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The white noise of non-stop marketing, over-communication and the paralysis of message onslaught makes the festival at times a pop-up Tower of Babel.
SXSW DISPATCH #4:
EMBRACING THE SPRAWL
Our Correspondent Jeff Leven Slouches Towards Babylon as the Austin Fest Draws to a Close
While there were no shortages of buzz bands playing eight to 10 times at SXSW, one of this year’s more tireless performers was one of its most undersung.  Having made one of the greatest Texas albums of all timeThe Texas-Jerusalem Crossroadsa decade ago with his band Lift to Experience, Josh T. Pearson decamped to Europe, where a fervent grassroots following has rightly lionized him and prompted Mute to sign him as a solo artist.  On the heels of his new release, Last of the Country Gentlemen, Pearson has played half of the venues on the periphery of Austin this week, including a bracing solo set far west at the Mean-Eyed Cat.

While the Texan musical vertebrae of SXSW are likely to remain intact as long as Austin hosts the festival, this year is also ample evidence that one of the event’s traditional weaknesses has perhaps finally been overcome.  With an agenda traditionally dominated by roots and indie rock, SXSW had always tried and largely failed to meaningfully showcase hip-hop at a higher level.  This week, however, witnessed (albeit often unofficial) sets from Snoop Dogg, Lil ‘B with a visit from Diddy, Wiz Khalifa, Lupe Fiasco, Big K.R.I.T., Freddie Gibbs, Odd Future (who have alternately been hailed and reviled for their SXSW sets which included, in one case, a smug walk-off after three songs), Curren$y and, of course, Kanye West with an appearance by Jay-Z, to name only the most visible.  On some level, this may itself be a function of the growing cultural convergence between the indie-rock and hip-hop worlds (visible to anyone who has glanced at Pitchfork recently or noticed Bon Iver on Kanye’s album), but maybe also due to the dozens of brand activations that are happy to provide a platform for the edgier, youth-galvanizing wings of the mainstream, much of which is inevitably hip-hop. 

Lurking in this latter phenomenon may be a more complex challenge of the soul.  While it may be commercially somewhat inevitable that a certain number of the crucial experiences at a festival like SXSW (or Sundance, or even in and around Coachella) occur on brand-engineered private islands accessible only by pass, guest list or limited RSVP, the white noise of non-stop marketing, over-communication and the paralysis of message onslaught makes the festival at times a pop-up Tower of Babel.  While Bob Geldof attacked that citadel overtly in his keynote, the problem goes beyond art and commerce and to larger questions of communication, purpose and community...by and large it seems harder to create any commonality of experience at a festival that has always been a week of choose-your-own adventure but has increasingly become a raw splatter of concurrent happenings, many of which are accessible only to the few.  While it seems like sloppy projection to treat SXSW as a microcosm of much more than maybe the current slate of musical offerings, arguably in real-time it has mirrored the dizzying sprawl that is the on-line world, as event planning gives way to the chaos that scales with size.  Is SXSW too much of an event or not enough of one?

In this light, while plenty of commentators have noted the inevitable solipsism of festival coverage in the midst of human crises in Japan and Libya, SXSW, to its credit, put together a 12-hour online telethon to benefit Japan, while the festival’s annual Japan Nite collected donations, as did the merch booth and the Elysium show that featured Sean Lennon’s Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger project (a set which did include one “Saber Tooth Tiger Blood” comment in a week that has otherwise been refreshingly short on Charlie Sheen references) as well as a compelling closing performance by Yoko Ono (who was backed by Wilco’s Nels Cline, among others). 

The day’s other musical highlights included a soaring set from rockers Greek Fire, who rousted an impassioned crowd at Emo’s, a tight and tuneful performance by Family of the Year, a screaming throwdown on hot pavement in the afternoon by D.R.U.G.S. and great sets by metal stalwarts Memphis May Fire, rock sets by Kill It Kid, Man in Space, Jesse Malin (who fought through sound problems with a fervently crowd-assisted cover of the Replacements’ “Bastards Of Young”) and a flooring romp by the Greenhornes.  Other acts getting high marks included Les Butcherettes, Neon Trees, Kurt Vile, Das Racist, Club Dubai and Plankton (well, maybe not Planktonvirtual high-five if you catch the reference).   

While it’s hard to wrap up some the questions posed above in any clean way, SXSW remains a work in progress, an institution that has, if nothing else, fielded the flow of tens of thousands of great performances in its 25-year span which, in and of itself, is a thing to celebrate with, well, a few thousand more performances.  With the week winding down (and, apparently one of the brightest moons on record in a few decades), there was little left to do but clap for one more encore and raise a toast to next year in Jerusalem, er, Babylon, er, um, Texas. 

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