There’s no denying that SXSW has evolved into a monstrous behemoth of entertainment, marketing and information. And while the density and congestion can be off-putting to some, the ten-day extravaganza has become a party destination for thousands of people unconcerned with the agendas of the music, film and interactive industries that relentlessly drive this festival. Certainly, the horrific and senseless vehicular tragedy resulting in the deaths of three people cast a pall over the proceedings, but SXSW is just too big and too well organized to fail.
Indeed, the most significant SXSW events were almost lost in the nonstop flurry of multi-platform activities. That being said, Skype interviews with political fugitives/whistle-blowers Julian Assange and Edward Snowden definitely left an impression. Predictably, the Snowden transmission was politically unpopular, and thus reaffirmed the independent nature of SXSW’s brave programming team.
Speaking from an undisclosed site in Russia, Snowden’s Q&A broadcast was funneled through at least seven different Internet servers to prevent the authorities from determining his real location. Rather than being muzzled by his outlaw status Snowden spoke out on issues surrounding privacy, encryption and cybersecurity, giving the public a real chance to decide if the man is a traitor or a freedom fighter. This event was a major-league tipping point for SXSW and severely underreported by the American media.
Overall, the SXSW film component was well programmed and full of quality narratives, shorts and documentaries. With its midnight screenings of suspense and modern horror, it has also become the dependable frat-boy of indie film fests. Besides hilarious mainstream premieres of Jason Bateman’s Bad Words and the Seth Rogan/Zac Efron vehicle Neighbors, Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater debuted his low-budget epic Boyhood. Twelve years in the making, this simple but groundbreaking film operates on several meta-levels and demands be seen.
Worthwhile music documentaries included Take Me To The River, which honored the old Memphis scene via studio encounters between veterans like Mavis Staples and Bobby “Blue” Bland and younger artists like Snoop Dogg and the North Mississippi All Stars. More exciting was Our Vinyl Weighs A Ton, the story of Stone’s Throw Records and hip-hop mastermind Peanut Butter Wolf. There were also profiles on jazzman Rahsaan Roland Kirk (The Case of the Three Sided Dream), the English rock band Pulp (Pulp) and Albino bluesman Johnny Winter (Down & Dirty).
A documentary on visual artist Ralph Steadman, For No Good Reason, benefits from the screen presence of Johnny Depp, but it’s the dizzying array of Steadman’s surreal artwork that steals the show – he’s a modern day Hieronymus Bosch! For fans of the 80s there was the documentary All American High Revisited, which was filmed at Torrance High School in California circa 1983. The crowning of the prom king and queen and subsequent prom dance scene is a real-life version of a John Hughes fantasy. The darkly comedic suicide saga Before I Disappear won the audience award for best narrative feature. The best short film I saw was Texas director Tim Guinee’s strange drama One Armed Man, which was written by the late Horton Foote and produced by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.
By the time the SXSW music component kicked in I was already exhausted but managed to see some good shows. A two-night Oklahoma showcase included the band Horse Thief playing songs from their Thom Monahan-produced debut album Fear In Bliss and the impressive young singer-songwriter John Fullbright, who also has a new CD – aptly entitled Songs – and sounds like a cross between Randy Newman and Leon Russell. New York City-based globalFEST hosted a showcase that included two legendary desert blues sensations from Mali, Imarhan Timbuktu and Tinariwen. The former freedom fighters Tinariwen are rock stars on the world music circuit, and they put the Texas crowd into an ecstatic dance trance – highly recommended.
Hip-Hop reigned at SXSW, with performances from acts like Jay-Z, Kanye West, Two Chains, Snoop Dogg, Pitbull, Del The Funky Homosapien, Dan The Automator and Tyler the Creator – who was actually arrested for inciting a riot during his show. Former Blur frontman Damon Albarn played the highly touted NPR Music showcase at the Fader Fort on Austin’s east side. The notorious Fort also welcomed the likes of Rick Ross and Erykah Badu and basically drew massive crowds all week long.
Classy indie rock acts like Real Estate and Syd Arthur played numerous SXSW gigs to great effect. There was also the blazing roots rock of David and Phil Alvin performing songs from their new reunion album Common Ground: Dave Alvin + Phil Alvin Play and Sing the Songs of Big Bill Broonzy. And speaking of sonic siblings, the Wood Brothers were also around town hustling their recent Buddy Miller-produced album The Muse – these guys recently moved to Nashville and are way more interesting than The Avett Brothers, so get hip.
FYI: South Austin is still the ultimate hippie refuge in Austin, and the new club C-Boys on South Congress will be the best SXSW refuge come 2015. You heard it here first.