine. Would you believe the crowd attending the extra-special Depeche Mode show was old and grey and a little bored? Believe it.
Everybody who was anybody pushed their way into the Prince gig, and the little purple dude responded by doing seven encores! Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale finally made a record together and its called…Buddy and Jim! These two Americana all-stars played numerous gigs during the course of their week in Austin and let me tell you, Miller’s guitar playing is officially on fire! Naturally, Snoop
Dogg Lion’s show at Viceland was burning too, if you know what I mean.
In regards to the film fest, I recommend the documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, a meditative flick capturing the vintage character actor’s Zen-like qualities. At this point Harry Dean is nearly emptied of all ego, fight, and desire – a Hollywood Buddha – and loved by all who know him.
Music documentaries like Muscle Shoals and Born In Chicago took fascinating regional perspectives and illustrated the essential musical/racial contributions of both. Muscle Shoals (in Alabama) birthed producer Rick Hall and the Swampers – white studio players who made essential soul recordings with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Born In Chicago showcased talented white kids like Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield, and Elvin Bishop, who all played local blues clubs with Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon before becoming rock & roll stars in the late 1960s.
The best music documentary was Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius Of James Booker. One-eyed, gay, drug-addicted, and an absolutely brilliant pianist, Booker schooled every New Orleans musician from Dr. John to Harry Connick Jr., and the footage of him performing live is truly amazing.
And finally, there’s The Act Of Killing. A documentary about the deadly military coup of mid-1960s Indonesia, this is no simple reconsideration of atrocities committed by the thugs and paramilitary groups who killed half a million people. Instead, director Joshua Oppenheimer took a daring, artful approach – interviewing actual perpetrators of the violence and allowing them to depict their horrible killing spree from a half-century ago any way that they desired. What ensues is comical, frightening, and particularly bizarre, using staged, Scarface-styled gangster scenes with torture and murder segueing into surreal dream sequences featuring ghosts gratefully thanking their murderers, and big production numbers reprising the holocaust with dancing girls and the song “Born Free” as their theme. Still, despite all of the artifice and near-total denial of emotions such as guilt, the camera doesn’t lie and we get to see the psychic cost wrought by the evil that men do. This film is an absolute game changer – watch it, and never be the same.