March 20, 2006

Texas music fest again bulged at the seams

By Chris Morris

AUSTIN, Texas (Hollywood Reporter) - The Texas state capital has survived another South by Southwest Music Conference & Festival, which now appears to be the biggest platform for live music in the country.

Final attendance figures had not been tallied by closing day Sunday, but it was obvious from jammed roadways and long lines at "must-see" performances by buzz-laden acts that the 20th annual confab had attained all-time high registrations and sales of wristbands for music festival admissions. In all, more than 1,300 acts played during the five-day event. Last year's event drew more than 8,000 attendees.

While festivalgoers sometimes faced frustrating queue waits and capacity venues, the abundance of talent on hand kept attendees busily circulating from one jammed club to another.

"I've actually been told by many people they had a much easier time getting into clubs," SXSW creative director Brent Grulke said. "(But) individual experience may vary widely."

Grulke added, "With 64 stages, there's always plenty of shows to see, and we had them in closer proximity this year."

Some veteran SXSW registrants -- many of them industry professionals nostalgic for the conference's old regional era -- complained privately about the waves of humanity that packed the downtown streets every night. Some maintained that the show has reached critical mass and suggested SXSW should institute a cap on registration or decrease sales next year.

Noting that similar complaints have been heard for a decade, SXSW managing director Roland Swenson responded: "People think we can control how many people come to SXSW. ... Whether they can buy a badge is not going to stop them. It's a measure of control that we have. Anybody who tells you they're in complete control of their event is either kidding you or kidding themselves."

One element of the conference still clearly burgeoning was the volume of unsanctioned parties and daytime showcases -- some private, some open, all free -- mounted by corporate sponsors or music magazines. These functions appeared to result in serious attrition at daytime panel sessions and the large SXSW trade show at the Austin Convention Center, but Swenson said the draw-off was "maybe about the same" as in previous years.

This off-site "shadow fest" is plainly a source of irritation for SXSW organizers, especially when corporate hosts import talent not booked at the official festival. With a hint of aggravation entering his voice, Swenson noted that Sauza tequila put on a private party featuring the English post-punk band Gang of Four.

"I don't want to stand in the way of somebody's payday, but we have to look after the event," Swenson said.

The Austin event is plainly in a state of robust health, and those who yearn for its humbler days probably will continue to be disappointed. The growth of SXSW, and the concurrent explosion of the annual Austin City Limits Festival, has resulted in a boom in downtown growth. Swenson said that new hotel space was expanding at the heart of the city.

Organizers say that in the face of a steep downturn in music sales, such development is essential if a conference like SXSW is going to remain in business. Swenson pointed out that Popkomm, once a major European conference destination before its relocation from Cologne to Berlin, has seen a serious decline in traffic.

"We've seen big events go down very fast," Swenson said.

As far as SXSW 2006's conference content went, panel sessions still offered a soup-to-nuts rundown of industry issues ranging from radio airplay, A&R and artist development to health insurance and blogging. But the longest lines at panel rooms were reserved for glittery, fan-oriented presentations by marquee names.

Grulke said of the artist panels, "They're absolutely punter-friendly, and there's no wish on our part to diminish the more business-minded panels."

Still, these populist sit-downs supplied some of the conference's most indelible moments. On Friday, Kinks vocalist-songwriter Ray Davies drew a full house for a carefully orchestrated combination of live performance, video screening and Q&A session, which served as a fine complement to Neil Young's impressionistic keynote interview Thursday.

Although clearly designed to promote Davies' new debut solo album "Other People's Lives," the session provided a fascinating window into the musician's creative sensibility. Using video shot by the artist during his fall 2001 solo tour, which coincided with the aftermath of September 11, and his January 2004 shooting during a mugging in New Orleans, Davies charted the protracted and sometimes agonizing gestation of his current release.

"I was trying to get away from my back catalog," the singer said. "You can get away from tax people, from ex-wives, but the back catalog is relentless."

The result was a project inspired by traveling and living in the U.S. "I've written so many songs about Englishmen, I have to go elsewhere," Davies said.

In the final analysis, SXSW remained what always has been and will continue to be: a satisfying if ultimately exhausting buffet of regional, national and global talent.

A random sampling of the offerings on display last week at official showcases and afternoon parties unearthed bracing performances by hot English newcomer Corinne Bailey Rae, folk legend Kris Kristofferson, ex-NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson, Austin folk diva Eliza Gilkyson, bluesy California singer-songwriter Jackie Greene, Detroit roots group the Deadstring Brothers, Memphis garage band the Tearjerkers, heavy-duty Atlanta rock-soul unit the Woggles, '80s Boston heroes the Neighborhoods and reunited L.A. punk-pop outfit the Plimsouls.

A festival highlight was a stunning private show Thursday at Las Manitas restaurant, attended by a full complement of national press, by the renascent Austin singer-songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, who is battling hepatitis C.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter