The year's third month is always a crazy time to be in Austin, what with the South by Southwest Festival taking up March's middle third, but the overall level of chaos seemed to have been raised significantly in 2018. In the day's leading up to the South by Southwest Festival, the city had to deal not only with a particularly impassioned and manic primary election, but the notion that a package bomber was at work. Given recent events (including some that happened at past iterations of the event), it's not particularly surprising that festival managers had to attend a presentation dealing with emergency response, but as all things SXSW began to wind, it appeared as though the festival had played out without too many hangups or serious situations; during my time as a volunteer, the only incident involved a dehydrated patron waiting in a movie line.
One thing that struck me about South by Southwest 2018 was how relatively restrained things were, particularly during the first few days. True, things rarely get genuinely crazy until the music portion of the festival starts midweek, but I was genuinely shocked how comparatively few people were out and about on Sixth Street during opening weekend. By midweek, though, things had picked up quite a bit, and one had to deal with a literal sea of humanity when traversing the downtown area.
Year in and year out, SXSW offers an attendee a wealth of things to see and experience, and 2018 was no different. One of the more extraordinary things at this year's festival was HBO's Westworld experience, wherein attendees were bused to a replication of a the show's Wild West town inhabited by actor's portraying robotic “hosts.”
Every year, there's a few people and things that stand out even among the generally excellent selection of music artists and films selected for inclusion at the event. Here are a few people and things that seemed to me to have a particularly notable festival.
Over the past few years, it's been kind of interesting to watch as politics and pressing social issues have become more ingrained into South by Southwest's DNA. Immediately after picking up my credentials on the event's first day, while wandering the floors of Austin's Convention Center, I stumbled across a huge crowd attempting to hear a keynote from Bernie Sanders, and the festival also featured keynotes from London Mayor Sadiq Khan, journalists Christiane Amanpour and Katie Couric, comedian W. Kamau Bell, entrepreneur Elon Musk, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger who joined a Politico-sponsored discussion on government. I suppose this isn't surprising given the nature of modern society, but while I used the festival as an excuse to take a break from the dizzying and frustrating news cycle, there were plenty of people who apparently wanted to talk about current events.
Since 1994, film has been a staple of SXSW, and the film portion of the festival always attracts some big-name talent and outstanding cinematic attractions. That said, 2018 seemed to be a better year for SXSW film than I can recall. Several major productions hosted premieres throughout the week, with screenings of the horror film Heredity, thriller A Quiet Place, and fantasies Ready Player One and Isle of Dogs attracting a lot of attention. I found it particularly interesting that, after a pretty brutal couple of weeks for the Ready Player One promotional team, the premiere screening of the movie was packed, with people lining up to see it six-plus hours in advance. Among screenings that I caught, a trio of documentaries were most memorable: Operation Odessa, dealing with a stranger-than-fiction plot by a group of Miami playboys to purchase a Russian military submarine for the Colombian drug cartel, Rukus, a fascinating and substantially weird glimpse into the world of furry culture, and the pretty wild Narcissister Organ Player, part introspective documentary, part performance art piece.
"Once Austin starts to settle down following SXSW, the thing that always sticks with me is the sense of imagination and creativity that SXSW stirs in attendees."
Celebrity hunters flock to this festival every year, often waiting hours just to catch a brief glimpse of somebody famous, and 2018's festival boasted appearances from some major stars including Steven Spielberg and Mark Hamill, but I'd have to say the star of the show may have been Bill Murray. Murray always seems to be lurking about during South by Southwest, and many of the tales of his activities during the festival have achieved a sort of mythic status. Case in point: The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man, a film whose goal it was to get to the bottom of those urban myths. The initial screening of this film was positively insane as a mob of fans attempted to, A, get into the screening or, B, catch a glimpse of Murray, who, as it turns out, didn't show up. Instead, Murray later appeared for a poetry reading literally on Sixth Street before walking the red carpet for the premiere of the aforementioned Isle of Dogs. Poetry readings on the street? That sounds more like the mythic Bill Murray style.
Free shows at Auditorium Shores just south of the downtown area are typically reserved for name talent. That Austin's own Roky Erickson, whose 13th Floor Elevators helped pioneer the psychedelic sound in the 1960s, was given the top act on the St. Patrick's Day show spoke to the fact that the man has taken his rightful place as a true legend of the Live Music Capital of the World. Also pretty cool is the news that a crowdsource campaign is ongoing to erect a statue of Erickson downtown.
Monotonix guitarist Yonaton Gat seemed to be everywhere during the festival's second week, playing multiple shows per day, including appearances with the truly unique Eastern Medicine Singers and at the Levitation event at Hotel Vegas. I should also note that, for the second straight year, Levitation had one of the coolest full-day lineups at SXSW, with the likes of A Place to Bury Strangers, Yamantaka Sonic Titan, and vintage Austin psych group Bubble Puppy on the card. Levitation returns as a viable festival this year after a two-year hiatus, and it's commendable that they, as a celebration of all things psychedelic, consistently book bands that actually were around during the psych heyday of the '60s for a number of their shows.
Speaking of Yamantaka Sonic Titan, after a few years out of the public eye, they were also quite busy throughout the week promoting their new album and were featured prominently in the lineups of the Canada House events at the Swan Dive. This three-day event featured an eclectic selection of artists: Friday's day party had everything from rap to soul to indie, with YST capping things off with a pummeling set. I also have to commend this event for being one of the best-executed SXSW shows I've ever been at, with consistently decent sound and well-managed set times.
One of the bands I made sure I fit into my schedule was Korean dreampop group Say Sue Me. Considering I hadn't even heard of the band a year ago, they seemed to make a splash at SXSW 2018, and were the opening act featured at the annual Korean Spotlight event held at The Belmont. The band played an energetic but pleasant set that paved the way for later headlines Crush, DPR LIVE, CIFIKA, Junoflo, KARD, and Lee Hi. Granted, I'd never heard of any of these groups prior to this show, but judging from the audience enthusiasm (the line stretched at least a block by the time the door's opened), they must be kind of a big deal, and discovering music you never knew existed is a big part of South by Southwest's appeal.
Though SXSW aims to cater to every possible taste (unofficial shows seem to be the best bet with regard to punk and metal - arguably 2018's best lineup – including Integrity, Eyehategod, Metz, and The Dwarves - was featured at the Thrasher Death Match event), it increasingly appears that rap music is represented the best. Of any genre, it was arguably this one that featured the best, big-name lineup, with stars such as Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, DMC, Khalid, Common, and almost incalculable others hosting shows. Along with the stars, the festival also seems to be a magnet for unknown or up-and-coming talent, and at times, it was virtually impossible to navigate the downtown area without being hounded by mixtape peddlers. The film festival got in on the action with the premiere of the upcoming Netflix episodic program The Rapture that chronicles a wide range of hip hop artists. One also has to be impressed with the determination of rap promoters. I was amused by an episode I saw of one promoter stapling posters on a light pole downtown. As he got each one together, he gradually pushed it up the pole, until he had formed a string of posters reaching much higher, some 15 or 20 feet, than would be able to be easily removed.
Despite attempts to reign in the insanity over the past few years, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and South by Southwest 2018 was every bit the sensory overload that I've come to expect. One only had to walk through the gaming expo, with its various vendors, ongoing tournaments of various sizes and scopes, tech demos, photo ops, and frenzied mobs of people to be forced to deal with a boggled mind. Once Austin starts to settle down following SXSW, the thing that always sticks with me is the sense of imagination and creativity that SXSW stirs in attendees. Yes, it's a lot to take in, but this festival of music, film, gaming, street chicanery and shenanigans seems to inspire most everyone who has an interaction with it.