Austin, Texas - Fighting his way through a throng of crushed bodies desperately waving VIP laminates over their heads, an Austin policeman muttered the words on everyone's mind outside the Seaholm Power Plant. The same thought was thrown around all week by South by Southwest Music Conference veterans, who recognized that Austin's little-fest-that-could may have reached overload.
"I'm getting outta this motherfucker," he said. Talk about throwing your hands in the air like you just don't care.
Police jumped ship as fans jumped fences at Kanye West's wildly hyped (and yes, ultimately entertaining) late-night party with Jay-Z and other guests at a long-vacated power plant early Sunday morning. Arguably the biggest, boldest, brashest bash in SXSW's 25-year history, it was just the grand finale to a SXSW littered with long lines and short fuses -- and actual litter.
Two nights before Kanye's power play, there were more scenes of fence-jumping and elbow-bumping when the Strokes packed the riverfront park Auditorium Shores to its 20,000-person capacity. And only an hour into the conference's official start two Tuesdays ago -- typically a low-key warmup night -- one of the longest lines in SXSW's hazy memory had emerged outside Stubb's, where the Foo Fighters played their new album in its entirety (which the Strokes didn't, thankfully).
A couple of miles and worlds away from the Foo show on Tuesday, Austin's own Black Joe Lewis made a snarky comment at the Continental Club that proved prophetic: "You're paying all that money, waiting in lines, and then some dude cuts ahead of you at the door."
SXSW used to be all about discovering new bands like Lewis and his Honeybears, or about rediscovering veteran musicians like Johnny Cash (whose has-been status officially ended when he arrived as the keynote speaker at SXSW in 1994). The people doing the discovering were mostly just concert-biz insiders, record-industry professionals and print music journalists.
With the latter two job titles going the way of the Dodos (the birds, not the San Francisco trio that made a big splash this SXSW), Austin's big shindig has changed drastically in the past half-decade. College students whose parents won't let them go to decapitation-happy Mexico now use Austin for their spring break. Meanwhile, a wide cross-section of corporations has (like the college kids) upchucked all over the festival. Music-centric companies are one thing; every soda, car, clothing and gum company that hopes to garner a youthful image now plays SXSW.
The over-corporatization of SXSW has long been building, but the rappers-for-hire phenomenon seemed totally out of the blue this year. In addition to Kanye and Jay-Z performing for fast-ascending music-video site Vevo, the conference welcomed Snoop Dogg under a PepsiMax banner, LL Cool J at a Red Bull concert, Lil B with Diddy at the Fiat-sponsored Fader Fort, and Big Boi played for both MOG and PepsiMax.
It was sadly ironic that the young rapper with the best new record of the moment, Lupe Fiasco, actually canceled his SXSW gig -- an official, not-for-profit conference showcase. Perhaps it was pointless for him to try to compete with the big guns. Or maybe he and Cee Lo Green (who also canceled) were simply holding out for a bigger payday.
Rappers weren't the only ones playing under corporate banners. Poor Nicole Atkins sang her heart out Saturday night at Cedar Street Courtyard, and half the crowd's attention was stolen by an obnoxious commercial for Steve Madden shoes projected on a movie screen to the side of the stage.
Likewise, multi-platinum musicians weren't the only ones with long lines. At an (AOL-sponsored) Bright Eyes gig Friday, the thousand-plus fans turned a blind eye to the security staff's warnings that it was only a 300-capacity venue. At MOG's party with Big Boi and TV on the Radio, fans waited hours. I myself gave up hope of getting through the lines for nighttime showcases by punk veterans Bad Brains and Minnesota's own Dan Wilson (though I was happy to see both are still in demand).
A SXSW vet, Wilson revealed his lowered expectations afterward when he boasted, "The crowd didn't yak loudly through my set. I felt like I was in a parallel universe."
Somehow, some of the acts in Minnesota's enormous contingent of performing artists -- my semi-educated guess is there were about 60 total -- managed to rise above the din. Jeremy Messersmith and Trampled by Turtles both played to large crowds at the Paste magazine party Wednesday. No surprise, Gayngs had near-capacity crowds at nighttime showcases Wednesday and Thursday. And no surprise to those who know how sketchy SXSW gigs can be, only the latter show -- an all-night "Affiliyated" showcase that included Doomtree, Solid Gold and Marijuana Deathsquads -- could be called a sonic success.
Doomtree truly worked it all week, and made SXSW work for them. Not an afternoon or night went by when someone in the crew wasn't performing somewhere, and they earned a nice smattering of press and sizable crowds by fest end. Their all-crew set midway through Vita.mn's Minnesota Music showcase Saturday helped fill the audience with ample non-Minnesotans, many of whom stayed through amped-up sets by Haley Bonar and Pink Mink.
Doomtree's success was local proof that SXSW can still bring international exposure to underground artists. If you were there last week and didn't discover a handful of new bands to tell folks about back home (once your memory clears up enough to tell them, of course), then you shouldn't be allowed south of the Red River next March. You can see my favorites in the accompanying list.
For those of us who got stuck waiting in line for Kanye and other bigwig shindigs -- and yes, avoiding them truly was not an option for some of us with professional obligations -- that discovery list is at least a couple of acts shorter this year. Here's hoping these spotlight-stealing party-crashers aren't allowed across the border next year. Otherwise, there may not be many years left.
Standouts headed our way
- The Joy Formidable: Welsh trio with a cute petite frontwoman but a powerful shoegazer-rock sound. April 6 at 7th Street Entry.
- The Vaccines: Fell on the right side of the 50-50 proportion of bands that come with enormous U.K. hype, boasting a charismatic frontman and cocksure, anthemic pop-rock sound. May 28 at First Avenue (with Arctic Monkeys).
- Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears and Pains of Being Pure at Heart: Both standouts at SXSW two years ago, neither has played a local club gig yet. Each has gotten even better live. The horn-rocking Texan blues punks finally land April 3 at the Cedar, while the fuzz-poppy New Yorkers play April 25 at the Triple Rock.
- TV on the Radio: No duh, but also no signs of wavering. Their new stuff was riveting. April 23-24 at First Avenue.
Other newbies of note
- Wild Flag: Carrie Brownstein's and Janet Weiss' post-Sleater-Kinney band sounded poppier and just plain friendlier, if not as powerful (not trying to be).
- Beach Fossils: Even while trashing the venue's sound, these scrawny Brooklynites offered up a meaty serving of high-energy, Feelies-like drone-pop.
- Das Racist: Smart and smart-ass rappers who made fun of Mel Gibson, MGMT and far less obvious targets.
- Fitz & the Tantrums: The L.A. band's lively, blue-eyed party-soul proved tireless even when they were playing their third gig that day.
- James Blake: The buzzing British singer mimicked Bon Iver, whale calls and the tired electronic beats on Radiohead's dudly new album.
- The Kills: Alison Mosshart and Jamie Hince are usually a sure thing onstage, but not at Spin's day party (clearly suffering from sound problems, and probably just a freak occurrence).
- B.O.B.: I got stuck seeing this horny Top 40 rapper in Lupe Fiasco's absence. Unbearable mush.
- Yuck and P.S. I Love You: Two guitar-heavy indie-rock bands that sound much better on record.
- Missed acts: OFF!, Odd Future, Ellie Goulding, Gary Clark Jr. and Kurt Vile & the Violators were all on my list but never fit in amid the mayhem.