On the Record on the road in the U S of A
This is the first of a couple of special OTR on-the-road columns from the United States. This week, as you know very well, we’re in Austin, but the city is not just about the annual outbreak of SXSW madness. They …
This is the first of a couple of special OTR on-the-road columns from the United States. This week, as you know very well, we’re in Austin, but the city is not just about the annual outbreak of SXSW madness.
They really did build this city on rock’n’roll. The Live Music Capital of the World is the claim to fame on the city walls and you’d better believe it, man. Not, of course, that anyone is likely to forget that boast this week of all weeks. If it’s March and it’s Austin, it must be South By Southwest (SXSW).
But let’s stall a minute before we head to that rodeo. The thing about this city, a liberal metropolis in a state that usually votes red when it comes to elections, is that it’s a music town 52 weeks a year.
Those 100 odd (very odd, in some cases) venues which host SXSW shows aren’t dark the rest of the year. Some of them revert to other uses and, sure, the Central Presbyterian Church will revert to having worshippers rather than hipsters in the pews, yet Austin still has more than enough regular working venues to make it a true live music powerhouse. Forget Nashville or LA or New York, this is live music city USA.
While Austin only took on the self-proclaimed mantle of live music capital in 1991 on the back of a campaign by local blues musician Lillian Standfield, it was a go-to spot for rockin’, jivin’ and hoppin’ for decades before. A local chitlin circuit was at full pelt in the late 1920s and 1930s, but the arrival of outlaw country stalwarts in the Sixties and early Seventies like Willie Nelson put the Texas capital on the musical map.
More and more musos arrived to take advantage of laidback vibes, cheap digs, cheaper beer and the chance to jam with local retrobates. As country and bluegrass met stoner and hippie rock, an Austin Sound began to emerge from the haze. Later, punk and new-wave arrived by Greyhound bus to add to the musical melange.
When SXSW began back in 1987, the aim was to keep the focus on these local acts. Around 140 acts played and 700 people showed up. The organisers decided to keep going.
In 2012, the scale of what SXSW has become is just overwhelming. Leaving aside the massive interactive and film festivals (and the various strands about games, marketing, journalism, comedy and everything else), SXSW Music stars 2,000 acts from all over the globe.
Yes, like the bands who arrived here in the Sixties and Seventies, they’re after cheap beer and lodgings. But it’s the new school music business and that means they’re here to meet influential people, boost their profile and get some traction. A big record deal? Dude, it’s 2012, not 1992.
So here we are in the middle of the maelstrom. Like punters at Cheltenham, we have our tips and form books. We don’t have a horse outside, but we do have a bike to get us around that bit faster. SXSW in Austin in March: sure, where else would you be?