US Tour – Leg 3: Austin & SXSW

I love music and I work in web development so SXSW seems like an ideal mix and two years ago I attended SXSW2011 thinking this would be the case. But as I blogged shortly after I returned, SXSW Interactive left a lot to be desired. It has long stopped being a technical event and now is more concerned with ‘social business’. As I was paying my own way. This left me disappointed with the Interactive strand.

But I did enjoy SXSW2011. SXSW Music was good and I discovered that I enjoyed SXSW Film. But one really important factor in my enjoyment was Austin. It’s such a lovely city. So it had to be done again. But this time, I would approach it differently. The plan was to only go to SXSW Interactive sessions if they really looked interesting.

I selected the same hotel as in 2011, the Holiday Inn at Town and Lake. This is about a mile from the convention centre. Last time I felt uncomfortable walking back to the hotel late at night as it meant walking, usually with a camera bag, down what I thought seemed like a very dodgy unlit Rainey Street. So I had explored other hotel options closer to the convention centre or north of 6th Street. But I simply couldn’t afford those options so again returned to the Holiday Inn with the plan to carry a less conspicuous bag.

Wander around Austin

View from my hotel room

Arriving on the Wednesday afternoon before the conference I headed out into town. The first change was the addition of a food park right outside my hotel, very handy for cheap breakfasts of late night snacks. Heading on to Rainey Street, the entire area had been transformed from my last visit. Almost the whole road has been turned into bars – and very nice bars with lots of local craft beer. The road had also become a fixture on SXSW Music calendar. So all concerns about walking around with cameras and laptops late at night vanished. So the hotel ended up being well placed and if I ever do SXSW again, I wouldn’t hesitate to use it again.

Wander around Austin

 

Lucille – lovely bar that just opened a few days before SXSW.

Arriving early is a big advantage. Registration on the Thursday is a breeze. Although there was a queue at 10am, because of the efficiency of the SXSW volunteers, I was registered within 10 minutes and the rest of the day was mine to spend walking around Austin.

SXSW - Badge Pickup

Texas Capitol Building
Texas Capitol Building

Blues in Friends bar

 It’s not difficult to find music in Austin.

SXSW

I limited my sessions at Interactive to sessions that interested me and not sessions that related to work. As somebody who trained to be an Industrial Designer 20 years ago, I was interested in emerging technologies such as stereolithography which was being used for rapid prototyping. Over the last decade the technology has been getting progressively cheaper with ‘maker’ communities springing up offering thousands of ready modelled objects and many companies working hard to produce 3D printers at consumer prices. So I found Bre Pettis’s SXSW Interactive’s keynote on future of 3D printing and the marker community really interesting and left with the itch to purchase a machine and start playing.

DSC00505

In 2011, I remember seeing a NASA session on the agenda. This year, space appeared to have it’s own session stream and I managed to catch a few sessions. Probably the most interesting was a session called ‘The New Age of Human Spaceflight’ which looked at the business case for spaceflight and why the commercialisation of space is the next step. The session by Richard Garriott, who’s a director (?) of Space Adventures Ltd and who in 2008 flew as a space tourist to the ISS, presented the business case for the commercialisation of space arguing that companies like his will in a few years be able to off flights for at a much cheaper rate. A rate that would make space an attractive preposition for commercial research such as pharmaceutical companies. It left me feeling positive that in the next 20 to 30 years we will see a real explosion in our use of near earth orbit.

SXSW - Richard Garriott: Commercialisation of space

Running alongside Interactive was not only SXSW Film but also SXSW Comedy. In 2011, SXSW Comedy was a new poorly organised strand with only a few evenings in Esther’s Follies. But this year comedy had expanded taking over not only Esther’s Follies, Vice Bar and the North Door. I managed to catch a number of comedy sessions. Some of it worked, most of it didn’t. US comedians usually don’t translate to Britain (and vice versa), as comedy often relies on cultural experience and half of the comedians relied on you being American for the comedy to work. But it was still entertaining but sadly often poorly attended. Which is a real pity. Hopefully, they’ll continue with the comedy and expand it to non US comedians.

The great thing about SXSW is the range of companies it attracts who hire out venues and setup alongside the festival. This year it seemed like TV companies wanted to be part of the action. Warner Brothers had a great little exhibition ‘Tell-A-Vision’ and I helped recoup some of my TV license fee in the BBC America tents drinking their free beer and watching Skinny Lister and their video DJ’s celebration of 50 years of Doctor Who.

Chuck Law's list of words that confuse WB's censors
Chuck Lore’s list of words the censors don’t understand so let through

SXSW - BBC America: Skinny Lister
Skinny Lister playing at the BBC America tent

Most of the rest of my time before SXSW Music started was taken up with SXSW Film.

Reality Show – 2/5

Reality Show is meant to be a humorous take on a director that takes the concept of the reality show a few steps too far. The production company pitches the idea of filming the life of an unsuspected family but as the filming proceeds it turns out that the family are simply uninteresting. As the TV company push for more interest, the director starts to manipulate ‘real life’ and in doing so destroying the family.

The writer and director of the film is Adam Rifkin who also stars in the film as the director of the TV show and that’s where my problems start. He’s not a good actor and most of the performances around him are poor. The script lacks any real punch. There’s shock factors along the way and some laughs, but the script is wooly. Apparently the film was a TV series and cut down into a film. That might account for the flabby script. But I suspect it was a bad TV series.

SXSW Film - Reality show director's discussion

Much Ado About Nothing – 3.5/5

There’s been numerous adaptions of Much Ado About Nothing, so what can Joss Whedon bring to the table? Filmed in a two week period at Joss’s house between his Hollywood commitments, Joss transposes the story from Italy to modern day America and this is where my main problem begins. I’m not the biggest fan of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s difficult enough to follow without Americans mewing out lines. I’m sure for the US audience, this made the play more accessible, but not to my ears. I’m also not sure the modern setting suited the story. The ‘love story’ that underpins the story seems out of place as a modern Benedick and Beatrice are too worldly for the story to work. Beatrice’s character redefined Renaissance gender stereotypes but doesn’t seem out of place in modern America and the honour that forms a central theme is undermined by the modern setting. But saying all this. The film is actually very enjoyable with some good performances, especially from Amy Acker as Beatrice, who steals the film.

SXSW - Much ado about nothing discussion

Good Ol’ Freda – 4/5

Freda of the title, is Freda Kelly a Liverpudlian teenager who’s asked to be the Beatles fan club secretary. There from the beginning right through to the disintegration of the group. This heartwarming film tells the story of the Beatles through the eyes of a very loyal Freda. It’s a brilliant little film, with the unassuming Freda being very much the star of the doc as she reminisces about her time with the band and their families. Loyal to the end, she sticks to anecdotes about their daily life, the fan club and her memories of the Beatles families. Any requests for solicitous gossip are politely declined. But there’s still enough in the film to make it a very good watch.

SXSW - Good Ol' Freda

Mud – 3/5

A weird little story about two boys who discover a drifter called Mud (Matthew McConaughey) on an island in Arkansas. Mud’s on the run for killing a mobster who was abusing his childhood sweetheart (Reese Witherspoon) and solicits help from the two boys. The film is also clearly lamenting the changing life of people in Arkansas as they  move away from small communities centred around the rivers into the towns and cities. The cinematography at times is beautiful. Matthew McConaughey’s performance convincing but it’s the two young kids that steal the show as  both the kids start to understand what’s really happening. Overall it’s an enjoyable film. But like many modern films, it is overlong and could probably do with 30 minutes cutting from the running time.

SXSW - Mud discussion

Spring Breakers – 0/5

What do I say about this film? First it’s awful. It’s like watching a 90 minute long MTV music video. All colours and pretty people but simply no substance.

The story is about four girls who decide to take a Spring Break (a term that means nothing in the UK). Unfortunately, they’re hard up, so it looks unlikely that they’re not going to be able to do so. That is until three of the girls decide to rob a restaurant to get the funds. And this is where my problem with the film starts. The script is simply non existent. There’s no character development whatsoever. The girls simply violently rob a restaurant. There’s no agonising. No discussions about right or wrong. No second thoughts. They just do it and this is how the film continues.

Heading down to Florida the girls get caught up in an ever increasingly ludicrous story. After a party they’re attending is raided by the police, the girls who throughout the film don’t seem to have any clothes other than the bikini’s they’re wearing, are bailed out of the courtroom by ‘Alien’, a drug dealer. From there the film descends into an exploitative story of violence.

At the end of the film, the audience around me seemed to be split. Much of the audience clapping wildly. But a significant proportion seemed to be refusing to partake. It’s a long time since I’ve seen a film this bad.

SXSW Film - Spring Break

Computer Chess – 2/5

This little film tells the fictional story of an early 80s computer vs computer chess tournament. Filmed in grainy, fuzzy, black and white, as if it was filmed during the tournament on an old VHS camera, this often improvised film lacks enough humour to carry the subject matter. I’m not really sure what they were trying to do. I’m not sure if it was meant to be funny or not. There were long scenes where the characters talked about artificial intelligence, but these were completely humorous, and at times felt like I was sitting in a very poor lecture. The film didn’t work for me.

Muscle Shoals – 5/5

This documentary tells the story of two small studios located in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, that helped shape the soundscape of the 60s and 70s. Featuring interviews with artists such as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Bono, Wilson Picket, Etta James, Steve Winwood, the film tells the story of the two studios that created the ‘Muscle Shoals sound’. It’s not a story I was aware of but one that was thoroughly interesting. First time director Grey Camalier delivered for me, not only the best film of SXSW, but at times the best looking film of SXSW.

Great Hip Hop Hoax – 3/5

In 2011, a documentary called ‘Sound It Out’ played SXSW. This crowdfunded documentary was about a small record shop in Stockton-on-Tees, about 20 minutes from where I grew up. So out of local pride, I attended it’s US Premier and thoroughly enjoyed it. So when I heard Jeanie Finlay had a new documentary at SXSW I headed down to the Stateside to see if it matched up to her previous work.

The Great Hip Hop Hoax tells the story of two Scottish rappers, who unable to get a record contract, decide to pass themselves off as American rappers. The film tells their story as their career takes off, through to it’s inevitable demise, using interviews, personal footage, and some rather lovely animations. It’s a really interesting story and one that could be easily adapted into a feature film.

SXSW Music

SXSW Music doesn’t officially start until the Tuesday and even then it’s only really a few locations playing music. But with so many bands around, there’s usually music to be found earlier in the week. Latitude – the British Music Embassy, was one such venue that opened early. So on Monday night I managed to catch a few Northern Island bands before heading off to Say Media’s party where the awesome Joy Formidable were playing, made even better by free beer all evening.

Say Media SXSW Interactive Party - Joy Formidable

Joy Formidable

My plan for the rest of SXSW Music was to get in as many days parties as possible (hopefully with free beer) and to bounce around venues to catch as many bands as possible. I have a one song rule. I give a band one song to convince me to stay for more. Each day I had a short list of bands to see. These were usually bands I’ve been trying to see or bands I’ve already seen and are good. But I don’t let the list dictate my night. So if there was a queue outside a venue, it was on to the next.

Overall, the plan worked well. With the close proximity of so many venues around 6th Street, it was easy to bounce between venues and I managed to catch some really good bands. But the week didn’t start well, On Tuesday I decided to try and catch the Japandroids at Viceland. This was a temporary venue setup in a parking lot on Caesar Chavez street, over the road from the conference centre. The entrance was through a warehouse. The queue looked short. But we soon found that this was only the queue to get into the warehouse. An hour later, I was still waiting. The venue was at capacity and everyone was staying for Japandroids. It’s not fun listening to the band from inside a warehouse. Eventually I was luck to get into the venue just as they decided to close the queue and kick everyone out. But I’m not sure it was worth it. Japandroids are an excellent band who I’ve seen before. But the venue was far too crowded with most attendees without a SXSW badge. Made worse by a poor sound system. For the rest of the week, I went back to plan A. Sticking in the main to the venues around 6th street.

Last time I was at SXSW, the Foo Fighters played the Interactive closing party and I missed it. So although I’m not the biggest Foo fan, it was still a major disappointment to miss the Foo’s play a small venue like Stubbs. This year Dave Grohl was giving SXSW’s keynote and his documentary, Sound City was playing in the film festival. So there was an expectation that that Sound City Players would be playing and true to form it was announced that there would be a lottery for tickets to see the Sound City Players playing at Stubbs.

SXSW Music - Dave Grohl

Dave Grohl giving a highly enjoyable keynote

Luckily I managed to get a ticket for the gig. I did debate whether it was worth wasting an entire evening watching one band. But there were rumours flying around that Paul McCartney was going to attend. 99% of me didn’t believe this. But the 1% that did, didn’t want a ‘Foo Fighters’ moment where I missed something I would regret.

The Sound City Players lineup is pretty amazing. With the Foo Fighters as the backing band, the lineup changes between each venue. Tonight the ‘Players’ consisted of Alain Johannes (QOSTA & Them Crooked Vultures), Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, Chris Goss (Masters of Reality), Brad Wilk (Rage Against the Machine), Lee Ving (Feer), Nirvana band mates Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear, Corey Taylor (Slipknot), Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick) and finally John Fogerty (Creedance).

SXSW Music - Sound City Players

SXSW Music - Sound City Players

SXSW Music - Sound City Players

With such a varied line-up, the evening was up and down. Rick Springfield was a bit too ‘cheesy rock’ for me and Stevie Nicks’ voice isn’t what it used to be. But that’s not to detract from the evening. There were some real highlights and it was a chance to see some really influential musicians enjoy themselves playing loose with Dave and his band and it was clear that every one of them was thrilled to be part of the project. But the biggest highlight for me was John Fogerty’s Creedance set as they played ‘Born on a Bayoo’, and the fantastic ‘Bad Moon Rising’. So after nearly 3 hours, I wasn’t left disappointed.

For the rest of the week it was back to venue bouncing catching as many bands as possible. It was interesting seeing bands I know well playing their first US gigs and seeing the reaction of the crowds. Some were really well received such as the Savages, others bemusing the audience (and me) such as Paloma Faith. Then there were bands I probably wouldn’t pay to see in the UK such as Reverend and Makers, playing excellent ‘festival’ sessions that buoyed up the small US crowd. There was also the interesting experience of seeing Billy Bragg playing to a US audience in Texas (and getting out alive). Even when a band wasn’t very good, it wasn’t a disappointment, just an opportunity to try a different venue. I really love this music festival. There’s just so much to listen to, that there’s really no excuse for seeing a bad band.

The list below are the bands I have a record of seeing. Overall I recorded  that I saw nearly 100 bands, but in reality the list is probably much longer. These are only the bands that I wrote down. A number of these bands I’ll be trying to catch up with over the next few months.

The Majority Says, Skinny Lister, Joy Formidable, St Lucia, Divine Fits, Kiven, Elijah Ford & The Bloom, Y Niwl, Lucy Rose, Tall Ships, Jess Williamson, The Carper Family, You Me & Us, Girl Names, California X, Audacity, The Coathangers, Kassidy, Kodaline, Kid Karate, Squarehead, Mirror Travel, Let’s Buy Happiness, Story Books, Icky Blossoms, North Mississippi Allstars, Japandroids, Deniro Farrar, Anuhea, Josephine, John McCauley & Friends, Buddy Miller & Jim Lauderdale, Black Violin, Islet, Catlin Rose, The Savages, Charan Po Rantan, Paper Lions, The Revivalists, Wildlife Control, Boy + Kite, Max Gomez, Walk Off The Earth, Cinnamon Chasers, Toy, Peace, The Bears, Okapi Sun, Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds, Holy Balm, Hiatus Kaiyote, The Life Electric, Heavy Rock In Gibson, Iron Tom, Phlos, Wet Nuns, The Trews, Atomic Tom, The Blue Van, Royal Teeth, Tango in the Attic, Great Hip Hop Hoax, Young Fathers, Black Lips, Billy Bragg, Amanda Palmer, Andy Clockwise, The Falls, Summer Flake, Metz, Christopher Smith, The Staves, Paloma Faith, Suburban Living, Fort Lean, Against Grace, Wampire,. White Lung, Teen, Ex Cops, Thermals, Thurston Moore, Reverend and the Maker, Against Grace, Sound City Players, Eagles of Death Metal, Civil Twilight, San Cisco, Rah Rah, Hey Marseilles, Tyler & The Shakedown, Imaginary Cities, Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers, Funeral Suits, Emma Louise, Blitz Kids, D.A.Calf, Rites Wild, Mary Epworth, Jonathan Boulet, El Vez

Flickr Photos