Every year, South by Southwest serves up a new and different experience. At least that's how it has treated me in the past. This year was no exception. One thing doesn't change, however. No matter what happens, you always get immersed-baptized, if you will-in the music.
I'll admit, after what has proven to be an incredibly tough twelve months on the personal front, I wasn't sure if I could withstand the rigors of a week in Austin this year. After all, outside of the music (which, don't get me wrong, is a huge payoff in and of itself) what have I got to look forward to? Sleep depravation, exhaustion, more walking than I would probably otherwise do in a month.
Nevertheless, when it all came down to the wire, the fighter in me came out and I resolved that I wouldn't miss my annual spring migration to the Mecca of aspiring artists and music. I can't say the trip was uneventful (you've got to love a midnight blowout in the middle of nowhere), but as in years past, I was rewarded handsomely for my efforts.
Mostly, what I was reminded of was the power of music to soothe your soul. Read that however you want; music has always played a key role in feeding your spirit or your inner-self.
SXSW 2008 proved to be a year of renewal, relaxation and revival of my faith in rock and roll. From legends and heroes to unknown musicians aspiring to greatness, it was a great year to be in Austin. Sure, the overall lineup may not have been the strongest of the recent past, nor the panelists at the conference, but this was by far the most enjoyable experience I've had to date.
I didn't feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of music and bands--part of which was undoubtedly underscored by my faith in our winning correspondent, Cabrone Brewer's ability to cover a good portion of what I missed.
I've found the secret of a successful night on the strip to start with a list of potential shows, plan your route and strategy, then play it by ear once you hit the streets. The local buzz will usually point you in the right direction.
Here's a list of SXSW highlights:
As the music festival kicked off on Wednesday evening, I had to indulge my inner classic-rocker and start the week with a trek to La Zona Rosa for a glimpse of pop and rock legend Van Morrison. Sure, "Van the Man" has a reputation as a stodgy old man with a chip on his shoulder, but with a rare opportunity to experience it myself, I had to see if I could get in. Fortunately, music badges take precedence and I found my way into the venue, packed shoulder to shoulder with an audience ranging from young twenty-somethings to middle-aged hipsters and old farts pushing senior status.
At this point I had to wonder: how well has Van Morrison's voice held up over the years? Much to my surprise and the audience's delight, I can honestly say I couldn't hear that he's lost a step. Backed by a crack band and relying heavily on material from his new album, due in April, The Man's voice was dead on for his early recordings.
After my christening, I headed back to Sixth Street for what would become "Tulsa night." Not only did I stop in for RadioRadio's showcase gig at Friends, I also caught a few other locals. I finally got to witness Eric Arndt's new project, Refund Division--a return to soulful pop that probably has more soul than Hero Factor. But what's up with me having to drive nearly 500 miles to hear the band for the first time?
Afterward, I ran into other fellow Tulsans on the street, including Jesse Aycock and Isaac Hanson before catching Earl Greyhound and getting back to Vandevander's midnight showcase.
Thursday was singer-songwriter night, kicking off with the "Body of War" show, which featured artists from the soundtrack of the documentary about a young soldier who enlisted following 9/11 and was shot and paralyzed within his first month in Iraq. The young man went on to found Iraq Veterans Against the War and was sitting side-stage as a parade of performers, including Serg Tankanian, Mason Jennings, American Bang RTX Bandits, Billy Bragg, Ben Harper and Tom Morello took the stage before wrapping with an all-star jam of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Our Land."
I know I'm a fanatic, but an evening of Morello alone made it worth the drive to Austin. Nevertheless, things were just getting started.
Before the week was over I got my fix of rock, country, blues and everything in between. I even got to sit in on a hilarious open interview with Mick Jones (of the Clash and Big Audio Dynamite) and Tony James (of Generation X and Sigue Sigue Sputnik) and even closed out the weekend with their new band Carbon Silicon.
Friday night was the night that really reminded me what SXSW is really all about, though. Following the iROK afternoon day party which featured El Paso Hot Button, PDA and Congress of a Crow (which already had me off to a good start), I found my annual unknown wonder.
This year it was David Moore, whom I admittedly stopped to see on a whim, solely because he's from my hometown of Indianapolis. I fully expected to stay for about two songs and hit the streets, but with a powerful voice and stage presence, I couldn't leave. Think of a classic blend of rock, soul and Americana, along the lines of Will Hoge, with a palpable tension in the air. I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for Moore, as he's got his debut album coming out in June. I closed out the night with an extended set by the North Mississippi All-Stars that helped set the world back on its axis.
After all was said and done, what did I discover? Rock and roll is alive and well. Yes, I was exhausted, beaten down and almost numb, but it was more than worth it. Life and music go hand in hand; after all, we all need our own soundtrack, don't we?
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