A year after the standing President of the United States attended and lectured at the South by Southwest Festival, politics were again front and center for much of 2017's event. This is unsurprising considering the mess of an election cycle that Austin, Texas, a city described by some as being similar to a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup, has witnessed during the, shall we say, "turbulent" first few weeks of the new presidential administration (former vice president Joe Biden made the trip to Austin as a keynote speaker, presumably to wallow in the warmth of one of Texas' only Democratic strongholds).
Given the current news cycle, it was almost expected that a story about an Italian rock group being deported for having improper work visas would dominate some of the discussion surrounding SXSW 2017 (as of this writing, the story is the only news event referenced in Wikipedia's summary of the year's festival), but it's hardly the first time foreign musicians have encountered trouble with regard to their visas. Just last year, the SXSW institution of Japan Nite was all but gutted after most of the musicians on its lineup were denied entrance into the country.
Still, the unsettling nature of current US politics was evidenced in many of the lectures and conferences scheduled throughout the festival's 10 days. Numerous panels discussed how the Trump Administration would affect everything from tech startup companies and the entertainment industry to efforts on legalizing marijuana.
All this aside, however, SXSW 2017 was another step in the direction of the festival's roots as a platform for generally unknown musical groups to get heard. Compared to only a few years ago, when artists of the scale of Lady Gaga and Kanye West had festival attendees clamoring for tickets and Doritos advertisements stood towering over parts of the downtown area, the 2017 Music Festival felt smaller and, in many ways, more comfortable. Yes, parts of East 6th Street were often mobbed with people, but the focus in the crowd seemed to be on getting to see something special, say, an up-and-coming group playing in an intimate setting rather than a well-established artist going through the motions.
I'd call that a win by most any standard, and as Austin tries to shake those last few vestiges of the SXSniffles, the almost-inevitable result of having thousands upon thousands of people and, undoubtedly, millions upon millions of germs, from around the world converge on a single place, I'll identify some people and things that seemed to me to have a particularly good run of things at SXSW 2017.
By all counts, country music has always had a home at South by Southwest. It seems as if Willie Nelson is constantly lurking around throughout the festival, popping up for a show here or there, and away from the crowds, the celebrities, and the noise of the festival's livelier venues, there are quiet honkytonks that cater to a far different crowd than one usually associates with this event. It was quite the shock when arguably the biggest music headliner was none other than Garth Brooks, who delivered a keynote and proceeded to play a secret showcase at a local bar before a not-so-well-kept “secret” performance at Auditorium Shores (which was free and open to the public). No doubt, there were some attendees mighty happy with this development.
South by Southwest has always had a knack for giving a wink to yesteryear while trying to provide a window into the future. 2017 was no different with films such as the original Alien, the '90s music documentary Hype!, and even Tommy Wiseau's notorious The Room being screened. Additionally, the 24 Beats Per Second series of music-related documentary films dealt with subjects including pioneering electronic artist Suzanne Ciani, power pop group Big Star, jam band The Grateful Dead, and even the evolution of G-Funk. Among the list of music headliners, three names from the past that stood out as unlikely choices for 2017 Showcasing Artists were raucous no wave legends James Chance and the Contortions, English new wave stylists Modern English (who, if the sheer number of appearances they had at the festival are any indication, must be having some sort of a reemergence), and alternative rockers Royal Trux, a group whose members I didn't think would be alive in 2017, let alone reunited for live performances.
It's been a rough two years for The Reverberation Appreciation Society, the organization responsible for Levitation Festival and it's previous incarnation, the Austin Psych Fest. After the entire 2016 festival was canceled at the last possible minute, much to the chagrin of many attendees, organizers announced later in the year that the event would not return in 2017. It was very much of a relief, then, that the official Levitation Day Party (held at the Hotel Vegas / Volstead compound, which had exemplary artist lineups throughout the festival) was as downright cool as it was. Running from early afternoon until deep into the night on Thursday, the Levitation event was a showcase for a wide range of acts, including the aforementioned Royal Trux, Philadelphia's Creepoid (who I've enjoyed watching mature as performers at Levitation events over the past couple years), indie rockers Merchandise, the punishing Wand and intriguing Cherry Glazerr who rocked out during the day, as well as evening headliners that included Dead Meadow, S U R V I V E, and Brian Jonestown Massacre's Matt Hollywood.
Instead of playing as many shows at any number of venues as they could cram into five days, this Austin-based group took part in a so-called “residency” at the legendary downtown music venue formerly known as Emo's. Playing each evening from Tuesday, March 14th through Thursday, March 16th, the band primed their fan base for the release of Hot Thoughts, all the while providing a stellar, hand-picked selection of opening acts.
OK, so I got on this train a little late, since the NYC duo first showed their stuff during last year's SXSW, but I went out of my way to catch them this time around. A lot of bands at SXSW are clearly glad to be there, but I don't think it was possible to find a happier pair of people than Diet Cig's Alex Luciano and Noah Bowman before, during, and after their Monday afternoon set at Hotel Vegas. Despite admitting to only getting a few hours of sleep and barely making it to the venue in time for the show, Luciano and Bowman killed it. Singer/guitarist Luciano first got the crowd in the mood with an semi-comical impromptu karaoke version of Cher's “Believe,” only to proceed by bounding around the stage like she had been born with pogo sticks for legs. Performing several songs off new album Swear I'm Good At This, Luciano's lively banter with the crowd and affable nature made this easily one of the most downright fun shows I've been at in a while.
Playing a wild, enjoyably ragged, and sometimes quite weird sort of garage rock, this all-female Japanese group named after a “love hotel” seemingly came out of nowhere to land as one of the most-discussed foreign acts, despite the fact that their debut US performance didn't actually take place at the aforementioned Japan Nite, but rather at a standalone gig at Maggie Mae's. I daresay that no group I saw this year stood out as quite such a genuine discovery.
In the seven years that I've been attending SXSW, the festival has morphed several times over. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the portion of the festival devoted to electronics and gaming. In the past, the historic Paramount Theater has been used during the music festival to provide big-name artists with a space to perform in front of a large crowd. This year, one of the uses of the theater was to house an interactive big screen gaming experience where the attendees could control the action with the use of their cellphones in real time. The amount of people I met attending South by Southwest solely for the gaming portion of the event was almost mind-blowing, especially considering that music used to be the main draw. One can only guess what the future of SXSW holds, but a few years removed from the festival's debut of the VR technology now in wide-use, I can only see SXSW Gaming gaining even more prominence.
Without doubt, some SXSW 2017 attendees will bemoan the loss of longstanding, high-profile music events such as The Fader Fort (which this year switched to being an invite-only affair) and The Hype Hotel (previously, the home of most every “hype band,” absent completely this year), but it's safe to say that each year's incarnation of South by Southwest offers more than enough enjoyment to go around. Fun experiences can be found everywhere during this festival, and often in the most unlikely of places, indeed, exploration and discovery are perhaps the best aspects of the event. It'll be interesting to see if the cultural barometer that is SXSW will prove to be accurate this year. If past years provide any indication, many of the people, artists, and things featured at the 2017 festival will be talked about for a long time to come.