Sunday, July 21, 2024

From Caffeine to Springsteen: First 25 years of 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: Kinky Friedman, with invocation by Exene Cervenka

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

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.


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.


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.

4 thoughts on “From Caffeine to Springsteen: First 25 years of SXSW

  1. Enjoyed the column, but re: no line at the Arctic Monkeys at LZR (2006), there was actually a very long line that waited for over two hours, only dispersing when LZR announced before the opening acts started that only laminates and wristbands would be let in. Much later, around 11:00, a few hardcores who were still hanging around outside were allowed to pay and get in to a packed house.

  2. Flock of Seagulls hailed from St. Petersburg/Miami, Fl.
    Quite a distance from merry ol’ England.

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