The South by Southwest festival and conference in Austin, Texas is not just one mega-event, but three.
The technology known as SXSW Interactive reaches into all aspects of modern life. Nearly 20 Philadelphia startups, from fashionable safety jewelry company ROAR for Good to energy management outfit Stratis, have been hawking their wares at the confab, which ends today. Mayor Jim Kenney was in town hyping Philly this weekend, with former Vice President Joe Biden on hand talking up his Cancer Moonshot initiative.
The SXSW film festival continues through this weekend. It showcases potential blockbusters like the Charlize Theron action movie Atomic Blonde and upstarts such as Sylvio, an indie flick whose gorilla-in-a-debt-collection-office main character began as a phenomenon on 6 second video service Vine. It features a score by Philadelphians Thomas Hughes and Gretchen Lohse of Carol Cleveland Sings.
Jason Pollock’s documentary Stranger Fruit made news at SXSW with previously unseen security footage of Ferguson, Mo. teenager Michael Brown in 2014. And as always the film best is full of music, with movies that focus on the early 1990s West Coast rap, ‘70s cult band Big Star, and the Grateful Dead, the subject of widely praised Amir Bar Lev’s doc A Long Strange Trip, for Amazon.
Oh yeah, speaking of music: There’s going to be a lot of it in Austin this week. The SXSW music festival will bring thousands of bands and tens of thousands of fans to over a hundred venues in the Texas capitol this week, starting in earnest on Tuesday night.
Big names will be on hand: Country superstar Garth Brooks, due for a three show Wells Fargo Center run starting March 24, is a keynote speaker. Snoop Dogg will take part in a panel about criminal justice reform. And speaking of weed, Willie Nelson will host his annual Luck Reunion show outside of town, with guests including Margo Price and Conor Oberst.
Seven Philly acts are playing Amplify Philly, the Tuesday night show presented by music promo group REC Philly that this year does its best job by far of reflecting the strengths of the contemporary Philadelphia music scene. It’s headlined by Lititz, Pa-born rockers The Districts, and includes soul troubadour Son Little, indie quartet Queen of Jeans, R&B maverick Bilal, Philly by way of Paris duo The Dove & The Wolf and R&B up and comers Julian King and Good Girl.
Marley McNamara, who manages both The Districts (who are playing a total of six shows) and Dove & The Wolf (who are doing three), said a trip to SXSW was essential for both.
The Districts first played the fest in 2014, and grabbed attention with their electric live show. “[British music magazine] NME said they were the band that won SXSW,’” McNamara recalls. The next year, the band returned to hype its debut on the Fat Possum label A Flourish and A Spoil, then took last year off while recording a follow-up.
The Rob Grote-fronted foursome has a new Beatley single out called “Ordinary Day,” with the full length is not due till this summer.
“They need to be there,” McNamara says. “This is them saying ‘We’re back, we have new music, we’re going to be touring relentlessly.”
Internet acceleration means attention spans shrink - artists have to stay front and center for music fans.
“It’s crazy,” McNamara says. “There are so many bands and you’re like ’Whatever happened to so-and-so?‘ when it’s only been six months since they were a big deal. Thank fully all this band has to do is play a live show to get people’s attention. We need people to spread the word, like ‘Oh my God! I saw The Districts on Tuesday and they blew me away. Where are they playing next?”
With The Dove & The Wolf - the tandem of Paloma Gill and Louise Hayat-Camard - the goals are different. The duo are also signed to Fat Possum, who will re-issue their self-titled EP on March 24.
With a full length album recorded with Dave Hartley of The War On Drugs and Nick Krill of The Spinto Band, due this year, the group is in the market for booking agents in the U.S. and Europe. “It’s basically team building, and that’s where you do it, in front of the music industry,” McNamara says.
Plenty of other 215 acts not on the Amplify bill are playing Austin. They include raucous rockers Low Cut Connie, with a new album, Dirty Pictures (part 1) due this spring; North Philly industrial song poet Moor Mother; Sad13, the solo project of Sadie Dupois of indie band Speedy Ortiz; rappers Meek Mill, Lil Uzi Vert and PnB Rock; psych-rock quartet Ecstatic Vision, and many others.
Over the years, SXSW has grown increasingly international. This year, it seems that one of the fractious themes of the fest taking place in a state with a 1254 mile border with Mexico, will be over immigration and America - and SXSW’s relationship with the world at large.
Earlier this month, the fest was the focus of unwanted publicity when a member of the Brooklyn band Told Slant tweeted a picture of language from the SXSW artist contract that threatens to “notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities” if bands “acted in way that adversely affect the viability of their official SXSW showcase.”
Told Slant cancelled and called for a boycott. A slew of acts, including Philly musicians Allison Crutchfield, Dupois and Sheer Mag, signed a letter of protest. SXSW CEO Roland Swenson has apologized for the language, calling it “a misunderstanding” and promising to amend it next year, while expressed its opposition to President Trump’s travel ban.
“I think in the current environment, everybody’s on edge,” said Marco Werman, host of Public Radio International’s The World, the show broadcast locally on WHYY-FM (90.9) that is co-sponsoring a SXSW showcase scheduled for Friday called Contrabanned #MusicUnites, which will feature acts who originate in countries affected by the White House’s travel ban.
“Everybody’s probing more,” Werman said. “I’m not surprised somebody went through the contract to see what it says. The language came out and I saw it - and a lot of people saw it - and were surprised ... We’re living in this very prickly environment and people are noticing these things. And now SXSW has come back and answered it with some pretty good self-criticism. I think it settled a lot of people’s nerves.”