The South by Southwest festival and conference in Austin, Texas, is not just one mega-event, but three.
The technology fest known as SXSW Interactive is already underway, with nearly 20 Philadelphia start-ups on hand, from safety-jewelry company Roar for Good to energy-management outfit Stratis, hawking their wares. Mayor Kenney was in town, hyping Philly over the weekend. Former Vice President Joe Biden was talking up his Cancer Moonshot initiative. The tech confab ends Tuesday.
The SXSW film festival started Friday and continues through this weekend. It showcases potential blockbusters, like the Charlize Theron actioner Atomic Blonde and upstarts such as Sylvio, an indie flick whose gorilla-in-a-debt-collection-office main character began as a phenomenon on six-second video service Vine. The latter features a score by Philadelphians Thomas Hughes and Gretchen Lohse of the indie duo Carol Cleveland Sings.
Director Jason Pollock’s documentary Stranger Fruit has been the talk of this year's lineup for its previously unseen security footage of Ferguson, Mo., teenager Michael Brown before he was shot and killed. And, as always, the film fest is full of music, with movies that focus on early 1990s West Coast rap, 1970s cult band Big Star, and the Grateful Dead, the subject of Amir Bar-Lev’s widely praised 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 more than 100 venues in the Texas capitol this week, starting in earnest Tuesday night.
Big names will be on hand: Country superstar Garth Brooks, due for a four show Wells Fargo Center run starting March 24, is a keynote speaker. Snoop Dogg will take part in a panel discussion about criminal justice reform. And speaking of weed, Willie Nelson will host his annual Luck Reunion show outside town, with guests including Margo Price and Conor Oberst.
Seven Philly acts are playing Amplify Philly, the Tuesday-night show at Buffalo Billiards on Austin's Sixth Street strip presented by music promo group REC Philly, reflecting the strengths of the 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 at the fest) and the 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. They took last year off while recording a follow-up.
The Rob Grote-fronted foursome has a new Beatles-y single out called “Ordinary Day” and a full-length album due 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.' ”
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“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. Thankfully, 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 Gil and Louise Hayat-Camard -- the goals are different. The duo is also signed to Fat Possum, which will reissue their self-titled EP on March 24.
With a full-length album due this year, recorded with Dave Hartley of the War on Drugs and Nick Krill of the Spinto Band, 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 Dupuis 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, in the state with the 1,254-mile Mexican border, immigration is shaping up as a fractious theme.
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 should act “in ways that adversely affect the viability of their official SXSW showcase.”
Told Slant canceled and called for a boycott. A slew of acts, including Philly musicians Allison Crutchfield, Dupuis, 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. The festival expressed in a statement 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 on WHYY-FM (90.9), is cosponsoring a SXSW showcase scheduled for Friday called Contrabanned #MusicUnites featuring acts that originate in countries affected by the White House 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.”