Indie buzz bands and hip-hop superstars tend to get the attention, but SXSW truly is a global fest, both in terms of attendance at the conference and exposure-seeking bands that come to Austin from all the world.
Without planning it that way, I hit three straight showcases on Wednesday evening featurng non-American headliners. Okay, so maybe the first, the indie pop band Alvvays, who headlined the Hype Hotel showcase curated by Yvynyl, the influential music blog run by Philadelphian Mark Schoneveld, don't really count because they're only Canadian. Nevertheless, the Toronto quintet fronted by singer Molly Rankin, are of significant note, They write sunny sounding pop songs as crafty as any I've heard in Austin this week, and they put over the tunes on last year's self titled debut album, including the catchy calling card "Archie, Marry Me" with cheery enthusiasm. They open for the Decemberists at the Academy of Music on Philadelphia on April 7. (Hundred Waters, which preceded Alvvays on stage at the Hype Hotel, are also of note for their way with moody atmospherics that build to chilling intensity. But they're from Gainesville.)
After a pork sandwich break, I then started my evening at the Victorian Room at The Driskill, the 129 year old 6th Street hotel that ooozes with history: It was where Lyndon Johnson traditionally awaited election reults while running for statewide and national ofifce. On Wednesday it hosted an entire slate of Pakistani bands, which a drew a crowd of Austinites of South Asian descent who sat cross legged on the floor, just as the musicians did on stage.
There are a slew of compelling music movies at the SXSW Film festival, and most of them continue to screen throughout the week, after the well-heeled nerdcore Interactive crowd has left town and the scraggly Music crowd moves in.
The short list of titles in the 24 Beats Per Second fest category that I'd be happy to spend two hours with include: Jessica Edwards' Mavis!, about gospel great Mavis Staples; Colin Hanks' (Tom's son) All Things Must Pass, about the rise and fall of Tower Records; Brendon Toller's Danny Says, concerning Ramones manager Danny Fields; Joe Nick Patoski's Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove, about late Lone Star legend Doug Sahm; and The Jones Family Will Make A Way, Alan Berg's documentary treatment of Mississippi family gospel group.
But there's no question that the most highly anticipated music doc at SXSW is Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the heartbreaking Brett Morgen-directed saga executive produced by Frances Bean Cobain that tells her father's tragic genius story with loads of remarkable previously unseen home movie footage of Cobain as a boy and when he was married to Courtney Love.
The South by Southwest conference in Austin transitioned into its music festival phase on Tuesday night, with multi-act showcases taking place at dozens of offical venues and many unofficial ones on either side of the I-35 freeway that splits the Texas state capitol down the middle.
The shift from Interactive to Music isn't always subtle. The techies market themselves by slipping a flyer about their innovative app under your hotel room door or dressing up as cute furry animal. The rock bands plug heir amp in on a street corner and crank up the volume.
And the parties all around town start drawing big crowds. None are bigger that those at The Fader Fort, the the vast barn of a space named after the music and lifestyle magazine that's a model of corporate sponsored (by Converse and Intel and Austin-based Dell) music-tech brand integration. Located on the ever gentrifying and hipsterizing, formerly predominantly American-American and African-American east side of town, the Fader Fort, which is right across the stereet from the Taco Bell sponsored Hype Hotel, functions as a sort of music-centric clubhouse, with ping pong tabels, hot dogs, DJ rooms and of course, lots of sneaker ads and sneaker art.
The SXSW Music festival doesn't really get going until Tueday night, out if you get to Austin early - or stick around as Interactive and Film start to wind down - you can get a head start on checking bands off your list.
On Monday afternoon, as I rode my bike down the busy stretch of Red River street where a drunk driver struch a crowd waiting in line to see Tyler the Creator last year and killed four people, I noted a couple of round the block lines forming for nighttime showcases.
One was for Austin band Spoon playing a F--- Yeah Tumblr showcase at the Mohawk, and the other was for an Onion A.V.Club party at Red 7 that featured punkish Toronto three piece band Metz and - the one I was really after - ace Australian rock songwriter Courtney Barnett.
Is it possible to own too many pairs of shoes? The title characters of David T. Friendly and Mick Partridge's lively, pop culturally savvy documentary about sneaker collectors, who include rapper Wale, comedian Mike Epps and deejays Samantha Ronson and Clark Kent, would agree with Imelda Marcos that it is not.
Sneakerheadz perceptively tells the history of athletic shoes, from Chuck Taylors to Air Jordans, digging into issues of hip-hop fashion and cultural identity. It shows how the Internet and shoes manufacturers focus on limited edition models has changed the collecting and the resale market, and made it an often lucrative and sometimes tragically dangerous game.
Philly connection: One of the featured collectors and major players in the Sneakerheadz story is Hommyo Hidefumi, the Japanese shoe hound who fed his obsession while attending Temple University in North Philly and built an sneaker store empire back in Japan started with shoes he would buy in 215 boutique and resell at enormous markups in his native country.
When was our he said-he said corrosive political commentary culture born? In The Best Of Enemies, music historian and filmmaker Robert Gordon (author of a Muddy Waters biography and Stax Records history) and director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) makes the case that the Republicans-shouting- at-Democrats (and vice versa) substitute for discourse we're so saddled now dates back to 1968.
That's when ABC News, in a distant third place in ratings behind CBS and NBC, decided to to roll the dice and air nightly debates between right wing National Review editor and William F. Buckley and left wing Myra Breckinridge-author Gore Vidal rather than provide the traditional gavel-to-gavel convention coverage.
The resulting mano a mano battles, hosted by anchor Howard K. Smith, were a surprise success, in part because both Vidal and Buckley were such sophisticated and witty public intellectuals and because - as sports announcer to say about rival teams - they really didn't like each other. It went beyond personal antipathy, in fact. And Gordon and Neville (both Penn grads) show, both Buckey and Vidal felt that the other's views were dangerous, and a threat to the republic.
The popular image of the South by Southwest may still be of an excessively tattooed guitar player - or maybe a gold chained rapper - performing a corproate sponsored gig for fans filling up on free beer and greasy tacos.
Believe me, plenty of that is coming with the Music potion of SXSW kicking into gear on Tuesday, and some of it has already been underway, with D'Angelo playing a surprise Samsung supper club 5 song gig on Sunday night with Philly's own Questlove on drums, and Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast previewing her new album California Nights at a PBS party.
But during the run of the Interactive conference and Film festival, most of the action takes place among start up exhibitors, would-be deal makers and self promoters of all stripes, from film stars like Ryan Gosling, who premiered his directorial debut, 'Lost River' snd sat down for a chat with Guillermo del Toro on Friday, to Sen. Rand Paul, who sold himself as the most tech friendly and least Big Brother-ish Presidential candidate on Sunday.
The most compelling SXSW Interactive talk I've caught so far was the cracker jack two-man tango on Sunday afternoon between authors Andrew Keen and Clive Thompson called 'Is the Internet the Answer?'
The title was a play on Keen's new book The Internet Is Not The Answer, which posits that the innovations that were alledgedly going to set us free have instead eliminated our jobs and turned us into digital prisoners. It paired Britisher Keen off with Canadian Thompson, who takes a more optimistic view, as his newest book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing The Way We Think For The Better, makes plain.
In practice, however, it wasn't so much a point-counterpoint debate as an invigorating discussion about the often troubling places that the brave new world has brought us.