SXSW, An Unnerving But Still Rewarding Experience

The city may be the live music capital -- at least during Southby -- but the weirdness has morphed from belovedly offbeat characters to creepy ones.

Nicole Atkins performing at the Luck Reunion Ranch. Photo by Justin St. Clair

AUSTIN, Texas – When the first South By Southwest conference was held in 1987, “the live music capital of the world” wasn’t a tourism tagline and “Keep Austin Weird” wasn’t a slogan. Three decades later, the city may still be the live music capital — at least during Southby — but the weirdness has morphed from belovedly offbeat characters to creepy ones. As in three package bombs that killed two people and injured two others (two of which exploded on March 12, when SXSW Interactive and Film segments were in high gear and Music was kicking up); an emailed bomb threat that caused a post-start time cancellation of the much-anticipated Saturday, March 17, Bud Light x the Roots & Friends Jam; two pedestrian fatalities — at least one a hit-and-run; and, possibly in response to a Sunday-afternoon press conference in which Austin’s interim police chief asked the bomber to “reach out to us,” a Sunday-night explosion detonated by a trip-wire that severely injured two men. 

A suspect was arrested hours after the Roots show cancellation and charged with making terroristic threats, but federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms and FBI agents, already in town to investigate what they believe is a serial bomber, have ruled him out as a suspect in the other bombings.

And yet, thousands of conference- and festival-goers remained blissfully unaware of these incidents as they traipsed around the city, intent on absorbing wisdom from tech giants (Elon Musk), film giants (Wes Anderson, Bill Murray) and music-biz giants (keynoters Keith Urban and Google/YouTube Global Head of Music Lyor Cohen) and/or attending hundreds of parties, film screenings and music showcases. The March 9-18 event drew several hundred thousand people to Austin, including students on spring break, for official and unofficial events, from free public concerts to rogue attractions such as Willie Nelson’s annual Luck Reunion at his Spicewood ranch.   

Nelson more or less heralded SXSW’s arrival with an Austin Music Awards Song of the Year win for “Still Not Dead,” from his 2017 release, God’s Problem Child. The awards, which normally began SXSW’s Music segment, were bumped to Feb. 28 this year, but still featured hi-wattage artists including Fiona Apple, Lucinda Williams and John Hiatt. He didn’t appear there, but headlined a packed March 15 roster at his ranch. The reunion, about 45 minutes outside of Austin, has become a hot ticket – and a highlight of a week filled with many. Here are some of the favorites.

March 13

BMI’s annual Howdy Texas party and Ray Benson’s 67th birthday bash were the big lures; the latter, a benefit for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, featured Delbert McClinton, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and many other musical guests, and upped Benson’s fundraising total for the organization to half a million.

March 14

New Zealand’s Marlon Williams exhibited a pop-folk vibe – with a dark side – on the Austin Convention Center’s Radio Day Stage, where NPR-affiliated stations sponsored daily performances. With a vocal range stretching from sweet falsetto to deep bass, he delivered songs with titles such as “Vampire Again” and “Dark Child.”

NPR sponsored that night’s showcase at Stubb’s, where former Austinites Okkervil River performed catalog songs and tracks from their April release, In the Rainbow Rain, including one titled “Famous Tracheotomies.”

At the Palm Door, the Paradigm/Garden & Gun showcase offered a mix of Americana-leaning acts, including Heartless Bastards frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom making her debut solo outing; the pretty Parsonfield; the soulful Lucette, a Canadian singer-songwriter whose upcoming album was produced by Sturgill Simpson; and Austinite David Ramirez, whose performance was one of the week’s highlights.

Fronting a band back together for the first time since getting off the road in December, he sang soul-baring ballads and rockers in a voice full of fiery passion and sensitive nuance, with a compelling stage presence and intriguing, thought-provoking lyrics. His set contained several tracks from 2017’s We’re Not Going Anywhere, including the arresting “Watching from a Distance”; “Twins,” in which he sings, Where were you/when we lost the twins? Where were you/when the fear settled in? Where were you when/you swore you’d never forget?; and the even more overtly political – and equally powerful – “Stone Age,” with the lines, Our fathers were drinkers/’Cause we shifted them off to war. And I’m drunk on a Tuesday/’Cause I’m just so fucking bored.

March 15

When it comes to memorable Southby-week moments, the listening party for Willie’s Last Man Standing album, releasing on April 27 just before his 85th birthday, will be hard to top. Taking place at the Luck Reunion in a bus previously owned by Family Band member Paul English, the event was also a tasting party for strains of Willie’s Reserve, his premium pot line. As the cluster of journalists listened to Willie and producer/co-writer Buddy Cannon’s humorous and poignant takes on life and loss (including the sad-symphony centerpiece, “Something You Get Through,”), the bus got cloudier and the giggles got louder – particularly as samples of a strain named after the album were passed around. They even offered souvenirs of the not-yet-legal-in-Texas product.

The bus wasn’t the only place from which the scent of weed wafted; throughout the reunion grounds, fans indulged in inhaled and imbibed substances, the latter flowing freely from a variety of purveyors, while listening to some 40 acts including Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real and sibling Micah Nelson’s Particle Kid, who played while his mom, Annie, watched proudly.

At the Recording Academy’s annual Texas Chapter Block Party, members mingled on the Four Seasons hotel lawn while listening to Austin-based Grammy winners Grupo Fantasma, whose star rose exponentially when Prince tapped them as his backing band. But their high-energy rhythms were a hit well before that association, and had dancers grooving throughout their set.

March 16

That same Four Seasons lawn is the site of the annual BMI Brunch, a gathering of music-industry types who fuel up while listening to an array of top talent. This year’s lineup included the ever-entertaining storyteller Paul Thorn, U.K. singer-songwriter Jade Bird (who later won SXSW’s Grulke Prize for Developing Non-U.S. Act), the breathy, tropicalia- jazz of the Marias, and another highlight, soul-gospel singer Davie, accompanied by Alpha Rev keyboardist Jeff Bryant.

That afternoon, Natalie Prass hit the Radio Day Stage for a set of jazzy folk-pop, then it was off to the Yeti Flagship store for the New West Records party. New signing Nude Party proved to be impressive students of ‘60s and ‘70s pop rockers the Small Faces, the Kinks and the Monkees, with a fun retro sound. Caroline Rose offered clever emo-pop, and Naked Giant went for all-out rawk.

Up the street at the Paramount Theatre, Ethan Hawke screened Blaze, his biopic about the late Austin musician Blaze Foley, starring Ben Dickey as the troubled singer-songwriter and Charlie Sexton as his pal Townes Van Zandt.

“This is a tribute to those Blaze Foleys of the world” who made their art despite indifference, Hawke said before the film rolled. The moving saga, also featuring performances by Kris Kristofferson as Foley’s father and Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Lee Segarra in her acting debut, was followed by a Q&A with most of the cast and principals (except Kristofferson and Austinite Sexton, who’d  just left for another Dylan tour).

Down the street at Cooper’s Barbeque, Kristofferson’s ex, Rita Coolidge, highlighted the Blue Elan Records showcase with a mix of hits and new material, her supple voice and beauty both as striking as they were when she was half of a power couple hanging with Nashville’s outlaw cognoscenti.

She still hangs out; on this night, she listened as labelmates Janiva Magness, Jesse Dayton and Rod Melancon and grooved through their sets as opener Chelsea Williams plied fans with Voodoo Donuts.

March 17

The third annual Rebels & Renegades show at Threadgill’s, sponsored by Conqueroo and Jenni Finlay Promotions, delivered an afternoon of laid-back listening, from Chris Fullerton, Whitney Rose and Charlie Faye & the Fayettes to Jeff Plankenhorn and the lovely harmonies of Brennan Leigh & Noel McKay. First-timer Jenny Van West showcased her great voice on the inside stage, warming it up for Noel’s brother, Hollin McKay, to sing his quietly compelling songs. James McMurtry filled the outdoor space to capacity for his set, closing it out with his classic “Choctaw Bingo.”

At Rachael Ray’s Feedback House, partiers gobbled hotdogs and sipped drinks while soulful Pittsburgh band Commonheart and classic country stylist Joshua Hedley played. The menu emphasized her commitment to animal rescue, reinforced on two previous days by a parade of adoptable dogs.

Sadly, the big Roots show wound up being a bust, but throughout Austin, the streets continued to buzz with music and St. Patrick’s Day revelers. And then, in a blink, another  SXSW was over.

Until next year.