The Last Word from the Press on SXSW 2008

We swear, we're done now

Every year South by Southwest careens closer to lowercase status. Rather than simply denoting the panels and performances of the music festival proper, its signature abbreviation/acronym has become shorthand for the whirl of parties and dusk-till-dawn (and beyond) music radiating from every front porch, patio, parking lot, warehouse, henhouse and outhouse in Austin. SXSW is now as much a generic brand — I saw flyers for several other music festivals around town, each advertising themselves as a "mini-SXSW" — as an official trademark.

The powers that be at the uppercase SXSW are less than thrilled about this — last year there was a rumor, which turned out to be not true, that SXSW officials provided Austin police and fire marshals with a tip sheet of nonsanctioned events — but as we say in Texas, that horse has long since left the barn. This year, A-list groups like British speed-metal gods Motörhead, French electronic duo Justice and Austin's ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead didn't even bother playing the festival proper, opting instead for the lucrative paydays of corporate-sponsored parties (including Press parent company Village Voice Media's shindig), most of which were either open to the public or accessible through a simple online RSVP. Even SXSW keynote speaker Lou Reed limited his actual stage time to a "Walk on the Wild Side" duet with Moby at a quasi-official Levi's/Fader Fort party.

With more than 12,000 registrants and 1,700 performers — worth an estimated $90 million to the city of Austin's coffers — it's not like SXSW doesn't have enough to contend with already. People's reasons for attending are as varied as the registrants themselves; some fashion their entire yearly business plan from what they're able to accomplish over those few days, while others attend simply to take a few days off work and enjoy as much free booze and barbecue as they can.

Monotonix's manic frontman Ami Shalev...
John Nova Lomax
Monotonix's manic frontman Ami Shalev...
...eats it on Waterloo Park's gravel.
John Nova Lomax
...eats it on Waterloo Park's gravel.

Two parties I attended illustrated how radically different the various faces of SXSW can be. One was a late-night Blender-sponsored after-party at a warehouse on the Eastside, where professional party people created a chaotic scene at the gate and elbowed each other aside on their way to the free cans of alcoholic energy drink Sparks at the bar. The other was a relatively low-key neighborhood affair at a South Austin beauty-salon patio, where kids danced enthusiastically or climbed trees and adults sat around picnic tables visiting and drinking keg beer from plastic cups. Each was as vivid a snapshot of the crazy quilt SXSW has become as anything "official" that went on last week, and next year, I can only imagine, will bring even more of the same. — Chris Gray

It's interesting to me how South By is evolving its own map. Downtown breaks down into the heavy maelstrom of young, hip and trendy bands east of Congress, along with a heavy dose of guerilla marketing and insidious branding of the sort alluded to by Chris's reference to the mad scramble for Sparks.

West of Congress is more chilled, the land of blues and Americana and world music showcases. East of I-35, in east Austin's rapidly gentrifying ghetto/barrio, you're in a heavy acid realm. This is the best place for people-watching and shows that are truly demented — seeing Gorch Fock and demented Israeli power trio Monotonix (for a full write-up of their goings-on this year, as well as more coverage of other bands, see the Press's Houstoned Rocks blog) on a double bill there in a backyard behind an old shack that purported to be the "Austin Typewriter Museum" was quite a treat.

Along South Congress, you're in kicked-back, pot-smoking Austin slacker town, where much of that city's music royalty from the '60s to the present played relatively chilled shows, or milled about on the street, or passed funny cigarettes around in alleys.

Further out on the fringes lay some of the least-capital-lettered "sxsw" events, such as the Enchanted Forest, a multi-day festival of poetry, music, visual art and every other manner of creative endeavor sprawling along five acres of dusty trails in scraggly woods in some trash land — a flood-plain railway right of way — near the corner of Lamar and Oltorf.

It was pretty hard to describe — people were calling it things like "Austin's Burning Man" and "summer camp on acid," but it's safe to say that no corporate sponsor was anywhere within five miles of the place. Nor would any insurer with half a brain touch some of the performers there, such as the guy who conducted what amounted to a ground-level fireworks display using scrap metal "cannons" shooting great blasts of colored propane in the air, all as people watched from mere feet away. Even the rickety wooden bridge over the little creek that wound its way through the site looked as if it would collapse at any second.

My official laminated badge feels more and more useless every year. The Enchanted Forest was one highlight. The three demented, almost downright terrifying Monotonix shows I saw were the others, and each of those events was open to the general public. (Two of the Monotonix shows were also free, as was the beer at them; the Enchanted Forest was B.Y.O.B. and required a ten-dollar ticket.)

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