Now in its 23rd year, the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin, Texas has become one of the most important gatherings in the music industry, drawing agents, labels, bookers, radio programmers, critics, trend-spotters and fans from around the world — all in the search of the next big thing. Set in sunny, springtime Austin, and featuring more than 2,000 acts at over 100 venues, SXSW is a near-utopian musical immersion
Music (featured at the festival March 18-22) echoes from city parks, gritty alleys, street corners, rooftops, churches, restaurants and clubs C creating the enviable problem of choosing between the likes of Margaret Cho, Amanda Palmer, PJ Harvey, MC Lady Sovereign, the Indigo Girls, Girl in a Coma, Yelle, Ida Maria, Ebony Bones or dozens of emerging indie buzz bands at any given hour.
Even Whole Foods got into the act with rooftop concerts from Austin Girls Rock Camp, featuring 11- to 18-year-old hipster campers jamming for enthusiastic crowds. Northern State’s Hesta Prynn’s surprise appearance gave due props to the teens and left the audience drenched in sweat.
Performing at several showcases and parties throughout the week, Margaret Cho unveiled yet another brilliant incarnation — this time as a musician. Cho, having completed a few months of guitar lessons, work-shopped songs from her new album, Guitarded, which she is currently writing with Amanda Palmer, Tegan & Sara, Patty Griffin and other musicians she met on the True Colors Tour. Offering fans a deluxe double bill, Amanda Palmer accompanied Cho before launching into her own set featuring a preview of her first solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer.
Lady Sovereign, the reigning queen of MCs, performed in more than a dozen shows, including the Club Deville Biz 3 Showcase and the Rolling Stone Magazine Party, before losing her battle with laryngitis. The hard-working, hard-partying Lady Sovereign epitomized the SXSW musician experience, where acts play at all hours to build brand, impress labels and satisfy intense fan interest. The Vivian Girls, for example, clocked in a record 18 sets.
One of the festival’s hottest debuts came from eccentric Brit Ebony Bones, who performed new songs from her upcoming release, W.A.R.R.I.O.R. Drawing comparisons to MIA and Tina Turner, Bones was named one of SXSW’s best acts of 2009.
A-list industry parties and independent productions have become essential to the SXSW experience. The uber-exclusive Late Night Party hosted by C3 and Playboy magazine wowed the trendy set with surprise act Jane’s Addiction. Dave Navarro and Perry Farwell gave arguably their best performance in a decade at the gutted Safeway Grocery store, where Playboy bunnies danced and free drinks flowed until 4 a.m.
The independently produced Levi Fader Fort is a veritable festival within the festival. The smartly designed “fort” creates a world unto itself, with a graffiti aesthetic infused into playful lounges with swing sets, photo studios, an Internet café and an on-site Levi store. Thousands attended the closing night (The organizers reportedly distributed 17,000 wristbands for the show.), and hundreds more gathered outside “the fort” to catch a glimpse through the fence of the not-so-surprise guest performers Kayne West, Erykah Badu and Common.
The much anticipated invite-only “One Night in Austin with Perez Hilton” lived up to its self-generated hype. The notorious gossip blogger’s professed “girl-powered extravaganza” served as a very queer SXSW grand finale featuring star power the likes of Margaret Cho and the Indigo Girls, and many of the week’s most raved about break-out acts such as Ida Maria, Yelle, Amanda Palmer, Ladyhawke, Thunderheist, Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head, Solange, Little Boots, Rye Rye, Aaron Lacrate, Jeppe and Kraak & Smaak.
Perez Hilton, decked out in a pink Aretha Franklin-style inauguration hat and snappy suit, served as emcee and biggest fan. Aside from Hilton’s brief, foul tirade against Lady Sovereign for her last minute cancellation, the event was a love fest of sorts, with Hilton lavishing praise on the talent, dancing stage-side and creating a paparazzi rush with his every move.
Kayne West seemed to steal the show with his second surprise appearance of the evening that had frenzied guests jamming the stage, and waving their hands in the air. But after a short intermission, Ida Maria and Yelle took back the stage with the evening’s most memorable performances.
Ida Maria, the Norwegian indie rock phenom, made her first and only SXSW appearance at 2 a.m., and was raucously received by the die-hard crowd. Having missed the entire SXSW week due to visa problems, Ida Maria made up for her absence with a soaring, physical performance that had her kicking the air in “Queen of the World,” falling to her knees in a show-stopping “Stella” and dousing her head with a bottle of water during the crowd favorite “Oh My God.” As she left the stage, the rapt and exhausted audience knew they had just witnessed a historic SXSW moment.
Yelle closed the evening with their brand of scintillating French electro-pop. Heading up the playful trio, namesake Yelle charmed the house with all-Franco lyrics and danced across the stage in a red-fringed lycra top with matching Budweiser logo-emblazoned tights. With no translation needed, their single “Ce Jeu” provided the week’s closing anthem.
Although SXSW abounds with queer musicians, fans, writers and cultural arbiters from around the world, it is a notably label-free environment. Any qualifying terms such as “gay” or “woman” before artist or rapper or filmmaker were decidedly uncool and unnecessary. The exception is the fabulous and cheeky GaybiGayGay festival, which serves as the all-queer unofficial closing day of SXSW.
The distinctly DIY event, hosted by Austin drag icon Rebecca Havemeyer, drew hundreds who gathered in her expansive East Austin backyard to rock out with Gretchen Phillips, Yo Magesty’s Shunda K and an impressive list of local bands and DJs mixing it up ‘til dawn. With no guest list and no cover, this freaky all-night bash provided a super-charged, friendly close to a brilliant week in Austin.
co-authored by Brenda Schumacher and T. Khyentse James