VOLANTE Music, our earliest cultural indicator, awakens from its deep pandemical sleep. A famous festival in Texas hasn’t been heard from in three long years. In the interest of documenting the intersection of fashion and entertainment, Lucire dispatched regular correspondent George Rush to scope out the sounds and fashionable signals, delivered with a drawl in Austin, a hot, jumping and visually stimulating city. In this juicy report with edgy photos by the author, George profiles the bands, personalities, movies and trends, and includes some well chosen words about NFTs, Dolly Parton’s new novel and Web3 experience, politicians, street food and the metaverse—Stanley Moss, Travel Editor
Photographed by the author
Featured in issue 45 of Lucire
The last in-person South by Southwest Festival was three years ago. So even SXSW veterans weren’t sure what to expect when it came back to life this March in Austin, Texas. Least of all Beck. The eight-time Grammy winner recalled the first time he played South-by in 1994, when he was still acclimating to the success of his Mellow Gold album.
‘Up till then, I’d been playing coffee shops,’ he remembered, after taking the stage of Austin City Limits’ Moody Theater. ‘When I got to Austin, they told me, “You’re going to be playing with Johnny Cash.” I couldn’t fathom it. Then I showed up and found out he was opening for me!’
That evening took some bizarre turns. ‘I think I was overcompensating—trying to make an impression. I basically destroyed the whole stage. My mic stand fell over and hit somebody in the head. Gibby [Haynes] from the Butthole Surfers came backstage and said, “That was the best show I’ve ever seen!” Then he handed me a Masonic medallion and left. That was my welcome to Austin. It was a freaky place.’
How does Beck find Austin now? ‘It’s changing a bit,’ he deadpanned. For example: that new French luxury goods boutique on once-funky South Congress Avenue. ‘I’m like, is that a Hermès store?’
The capital of Texas certainly has become posher (and less affordable) since the arrival of Tesla, Oracle, and other transplanted Silicon Valley firms. But in some ways 2022 SXSW was closer to the 1987 original than to its 2019 pre-COVID incarnation. Lingering doubts about the omicron variant put off many performers, panellists, and attendees. As a result, fewer people booked. Lines outside events were, if not short, tolerable.
Having started out as an emerging music jam, SXSW has grown into a 10-day, economy-invigorating extravaganza. Its thematic “tracks” include film, television, comedy, gaming, art, technology, entrepreneurship, marketing, politics, education, and the environment. Yet it remains a global music launchpad. This year, it provided showcases for 1,500 performers—down from 2,000 acts in 2019, but still spanning over 25 genres, from classical to hip-hop. Besides Beck, headliners included Lizzo, Ashanti, Shawn Mendes, Evan Dando, Sammy Hagar, Phoebe Bridgers, Spoon, Don Toliver, Kygo, and Young Thug. Unsung singers are still the draw, however. Among this year’s buzzy bands were Wet Leg, Japanese Breakfast, Geese, Horse Girl, Yard Act, Madison McFerrin, and Walt Disco. Scotland’s We Were Promised Jetpacks delivered a driving set, reminiscent of U2’s first album, at the British Music Embassy showcase. Emissaries also came from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Mongolia, and Azerbaijan. Top Ukrainian act Kazka had been making SXSW plans for months. When Russia invaded, the group’s two male members stayed home to fight. Singer Oleksandra ‘Sasha’ Zaritska carried the band’s banner to Austin. Hearing she’d lost her accompanists, some of the city’s sharpest axe men came to her aid. Zaritska’s cover of Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ assured Putin ‘your death will come soon.’
Showcases started around noon and ran till after midnight. Audiences piled into the clubs, bars, and recording studios of the ‘Live Music Capital of the World’. They also bobbed and weaved outdoors in backyards, parks, and parking lots. Every downtown street corner had a rapper or troubadour—certainly on East Sixth Street, the part known as ‘Dirty Sixth’, because of its gritty clubs. Walking down the strip was like spinning a radio dial. Block by block, acoustic folk gave way to thrashing rock, which surrendered to jackhammer trap. I saw a couple of arrests. Despite a beefed-up police presence, four people were shot on Sixth on the fest’s last night.
Among the first-time SXSW performers was a promising singer named Dolly Parton. Dressed in crimson fringe and glitter heels, the Tennessee warbler took care of a few pieces of business during her appearance at the ACL Live Theater. First, she pushed Run, Rose, Run, the Nashville-set thriller she wrote with James Patterson, also in attendance. (The co-authors announced that Reese Witherspoon is producing a movie version, that will feature Parton.) Dolly also gave fans a taste of her companion Run, Rose, Run album. And, if you needed proof that the 76-year-old businesswoman doesn’t miss a trick, she unveiled the ‘Dollyverse’, an ‘audience-centric Web3 experience’ where you can buy ‘certified Dolly NFT collectibles.’
Incubated by Blockchain Creative Labs, the Dollyverse show was one of three dozen or so crypto-themed panels, parties, and brand activations. SXSW Interactive has a track record of popularizing nascent tech—Twitter in 2007, Foursquare in 2009, Meerkat livestreaming in 2015. Measured by those launches, ‘it would be hard to describe the Web3 presence at SXSW 2022 as a rousing success,’ Texas Monthly’s Dan Solomon observed. ‘Despite spending heavily, NFT-themed activations … were sparsely attended and awkwardly staged ... If a SXSW crowd that ought to be crypto’s chief audience isn’t lining up to early adopt, exactly who will be?’
Meanwhile, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg must have figured that enough time had passed since his notorious 2008 SXSW interview, where the audience excoriated the nerd billionaire for his lack of candour. This year he returned—albeit remotely—to spin mystical tales of the augmented reality future his Meta Platforms hopes to conjure.
‘It’s really this kind of very magical sensation,’ Zuckerberg promised. ‘It’s like the Holy Grail of the types of social experiences that a lot of people at Meta have wanted to build for a long time.’ Judging by Meta’s shrivelled stock price, the Fisher King hasn’t convinced everyone.
Cineastes revelled in the experience of once again gathering in the dark. All told, SXSW unspooled 101 feature films (76 world premières) and débuted 12 episodic TV shows. Jamie Lee Curtis and Michelle Yeoh kicked off the fest with Everything Everywhere All at Once. Anne Hathaway and Jared Leto red-carpeted their WeWork drama WeCrashed. Austin-born Ethan Hawke discussed his docu-series, The Last Movie Stars, in which George Clooney and Laura Linney give voice to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. You could count on Nicolas Cage to bring the weird. The actor plays a fictionalized version of himself in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. Amping the meta action-comedy, Lionsgate Films had people in life-size bobble-heads of Cage wandering the streets for photo ops. One Cage-obsessive plastered the city with hundreds of signs pleading, ‘Nicolas Cage! I’m your biggest fan. Please call me!’ Cage obliged. ‘I’m always happy to talk,’ he told his stalker.
Sandra Bullock and Daniel Radcliffe debuted The Lost City. Bullock, who has a house in Austin, told the Los Angeles Times, ‘I never thought I’d find myself’ on the red state’s blue island. ‘[Austin] is this tiny little enclave of progressiveness and open-mindedness. And it is surrounded by [conservative] values that I don’t have, on many levels.’
Elsewhere, gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke and US Rep. Adam Schiff talked about the Texas government’s moves to limit abortion rights and medical care for transgender youth. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg trumpeted the Biden Administration’s infrastructure bill. ‘This isn’t about short-term stimulus,’ he vowed. ‘We are building cathedrals.’ Musical auteur Brian Eno said he believed that artists could help defuse the climate crisis. ‘This is the biggest movement in human history,’ said Eno, whose EarthPercent project encourages musicians to donate part of their royalties and tour profits to vetted environmental organizations. Meanwhile, Pfizer CEO Dr Albert Bourla admitted that the race to find a COVID vaccine turned him into the boss from hell. ‘I lost it,’ he confessed. ‘I was unnecessarily unpleasant … It’s easy to believe everything is good when you bring a vaccine to the world. I need to earn back the trust.’
SXSW 2023 will run from March 10 through March 19. A few tips: many hotels and Airbnb hosts jack up their rates during the festival. But there is accommodation for every budget if you’re willing to stay a little farther from downtown.
Rental car agencies also hike prices. Most of SXSW events are within walking distance of each other. Über, Lyft, as well as scooter and bike apps, can get you to the more remote locations.
Festival badges let you attend any event—providing it’s not at capacity, and you may still have to wait in line. Badges for 2022’s Film and Music tracks started at US$1,345 each. The Interactive (tech) badge ran US$1,420. A Platinum badge, getting you into all of the above, cost US$1,675. Bargain of the bunch was the online pass for virtual attendance at US$459.
You can, with a little research and ingenuity, enjoy SXSW without a badge. You can buy tickets to individual films and music shows that aren’t sold out. You can also slip into many free unofficial music showcases and brand pop-ups—many of which offer gratis food and drink. Do512.com and Austin360.com provide up-to-the-minute intel on freebies. It’s also worth making a separate Twitter account to monitor events. Good handles to follow: @Do512, @sxsw, @sxswNews, @austin360, @sxnofficial, @sxrumors, @Atxconcert, @sxswer, @sxsaviors, @sxswmf, @Partywithdirty, and @Thefreenoms.
Y’all have fun! •
George Rush has contributed pieces to Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, Condé Nast Traveler, Men’s Journal, Departures, Travel & Leisure, and Spy, among others. He is a guest contributor to Lucire.
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