All photos above by Samir Shukla
The words South by Southwest may mean nothing more than a directional marker to most people. But for a couple of weeks every March, in Austin, Texas, the letters SXSW mark the center of the musical universe. This year’s SXSW Music festival was a music lover’s feast. Over the years SXSW has become more than a music festival. It is also a film festival and of late also an interactive festival. This year my interest was in the music portion of the gathering, which ran from Tues, March 11 through Sat, March 15. Over 1500 musicians and artists performed during those days, playing anywhere from about 15 minutes to full shows. Along with the official lineup of bands, there were of course loads of street musicians and musical oddities playing anywhere they could. Along with the music, the fest also featured daytime panels for those interested in the music business, Flatstock 43 (a concert poster expo with original artists selling their wares), a trade expo, a musical gear expo, local craft fair, and more.
Tue March 11. After catching a morning flight to San Antonio and driving about an hour and a half, I arrived in Austin around twilight. I picked up my wristband, got my bearings and started soaking in the sounds and sights. I just missed attending Neil Young’s keynote speech announcing his new Pono music player. No matter. The evening showcases beckoned and I made my way to the corner of San Jacinto and 6th Streets. The sun faded on the horizon as I approached the corner and a boisterous sing-along broke out just outside one of the bars. The group of inebriated crooners was immediately drowned out by the plethora of sounds, vibes, musical notes, screams, pounding drums, wailing guitars, and the joy of all manners of music being made. The 2014 SXSW was in full swing. Rappers and punks, honky tonkers and jazz musicians, rockers and DJs, all seemed to one up each other trying to fill the air with their music. The din of dozens of bands playing in a square block area, in every nook and corner of the bars and gin joints that lined 6th Street was a bit overwhelming. But once the brain cells acclimatized to the atmosphere and the air, it all blended into a colorful cacophony of sounds.
Wed March 12. There were numerous day parties where dozens of bands showed their wares. I spent couple of hours in the afternoon at the British music showcase at a club called Latitude 30. The International day stage in the convention center hosted several bands from around the globe on Wednesday – Saturday. After a late lunch I caught bits of music at the international stage as well as around clubs on Rainey Street. At my first full day at SXSW the evening showcases were a blur of sound, beer, bands, bands, and more bands. It was like a kid cut loose in a candy store. I couldn’t make up my mind where to hang so I strolled all over downtown at venues and popped in and out of punk noise, rappers bouncing off the walls, singer songwriters crooning and trying to be heard over the din, electronica artists, country bands, well, like I said, a kid in a candy store, or in this case a music lover awash in music.
Thursday March 13. In the afternoon it was another round of day parties and bands. The International stage hosted several intriguing bands this afternoon. I caught the “Rebel Cats,” a rockabilly and tex-mex outfit from Mexico fronted by an Elvis-like (older version) lead singer ably keeping up with the young cats. The Gochag Askorav Ensemble from Azerbaijan showcased their native, trance-like music. And Saor Patrol from Scotland ended the day with their blend of Scottish music and electronica, but the quintessential Scot instrument, the bagpipes were the highlight. Later in the afternoon the United States Postal Service issued and launched the Jimi Hendrix forever stamp. This was the inaugural launch day and what better place to launch a music legend’s stamp than in Austin. In a tribute to Hendrix, Wayne Kramer, former MC5 guitarist and long-running rocker, curated a tribute that featured Slash, Robbie Krieger (the Doors), Perry Farrell, Mary Bridget Davies (she portrays Janis Joplin at a Broadway show) and numerous others at Butler Park in the evening. A highlight was the reunion of Dave and Phil Alvin (the Blasters) who contributed to the night with their own takes on a couple of Hendrix classics. Many Hendrix staples were covered throughout the evening. Kramer, Slash and co. pretty much ripped the sky (kissed the sky?). I left the Hendrix tribute a little early to catch the reunion show of Dave and Phil Alvin at the Continental club a few blocks down from Butler Park, but the joint was packed to the rafters and I couldn’t get in. I caught a couple of acoustic numbers from outside that could be heard through the club’s open doors and then called it a night.
Friday March 14. More day parties and bands were soaked in during the day. Later that night, music veterans Alejandro Escovedo and Richard Barone organized a tribute to Lou Reed, who passed away last December. Reed left a huge catalog of music and writing that influenced a stack musicians and bands over nearly four decades. The tribute was thoughtfully curated and brought together performers who either knew Reed or were influenced by him. I left a tad early and missed the last couple of songs to catch Soundgarden playing a rooftop gig that was recorded for the Guitar Center presents series to be shown later on DirecTV. The band sounded fresh and ready to rock. An unforgettable, moonlit night ensued and Chris Cornell and crew played mostly older material and set the rooftop on fire. (See a clip from the show below, courtesy of Guitar Center)
Saturday March 15. This afternoon’s most intriguing gig was the outdoor show at Butler Park. “Take me to the River” featured Hi-Rhythm Band and performers included Booker T., Otis Clay, North Mississippi All-Stars, Charlie Musselwhite, Bobby Rush, Jerry Harrison and Snoop Dogg. The concert showcased some of the musicians who were featured in the documentary Take me to the River, a film about cross-generational collaborations between old-school and contemporary artists in the worlds of soul/R&B, hip-hop and rock. The cloudy afternoon featured many outstanding performances. Snoop Dogg, slated to appear near the end of the show, strolled out and jammed with the band and did a couple of beat-infused numbers. A thin fog of reefer smoke covered the grassy knoll while the crowd pulled closer to the stage and heads starting bobbing. It was a perfect blend of old-timey soul and Snoop’s pungent rapping. In the evening I strolled around to several showcases, took in final sounds of the 2014 SXSW.
Among the many memorable moments: On Thursday afternoon, I was in the boys’ room of the convention center using the latrine when a Scottish bagpipe player strolled in and proceeded to tune his bagpipe. Needless to say it’s a very loud and rather royal instrument and I felt like some kind of gentry while standing there. The bagpipe filled the air with its lucid and boisterous racket. For a few seconds the Scottish highlands seemed to appear in the tiled confines of the restroom. And then the tall, bearded Scot left to play a set at the international stage a few feet down the hall. A fellow bladder reliever put it succinctly while washing hands, “the most epic pee I ever had.”
Bands that played but I couldn’t catch: Blondie, Bob Mould, Debby Harry with the Dum Dum Girls, Coldplay, Gary Numan, X, and many others.