Gettin’ Mighty Crowded: The story of SXSW is the story of Austin today

By Michael Corcoran

Saturday is March 1. MARCH FIRST! People in Austin start freaking out- a mix of horror and excitement- when they flip the calendar and see it’s March. The chest pounds like being in the tunnel before a big football game. The third month means South by Southwest and, godammit, we’re going to do it right this year.

SXSW turns Austin into a dead buffalo and all the people who come are the Indians who use every piece of the animal. Every building, every parking lot, every sidestreet, every park. They stuff their faces and dance to tribal beats and go a little crazy in the spirit of celebration. And when they go home there are always a few they leave behind.

One of the advantages of our town is that we have a built-in conversation starter that bypasses the weather. “What brought you to Austin?” Cab drivers to yoga instructors, they all have a story. The number one answer used to be “attended the University of Texas and decided to stay.” But today it’s because they came to Southby one year and decided they could definitely live here. The registration line at the Convention Center in mid-March is the Ellis Island of New Austin, a land of opportunity for people with reasonable expectations.

SXSW used to be “the music industry’s best kept secret” and the people who came here from all over the country (mostly Oklahoma and Louisiana in 1987, the first year) went back home and told everyone about this paradise they had found. The music was good stuff from road-tested professionals, the clubs were right next to each other and the weather was better, the beer cheaper and the people friendlier than back home. Some got laid. We didn’t even need breakfast tacos, but like impressive genitalia to go with an attractive face and body, that foldable deliciousness was a spectacular bonus. This town during SXSW in the ‘90s was a moveable feast equal to Paris in the ‘20s. I shit you not.

The monster of mid-March became an action-packed trailer for the indie film “Move To Austin.” The word got out like a mutha, as SXSW became the cultural party of the year. Lately, Austin during the ten days of madness more closely resembles a montage of apocalyptic chaos, with a giant Doritos machine the last thing standing.

Austin is no different than any other cool place- it had to show off. It’s only natural, no one is to blame. I was one of those doing the bragging, writing a seven-page spread on the Austin music scene for Spin magazine in 1986. “The New Sincerity” was the headline and the piece focused on bands like True Believers, Zeitgeist, Wild Seeds, Glass Eye, Daniel Johnston and Dino Lee. We were all on a mission to tell the world what an amazing town we had found.

Then SXSW started and legitimized Austin as a music industry town. Nashville with soul, an affordable L.A. An estimated 150 people a day are moving to Austin, while 40 a day move away, usually because they can’t afford to live here anymore. Used to be you could house the whole band and the roadie for $750 a month. For that price these days you’ll get a studio apartment next to a Jiffy Lube south of Ben White.

So what brought me to Austin 30 years ago? I thought I’d never ask. I got a postcard one day from a friend who toured with the Cramps as girlfriend/ lighting tech. It said the band had just played a punk club called Raul’s and I wouldn’t believe how hip this town in Texas is. I ran a t-shirt business in Honolulu with tattoo artist Mike Malone. Around the same time he got a newsletter from an Austin jug band his friend Travis Holland was in. We were pretty bored in Hawaii and the t-shirts- which we advertised in biker magazines- were really taking off, so we had decided to move to the mainland to cut down on postage. But where?

I also remembered that my rock critic hero Lester Bangs lived in Austin for awhile. We up and moved and Malone set up a tattoo shop at 2712 Guadalupe St., but hardly anybody came by because only military guys and bikers got tattoos back then. There were only two tattoo shops in town in 1985 and they were both pretty dead, so Malone ended up returning to Hawaii after a couple years.

But I stayed, long enough to attend every SXSW. Long enough to watch Austin become an overcrowded bar that used to be a place where there was always an empty booth. You drive by and see the line outside and can’t even remember that night that girl who’s now your wife surprised you by rubbing her bare foot on your crotch from across the table. That booth is still there. You just can’t sit there after about 9 p.m. Or when there’s a festival in town (AKA “the weekend.”)

A couple of ironies to point out: SXSW was started by the Austin Chronicle, a liberal weekly with an anti-growth agenda, and it was held on Spring Break week because all the UT students would be out of town.

In recent years, as the buzz got out about free Jay-Z and Kanye concerts and free booze at music industry parties and flocks of film celebrities and people getting laid, Austin became a Spring Break destination. Padre Island still gets the bronzed and the blasted, but the more parsimonious collegians head to ATX to get their free(k) on. It’s the party of the year if you know how to work it and if you don’t and you have $30 you can get one of the RSVP services popping up to enter your name in as many free party lotteries as they can.

This is the part of South by Southwest that’s not really SXSW, the foliage that has practically overgrown base camp. You see, SXSW Inc. is really only what goes on in the Convention Center and the venues they have under contract. Everything else is fair game and corporations, craving a clientele of tastemakers, come to town with money to melt and impressions to make. If the SXSW event you want to go to has a RSVP link, it’s not really SXSW. It’s the afterparty that goes on before, during and after the main event. But like a rap concert where there are 11 people standing on stage and only two mics, the afterparty has become the big draw.

The announcement that Apple’s iTunes Festival would take place this year during SXSW, bringing such arena-fillers as Coldplay, Imagine Dragons, Pitbull, Keith Urban and Soundgarden to ACL Live, the outrage on Facebook and Twitter rivaled the Zimmerman verdict. Only with sharks jumping. “Sell-out!”

“I thought SXSW was supposed to be for unsigned bands,” the old sandwich artist’s mope, was magnified. But although the iTunes Fest, which will stream live all over the world, happens from March 11- 15, the same dates as the music portion of SXSW, it’s not really SXSW. Just like the Austonian highrise condo isn’t really Austin.

Although their sanction is slapped on the event, SXSW organizers had nothing to do with Apple’s decision to bring the iTunes Fest to town. Believe me, they didn’t want to give up their very best venue, the 2,750-capacity ACL Live, with not a bad seat in the house, to a corporate giant trying to bask in their heat. But iTunes Fest was coming no matter what and so the best SXSW could do was convince Apple to work with them. Through a ticket lottery system, SXSW badgeholders- not kids on their Macs with an RSVP addiction- will get first crack at admission.

The whole game has changed at SXSW, just as it has for the entire entertainment industry. The music portion of SXSW used to be the main focus, with about 90% of the attention, and the other 10%  going to fledgling interactive and film components. Today, music lags far behind interactive for the simple fact that the Internet made music free. Spotify has rented a big house in West East Austin (west of Chicon) for around-the-clock partying, while the record labels have a cheese, fruit and vegetable tray in the corner of a dive bar.

SXSW brings out the best in people and the worst. I’ve been saying that since year two. But the city has become so overrun with a Mardi Gras- like party atmosphere that even the city government noticed. Unlike the New Orleans blowout, SXSW is an industry event. Aside from the few superstars- like Prince and Justin Timberlake last year- who are paid handsomely to play corporate parties, almost all the 2,000 plus acts come to SXSW to play basically for free in front of industry folks who can help their careers. The energy from true fans helps the show, but generally the more the public gets involved, the more watered down SXSW gets. A lot of folks who used to come to the convention every year to network and learn, have sworn off SXSW forever. It’s become too much of a challenge to navigate through the tens of thousands who come to town because they heard there’s free shows everywhere.

In an attempt to limit the madhouse’s scope, the city put a cap on the number of special event permits this year, reaching capacity almost two months before the event. In the area of crowd control, this coming campaign is going to be a test. The city permitting department even prevented Lady Gaga from playing on the Doritos stage. The official reason was that the demand would be too much to handle, but I think there were closet “little monsters” in on the decision who just couldn’t stand the desperation of their idol playing on a 50-foot-tall chips dispenser.

But there’s nothing to limit the number of folks who are moving to Austin. “Yeah, it sucks, but tell me a better city to live it,” it what I hear from friends when we sit around. We used to argue True Believers vs. Zeitgeist, now we debate about what we hate more: Mopac or I-35.

But just as there are two SXSWs, there are two Austins. What you loved about this town when you first moved here is still there, you just have to look for it. “The land of opportunity for those with reasonable expectations,” remember that motto.

On Sunday afternoon I went to an old haunt, the Hole In the Wall, and it was almost like the old days. Someone had a Weber grill going on the patio and bands were playing country music and blues and stompin’ folk. People were sitting at picnic tables draining pitchers, talking politics, gossiping, laughing. It brought me back, but I couldn’t stay long.

Amid the craziness of SXSW, the music portion of which runs March 11-15, you can find scenes from SXSW 1993, I’m telling you. There will be little moments that are big in your heart. The mistake a lot of people make when SXSW approaches is becoming obsessed with seeing it all, being everywhere. You want to be where they’re “killing it” on Facebook or hashtag facemelt on Twitter. The fear of missing out is wasted energy, let me tell you as a veteran of every SXSW.

In the early years of Southby, there might be only two or three big parties a day, so if you missed one you felt like a loser. But in less than a couple weeks it’ll be all day, all night, wall-to-wall music and partying. Forget the big picture. That’s just traffic. Look at what’s in front of you and you just might stumble onto the set that makes you fall in love with live music all over again. Stop reading nametags and you’ll meet people who know how to share themselves in meaningful ways. Finding the individuals in the crush, the artists in hucksterville, is not usually something you can plan.

SXSW brings out the best and the worst in all of us.

But here’s the thing I like most about when our town becomes Super Austin, the Burning Brand Festival. The lines, the crowds, the gridlock are a great advertisement for going out to the clubs and the restaurants when it’s not SXSW.




Number of acts: 172

Number of registrants: 700

Keynote speaker: Record producer Huey P. Meaux

Buzz bands: Dash Rip Rock, Reivers, True Believers, Buck Pets, Wagoneers, Reverend Horton Heat

  • SXSW organizers can’t get the computers working at registration, so even though the turnout is moderate, waits are long. That’s something that the first year has in common with this one. That and Dash Rip Rock. (Note: Wristbands are $10, but there are only 15 participating venues.)
  • The first SXSW day party is a barbecue in Jean Caffeine’s back yard. Everyone’s startled when a band starts playing.


Number of acts: 415

Registrants: 1,200

Keynote speaker: Spin editor Bob Guccione Jr.

Buzz bands: Poi Dog Pondering, Kelly Willis and the Fireballs, Fleshtones, Material Issue, Gunbunnies, Jayhawks, Hundredth Monkey

  • The convention is booked into the spanking new Waller Creek Hotel, but when the hotel goes bankrupt before opening and stalls on construction of a promised ballroom, organizers are forced to scramble. The Crest, which is now the Radisson, turns out to be an ill-fitting concession. The noise from each panel bleeds into the next room.
  • First tangible sign of a backlash comes from art rock band Ed Hall, who print “SXSW SUX” T-shirts. Ed Hall applies and is accepted the next year.


Number of acts: 345

Registrants: 1,632

Keynote speaker: Music critic Robert Christgau, with a profanity-filled ‘invocation’ from Mojo Nixon

Buzz bands: Chickasaw Mudd Puppies, Lucinda Williams, Gin Blossoms, Wednesday Week, Pato Banton, Bluerunners, Lets Active, Scruffy the Cat

  • SXSW is still fairly unknown outside indie rock circles when Flock of Seagulls starts the trend of former platinum artists trying to revive their careers at the festival. Thing is, the band doesn’t know it. They have no idea that they’re supposed to play a 40-minute showcase on a bill with four other bands for almost no money. Wanting nothing to do with SXSW, the band and their surly British roadies run off the SXSW volunteers and throw the rest of the bands off the bill.


Number of acts: 424

Registrants: 2,162

Keynote speaker: Singer Rosanne Cash, with opening remarks by Gov. Ann Richards

Buzz bands: Flat Duo Jets, Trip Shakespeare, Three on a Hill, Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom, Kennedy Rose, Sister Double Happiness, Vulgar Boatmen, Pariah

  • The usually dull rock critic panel is dubbed “The Chris and Claudia Show” after Billboard’s Chris Morris and Claudia Perry of the Houston Post (passing around a flask) rip the industry good — to uproarious laughter.
  • The first official SXSW afterhours party, featuring Joe Ely, teeters toward danger in the ballroom of the Crest Hotel, when a few thousand drunk and wired party people show up and trash the place. Ely’s manager is furious at the lack of organization, but his client gets a record deal from MCA because of the set.


Number of acts: 499

Registrants: 2,833

Keynote speaker: Kinky Friedman, with invocation by Exene Cervenka

Buzz bands: Uncle Tupelo, Barenaked Ladies, Treat Her Right, Drivin’ N Cryin’, Dixie Chicks, Phranc, Love Tractor

  • SXSW takes place the week of spring break, when all the students head to South Padre Island and points beyond, every year except this one, which means Sixth Street is swarming with frat boys and the women who can stand them. Alarmed by the crowds, the fire marshals crack down, ridiculously, often making fans exit a half-full club to comply with outdated load card figures. Wristband wearers are livid — another SXSW tradition begins!
  • A couple of club owners are even madder. The owner of Abratto’s, a Fifth Street disco meat market, who is given an opening night bill of Houston hard-core bands, cancels the rest of his showcases, and the shuttled acts, including the Dixie Chicks, play their showcases in quickly converted conference rooms in the host hotel. Then, when the owner of Mercado Caribe announces that the fire marshal will order the show stopped if people don’t voluntarily leave — and nobody does — he pulls out a pistol and fires a shot into the ceiling. To make this the all-time worst year for SXSW, arsonists ignite a stack of Austin Chronicle newspapers outside the SXSW offices, causing extensive smoke and water damage.


Number of acts: 398

Registrants: 3,000

Keynote speaker: Michelle Shocked

Buzz bands: Beat Farmers, Holmes Brothers, Junior Brown, Cracker, Blood Oranges, Poster Children, Southern Culture on the Skids, Bruce Hampton and the Aquarius Rescue Unit, Gear Daddies

  • Poor Michelle Shocked. Her pathologically unfocused speech on the history of minstrelsy is supposed to be 20 minutes, but when co-keynoter Willie Nelson gets hung up on the border and cancels, organizers tell Shocked to go as long as she likes. Big mistake.
  • SXSW books Helmet and L7, then red-hot, into a 500-capacity dance club, and when more than 2,000 kids show up, it’s pandemonium. Some fans storm the door; others climb the walls and break windows to try to get in. People are even jumping on the roof from neighboring buildings. 911 is called and exactly two cops show up, which tempers the anarchy only slightly.


Number of acts: 468

Registrants: 3,800

Keynote speaker: None, but Gov. Ann Richards gave opening remarks

Buzz bands: Pete Droge, Jill Sobule, R.L. Burnside, Freedy Johnston, Robyn Hitchcock, Blue Rodeo, Lisa Loeb, Three Mile Pilot, Tripping Daisy, Everclear

  • International news is happening with the Branch Davidian standoff up the road in Waco, and some freelance journalists in town do double duty.
  • “If you lived in my neighborhood, you’d be selling your ass for me!” Bushwick Bill, the dwarf in the Geto Boys, starts a shouting match with a handful of people in the audience of the hip-hop panel. One guy comes up to the dais and flips off Bushwick, who calls him a slur directed at gay people. Suddenly, everyone is screaming and a couple of guys have to be restrained from charging the 31/2-foot rapper. Afterward, Bushwick tells the panel coordinator that he had a good time.
  • In another bizarre panel, an unknown singer calling himself Marilyn Manson sits on a panel about his namesake Charlie.


Number of acts: 482

Registrants: 4,258

Keynote speaker: Johnny Cash

Buzz bands: Beck, Veruca Salt, Presidents of the United States of America, Ben Harper, Mary Cutrufello, Letters to Cleo, Morphine, That Dog, Follow for Now

  • Cash plays an incredible acoustic set at Emo’s, where the stool he sat on later hangs above the bar. Worst booking was putting Lucinda Williams in La Zona Rosa, which is only a fifth as big as it was to become. Co-director Roland Swenson is surrounded by angry fans who couldn’t get in.
  • After Entertainment Weekly becomes a sponsor, Billboard refuses to recognize SXSW as an industry event. The industry bible will continue to ignore the conference for nearly a decade.
  • The debut of SXSW Film, which Statesman movie critic Michael MacCambridge dubs “The Friends of Louis Black Film Festival.”


Number of acts: 567

Registrants: 5,000

Keynote speaker: Bob Mould

Buzz bands: Elastica, Wilco, Bush, Todd Snider, Toadies, Bettie Serveert, Guided by Voices, Funland

  • The ’94 folding of New York’s New Music Seminar vaults SXSW as THE major and indie label confab. Boston-based Rounder Records celebrates its 25th anniversary by hosting a free outdoor concert at Sixth and Brazos streets, featuring a New Orleans-heavy lineup of Irma Thomas, Johnny Adama, Beau Jocque and Rebirth Brass Band.
  • SXSW adds an Interactive portion to the conference.
  • One of the four founding partners, Louis Jay Meyers, leaves the fold because of creative differences and signs a 10-year noncompete agreement.


Number of acts: 861

Registrants: 5,531

Keynote speaker: Krist Novoselic

Buzz bands: The Fugees, Dandy Warhols, Ben Folds Five, Girls Against Boys, Gillian Welch, Boo Radleys, Sixteen Deluxe, Blink 182

  • Charles Attal was named promoter of the year by Pollstar in 2008, but in 1996, the Stubb’s co-owner is so green he pronounces the Fugees, his big second-night headliner, “the Fudgies.” Right when the Fugees start, there’s a downpour and the show is stopped. Attal figures that’s it, but Lauryn Hill gets in his face and says “We want to play!” so after it stops raining, about an hour later, the Fugees play a long set as the empty venue quickly refills.
  • SXSW co-director Louis Black says Lou Reed “is showing disrespect for the Austin music scene” by playing a concert that competes with the Austin Music Awards.


Number of acts: 788

Registrants: 5,896

Keynote speaker: Carl Perkins

Buzz bands: Atari Teenage Riot, 24-7 Spyz, Whiskeytown, Of Montreal, Archers of Loaf, Jimmy Eat World, Ron Sexsmith, Ben Lee, Gomez, Less Than Jake, Johnny Lang

  • A sign of the times: the most noteworthy panel, hosted by Jon Pareles of The New York Times, is “What’s Behind the Drastic Slump in Record Sales?” Or, more to the point: Where Are All the Big Label Parties This Year?
  • Wayne Coyne of Flaming Lips keeps things interesting with his Parking Lot Symphony, in which 30 cars parked in a garage at Seventh and Brazos streets play 30 cassette tapes simultaneously with the car doors open. More than 2,000 fans show up.
  • This is also the year Tony Bennett plays the Austin Music Hall, to about half a house because everyone figures it would be a mob scene.
  • SXSW organizers stubbornly refuse to let their fest compete with the Austin Music Awards, but because most clubs have been jumping the gun, Wednesday is finally added as the official starting night of SXSW.


Number of acts: 834

Registrants: 6,500

Keynote speaker: Nick Lowe

Buzz bands: Imperial Teen, the Donnas, Dust Brothers, Get Up Kids, Rufus Wainwright, Queens of the Stone Age, Olivia Tremor Control, Plastilina Mosh, Damnations, Neko Case, A3, Calexico

  • For some reason, SXSW organizers hate bands flown in by outside entities to play private parties. When they hear that Philadelphia-based Internet retailer CDnow is paying Sonic Youth big money to play a party in a 300-capacity club, they work hard to persuade CDnow to move their party to 1,500-capacity La Zona Rosa and make the Sonic Youth set follow the bash as an official SXSW showcase. Wristband-wearers and fans willing to pay cover are ecstatic at the chance to see the Youth, but few get in, as those attending the party just stick around.
  • Austin band Breedlove doesn’t get signed, it gets served, with a summons for breach of contract charges by manager Jan Mirkin as the band steps off the stage at Steamboat.
  • The seeds were planted the previous year, but Los Super Seven become official at a party in the back room at Las Manitas when members of Los Lobos jam with Doug Sahm, Raul Malo, Joe Ely, Ruben Ramos and Rick Trevino.


Number of acts: 829

Registrants: 7,259

Keynote speaker: Lucinda Williams

Buzz bands: Trail of Dead, Lo-Fidelity Allstars, Built To Spill, Patty Griffin, Cibo Matto, the Hives, Bright Eyes, Death Cab For Cutie

  • The magic is so quickly followed by mayhem. The night after Tom Waits plays the Paramount Theatre, one of the all-time highlights of SXSW, his friend and sometime-promoter Don Hyde is savagely beaten by bouncers at La Zona Rosa. The bouncers were trying to clear out the crowd after Alejandro Escovedo’s set, but when Hyde wants to go backstage to get his bag, there is some jostling, and push soon turns to punch, then to kicks in the side. Hyde suffers five broken ribs, a broken collarbone and a separated shoulder.
  • A major Thursday night thunderstorm forces cancellation of all outdoor events that night, including a Willie Nelson concert at Stubb’s. Emo’s is flooded with knee-high water, but most of it drains by showtime.


Number of acts: 970

Registrants: 8,070

Keynote speaker: Steve Earle

Buzz bands: At the Drive In, Black Eyed Peas, Modest Mouse, Elliot Smith, Marah, Blackalicious, Jennyanykind, Backyard Babies, Morphine, Tenacious D

  • Friction sparks between SXSW and Revolver magazine after Revolver flies in Guided by Voices, not an official festival act, to play a private party. Revolver charges SXSW with threatening to call in the fire marshals (a charge denied), but the jam-packed party goes off without a stumble. Good food, too.
  • Neil Young, in town to hawk his new concert film “Silver and Gold,” locks himself out of his suite at the Driskill and conducts a news conference, with a handful of critics, in the hallway.
  • Patti Smith plays a free concert at Waterloo Park.


Number of acts: 1,012

Registrants: 7,067

Keynote speaker: Ray Davies

Buzz bands: White Stripes, the Strokes, Aterciopelados, Kasey Chambers, Bellrays, Coldplay, My Morning Jacket, Mogwai, the Shins, New Pornographers, Interpol, Idlewild

  • Revolver magazine tries to stick it to the man (SXSW) again, flying in the Cult for a private party, but when staffers show up to register, they discover that their badges have been revoked. “The roadrunner would be nothing without the coyote,” Revolver’s Brad Tolinski says, relishing the controversy.
  • Ike Turner plays to a crowd lousy with musicians and a few protesters who’d seen “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” By the end of the incredible set, the crowd chants, “We like Ike!”


Number of acts: 1,035

Registrants: 6,300

Keynote speaker: Robbie Robertson

Buzz bands: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Los Lonely Boys, Clinic, Mastodon, Norah Jones, Eels, Drive-By Truckers, Minus the Bear, Polyphonic Spree, KaitO, Tift Merritt, Mooney Suzuki, OK Go

  • The worst SXSW booking of all time puts Norah Jones, who has the No. 1 album in the country, in the upstairs banquet room of the Clay Pit Indian restaurant. Forget, for a moment, that it’s a little rude to put the daughter of Ravi Shankar in an Indian restaurant, but what is the woman about to win six Grammys doing playing any restaurant?
  • Courtney Love draws the biggest crowd ever for a non-keynote, and her rambling, self-indulgent, “one on none” interview doesn’t disappoint rubberneckers. Love complains of a tequila hangover, but they don’t serve tequila in the men’s room of the Hole in the Wall, where she had locked herself with a couple of unsavory locals for an hour the night before.
  • Los Angeles rockers the Icarus Line make national news when the guitarist smashes a display case at the Hard Rock Cafe and tries to play a guitar that once belonged to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Bouncers chase the culprit four blocks before he gets away.


Number of acts: 1,079

Registrants: 6,577

Keynote speaker: Daniel Lanois

Buzz bands: Raveonettes, the Rapture, Junior Senior, Granddaddy, the Darkness, Eisley, Petty Booka, the Locust, Tegan and Sara, D4, Fall Out Boy

  • With the invasion of Iraq imminent, war becomes a big topic in President Bush’s former backyard. First you had the flap over Natalie Maines’ expressed embarrassment that the president was from Texas, which hit the news just as SXSW was starting. Then, 7,000 anti-war protesters flooded the already packed streets near the Capitol.
  • Several hundred counterfeit wristbands are confiscated on the last night of the fest. The pirate bracelets are traced to a print shop near the UT campus. Four men are charged and plead guilty.
  • A mini-riot of about 600 disappointed Molotov fans breaks out outside the sold-out show by the Mexican hard rockers. Police on horseback break up the melee.
  • The Saturday after-hours Spin party, long the hippest invite at SXSW, goes daytime Friday at Stubb’s. The previous year, the bash was halted by TABC officers who claimed it did not fit the guidelines for a private party after hours because names of invitees were not kept on a list. (Apparently, “Sia Michel plus 220″ isn’t good enough.)


Number of acts: 1,279

Registrants: 7,213

Keynote speaker: Little Richard

Buzz bands: Mindy Smith, Hold Steady, Franz Ferdinand, Dizzee Rascal, Decemberists, Broken Social Scene, N.E.R.D., the Thrills, Scissor Sisters, Killers, Coheed and Cambria, TV on the Radio, Dirty Projectors, Joanna Newsroom

  • The year of the Ozomatli bust. Austin police look silly arresting two members of the Latin rock band after a conga line on Sixth Street turns into some roughhousing and a cop claims percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi hit him with a drum. The charges are eventually dropped.
  • Local breakout band Los Lonely Boys breaks all attendance records with its free show at Auditorium Shores. If the Town Lake venue holds 10,000 comfortably, there are 25,000 on hand. But the trio also plays in the back of Las Manitas at a party celebrating the making of the Alejandro Escovedo tribute album “Por Vida.”


Number of acts: 1,326

Registrants: 9,692

Keynote speaker: Robert Plant

Buzz bands: LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A., the Go! Team, Bloc Party, Paul Wall, Giant Drag, Kaiser Chiefs, Futureheads, We Are Scientists, Nine Black Alps, Aqualung, John Legend, Ariel Pink, Ray LaMontagne

  • SXSW comes to East Austin, the new daytime party hub. But even with so many festgoers venturing on “the other side” of the freeway, downtown is clogged beyond belief, and waits outside Sixth Street clubs are the longest ever.
  • Those clueless kids from MTV’s “Real World: Austin” drag themselves out of the Dizzy Rooster long enough to film a documentary about SXSW, following around those white-hot buzz bands Halifax and Enon.
  • The weather is brutally cold the first day of SXSW but heats up nicely by the next day. Not so at the huge aircraft hangar Charles Attal and Co. rent out for the annual after-hours party. Jessica Simpson is among the freezing guests who come out for Queens of the Stone Age.
  • Who knew Robert Plant is so funny and charming? The former Led Zep singer’s “keynote conversation” with Bill Flanagan is the best SXSW opener ever.


Keynote speaker: Neil Young

Number of acts: 1,400

Registrants: 10,821

Buzz bands: Arctic Monkeys, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Corrine Bailey Rae, KT Tunstall, Chamillionaire, the Gossip, Dresden Dolls, Subways, Magic Numbers, the Sword, Tapes N’ Tapes, Silversun Pickups, Flight of the Conchords

  • The year of the stowaway. Chicago fashion designer Catherine “Cat” Chow is so intent on getting to SXSW that she stows away in the bathroom on a sold-out flight from St. Louis. Chow is arrested upon arrival in Austin.
  • Arctic Monkeys play SXSW the week after appearing on “Saturday Night Live,” hitting town with incredible synergy. But there’s not much of a line outside their showcase at La Zona Rosa because everyone figured (à la Tony Bennett) that there’d be no chance of getting in.


Keynote speaker: Pete Townshend

Number of acts: 1,580

Registrants: 11,750

Buzz bands: Amy Winehouse, Peter, Bjorn and John, Lily Allen, the Pipettes, Razorlight, Tilly and the Wall, Okkervil River

  • Things seemed to have gone swimmingly, but when word gets out that SXSW organizers provided fire marshals with a list of private parties, resulting in three big bashes being shut down, Internet comments sections explode in rage. In one of his many defensive posts, SXSW co-founder Louis Black uses a truly bizarre analogy concerning an abacus.
  • Stax 50 Revue at Antone’s features a set by Booker T and the MGs, with guest vocals from Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd and William Bell.


Keynote speaker: Lou Reed

Number of acts: 1,809

Registrants: 12,651

Buzz bands: Vampire Weekend, Duffy, Sons and Daughters, Yeasayer, Bon Iver, Adele, She and Him, Fleet Foxes, MGMT, Black Keys, Darondo

  • SXSW has apparently forgiven “disrespectful” Reed for the sin of playing on the same night as the Austin Music Awards. The gutter Caruso is everywhere, even playing “Walk on the Wild Side” at a Lou Reed tribute at the Fader Fort.
  • Rachael Ray hosts her first SXSW party at the Beauty Bar, which is predictably jam-packed. Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top jams with the Cringe, whose guitarist John Cusimano is Mr. Rachael Ray. Perez Hilton also makes the scene for the first time, hosting Katy Perry, among others: SXSW has officially jumped the guy in the shark suit handing out fliers.


Keynote speaker: Quincy Jones

Number of acts: 1,987

Registrants: 11,687

Buzz bands: Kid Cudi, Avett Brothers, Matt & Kim, Grizzly Bear, Passion Pit, St. Vincent, Mayer Hawthorne, Those Darlins, Justin Townes Earle, Ra Ra Riot, LMFAO, Blitzen Trapper, Mumford and Sons, Janelle Monae

  • Quincy Jones makes two hours fly by in his keynote speech. Too bad he went on for another 20 minutes and made everyone hold hands while he recited a motivational poem.
  • To promote its new “Guitar Hero” game, metal gods Metallica play a “surprise” show at Stubb’s. The other worst-kept secrets were Kanye West’s set at the Levi’s Fader Fort and Jane’s Addiction at the Playboy/C3 party. We’ve come a long way from Chickasaw Mudpuppies.
  • Cops shut down the Red Bull Moontower after hours party on East Cesar Chavez after noise complaints, so Erykah Badu, who had earlier been an hour late for her Auditorium Shores show, doesn’t get to go on.
  • 2010

Keynote speaker: Smokey Robinson

Number of acts: 1,978

Registrants: 13,020

Buzz bands: Nneke, the xx, Surfer Blood, Broken Bells, Free Energy, Nas and Damian Marley, Court Yard Hounds, Anita Tijoux, Local Natives, Raphael Saadiq, the Low Anthem

  • Alex Chilton passes away at home in New Orleans on the opening day of SXSW, so the Saturday Big Star showcase at Antone’s is transformed into a moving memorial.
  • The temperature drops 40 degrees from Friday to Saturday, making for the coldest day in SXSW history. Nature’s way of telling the SXSW masses they’ve been having too much fun. The corporate presence at SXSW is getting a little crazy with parties being sponsored by Taco Bell, Harley-Davidson, Levi’s and every new energy drink on the market.
  • With 14,251 registrants, SXSW Interactive tops the music portion in attendance for the first time.
  • 2011
  • Number of acts: 2098
  • Number of registrants:16,353
  • Keynote speaker: Bob Geldof
  • Buzz bands: Odd Future, Foster the People, Wild Flag, James Blake, Tune-Yards, Eliza Doolittle, Two Door Cinema Club, Yuck, the Naked and Famous

* Thousands of furious fans are “uninvited” to a concert featuring Kanye West and Jay-Z at Seaholm Power Plant after APD steps in and threatens to cancel the show.

* A falling camera boom sends four audience members to the hospital before an OMD set at Stubb’s.

* Thoughts are on the tragedy in Japan, where an earthquake and tsunami kill thousands. Several benefits are held during SXSW, which has long been a favorite destination of Japanese bands.

* Celebs galore! Among those attending are Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jodie Foster, Michael Stipe, Yoko Ono, Kid Rock, P. Diddy and the Foo Fighters, who played a surprise show at Stubb’s.

* A throng of barricade-crashing fans create a mini-riot when the Strokes start playing a free set at Auditorium Shores.


Number of acts: 2,286

Number of registrants: 18,988

Keynote speaker: Bruce Springsteen

Buzz bands: Alabama Shakes, A$AP Rocky, Gary Clark Jr., Zola Jesus, Sharon Von Etten, Of Monsters and Men, Father John Misty, Metric, SBTRKT, Lana Del Rey

* This is the year of the Boss, as Springsteen not only delivers the best SXSW keynote speech ever, but plays a spectacular show at ACL Live, with special guests Eric Burdon and Jimmy Cliff.

* SXSW music unofficially kicks off a day earlier when Jay-Z does a Monday night concert at ACL-Live for American Express.

* Solidifying hip hop’s increasing presence, 50 Cent performs “Get Rich Or Die Tryin'” in its entirety, with special guest Eminem, while Nas does the same with “Illmatic.”

* Jack White performed two sets- one with his female band and one with his male band- and debuted songs from “Blunderbuss” at his Third Man Records showcase at the Stage on Sixth Street.

* The fact that corporations have infiltrated the hipness was apparent when an outdoor stage was built to resemble a 50-foot-tall Doritos vending machine, with the bands playing in the part where the bag of chips would normally come out. In the early years of SXSW, a band playing on a flatbed truck would be considered gimmicky.


Keynote speaker: Dave Grohl

Buzz bands: Kendrick Lamar, alt-J, Chvrches, HAIM, The Neighbourhood, Little Green Cars, Kodaline

* Flaming Lips free show at Auditorium Shores had some of the worst reviews from fans who didn’t get the band’s new album, played in its entirety. Nonetheless, the Oklahoma psych-boys took home the inaugural Grulke Prize for the established act which most furthered its career. The Lips also played a more traditional set at the Belmont.

* Natalie Maines makes her first solo public appearance to push new LP “Mother,” but turns in a timid performance that her producer Ben Harper and father Lloyd Maines saved with a scorching slide duel.

* Dave Grohl was everywhere, promoting his documentary “Sound City” with an allstar jam at Stubb’s featuring Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty and Ricks Neilsen and Springfield.


  1. “The registration line was insane. That’s 20 minutes of my life I won’t get back.”
  1. “Some band just handed me an album. Haven’t they heard of cassettes?”
  1. “Do you know where Saturday’s day party is?”
  1. “Austin learned its lesson from the Armadillo. No way they’re tearing down Liberty Lunch for an office building.”
  1. “I’m in such a hurry I’m gonna have to grab lunch from a food trailer. Where’s the nearest construction site?”
  1. “We can either see Mojo Nixon tonight for free or pay $50 to see him next year at the Erwin Center.
  2. “Let’s just take a cab to Salt Lick. How much could it be?”
  3. “So, besides the Austin Music Awards, what else are you excited about this week?”
  4. “They used to be a punk band, but now they play roots music. With punk energy.”
  5. “Listen, I paid $20 for this wristband and I WILL get in to see Scruffy the Cat.”
  6. “I’m not sure, but I think the Spin party is either in room 1703 or 1307.
  7. “Holy crap, that’s Peter Zaremba!”
  8. “SXSW is a good idea, but they’re going to need to rely on the revenue from the Austin Chronicle to survive.”
  9. “One day this thing might be bigger than Aquafest. OK, I’m wasted.”
  10. “If you’re cool you call it ‘Southby’.”
  11. “I heard they were going to have a hip-hop act this year, but couldn’t find a corporate sponsor.
  12. “They need to get someone hip, with an opinion, to keynote.  Someone like Michelle Shocked.”
  13.  ”Wow, I just gave my business card to music industry bigwig Jim Fouratt!”
  14. “OK, we’ve got this cool party space on SoCo. What should we do in the storefront? A gallery for outsider art? Really?”
  15. “Let’s share a room at the San Jose. Not to save money, but to take turns standing guard.”


Next year is going to be different. This is what I’ve told myself every Friday or Saturday of South by Southwest, when I was trying to find the strength to drag my carcass out of the rack, if only to plop a couple Alka-Seltzers. There was a culinary battle of the Alamo in my belly between the brisket and the quesadillas, and my head was pounding unjoyously, like a drummer at sound check (or Meg White all the time.)

As the cobwebs cleared, I went over what I had done the previous 24 hours: all the buffet-traipsing, the free booze swilling, the after-hours parties. The thought of doing it all over again was the only thing that got me out of bed. But sometimes even that didn’t work — says the king of the 14-hour disco nap. A combination of deadline stress and a festive atmosphere, hard work and hard partying, has made for some unhealthy choices in past SXSW campaigns. Believe me, I’ve paid for every free thing I’ve slid into my migas-hole. But this year is going to be different, my pepitos. Welcome to the first annual SXSW music and media and fitness convention, where the indie rock head bob won’t be the only exercise I get. I’m going to be burning more calories than Beatle Bob, the dancing loon from ol’ St. Lou. At the risk of setting myself up for a Jim Fixx-ian tragic irony (“Newly Health Conscious Rock Critic Collapses In Pilates Class”), I vow to come out of this SXSW in better shape than when it started, and you’re welcome to join me.

There are drinking games, you know, like having to take a shot every time Toby says “yeah” on “The West Wing.” Let’s come up with some fitness games, like every time Lol Tolhurst, whose new band Levinhurst plays the Soho Lounge Thursday at midnight, does a song from his old band the Cure, you’ve gotta run in place for the tune’s duration. Or whenever Pete Yorn (Saturday 11 p.m. at the Ritz) displays an expression you have to drop down for 10 push-ups. “Why is everyone doing stomach crunches?” Jon Langford’s just arrived at the party. Instead of wedging our way through the crowd packed in the back of Yard Dog to almost hear Robyn Hitchcock, Carbon Leaf and Marah at Saturday afternoon’s Harp magazine party, wouldn’t that time be better spent with a yoga class or a massage or a stroll around Town Lake?

Your cell phone isn’t the only thing that needs recharging, Boo. Instead of waiting in line for a beer, why not grab a bottled water (the other clear liquid) out of the ice bucket, walk three blocks to Herb Bar (200 W. Mary St.) and buy some Fire Cider? A dropper full in the water is said to support the immune system and elevate energy. A block east, at the corner of South Congress Avenue and Mary Street, is White Crane Herbal Medicine, sort of a Wal-Mart of Chinese remedies, which also offers hourlong massages ($55) and acupuncture ($65).

They also sell hangover relief herbs called Curin Wan, which I’m guessing is Chinese for “yeah, right.” There hasn’t been a surefire cure for hangovers on South Congress since Just Guns closed.

All right, healthy campers, let’s get started. First you need to go to Run-Tex at 422 W. Riverside Drive to pick up a free map of area greenbelts and hike-and-bike trails. Next stop is Whole Foods Market (Sixth and Lamar) to stock up on fruit, trail mix and prepared meals. Austin nutritionist Alexa Sparkman recommends food with a high protein content, like turkey sandwiches and grilled fish, which will increase alertness levels. Anything to get through that “Mastering Engineers Talk Shop” panel Friday afternoon.

You can’t find good Mexican food in this country north of Research Boulevard, so it’s natural for Yankee out-of-towners to gorge themselves on enchiladas and fajitas. But along with beans and rice, the No. 2 plate includes a side of serotonin, which will make you as lethargic as a SXSW volunteer who’s been checking badges for five hours. Listen, I know the restricted diet is going to be tough. I’m a music critic. I’m as likely to turn down a Bob Dylan interview as a free meal. But if all those gaunt low carb addicts, who look like junkies except that their shirts are tucked in, can eat hamburgers with lettuce buns, we can skip the potato salad and white cream gravy.

Bye, bye, buffet, hello Mr. Natural (1901 E. Cesar Chavez St. and 2414 S. Lamar Blvd.). Another entirely bearable health food restaurant near downtown is Veggie Heaven at 1914 Guadalupe St. They do tofu right.

Not being able to get into sold-out venues can be a regal bummer, man, but being turned away can be a silver lining for fitness. When the line’s way too long, just keep on walking. In fact, here’s a recommended schedule to keep your aerobic workout going tonight. Start by trying to get into Exodus on Sixth Street, where Ozomatli and Plastilina Mosh lead a host of alt-rock bands from Mexico. That club should be wall-to-wall all night. So it’s over to La Zona Rosa, where the townies will settle in early to ensure that they get to see Modest Mouse. All right, it’s back over to Emo’s. Wow. When did Atmosphere get so huge? You won’t hear any music with this plan, but you’ve earned your Michelob Ultra for the night.

Thursday’s uninterrupted walk includes a pass at the Austin Music Hall, where Little Richard, dubbed a young talent to watch by Tracks magazine, oughta pack the place. We hear you knockin’, wristband wearers, but you can’t come in. Over at La Zona Rosa, the person who can guess the number of people in line for Mission Of Burma will win a big jar full of jelly beans. Sure to be the most quickly filled — “and we ain’t leavin”‘ — gig of the fest is Saturday at Stubb’s, where Esquire magazine tries to make up for that ludicrous “Cities That Rock” feature (basically, an attempt to build up circulation in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) by serving up Los Lobos, Patty Griffin, Ozomatli, the Mavericks and more.

It’s going to be insane at Emo’s this week, with all three stages hosting free live music from about noon to 6 p.m. each day. Thursday looks especially strong, with Toronto’s Broken Social Scene, whose very initials buzz, playing the the main stage while Local H and those local hellcats the Riddlin’ Kids take over the annex stage across the street. Red River will be rocking almost nonstop, with free daytime shows also at Beerland, Elysium, the Caucus Club, Headhunters and Room 710, plus private parties at Club DeVille and Stubb’s.

Do you really need to hear that much music? Sometimes the duo of Hale & Hearty is the best daytime act, so why not sneak in a workout at Gold’s Gym (522 Congress Ave.), which has a walkup rate of $16.24 per day? The Powerhouse gym, at Fifth Street and Lamar Boulevard, also takes non-members, for $15 a day. The lineup there includes Pilates, Yoga, Spinning and some new alt-country exercise from Australia. Class schedules for this sweat factory can be found online at

For $8 admission, you can go to the Body Mind & Spirit Expo Saturday and Sunday at the Palmer Events Center (900 Barton Springs Road). Learn all about aura photography, abundance angels, feng shui and which John Tesh CD you should own if (gasp) you could only own one. It can be a drag being indoors on a nice day, especially if you’re from Chicago, where 45 degrees is considered balmy this time of year. Rent a canoe or kayak at Zilker Park for $10 an hour, ye Cubs fans, and row, row, row away all those poison thoughts of Steve Bartman. Negativity is just bad cholesterol of the mind.

One of the coolest things about Austin is the public swimming pools. Despite the Statesman’s recent front page report that Barton Springs Pool is too cold (a report the Austin Chronicle rushed to discredit), Robert Redford’s childhood swimming hole at Zilker Park remains a No. 1 tourist shriveler. I prefer the warmer (and free) Big Stacy Pool at 800 E. Live Oak St., just a few blocks east of the South Congress stroll.

Today at noon, you can take in a free outdoor yoga class in Republic Square, the park across the street from the Fox & Hound. Now, flexibility is not my strong suit; for me yoga’s about as out of the question as Jack White sitting in with the Von Bondies. But if you’re a little more limber than a two by four, yoga can be a perfect complement to a busy day. “Yoga is very calming, a great way to de-stress,” says Jamie Hodge of the Yoga Yoga studio (1700 S. Lamar Blvd.). Walk-ins are $15 a class, which is also the rate at Prana Yoga (1115 S. Congress Ave.), two blocks down from the Continental Club. Every once in a while I like to relieve stress and pent-up agression by hitting something white, with dimples. Since Rhett Miller of Old 97’s would probably press charges, I plan to spend an afternoon slicing Titleists at the Hancock Golf Course (811 E. 41st St.), a scruffy antidote to snobby country clubs. Green fees are $8.50 on weekdays and $9.50 on weekends, which seems real cheap until you find yourself using a seven iron for your second shot on a par five. (It’s a real short course, see). Clubs rent for $8.75 for nine holes.

Why not do South by Southwest by Bike to get a fresh perspective on a festival that ends up not changing your life as much as you hoped it would (sorta like the George Foreman Grill)? Put your mettle to the pedal and feel the breeze of rejuvenation as you glide from club to club. Laugh at all the scenesters desperately descending on cabs like refugees at an airlift. The Bicycle Sport Shop at 1426 Toomey Road (behind the South Lamar Schlotzsky’s) rents two-wheelers for anywhere from $40 a day for pro calibre road bikes to $18 a day for “comfort” bikes.

The best way to make like Lance Armstrong, or at least Sheryl Crow, is to bike to the wilds of East Austin, previously known as The Land SXSW Forgot. Tonight at the Blue Genie Theater at 916 Springdale Road is the BMG/New Times party headlined by Toots and the Maytals, who’ve recorded a stunning duet with Willie Nelson on “Still Is Still Moving.” Invite required. Not so at Saturday’s free blowout at the Tillery Street Theater (701 Tillery Street). How’s this for a lineup? Carrie Clark’s new band the Pretty Please, last year’s SXSW sensation KaitO, Bedbug, Volcano, I’m Still Excited, Subset, Palaxy Tracks, Fivehead, Preston School of Industry . . . and we’re not even to 6 p.m. The shindig goes from noon to 8 p.m. The opposite of a health club is Red’s Scoot Inn (1308 E. 4th St.), which sports an “Ironweed” motif. Two big free punk shows from 2 to 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday, featuring everyone from the Applicators to Tia Carrera (who unlike the fest’s Minnie Driver is a band not an actress) to Kinski will scare away the regulars. All right, it’s starting to sound like I’m thinking more about guitar tone than muscle tone. Let’s get back on massage with these healthy tips: * Work on wind sprints and stop/start agility by trying to cross South Congress on Saturday afternoon between the Continental Club, with Mojo Nixon’s annual festival of bands who used to open for the Beat Farmers, and Jo’s parking lot where Raul Malo heads a bill that also includes the annual debut of a new Alice Spencer band. Mojo has vowed that this will be his final performance. To which I say, “Curin Wan.” Yeah, right. * Stay away from the CSE/Charles Attal Management party in far East Austin. This late, late Thursday night party, known as “the Friday Killer,” has a strong lineup of Cake, Joan Jett and Secret Machines. But just as certain as Ray Benson will have a song called “The Chet Atkins Diet” on his next album, you will hate yourself in the afternoon, when you wake up, if you attend this soiree. Hit the hay early and come fresh to Friday’s parties a plenty, which kick off at 11 a.m. with a punk rock show at La Zona Rosa, featuring Sparta and more. Joss Stone, the young Brit soulster in a Sarah J. Parker wig, plays the Starbucks stage, near 24th and Guadalupe, at 3 p.m. Friday. From noon to 4 p.m. at Cedar Street Courtyard there’s the Virgin/ Astralwerks party with the Thrills, the Sleepy Jackson, the 88 and the Populist. An array of Houston hip-hoppers, including Devin the Dude, will be at the Lucky Lounge from 4- 8 p.m. (Since this is a rap show, the music should start around 7:30.) Over at Stubb’s, meanwhile, is the Spin party, hosted by David Cross. To say the headlining Hives are as hot as they were last year would be an inaccuracy along the lines of calling Spin editor Sia Michel camera shy. A bigger draw may be to see how Von Bondies singer Jason Stollsteimer healed up after being Jack White’s Jerry Quarry. (The thing that’s weird, though, is that even while he was being punched silly by White, Stollsteimer couldn’t get the riff of “Seven Nation Army” out of his head.) Also on the bill are the Killers and the Bronx. I guess the Faint would’ve been too perfect a booking considering last year’s Spin staffer swoon. * Oh, yeah. Drink lots of water. So, there you go; almost everything you need to know about having a happy, healthy SXSW. Follow this guide and you can stand before the legendary Soul Stirrers at Threadgill’s Sunday at 11 a.m. without shame. Before I head out to the SXSW Golf Tournament at noon, I’d like to point out one last thing: I am constantly being confused with KUT’s Larry Monroe, one of the better looking disc jockeys in town. Here’s how to tell us apart. If you see someone fitting my general description piling a plate at a buffet or hailing a cab, that’s Larry Monroe. I’m the one with the shirt tucked in, doing pushups against the bar.

2 Comments on “SXSW”

  1. Pretty damn great article!

  2. Debi Martin says:

    Got a good work-out laughing out loud. As usual, you crack me up. Keep writing. Please!

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