It could be really easy to write a cynical review about SXSW 2014. The constant gripe of SXSW going corporate is old, the lines suck, badges are too expensive, and 20-minute sets are barely worth the 40 minutes waiting in line; they’re not fun but these are the banal necessaries that have just come to be a part of the festival.
Sxsw Hella weak!!!! I Had more fun wHen my album wasn’t out
— ScHoolboy Q (@ScHoolBoyQ) March 14, 2014
But despite it all there’s still this redeeming factor to SXSW that makes it all worth it. Don’t get me wrong though; it’s hard to say this especially when you find out rappers like ScHoolboy Q and Danny Brown have spoken out against the event and when Lady Gaga, one day, was hoisted like a pig onstage just for the promotion of a multi-million dollar chip company, and the next day, preaches of the possible redemptive qualities of the music industry if creative control is given back to the artists (oh, the irony).
But the underdogs can still win if you let them.
One thing that SXSW has always prided itself on is giving an available platform and network for an eclectic lineup of burgeoning musicians and the artists that could. And it still does. But no one will find these gemstones while waiting in line at iTunes or Samsung’s attempt to just fill up mainstream’s pop or hip-hop quota, choosing arena sell-outs like Pitbull, Zedd, and Coldplay, Jay Z, and Kanye West.
But the true winners are the underdogs, the workhouse bands that oftentimes are the untold stories of SXSW hustling their blown-out amps from venue to venue or rappers that play to a morass of people only interested in downing a few beers. The bands that keep going when the rest are down for the count.
Late night at 2 AM on the South Lamar Pedestrian Bridge, noise-punk masochists Perfect Pussy, Nothing, and Ex-Cult played innard-churning blasts of LA’s SST-tinged debauchery. While the bassist’s bass chuck in the river seemed like a poor attempt of some iconoclastic “punk thing to do,” I couldn’t deny the vicious energy as frontwoman Meredith Graves threw herself in abandon as the rest throttled in feedback-laden riffs. And even though you couldn’t understand a word Graves screamed, their performance proved you didn’t need to.
While this SXSW stands out amongst others due to the auto accident at the Mohawk, it was good to see that, despite tragedies, the behemoth fest still went on even with heavy hearts. The day after the accident, LiveMixtapes and Animal House threw a showcase at the North Door. Walking around the venue, I saw flyers soaked with beer and burnt CDs nearly ruined as they cluttered the bar: another starving artist’s futile attempt to shine. It nearly made me shed a tear; it’s sad and respectable all at the same time.
Even though the showcase boasted an impressive headliner of Young Thug, he was a no show (another horrible necessity of SXSW), filling up the last half of the showcase with surprise guests who weren’t even on the flyer. But it’s hard to complain when you see Johnny Cinco perform a nearly indecipherable “No Choice,” and then Rich the Kid perform with a weird “Austin Powers.” It was unexpected—and yeah I probably wish I saw Young Thug instead—but surprises are always the highlights of SXSW; just don’t set expectations and roll with the punches to keep disappoint at bay. And what’s best is I didn’t even wait in line for a minute, proving that it’s possible to still catch some showcases; it just may take some time finding it.
But make no mistake: most showcases do require some waiting whether it be ten short minutes to an hour. And while it’s easy for publications to put the blame on the festival organizers for the overcrowding, it’s important to note that over the years SXSW has drawn multi-million dollar companies (ie. Doritos and iTunes) that can fill cash checks to occupy any Austin venue, forcing the festival to co-produce and co-advertise the event. Not only that but Austin has become a mega-cultural hub, drawing both a good and bad crowd from industry techies to belligerent partiers. As the Austin Chronicle stated, Austin has become a cultural destination, turning the weird city into a playground with an “anything goes,” mentality.
Yet it’s hard to also blame the festival for losing touch with the lesser-known acts, when it still has managed to bring a massive lineup from ubiquitous table names to hyped-blog friendly acts. I grew up on most of the corporate headliners: Kanye West, Soundgarden, Jay Z. But if anyone, myself included, is risking waiting in line for nearly two hours for the next superstar, chances are it will lead to disappointment. Choosing to ditch the corporate mania and excessively long lines, I was able to catch some memorable shows: The psychedelic quartet Temples weaved 60’s psych that sprawled with fuzzes of blues, swallowing the Hotel Vegas crowd in a warm hug. Intimate rock n’roller Sun Kil Moon sang out tearful narratives of heartbreak and loss in a Presbyterian church, ending in a standing ovation. And hip-hop-jazz savants BadBadNotGood mixed Chick Corea keys with climatic 808 bass drops, proving that anyone can mosh or crowd surf, even to jazz. There’s plenty to go around, you just have to dig for it.