Part 1 (1987- 1994): From baby acts and first steps to inspiration from the man in black
If you want to see how old South by Southwest is, look at volunteer coordinator Lizzie Brenner, who was born in April 1987, a month after her current employer. SXSW is a spry blonde with a pierced nose from Oklahoma (incidentally, the home state of one of its first buzz acts Defenestration.)
Brenner turns 29 in the spring, which reminds us that SXSW will not be 30 years old in March, but it will be the 30th year that the music conference and festival will be held. Younger twin siblings Interactive and Film will turn 22.
The year 1987 opened with The Dow Jones Industrial Average closing above the 2,000 mark for the first time. The week before the first SXSW, U2 released alternative music bonanza The Joshua Tree. Three days before Brenner saw life, so did The Simpsons, appearing for the first time on The Tracey Ullman Show.
That first year of SXSW there were 177 acts in 15 venues and the number of registrants, including comps, was 700. Some of the notable acts in the maiden year include Hal Ketchum, Rev. Horton Heat, Little Joe y La Familia, the Wagoneers, Dash Rip Rock and Buck Pets.
A true Oklahoma Sooner, Lizzie arrived two months early. In 1988, both Lizzie and SXSW took baby steps, with beatbox hitmakers Timbuk 3 headlining the Austin Music Awards and giving Austin a new theme song with “The Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades).” The number of venues almost doubled to 27 and the buzz acts included a 19-year-old from D.C. named Kelly Willis and an unsigned act from Minneapolis called the Jayhawks. In Year Two, SXSW backlash was born with experimental rock band Ed Hall starting a “SXSWSUX” campaign.
But, somehow, more and more folks started showing up and kept coming. Gin Blossoms hold the distinction of being one of the first acts signed to a major label after SXSW 1989 and they went on to have a big hit on A&M with “Hey, Jealousy.”
Not quite three years old, Lizzie was almost bit by a rattlesnake back in Oklahoma in 1990, but her trusty canine came to the rescue. But while Bitsy the Dog was a hero up north, Scruffy the Cat ruled Austin that week. Also in the buzz bin were Ultramagnetic MCs, Trip Shakespeare, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, Let’s Active, Ranch Romance and Blake Babies, plus Austin’s own, Twang Twang Shock-a-Boom. This was the year SXSW started getting creative with the panels; one held in the Hyatt parking lot (“Dead Van In the Middle of the Road”) had a mechanic showing musicians how to make repairs on the fly. “Who Killed JFK?” would keep SXSW weird in ’91, with a symposium in Dallas to follow that November.
If you lived in Oklahoma in 1991, it didn’t matter if you were four years old, you fell in love with Garth Brooks, Lizzie’s first musical hero. The thunder rolled in Austin that March with the number of showcase artists topping 500 for the first time. Wristbands leapt from $15 to $25 to see such acts as Flat Duo Jets, Bob Mould, pre-Natalie Dixie Chicks, the Judybats, Kevin Welch, Spanic Boys, Uncle Tupelo, Barenaked Ladies and Matt “Guitar” Murphy, perhaps best known of them all because he played Aretha’s husband in The Blues Brothers.
In 1992, Lizzie started playing t-ball with the Diamond Bears, starting a sports career that would include a short stint of international basketball after college. The Mixed Media softball team could’ve used Brenner’s .725 batting average in ‘92, losing to Record Companies 24-3 in the championship game. (There’s no “mercy rule” in the music business.) Hitting home runs in the clubs that week were L7, Beat Farmers, Tiny Lights, Shadowy Men On a Shadowy Planet, Gear Daddies, Southern Culture On the Skids, Junior Brown and Dave Alvin. Columbia Records had a big free show on Auditorium Shores with Poi Dog Pondering, T Bone Burnett, James McMurtry, Darden Smith and more, but stealing the show was the arrival of Willie Nelson’s “Honeysuckle Rose” bus. The living legend made his SX debut with a short, unannounced set.
Nineteen-ninety-three was a bit of a traumatic year for Lizzie, who had just started first grade and had the class hamster get loose and die on her watch. Things were a bit crazy down in Texas, too, as the Branch Davidian standoff was happening in Waco during SXSW, which caused many journalists to do double duty. Still “shellshocked” from the previous year, SXSW was without a keynote speaker in ‘93, but Gov. Ann Richards stepped in to give a smart and funny welcoming speech that felt like a keynote. Lizzie missed the debut performance of P, featuring her favorite actor at the time Johnny Depp. Also partaking in the mid-March festivities were actors Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara, in town shooting Waiting For Guffman. SXSW’s first “celeb sighting” was at Antone’s for fellow Canadians Blue Rodeo.
Big changes came to second-grader Lizzie in ’94, as she moved from the big city to the smalltown of Woodward, OK. SXSW, meanwhile, was moving in the other direction. The once-regional affair received national attention when the gigantic presence of Johnny Cash, at the start of his Rubinesque solo acoustic comeback, lifted it with a musical keynote address. Those gathered were his “grandchildren,” and for the rest of the week we were on a mission to make PawPaw proud.
It was a confusing time of starting over for Lizzie, but she found spiritual comfort in Father Joe from St. Peter’s, always dressed in black except for his priest’s collar.
Part 2 (1995-2000): Music, sports, social media and going international
A major event in Lizzie’s life in 1995 was getting her first portable music player, a Sony Walkman. New technology was a major topic at SXSW that year, with one panel exploring “Performance Rights on the New Frontier.” With the demise of the almighty New Music Seminar in NYC the previous year, SXSW was now THE place to mix business and pleasure, topping 5,000 registrants and 100 trade show exhibitors for the first time. In retrospect, the set of the fest was Wilco playing Liberty Lunch 10 days before their debut LP came out, but the biggest lines were for platinum-selling Soul Asylum at the Terrace (formerly Austin Opera House), the Bush/Elastica pairing at Liberty Lunch and extreme buzz band The Presidents of the United States of America at Steamboat.
Third-grader Lizzie Brenner was wowing the soccer crowds in 1996 with her handspring-fueled throw-in move, but down Austin way everyone was flipping over the Fugees at Stubb’s (they came back after a 90-minute rain delay), the Matador showcase at Liberty Lunch (Liz Phair, Spoon, Guided By Voices) and punk-pop band Blink-182. The biggest crowds were for the free stage at Sixth and Brazos featuring Joan Osborne, so hot with the musical question “What If God Was One of Us?” and God himself, Iggy Pop. The previous year’s free outdoor concert at the prime intersection- Rounder Records 25th anniversary party with Irma Thomas, Johnny Adams, Beau Jocque and Rebirth Brass Band was a New Orleans street party compared to the Mardi Gras intensity of Joan and Iggy. Free outdoor shows moved to Waterloo Park two years later and eventually to Auditorium Shores.
In 1997, Lizzie and her family explored their ancestorial roots in Ireland for three weeks. SXSW was also full of “pond-jumpers” that year, with Atari Teenage Riot coming from Germany, Ben Lee from Australia and Guitar Wolf from Japan. SXSW has had an international flavor since the third year, when reggae star Pato Banton led the charge from England and Mano Negra came from Paris. But once the housing program- placing foreign acts in Austin homes, with hosts receiving credentials in return- was established, the exchange really took off. Wednesday, which has previously belonged to the Austin Music Awards, became a night for official showcases in 1997. Also, Brent Grulke joined the three remaining SXSW founders – Roland Swenson, Louis Black and Nick Barbaro – as a director, in charge of booking and running the music fest. He landed Tony Bennett that year, as well as Whiskeytown, of Montreal, Jimmy Eat World and Archers of Loaf.
Lizzie got her first grill- gold braces- as a fifth grader in 1998. That was the year drummer Fred Armisen, who had come to SXSW with his then-girlfriend Sally Timms of the Mekons, made his name in comedy grilling badgewearers for the impromptu mockumentary Fred Armisen’s Guide to Music and South by Southwest. Notable unknowns that year were Black Eye Peas, Rufus Wainwright, Get Up Kids, Neko Case, Queens of the Stone Age, the Donnas and the Urinals.
OK, what are we up to: 1999? Oh, yes, this is the year Lizzie Brenner became terrified of the ocean, after seeing Jaws. She also got her own email address, not too useful for a sixth grader back then. But the new social media was encroaching at a fast pace (cue Jaws music) making for the prophetic panel “Downloading On the Upswing: Trouble For the Music Industry?” The worst rainstorm in SXSW history was the Thursday of SXSW, canceling Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard at Stubb’s. But Saturday night came that force of nature known as Tom Waits, who thrilled a packed Paramount Theatre and moved SXSW into the realm of “anything can happen.” Other notables in ’99 were Death Cab For Cutie, Bright Eyes, the Hives, Cibo Matto and Built To Spill.
Somehow the world did not end on Y2K, though Brenner nearly burned down the family’s farmhouse when a Roman candle at midnight changed directions and crashed into the side in a burst of flames. Oops! In its 14th season, SXSW featured 970 acts on 47 stages, with the 8,000 plus registrants topping the number for Interactive and Film combined. This was a political year at South By, with keynoter Steve Earle using much of his time to assail the death penalty, while Patti Smith read a poem about Ho Chi Minh and wrapped herself in the Vietnamese flag at the end of her free show at Waterloo Park.
We had entered a new century and both Lizzie Brenner and SXSW were teenagers now. Puberty was not always easy.
Part 3 (2001- 2007) From hoopsters to hipsters: Lizzie shoots, SXSW rebounds
How old is South by Southwest? The music conference and festival was born in March 1987, a month before SXSW volunteer coordinator Lizzie Brenner. In getting to know about Lizzie, we hope you’re also finding out stuff or reliving your own memories of SXSW in years past.
We pick up the story in 2001, with Brenner and SXSW both 13. Music is about to take over Lizzie’s life like never before, as she bought a brand new device called the iPod. She was in the 8th grade now and ready to rock.
SXSW passed 1,000 acts for the first time in ’01 and keynote speaker Ray Davies sat in with one of them, performing the appropriate “Starstruck” with the New Pornographers at La Zona Rosa. The music component of SXSW had its first drop in attendance, but 2001 was a banner year for up-and-coming talent. Many of the acts who would fill Lizzie’s iTunes library for years to come, including The Strokes, White Stripes, Coldplay, My Morning Jacket, the Shins, Kasey Chambers, Robert Randolph and Drive-By Truckers, played clubs, though none of those acts had longer lines than Flickerstick and Soulcracker of VH1 reality show Bands On the Run.
The 9/11 tragedy affected everything, from a nation’s psyche to its economy, and SXSW had another dip in registration in March 2002. It was a big year for Lizzie Brenner, who was elected freshman class president, attended her first concert sans the ‘rents (Britney Spears) and tried alcohol and cigarettes for the first time. We survived Courtney Love, whose erratic interview with Chuck Philips of the L.A. Times came just hours after she locked herself in the men’s room of the Hole In the Wall with a couple of powdered caffeine salesmen. Courtney went on and on about The Hives, who weren’t at SXSW that year. But Norah Jones, who had the #1 album in the country at the time, was on hand, as were Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mastodon, They Might Be Giants, the Darkness, OK Go and Ash.
Lizzie got her driver’s license after failing the written test twice in 2003, the year of the fender-bender. But down in Austin the big topic was whether or not President George W. Bush had license to invade Iraq and blow up those “weapons of mass destruction” (wink, wink). In the midst of severe Dixie Chicks backlash over an anti-Bush statement made the week before South By, the artists panel was themed with activism. But the party went on. This was the year Junior Senior had half of Sixth Street dancing during their set at Friends, plus you also had Raveonettes, Blur, the Yardbirds (with guests Slash and Steve Vai), Fall Out Boy, Decemberists, Black Keys, Mountain Goats, Tony Joe White and B-52’s. The Flatstock poster show became a part of SXSW and the Spin party, previously an after hours rager, moved to Friday afternoon in ‘03.
Eleventh grade was all about hoops for star forward Lizzie B., who led Woodward High to the state championship. Named tourney MVP, Brenner was recruited to play basketball for the University of Central Oklahoma. Getting a full ride at SXSW 2004 were Los Lonely Boys, who came to South By with the massive hit “Heaven” and set an Auditorium Shores attendance record by cramming in 20,000. Just two Marches earlier, the San Angelo blues brothers were hoping anyone would notice them. In the clubs, the biggest buzz was for Franz Ferdinand, Modest Mouse, Coheed and Cambria, Dizzee Rascal, Dresden Dolls, Hold Steady, TV on the Radio and N.E.R.D. Pharrell Williams of that latter band would go back to the coasts and hype SXSW to the hip hop hierarchy, who could come to define SXSW for many in the years to come.
In 2005, Lizzie graduated Woodward High as valedictorian. She was also class president all four years and the basketball team’s leading scorer. But she couldn’t rebound like SXSW. After a few flat or down years in registration, ’05 saw a large spike in attendance from the previous year. Robert Plant was a funny and charming keynoter, perhaps inspired by the Mavis Staples prelude. This was the year SXSW expanded East in a big way, but downtown was still packed with folks wanting to see LCD Soundsystem, M.I.A., Paul Wall, John Legend, Ray LaMontagne, Sleater-Kinney, the Go! Team, Death From Above 1979, Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party and so on.
The hype hit the fan in 2006, and we’re not talking about Brenner’s b-ball skills. (She scored a career high 30 points against Southeastern University.) Arctic Monkeys, fresh from an appearance on Saturday Night Live, were the hottest new band since Oasis when they played La Zona Rosa to a packed house. Leaving town with more buzz than they had coming in were Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Corrine Bailey Rae, KT Tunstall, Chamillionaire, Flight of the Conchords, The Gossip, Animal Collective, Silversun Pickups and Art Brut.
Before her second year in college, Lizzie and her brother did a three week tour of Europe, where they happened to stumble in to a Muse concert in Florence, Italy. It was a life-changing experience, which is what the Stooges and Stax were to many at SXSW 2007. Iggy, the Asheton brothers and Mike Watt dee-stroyed Stubb’s on a bill with Kings of Leon and Spoon, while the Stax 50 Revue delighted a packed house at Antone’s (including Amy Winehouse, who exploded in ‘07), with a house band of Booker T and the MGs and Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd and William Bell on vocals. And British Invasion royalty took over the Austin Music Awards when keynote Pete Townshend jammed with Ian McLagan on a tribute to Ronnie Lane, Ian’s mate from the Faces.
History of Lizzie, Part 4 (2008 to present): Changing careers for a walk on the wild side
In 2008, Lizzie Brenner and SXSW Music both turned 21 (though it would be the 22nd conference), but nothing makes a music conference more street legal than having Lou Reed, the Godfather of Punk, as a keynote. It was also the year a couple of non-musical celebs started getting involved in a big way. Parties hosted by Rachael Ray and Perez Hilton have become a popular new tradition. The month before “I Kissed a Girl” was released, Katy Perry played an ASCAP showcase and the Perez party. Who else broke out at the 2008 affair? Lady, we were all ga-ga over Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend, Fleet Foxes, MGMT, Duffy, Blitzen Trapper and Darondo.
In 2009, the number of acts matched the year SXSW and Lizzie Brenner were born, with 1,987 taking 88 stages. These were the names of SXSW Music 2009: Quincy Jones, Metallica, Kanye West, Avett Brothers, St. Vincent, Matt & Kim, Mumford & Sons, Jane’s Addiction, Erykah Badu, LMFAO, Kid Cudi, Janelle Monae, Devo, Echo and the Bunnymen. Twas a glory year for SXSW Music, which would top the Interactive component in registration numbers – 11,687 to 10, 741 – for the last time. Lizzie Brenner, whose mind was on WNBA not SXSW, was deep in her senior year at UCO, then, after setting 10 school records in basketball, she spent the summer playing hoops in Australia.
Brenner returned to Central Oklahoma with the intention of continuing graduate studies to become a basketball coach. But in 2010, she did a 180-degree spin move, changing her masters program to entertainment business. This is when she first became aware of that monster of mid-March called SXSW, which had a bittersweet 2010. On the first day of Music, Alex Chilton, whose seminal Big Star group was to play and be the subject of a panel, passed away at home in New Orleans from a heart attack. The panel turned into a wake and the showcase became a tribute on Saturday, the coldest day in SXSW history, with temps in the 30s. Also feted with songs, delivered by John Cale, Bob Neuwirth, Los Lonely Boys and others in the back of Las Manitas, was SXSW treasure Alejandro Escovedo, whose near-death experience related to Hepatitis C was the subject of the Por Vida benefit LP. The buzzbirds of ’10 included the xx, Surfer Blood, Broken Bells, Anita Tijoux, Local Natives, Low Anthem, Band of Horses, Death, Miike Snow and all the N.O. “bounce” acts like Big Freedia.
Lizzie Brenner didn’t know a single person in Austin when she moved here in 2011 for an internship with SXSW. It was a leap of faith when she packed her car and drove down from Oklahoma, but she’s never looked back. And she met the man of her dreams in fellow SXSW staffer Catlin Whitington. In ’11, thoughts were heavy for Japan, which lost thousands when the country was rocked by earthquakes and tsunamis the Friday before SXSW Music, which has long been a favorite destination of Japanese bands. This was the year Kanye West and Jay Z took over Seaholm Power Plant for a private party that found them “uninviting” thousands for safety concerns. Private shindigs routinely approve the RSVPs for numbers many times higher than the venue’s capacity, but that practice was halted in this high-wattage instance. The drama was comparatively mundane, though fan reaction was high, at SXSW ’11 sets by Odd Future, Foster the People, Wild Flag, James Blake, tUnEyArDs, Eliza Doolittle, Two Door Cinema Club, the Naked and Famous and other acts of note. Good thing Brenner’s not starstruck because there were celebs galore at SXSW 2011: Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Jodie Foster, Michael Stipe, Yoko Ono and the Foo Fighters, who played a surprise show at Stubb’s.
Hooray for 2012! Lizzie Brenner was offered a full-time position at SXSW, joining the working class that year’s Music Keynote Bruce Springsteen writes and sings so eloquently about. Springsteen and the E-Street Band played an epic concert at ACL Live, calling up Eric Burdon and Jimmy Cliff for guest spots. 50 Cent performed one of his albums in it’s entirety, just checking… yes, it was Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, with Enimem doing his part. But perhaps THE set of the fest was when Jack White and his Third Man Records took over the Stage on Sixth Street, a country-western bar. With room for only 500 inside, Sixth Street was full of fans who just wanted to hear a taste and got a full plate when the windows were opened and White, doing one set with an all-female band and one set with the boys, played to the outsiders. You want more proof 2012 rocked? How ‘bout Alabama Shakes, A$AP Rocky, Gary Clark Jr., Zola Jesus, Sharon Van Etten, Of Monsters and Men, Father John Misty, Metric, SBTRKT, Lana Del Rey and Nas. There was also that business of the Strokes at Auditorium Shores, when many more thousands than there were room for showed up. Oh, for the days of the Iron Cactus showcase!
SXSW lost Brent Grulke in August 2012 to a heart attack. But the longtime SXSW Music director’s love of music became the inspiration of the Grulke Prize, awarded annually to two rising acts – U.S. and international – as well as to an established artist. The winners in 2013 were Flaming Lips (career act), Haim (developing U.S. act) and CHVRCHES (developing Non-U.S.) And what of our Okie hoopster? L.B. added the music volunteer program to her duties organizing film volunteers. She was too busy to wonder if Kendrick Lamar, who broke big in ’13, got robbed at the Grulke. As far as setting trends that are still going: Dave Grohl was everywhere at SXSW, delivering a great keynote, screening his Sound City film and playing a set at Stubb’s, with Foo Fighters backing Stevie Nicks, John Fogerty, Rick Neilson of Cheap Trick and Rick Springfield. Oh, and Prince played SXSW with his 22-piece band at La Zona Rosa. Yes, THE Prince!
Well, here it was 2014 and Ms. Brenner became engaged, as fiancée Catlin dropped to one knee in front of his family and hers at Butler Park. But we also remember the horrible tragedy of that year, when a drunk driver fleeing police plowed into a crowd on Red River, killing four. With heavy hearts, the event continued. Many fans were healed by Hozier, whose performance at St. David’s was near-religious. Sam Smith played the same venue and was booked for Saturday Night Live, before his first album came out, based on that performance. We searched for beauty in the darkness. Keynote speaker Lady Gaga was the big name going in, but Royal Blood, Protomartyr, Chet Faker and Grulke Prize winners Future Islands and the Strypes also had tongues in wag mode during the week.
Winning the Grulke Prize in 2015 were Spoon (career act), one of Brent’s favorite bands, plus Fort Worth soul man Leon Bridges and Aussie writer-rocker Courtney Barnett in the developing categories. The late, great Doug Sahm cast a big silhouette on SXSW 2015, with the screening of the Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove documentary and a tribute concert both packing the Paramount Theatre. SXSW grew out of what Doug Sahm started, so 2015 had a full circle feel, especially when Miley Cyrus took the stage as an unannounced act at the Fader Fort on the Thursday night. Did you know Miley’s daddy played the second-ever SXSW, at a showcase at Birraporetti’s on Riverside Drive, years before “Achy Breaky Heart?” SXSW has become a multi-generational affair, especially since, like Lizzie Brenner, so many of the participants were not even born when SXSW started. In March 1987 that would have been inconceivable, but you take one year at a time and stack them up and before you know it, you’re about to do your 30th.
Circles are completed and started at SXSW; Lizzie Brenner starts her new life as Lizzie Whitington in November. What a ride it’s been so far for the event and its volunteer coordinator born a month later.