South by Southwest: Still lively and chaotic - but troubled

The Alvin brothers, Dave (left) and Phil, reunited their rock-and-roll band and performed at the SXSW 2014 Music Festival.
The Alvin brothers, Dave (left) and Phil, reunited their rock-and-roll band and performed at the SXSW 2014 Music Festival. (ROCCO AVALLONE / For The Inquirer)
Posted: March 19, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas - It was the scariest South by Southwest ever, and the one most filled with superstars trying to ruin it for everybody else.

Scary because a driver fleeing police crashed his car into a crowd at one of the music festival's busiest intersections early Thursday morning. Two people were pronounced dead on the scene, and a third died in the hospital Monday. Several others were seriously injured.

The superstars, like Doritos-sponsored Lady Gaga and, in particular, Samsung-and-Chevrolet-bankrolled Jay Z and Kanye West, did their best to take attention away from lesser-known acts, while making their fans pull silly stunts and wait in line for hours. Enough, already!

But try as they might, ruin it they cannot. Sure, SXSW is overcrowded and overbranded, and sometimes seems like one big hashtagged hassle. But with more than 2,000 acts playing in more than 100 venues all day and night, it still teems with life and chaotic musical energy.

In churches and chicken shacks, dive bars and BBQ joints, I saw bands from South Korea and Northern Africa, New Orleans and Nashville, Brooklyn and the British Isles.

Every festivalgoer has his or her own blind-men-and-the-elephant experience at SXSW, which started last Tuesday and ran until Saturday night. My standouts included Baltimore synth-pop band Future Islands, Irish teenage throwback rockers the Strypes, Kentucky country tough-guy Sturgill Simpson, Los Angeles pop-punk band the Dollyrots, reunited rock-and-roll brothers Phil & Dave Alvin, Canadian electro act TRUST, and Louisiana "Queen of Bounce" Big Freedia.

Philadelphia was well represented. I caught old-school rockers Low Cut Connie, indie duo Pattern Is Movement, and rock diva Res, who sang Fleetwood Mac covers Saturday afternoon at the Miles Davis house.

Radio station WXPN-FM broadcast from Austin and cosponsored a slate of bands that included a serenely beautiful solo set by Blur front man Damon Albarn. Baby-faced foursome the Districts, from Lititz, Pa., was one of the talked-about buzz acts.

DJs Dave Pianka and Sammy Slice spun at an Urban Outfitters-sponsored after-party, and Springfield (Montgomery County) native Ray Benson's Bismeaux Records won best label at the Austin Music Awards.

When at SXSW, I always try to get away from the hordes of badge-wearing swine like myself and cross the Congress Avenue Bridge (under which the world's largest urban bat colony lives) over the Colorado River. That's where you hear the sounds that connect with Austin's grand tradition as the capital of cosmic country music, the home of Willie Nelson, the Flatlanders, and countless other roots-music heroes. This year, I made that connection Friday afternoon via a pair of out-of-towners.

First up was Hurray for the Riff Raff, the folk-roots band based in New Orleans and led by Alynda Lee Segarra, a Bronx native of Puerto Rican heritage. Segarra is the roots-music fresh face of the hour, with a terrific new album called Small Town Heroes and a show coming up April 8 at World Cafe Live. Moving from blues to Cajun to folk-rock, at a free South by San Jose show, Segarra showed herself to be a confident front woman with a kicking band. Definitely one of the standout stars of SXSW.

From there it was up the street to Lucy's Fried Chicken Revival to see John Doe, coleader of the first-generation Los Angeles punk band X. He was playing with X inside the Mohawk when Thursday morning's accident occurred outside the club.

At Lucy's, though, Doe was playing acoustic, applying his burly soul-country voice to material he has recorded as a solo artist over the last quarter-century, collected on the coming Yep Roc release The Best of John Doe: This Far. Accompanied by Cindy Wasserman on vocals, he even told funny stories against his will.

On Saturday, I started off at Headhunters with a band I had never heard, but whose name I could not resist: Guantanamo Baywatch - the band name of the week, and the best flippant reference to a geopolitical flashpoint since the Gaza Strippers.

Sturgill Simpson, the Kentucky hard-core country singer whom Waylon Jennings fans need to investigate immediately, played at another excellent venue I'd never been to before this year: The St. David's Church Sanctuary, another testament to the uniqueness of South by Southwest, where a multiplicity of traditional venues are augmented by lots of makeshift ones.

Simpson has the kind of baritone that airbrushed beefcake contemporary country stars dream of. But he doesn't overdo the tough-guy stuff. No need to show off when you're in command of so many moves, from scuffed-up honky-tonk to precisely picked bluegrass à la fellow Kentuckian Bill Monroe. Most impressive.

Then back to Headhunters for the Dollyrots, the two-thirds female L.A. punk-garage trio whose singer, Kelly Ogden, took a year off to give birth to her first child, and thus named the band's new album Barefoot and Pregnant. Guitarist Luis Cabezas is the father. He and she led the way through an hour-long set packed with original nuggets like the underground garage hit "Because I'm Awesome," plus a handful of deliciously fun covers - Melanie's "Brand-New Key," the Ronettes' "Be My Baby," and the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" - that were enough to tell you that to know the Dollyrots is to love them.

That brought to a close my longest SXSW ever, a forced march that stretched all the way back to the Interactive conference and Film festival, before the music marathon even began.

After eight days in rooms with Lady Gaga, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Low Cut Connie, Nate Silver, Big Freedia, the Hold Steady, Carrie Brownstein & Fred Armisen, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Guantanamo Baywatch, and the teleconferenced Edward Snowden, my brain is as fried as my belly is full of barbecue.

But as thrilling and stimulating as SXSW is - and to give credit where due, as efficiently as it is run - the mega-conference is being victimized by its own success, with corporate sponsorship run amok, too many lines around the block, and world media on hand to witness tragedy striking on the streets of "The Live Music Capital of the World." This was the year to start to worry about SXSW's soul.


For more of Dan DeLuca's coverage of SXSW:

www.inquirer.com/inthemix

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