You have before you the opportunity to see, hear, and experience something you have never seen, heard, or experienced before.
As SXSW approaches its 30th year, there is no sense that the festival is over the hill. Growing pains? Absolutely, year by year. Awash in cynical branding and rowdy spring breakers? Sure. Hyped? SXSW is indeed hype made flesh, taking over an entire city for two weeks in March, but its frantic energy can be contagious. More to the point, the festival, as overwhelming as it may at first seem (President Obama! Korean rappers! Pee Wee Herman! Loretta Lynn!), is both essential and navigable. As I’ve said before, more so than any other festival in the United States, here at SXSW you have before you the opportunity to see, hear, and experience something you have never seen, heard, or experienced before. Buck up against the crowds and the noise, prepare, look at a map and schedule, and be open to whatever you may find once you hit the ground in Austin, Texas.
First, make a plan, even a meticulous one, which takes into account transportation, venue capacity, and basic endurance. Second, be ready to ditch that plan at a moment’s notice in the face of the unpredictable, to embrace the experience that materializes in front of you.
Last year in this space I offered some tips on successfully navigating the festival. These are perennials, so I will not repeat them apart from the high notes: Seek variety, take advantage of day parties to cover more ground (this is a good home base for such things: http://showlistaustin.com/) , and know your real estate (details here: http://www.playbackstl.com/backstage-pass/festival-reviews-backstage-pass/sxsw-2015-preview-pt-2-survival/).
I will, however, repeat myself on the subject of barbecue, because it is important: Central Texas barbecue is good, and abundant. Skip ahead if you are a vegetarian, or do not plan on eating good food during SXSW. In recent years, Austin has become the capital of this culture, which was once scattered among independent and competing fiefdoms in the surrounding counties that are worth visiting on their own: Kreuz’s, Smitty’s, and Black’s in Lockhart; Louie Mueller and Taylor Café in Taylor; Southside Market in Elgin; Luling City Market in Luling; etc. To paraphrase a famous American historian, though, Texas barbecue was born in the country and has moved to the city. Most of those outlets have now opened their doors in Austin itself, with the latest additions being Black’s setting up shop in South Austin and the University of Texas campus area, and Llano’s of Cooper in the middle of the SXSW maelstrom on Congress Avenue.
The Taylor/Mueller lineage is strongest in town, though, with barbecue’s bad boy John Mueller setting up with a trailer in East Austin cheek-by-smoked-jowl with his protégés and protégés’ protégés in La Barbecue and Franklin. Franklin is, as you have likely heard from multiple media sources and that foodie friend who just won’t shut up about it, the best. Waiting in line there will also sacrifice a day of the festival. Micklethwait Craft Meats is a barbecue spot just a few blocks to the east that should be just as good, but a little easier. Stiles Switch on North Lamar also fits the bill. It’s a bit further out, but also allows you to avoid the crowds. It’s in the same block as the esteemed Threadgill’s, the restaurant and bar where Janis Joplin honed her folksinging chops in the early ’60s. If it’s chicken-fried steak you’re after, that’s the spot.
But we’re here for the music. With over 2,000 acts each year, SXSW is the kind of event that would seem to confound any kind of traditional “preview.” Nonetheless, here is a selection of the acts that have caught my eye or ear, or that I’m otherwise excited about.
The Legends and Retro-Heroes
SXSW is a moment when the rock gods themselves walk among us. I have a vivid memory of being at Emo’s a decade or so ago and watching as the crowds parted like the Red Sea, rippling toward me, until the source of the commotion arrived and I found myself face-to-face with a fully-glammed-out Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks. He passed just as quickly, to the bar, or the men’s rooms, or some super-underground Finnish metal night, or wherever. That same club, for years, had hanging from its ceiling the bar stool Johnny Cash sat on the night of the SXSW showcase, where he premiered his Rick Rubin collaborations before an adoring crowd. Here are a few of the “I never thought I’d get a chance to…”, “Wow! They’re still around…”, “Omigod I hadn’t thought of them in years, but they are, in fact, my everything” artists.
Dion: Yes, Dion. Dion, who was on that Winter Dance tour with Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Richie Valens. Dion, who gave up his seat on that fated plane (as did Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup), and, by doing so, is still with us and offering up a new bluesy album involving Paul Simon entitled New York Is My Home. Dion, whom Bruce Springsteen has called the missing link between Frank Sinatra and rock ’n’ roll, and whom Bob Dylan has praised as an exemplary singer from another era.
Iggy Pop: Many artists of his generation who fought and lived and bled only half as much as he did have fallen away in recent years, but Iggy Pop endures to remind us what rock ’n’roll was, is, and can be. His collaborations with Josh Homme bring him to town this year.
Kool Keith/Dr. Octagon: Hip-hop’s most accomplished surrealist chameleon. Here’s his SXSW bio: “I have come to a planet to perform at a festival called SXSW at the Kosha Dillz #Oyveysxsw showcase Thursday March 17th at the Sledge Hammer. I will not have a sledge hammer with me, but a gang of aliens will accompany me.” Fair enough, although I may still wager money on him having a sledge hammer. Who knows which of Kool Keith’s personae will arrive alongside him, but each is worthy of our continued attention.
Loretta Lynn: Fresh from a biographical treatment on American Masters and with a new album that ably stands up to the best of her old, Loretta Lynn may well be the reigning queen of country music. (Don’t tell Dolly I said that.) She will be at the Stubb’s BBQ outdoor stage on Thursday, March 17. The barbecue is decent, good even.
Leon Russell: He stole the show from Joe Cocker in the concert film Mad Dogs and Englishmen, propelling him to widespread fame after years of yeoman’s work as a Los Angeles studio musician. Russell went on to prevail over a small empire of Americana from Tulsa with his Shelter Records imprint, and collaborated often with Willie Nelson in Austin’s progressive country 1970s. If you’re particularly dedicated to Russell or country music in Texas, Russell will also be playing at the century-old Luckenbach dance hall a little over an hour out of town on Friday, March 18.
Tony Visconti: Legendary British producer Tony Visconti will be delivering a keynote in the conference portion of the festival. The sonic architect of glam with T Rex and David Bowie, Visconti’s address is also a timely memorial to Bowie’s passing, as Visconti produced his farewell album Blackstar.
Mark Mothersbaugh: Although he is not showcasing as an artist in the music festival this year, polymath Mothersbaugh, known for everything from Devo to Yo Gabba Gabba to Wes Anderson film scores, will still be a presence during the conference. Throughout the fest, a retrospective of Mothersbaugh’s visual art, multimedia practice, and Devo years, entitled Myopia, will be on view at The Contemporary Austin, the city’s downtown art museum. Admission free for all badgeholders. http://www.thecontemporaryaustin.org/exhibitions/mark-mothersbaugh-myopia
There are many more legends taking the stage—British rockers The Cult, legendary Illimatic lyricist Nas, and punk stalwarts NOFX among them—but this is a taste, at least.