SXSW ‘O’ the Times
How Prince, Justin Timberlake, the Flaming Lips, and a giant Doritos vending machine changed Austin's annual music festival—and how they didn't.
Prince was as good a symbol—no not that symbol—as anyone for SXSW 2013.
His appearance at La Zona Rosa on the last night of the festival had the potential to be anti-climactic, if not an out-and-out fiasco. Late start, long lines, corporate sponsor, vibeless venue, average fans shut out. Most hilariously, a show that was intended to promote the Samsung Galaxy began with an announcement that there’d be no video or photography, “including phones” (judge for yourself how well that worked). But once you got past all the irritants, what happened on the stage was all that mattered. And this basic formula—put up with a bunch of aggravation, end up with a musical experience that can only happen during SXSW—held true for me at every turn.
Everybody’s SXSW is an individual experience, the veritable blind men and the elephant. Even if you see 100 bands—absolutely possible in the age of 20-minute day shows, given that there is music 15 hours a day for five full days—that’s probably no more than 2% of what the event has to offer, counting both official showcase artists (well over 2000) and the unofficial sets. Depending on your patience, taste, level of access (badge, wristband, willingness to give marketers your email, nothing) and inebriation, you could have a SXSW that was entirely garage bands, hip-hop, electronic pop, alt-rock nostalgia, or alt-country geezers (anything with “alt” in front of it is well past middle-age at this point). You could spend all of your time on a couple of blocks of grimy Red River without a badge or wristband, run the RSVP gauntlet of the Fader Fort or Viceland to see some of the week’s buzziest acts or, yes, brave the tweet-powered Doritos Bold Stage.
My own favorite moments were exceedingly small. When a 20-minute breakfast taco wait meant that I missed the chance to get into the Brooklyn Vegan show at Emo’s to see The Palma Violets, I simply moved a block west to Stages on Sixth, where Kelly Hogan, an artist who rarely tours (she released her first record in 11 years in 2012), was performing. That meant I got to hear her sing her nonpareil version of Magnetic Fields’ “Papa Was a Rodeo,” to the extreme jealousy of several Facebook friends.
When the streets of Austin seemed overrun with noise and youth and alcohol, I headed for the Gingerman, where Blurt magazine had a show that probably wasn’t attended by anybody under 30 (the doormen didn’t have to card much, that’s for sure). Waiting in the “one-in-one-out line,” I watched members of the Dallas gospel group The Relatives try to sell $15 CDs to people who hadn’t even been there for their set an hour earlier (I helped them close one sale). That’s SXSW hustle.
Then Robyn Hitchcock and friends (Hogan, members of R.E.M, the Minus Five, the Steve Wynn Band, the Posies, and Big Star) played a long set that included Beatles and Dylan covers. There was almost no one that I didn’t know personally within a 20-foot radius at any time. That’s part of SXSW too.
And perhaps my favorite random thing of all—on the way to Auditorium Shores Friday to see Divine Fits, Jim James, and the Flaming Lips, I was stopped at a “Don’t Walk” signal at Barton Springs and Riverside Drive when the sound of Roky Erickson raging through “Don’t Slander Me” came from across the street at Threadgill’s. That’s both a SXSW thing and an Austin thing.
Prince was hard to top, however. The crowd was limited to SXSW badgeholders who won an online lottery and winners of a Samsung contest. There was also media (ahem) and VIPs, including Nick Cannon, Solange Knowles, Dennis Quaid, Talib Kweli, and Jim James (according to Samsung), Austin chef Paul Qui (according to his Twitter feed) and former Prince guitarist Dez Dickerson and Britt Daniel of Spoon and Divine Fits (according to my own eyes). The demographics of the crowd, though, was nothing like the demographics of that list:
— Jason Cohen (@cohenesque) March 17, 2013
Even the author of the awesome Prince parody account @PrinceTweets2U intuited (or noticed?) that this was not the usual crowd:
ew the people waiting in line 2 see me look nasty u need to bring more glamor 2 this occasion
— Prince (@PrinceTweets2U) March 17, 2013
Samsung didn’t spare any expense, paying to have La Zona Rosa reconfigured into a longer, lower-ceilinged space, with a 40-foot long, 12-foot high LED screen that the company trumpeted in a press release as “the largest in SXSW history.” (Sure: but does it vend a bag of chips?)
Then Prince took the stage, and everything was smiles and joy, even though the first hour was underwhelming (despite the inclusion of “1999” and “Purple Rain”). That’s because there were still two hours to go. Prince’s club shows are traditionally loose; this one was wild, funky, and surprise-filled, with frequent costume changes, a 22-piece band, no guitar work by the man himself, and more covers and songs Prince wrote for other people (including three by The Time and Sheila E.’s “The Glamorous Life”) than Prince singles.
This despite his playful admonition: “Don’t make me hurt you. You know how many hits I got?” which had the guy next to me yelling, “HURT US! HURT US!”
The killer cover was Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” but there was also Janet’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately” (itself a product of the Prince family tree via producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis), songs by Curtis Mayfield and Aretha Franklin, and a solo piano deep-dive for his own “Something in the Water (Does Not Compute)” (side three, track two, 1999). It’s kind of a crime that Prince isn’t playing shows like this 100 days a year, even in arenas.
Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Randall Roberts opined that Justin Timberlake’s SXSW gig hurt “hard-working artists whose chance at attention was diminished by his Austin media blitz,” a criticism Roberts extended to Prince as well. What was ironic was that Roberts wrote this as part of his 500-word review of the Justin Timberlake SXSW gig. He might have preferred to have spent that entire evening covering small bands, but as the pop critic at the paper of record in the world capital of the entertainment industry, not a fanzine, he really didn’t have that choice. SXSW, after all, is the world’s premiere music business conference, not an indie rock festival for fans, much as we still romanticize the latter. And anyway, Roberts could just as easily have said the same about Solange Knowles, or Savages (or Robyn Hitchcock). There’s always an unsigned band or obscure international artist that could use some more attention.
Plus, though Prince was obviously well-compensated, and a SXSW appearance is always a good career move, he didn’t seem to be there to launch a product (besides Samsung’s). You can’t say the same about Timberlake, or even Bruce Springsteen, whose show last year was a rehearsal, tour kickoff, and record release party all in one.
You also can’t say that about the Flaming Lips, the Oklahoma rock band who, as headliners of the biggest SXSW show, on Auditorium Shores Friday, really were “stealing” thousands of fans away from little bands playing their shows at 8 or 9pm that night (though the free Shores shows are also meant to be for locals who don’t have a badge or wristband).
The Lips used the occasion to play their upcoming record, The Terror, in full and in order, with a light and stage show that was considerably more minimalist than the one the band has been performing for the better (and the worst) part of the last 10 years. This earned the Oklahomans one of SXSW’s inuagural Grulke Prizes, named for the fest’s late creative director Brent Grulke, who died in August. The Lips won in the “Career Act Prize” category, which is “for an established artist who appeared at SXSW 2013 to reinvent themselves or launch an important new project.”
That probably makes the show sound more triumphant than it was. In truth, stripped of both familiar songs and the three-ring-circus elements of the band’s festival-honed shtick, it got a mixed reception. The experimental, psychedelic nature of the new songs wasn’t particularly conducive to the setting, and the truth is that album shows usually don’t work out so well—the pace, variety, and yes, surprise, of a live show is not what an album gives you. Just a few songs in, people began to leave. There wasn’t much applause. Some people loved it and some hated it (using my own Twitter and Facebook as a barometer); this Austin Chronicle review by Melanie Haupt is 100% correct, calling it “an enormous middle finger to the audience.”
But it was also the act of a group with a nearly 20-year history of playing SXSW and of doing whatever crazy stuff they wanted to at SXSW. Before the set began, frontman Wayne Coyne had warned the crowd that they were in for something new and untested, and explicitly acknowledged the Lips’ tradition of bringing their newest, weirdest stuff to Austin, including 1997’s “Parking Lot Experiment,” 1999’s first The Soft Bulletin show (where the band’s era of crazy visuals and effects began) and premiering several movies at SXSW Film (including A Year in the Life of Wayne’s iPhone, this year).
Auditorium Shores might not have been the place for this sort of thing (the band also played a club showcase on Thursday), but that’s what made it an even bolder choice, and also why I think they won the Grulke Prize. More than anybody, Brent Grulke (who was, I should acknowledge, a friend) was the guy who created the version of SXSW that made a commercialized, superstar show like Prince’s possible, as well as the version of SXSW that made it possible for niche bands like the Flaming Lips to use the conference as a springboard to a decent full-time living. But he also never stopped being a man who appreciated the power of an artistic middle finger.