SXSW 2019: The Ups And Downs Of A Mega-Event

Robert Ellis performing during SXSW. Photo by Lynne Margolis

Last year, the specter of fear hovered over Austin’s massive March South By Southwest gathering, caused by a series of package bombs that had already killed two. This year, bomb dogs sniffed their way through the interactive, film and music conference and festival’s giant trade show, but the danger was on the streets, where five unrelated shootings in a 24-hour period on the final weekend, three of which happened in Austin’s packed entertainment district, left eight people injured and one person dead. Still searching for suspects, Austin police vowed Tuesday to deliver a strong response to such violence, which has become more common even on non-Southby weekends. Ironically, addressing gun violence was the topic of several sessions in the Interactive section’s Social & Global Impact track.

Videos by American Songwriter

Just like the city that hosts it, SXSW ain’t what it used to be. Music is now just a facet of the 32-year-old event, which also overlaps interactive, film and comedy segments, bookended by an education conference and a rapidly growing gaming weekend.

The conferences contain so many tracks — and a “convergence” section contains even more — some head-scratching elements (style & retail; health & wellness) have become part of the mix. “Cannabusiness” could have been its own conference, judging by the quantity of offerings and ubiquity of representation. The “Cities, Government & Politics” track might explain how SXSW has become a de rigueur stop for high-profile politicians, including several presidential candidates. The trade show, once populated by music publications, CD manufacturers and similar purveyors manning candy-strewn tables, has become a place for apartment-sized installations by far-flung countries pushing various economic initiatives, virtual- and augmented-reality companies and even entities such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

In contrast to the star power emanating from candidates and megawatt film talents (i.e., screenwriter/director Jordan Peele and the cast of Us; The Highwaymen cast), the music segment seemed light on non-hip-hop superstar names. Unlike 2018, there was no instant-arena- and stadium filler like Keith Urban, much less a Lady Gaga (2014) or a one-two punch like Prince and Justin Timberlake (2013).

But with over 2,000 artists playing seemingly zillions of showcases, plus countless official and unofficial parties, there was still an overabundance of newcomers, legends and reliable favorites to discover or rediscover.

Herewith, some highlights.

Boy Howdy: The Story of Creem Magazine — It seemed appropriate to preface a dive into SXSW Music with a documentary about the magazine that helped jumpstart the field of music journalism. The film, which premiered at SXSW but doesn’t yet have a release date, presents a revealing look at the confluence of characters and craziness that kept this magazine afloat for more than two decades. The iconoclastic Detroit publication not only put many of rock’s biggest heroes on the map, it also helped turn Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh into journalistic legends. 

BMI’s Howdy Texas presents Ray Benson’s Birthday Bash — For the first time, BMI’s annual Howdy Texas party and Ray Benson’s Birthday Bash, a Health Alliance for Austin Musicians fundraiser, combined into one event. VIPs got to pose for pics with Benson and Robert Earl Keen, but everyone got to hear them perform, plus Nashville up-and-comer Katie Pruitt, whose voice has a Neko Case-ish quality; Robert Ellis, the wryly hilarious “Texas Piano Man” (also the title of his new album) who showed up in full white tux and tails to perform tunes with titles such as “Passive Aggressive,” “Nobody Smokes Anymore” and  “Aren’t We Supposed to Be in Love?”; Ben Dickey, performing songs from his new, Charlie Sexton-produced album, A Glimmer on the Outskirts; and, perhaps in a nod to BMI’s involvement, the decidedly non-Americana/country artists Ed Roland, of Collective Soul fame, and Foo Fighters guitarist Christ Shiflett. Dale Watson, Jamie Lin Wilson, Randy Houser and even NPR’s John Burnett, a harmonica player, were among the artists gracing the outdoor stage.  

Bonnie Bishop — Bishop’s Saxon Pub showcase featured songs from her Dave Cobb-produced 2016 release, Ain’t Who I Was, along with teases from her upcoming album, The Walk, produced by Steve Jordan. On the latter, she merged her bluesy vocals with elements of jam-funk, creating an intriguing sound without losing the confessional appeal of her previous work.

Yola — The rising U.K. singer brought her big voice to the Austin Convention Center’s Radio Day Stage, performing with Nashville-based guitarist Anthony Da Costa. Her amazing low range came to the fore on the gospel-tinged “Walk through Fire,” the title track of her Dan Auerbach-produced album. Co-written with Auerbach and Dan Penn, the song was inspired by an actual fire experience. Somehow, she turned that into an amusing story.

Thomas Dybdahl
— Playing House of Scandinavia’s outdoor plaza stage at Austin’s new Fareground food hall as the sun began to drop, Norwegian singer-songwriter Dybdahl engaged a lounging audience with quietly compelling folk, played on a gorgeous guitar loaned to him just before the set (an airline destroyed his). Turns out the it was crafted by audience member Neil Peterson of Bandera, Texas, better known in these parts as the hometown of beloved songwriting siblings Bruce and Charlie Robison and Robyn Ludwick — and Peterson coached Bruce’s high-school baseball team. Another random conversation before Dybdahl’s set led to discovery of an initiative to empower homeless people by helping them earn their way toward stability. Hearing the Homeless was founded by Kevin Price, who as a child had befriended the lone homeless person in his small town and later watched as that man worked his way out of homelessness by selling his art. Price’s mission, which he’s working on spreading across the country, is simply: “To empower and inspire one human at a time.” 

Minor Mishap Marching Band — In a moment intended to hark back to when Austin really was weird, this band took to Sixth Street, Austin’s bar-laden entertainment district, dressed in a bumble-bee black and yellow mix of marching-band and drag regalia. Their joyous cacophony paid homage to Austin’s late cross-dressing icon, Leslie Cochran, the subject of the documentary, Becoming Leslie. Though Leslie’s days of strolling (or trolling) Austin intersections clad in a thong and high heels ended with a 2009 injury and his death three years later, his spirit was invoked via an almost life-sized cutout of the one-time mayoral candidate. The serendipitous moment resonated even more because of that conversation with Price; Leslie was a member of and advocate for Austin’s homeless community.

Mavis Staples performing at Luck Reunion. Photo by Lynne Margolis

Luck Reunion — It’s not a sanctioned SXSW event, but the annual shindig at Willie Nelson’s Spicewood, Texas, ranch, 45 minutes outside of Austin, has become the Thursday hang for Americana and country artists and fans. At this year’s reunion, journalists were treated to sneak previews of Nelson’s June album release, Ride Me Back Home (along with sips of hemp-infused Willie’s Remedy coffee)and Mavis Staples’ Ben Harper-produced May release, We Get By. As usual, Nelson headlined the event, which also featured his sons’ bands, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real and Particle Kid, along with a slew of other names. Among them: Hayes Carll, Shakey Graves, Courtney Marie Andrews, Nathaniel Rateliff, Cedric Burnside (R.L. Burnside’s grandson), the Marcus King Band, Billy Strings, Steve Earle & the Dukes, Paula Nelson & Jesse Dayton, Low Cut Connie, Brandy Zdan, Nicole Atkins & Jim Sclavunos … 41 acts in all. Staples headlined a stage devoted to women, most of whom joined her for a rendition of the Band’s “The Weight.” That was after she brought down the proverbial house with a powerful extended version of “Freedom Highway,” during which she reminded everyone that she was there, marching with her dad when he was inspired to write the timeless, and still so topical, civil rights anthem in 1965.

Tulsa Music Showcase — As hard as it was to leave Luck, it was worth it to catch Tulsa acts Branjae, Casii Stephan & the Midnight Sun and Republican Hair at Augustine, where the Tulsa Office of Film, Music, Arts & Culture had hosted a day party and nighttime showcase. After jazz-soul singer Branjae’s beguiling set, a fan yelled, “ You were fuckin’ boss! Thank you so much for throwing your energy out here!” Then Stephan and her band performed a knockout set of blues-funk and soul. When Republican Hair walked onstage in matching white, Hazmat-style jumpsuits, it was easy to assume they were a Devo-ish novelty, but they’re actually a solid rock band fronted by Oklahoma native — and hit Nashville songwriter — Luke Dick. (His credits include co-writing “Velvet Elvis” on Kacey Musgraves’ Album of the Year Grammy winner, Golden Hour). While at SXSW, he also world-premiered his documentary, Red Dog, which chronicles his upbringing at the strip club where his mother worked.

BMI Acoustic Brunch — BMI always presents a slate of worthy artists at this sublime Friday-morning gathering on the lawn of the Four Seasons Hotel. This year’s batch included Yola (one of SXSW’s bigger buzz acts), sisters Lily & Madeleine (another buzz act) and James Droll. BMI’s announcement earlier in the week that it’s opening an Austin office — its first new branch in 22 years — made the breakfast pastries taste even sweeter for locals in attendance. 

New West Showcase — One of those locals is Robert Ellis, who was a hit of the fest in his new incarnation as the best-dressed pianist around; his Friday set was every bit as good as his Tuesday one — and the tux looked no worse for its nearly nonstop wear. Also playing the Texas-centric showcase were labelmates Justin Townes Earle, Steve Earle & the Dukes, Nikki Lane,  the Texas Gentlemen and the Wild Moccasin. Fronted by singer Zahira Gutierrez, the Houston band lived up to the “wild” part of their name with a forceful set during which Gutierrez never stopped moving. 

Angie McMahon —Rising star McMahon’s set was the opposite of loud and kinetic, yet it was just as forceful. Even her soundcheck was arresting; her voice, at once ethereal and sultry, is simply gripping. Appealingly unpretentious, the Australia native crafts songs that are spare and intense; when she let out a wail on this night, while performing in a church, the pain that prompted it echoed even louder.  Seemingly somewhat shy and softspoken, McMahon still commanded the audience — and several others throughout the week, eventually winning SXSW’s Grulke Prize for Developing Non-U.S. Act. The award is named after the late SXSW Creative Director Brent Grulke.

Rachael Ray’s Feedback party — McMahon was among the 13 artists playing Ray’s 12th annual Southby shindig; Yola, Ben Dickey, Cautious Clay, Bob Schneider and Big Boi also showed, and the Beastie Boys’ Mike D did a DJ set. The tophat-sporting Lukas Nelson and his band delivered a masterful, if short, second-stage set; he’s finally come into his own as a masterful showman as well as singer and guitarist. Headliner Bleachers, featuring frontman Jack Antonoff (a role he doesn’t play in his other band, Fun.), pumped out upbeat pop rock heavily influenced by Antonoff’s New Jersey origins. Sax player Evan Smith clearly went to the Clarence Clemons school of sax performance — not that that’s a bad thing — and showed off his chops as Antonoff exhorted fans to ride one another’s shoulders, shouting, “It’s SXSW. You can’t get rowdy enough!”

Joshua Burnside, Danny Schmidt — Austin’s cops probably wouldn’t have wanted to hear Antonoff’s comment; fortunately, those seeking lower-key entertainment could find it at places like Driskill Hotel’s Victorian Room, where the Folk Alliance sponsored two nights of showcases, or the unofficial Kerrville Folk Festival Showcase at NeWorlDeli. Burnside, from Ireland, labels his impassioned sound, sometimes punctuated by a lonely trumpet or similar effect, as “folktronica.” At the Kerrville event, Austinite Schmidt, accompanied by his wife, Carrie Elkin, played a few songs from his just-released album, Standard Deviation, which focuses on the birth of their daughter, among other themes. The couple’s intricate harmonies and charming songs helped calm the craziness enveloping the city while serving as a reminder that ultimately, it all comes down to the songs. 

Mavis Staples To Release New Album We Get By