I was set to jet to south by Southwest in March 2020 when all of sudden, everything started to fall apart. The festival’s cancellation was just the start, of course, of the outbreak that shut down travel and festivals and crowded clubs and rock ’n’ roll for most of us.
Last year, SXSW—the annual festival that brings together music, comedy, film and the digital frontier—went digital and, while I caught a few of the film festival offerings, I didn’t have much interest in Zoom panels or online musical performances. I’d had my fill of Zoom by then.
But this year, SXSW returned in person and I headed out of town for the first time in two years. Other than a few outdoor shows here and there in recent months, it’s also been a couple of years since I’d seen a concert. For whatever reason, even though our venues have reopened and Tucson has been treated to some great shows, I haven’t gotten out to see much of anything. I’d begun to wonder if live music just wasn’t my jam anymore. And as I looked over the acts playing in Austin, I realized I recognized only a handful of the hundreds of bands that were on the bill.
But with the Omicron wave fading, I was eager to get out of town, so I headed to Austin. Organizers did their best to address COVID risks, requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test in order to attend. Participants were asked to mask up inside the Austin convention center and at other indoor events. But SX was born as a rock ’n’ roll festival and rebellion is in its DNA, so adherence to mask protocol was spotty, especially once you got into the bars.
Dolly Parton was on hand to receive SX’s Grulke Prize for Career Act. She played at a gig at the Moody Theater (where Austin City Limits is filmed) after a conversation with author James Patterson. (She and Patterson have collatorated on a novel.) As part of the show, NFTs were handed out and it was evidently all cutting-edge metaverse stuff, but I missed out on my chance to enter the Dollyverse.
I have to confess that all the Web 3.0/crypto/metaverse stuff flew right over my head. On my first day in Austin, I overheard one musical artist talking about Web 3.0 during an interview in the press room.
“Web 3.0, people really aren’t seeing it yet,” he said. “Web 3 is a way to invest our brand in a place that isn’t in the physical world.”
It all sounded like buzzwords and bullshit to me, but then I had dinner with a woman who told me her kid was making a half-million dollars a year on transaction fees and design work on cryptocurrency, so I’ve no doubt there are people finding ways to get rich off working on the blockchain gang and whatever hustles exist in the metaverse.
But I wasn’t there for the finsplaining. As I mentioned up top, it’s been a long time since I rock ’n’ rolled, so I wanted to experience live music right here in the physical universe. And on that front, SX did not disappoint. On Wednesday night, I got a blast of a new British Invasion from the Royston Club, a four-member band out of Wales that was sheer raw rock energy as they blasted through a set of songs, some just a few months old. They were followed by Red Rum Club, a Liverpool sextet that had a sweaty crowd bouncing in front of the stage. As Hotel Congress Entertainment Manager David Slutes said as we munched on bulgogi fries from a food truck after the show, “Those bands were both perfect. Discovering some really great Brit-pop I’ve never heard of before is what makes SXSW such a great experience.”
Slutes, who has been attending SX since it launched in the late ’80s (and who landed two record deals for his band The Sidewinders following performances in the early ’90s), said this year’s festival felt smaller than recent years, but he appreciated the smaller scale.
“I enjoyed it because it was less hectic getting into venues and performances,” Slutes said.
SX is a musical buffet, so you get to taste a little bit of everything: I started Thursday night out by catching the tail end of Surfbort’s punk show at a vintage flea market I happened to be walking by. Then it was off to the mammoth outdoor stage at Lady Bird Lake, where I was bathed in the cosmic energy of RA in the cool evening air by Golden Dawn Arkestra, a flamboyantly costumed entourage that describes itself as conducting “experiments involving space and time travel through the use of sound and movement.” Next up was a tiny bar where I saw Eddie Clendening and the Blue Ribbon Boys, a genuine rockabilly outfit that delivered a heartbreaking rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” After a drink at the Driskill Hotel, I finished the night at the massive outdoor amphitheater at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, where the Lemonheads relived their glory days with a 30th anniversary celebration of their 1992 album It’s a Shame About Ray.
NPR alt.Latino sponsored a set of day shows by artists such Queralt Lahoz, an R&B/flamenco act hailing from Bacelona, and Nancy Sanchez, who blends Lat-indie pop with cumbia and mariachi. Sanchez gamely tried to get a reserved crowd to join her in a grito during a ranchera about heartbreak. “Are you ready, South by Southwest?” she asked the crowd after demonstrating an impressive howl. “Are you ready to do a mariachi grito?” (At least a few folks tried, even if they didn’t really hit the kind of notes that Sanchez did.
The energy was a little higher at the Radio Day Stage the next day, when the Wild Feathers took the stage in their trucker hats and warmed up the crowd with their indie alt-country act. Then Brooklyn’s Sunflower Bean took the stage and even managed to get the crowd dancing for their final song, a new number called “Beat the Odds.” Lead singer and bassist Julia Cumming told the crowd: “If you planned on getting out of your seats at any time, this is it.” With that permission, a crowd rushed the stage and started dancing.
Cumming said the band had recorded new songs during the pandemic: “It’s great to be playing them live.”
It’s great to be back in the audience, too. Long live rock ’n’ rock! Long live SXSW!