NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Some of the worst predictions for SXSW's Music portion this year came true, but I'm not complaining.
As Jason Notte lamented in his March 14 article the event has clearly become overly commercialized and, as a result, fairly predictable. Far too many business cards. Far too few truly new ideas.
But at the same time, within that rather lame framework were scattered a thousand surprises, moments that, if they didn't take your breath away, at least sustained your interest and gave you reason to continue trudging sleepless through the tattooed streets of Austin at midnight, looking for another happy fix.
The 24-hour cycle of camaraderie alone was worth the trip. Most of the folks you ran into were either festival participants or Austin locals who recognized that your bemused tourist stare meant money in local coffers. In both cases, they were happy to talk, to share a moment of silliness or a beer and talk about your favorite band.
Most of what we needed to see, hear and taste was within a couple dozen blocks' radius of the downtown Convention Center, seen above from my hotel room window. A light rail, bicycle and auto taxis were there to haul you around if you didn't feel like hoofing it. I spent a lot of time walking those streets, usually at something close to a run, and my legs were sore for days after.
In the following pictures, you'll have the opportunity to observe what Notte terms the "total victory of commerce over creativity." But I hope also you'll also find reason to wish you had been there.
The image above is an example of the best of the worst. That's a statue of the movie version of the "Lord of the Rings" character Gollum, making a photo-op appearance at a media company's exhibit booth inside the Austin Convention Center. I happen to love the Lord of the Rings movies and what director Peter Jackson has done with the J.R.R. Tolkein story and love the whimsy of stumbling onto a lifesized statue of the twisted and thoroughly pitiful character of Gollum.
But there's no getting around that Gollum is a bigtime celebrity now -- not the weird private demon of my childhood, but a Hollywood movie star. And as a celebrity, he was there to push product.
That's what the vision of SXSW has become, in a nutshell: picking select tokens of mass appeal that can act as magical gatekeepers for sellers of the fantasy of hipness. Every exhibitor wants to be Fairy Godmother to your Cinderella, Morpheus to your Neo and yes, Gollum to your Frodo. Every singer wants to be your Mick Jagger, every band, your Beatles.
There's no room for real individuality in that climate. There's only store-bought individuality; pretend individuality. That's different from the SXSW of even a few years ago, when individuality reigned.
Still, I enjoyed myself. I ate a lot of tacos, drank a few local beers. I met a lot of great, friendly people, saw a few legends, a few extremely talented acts and many mediocre ones, enjoyed more than few delightful surprises. I steered clear of Lady Gaga and the iTunes Festival and tried to find unknown acts that would pique my interest. I shared in equal measure in the festival's blessings and sins, its joys and tragedies.
And I came away exhausted, satisfied, but knowing that I had seen a "South-By" bigger only in size -- in spirit, a pale shadow of its former glory.
Seeing Neil Young prowl the stage hyping his PonoPlayer and his new company PonoMusic was a pretty unforgettable experience and a tremendous way to kick off my visit to SXSW. It would have been even better to hear some actual music.
Young's Pono is an end-to-end high-quality digital audio system that will put the best possible audio experience within reach of even the most casual listener. The player itself is a three-sided device with simple, elegant controls that can hold hundreds of the high-resolution digital audio files the PonoMusic Web site will sell.
Trashing the quality of MP3s and even CDs as inadequate to recreate the recordings that artists make in the studio, Young said, "Pono plays back whatever the artist decided to do," leaving it to the artist to decide the resolution or quality of a track.
As a salesman, Young is funny, honest and direct, making fun of his CEO John Hamm and being appallingly frank about his own motivations and expectations for the business.
"This is about rescuing an art form," he said, more than once. It's not about creating a company or a product that will crush the competition. It doesn't matter to him whether Pono succeeds or fails as a business, he said, as long as the technology survives and the bar for audio quality is reset higher.
"I love making records," he said. "I love every song on every record. I love every note of every song on every record."
But we didn't hear any music. According to some industry talk, PonoMusic was supposed to unveil the whole Pono system in an exhibit at SXSW, but ran into trouble meeting the deadline. As a result, venture capital refused to sign on and they had to come to the festival with only a pitch for a Kickstarter campaign.
That doesn't mean Pono itself is dead though. Plenty of people, including dozens of well-known artists in the business, believe in Young's mission. The Kickstarter campaign's initial goal of $800,000 dollars was blown away within hours and now stands at $4.5 million with 13,251 backers and 25 days left to run.
I couldn't help being disappointed by the lack of music in Young's appearance, either from him or from Pono, but hearing a genius artist talk for an hour about something he loves is still pretty thrilling.
The food in Austin was a rich vein of pleasure. Food trucks were everywhere -- some of them were just what you would expect and some of them were practically gourmet.
You could OD on tacos in a couple days. Breakfast tacos -- an area specialty -- was one of the most talked about variations on the whole tortilla-and-filling thing.
The trucks were always an option, but the storefronts also offered a broad selection of food for any pallet. With Deb Borchardt and videographer Sophie Bearman, I had great conversation and Creole steak to die for at Old Pecan Street Cafe on Trinity Street downtown. A Mexican dinner on my own a couple nights later at the busy El Sol y La Luna restaurant on Sixth Avenue -- a street packed with festival goers 16 hours a day -- was equally satisfying, if a lot less fancy. The colorful tile mural that takes up one wall is worth stopping in to see.
Most of the time, the schedule was so busy it necessitated just grabbing food on the go -- hence, the food trucks. There were also pizza places, including the improbable, Hoboken Pie (I didn't get a chance to sample and compare their fare against the real deal in New Jersey) and Hoek's Death Metal Pizza on Sixth -- the pie at Hoek's was just so-so by New Jersey standards, but I had to eat there for the name.
One of the beautiful themes among the exhibitors this year was a kind of steam punk, "back to the future" meme. This vinyl cutter could record anything you want directly to vinyl. I sincerely doubt very many people are going to want one in their home or request that their new CDs are vinylized. But it points up how vinyl -- pronounced dead in 1990s -- has been brought back to life as a niche market for audiophiles, answering a longing for higher-quality music ownership notably absent in digital music markets.
Elsewhere among the exhibitors, the Hammond organ company had a display of its latest digital keyboards recreating the classic sounds of its old tube-driven electronic organs and the accompanying Leslie rotating speakers. That combination defined what we think of as gospel and soul records for decades and has maintained significant cultural currency through decades of synth-pop, electronica and hip-hop sampling.
Another business, Bohemian Guitars, was displaying its boutique electric six-strings made almost entirely from recycled instruments, except with a body made out of lunch boxes and other colorful metal tins. I played one of these small, travel sized instruments -- with a Beatles lunch box body -- and found them surprisingly well-balanced, with satisfying action on the finger board and a solid, blues-tinged tone. The metal body acts like a resonator, giving the tone -- even unplugged -- a bit of character and heft.
The music was really what I went to SXSW for. I wanted to be surprised, to make some cool discoveries, to be blown away by styles I didn't expect.
Some of that happened. But mostly I heard a lot of bands trying to sound like each other, or like the big name acts. Even the best tended to be somewhat disappointing on the originality scale.
By far my most interesting find of the festival was the Mexican Institute of Sound. This act is basically DJ Camilo Lara, shown above, and whatever musicians he decides to work with. Lara was solo this outing, spinning a combination of traditional and pop tunes (including a hilariously timed Blister in the Sun by the Violent Femmes), sound painting on a canvas of cultural expectations for a crowd of probably more than half native Spanish speakers.
What sets Lara apart from other DJs can't be described succinctly, except to call it artistry. He draws heavily on traditional Mexican styles, mixing them with cool urban hip-hop sensibilities and beats. His original work takes on political overtones, as in the popular 2012 track Mexico. His T-Shirt says "Mexico Is a White Canvas," a slogan we were meant to ponder and that, to my mind, has about three different possible meanings, probably all intentional.
Even just spinning other people's tunes, he is the Diego Rivera of DJs, creating huge abstract landscapes that are easily accessible, recognizable and powerful all at once.
I loved listening to him at Austin's Mexican American Cultural Center. I wish he had done more of the more experimental original material that attracted me to him from his recordings, but probably it was the wrong venue for it.
Among other acts that I enjoyed, the Australian Rufus du Sol appeared about to break big in the U.S. I heard them at the SoundCloud venue with an audience that probably didn't reach 100 people at its peak. A sexy, polished blend of electronic dance music with a world music and rock sensibility, every song seemed built on some intriguing rhythm and honed, flexible vocals. Rufus is continuing a tour of the U.S. right now, swinging through New York with an appearance at the Highline Ballroom, March 26.
A Brooklyn-based experimental singer and electronics artist Tei Shi built her style on classical influences a la Bjork. There were about 20 people in the small Iron Bear bar on 8th St. to hear Tei Shi. Two Berlin bands, HVOB and Ballet School provided back-to-back gemstone sets at Austin's club Lucille on Rainey Street, which served as the German Haus stage. Both acts were a lot of fun and great examples of the Berlin scene, likewise playing to smaller crowds.
In the midst of all the food and the fun, I still had actual work to do and that meant an endless string of panel discussions and interviews in the streaming music space.
Notice how fresh and awake everyone looks in the above photograph? That was taken on Wednesday, at the first panel discussion titled "Man Vs. Machine: The Curation Dilemma". A schedule of all-day panels and presentations and all-night music venues took its toll. By Saturday, when I attended the last of the panels on my list, "Global Music Cities" panelists and audience members alike were looking baggy eyed and just about ready to keel over. I'll avoid embarrassing anybody by just not posting those photos.
The folks in the photo above are, left to right, moderator Stephen White, president of Gracenote, Chris Becherer, Vice President of Production at Rdio, Eric Bieschke, Chief Scientist and Vice President of Playlists at Pandora (P), Tim Quirk, head of Global Content Programming for Google (GOOG) Play, and Mark Ruxin, CEO and founder of TastemakerX, a social media music discovery game. Missing from the photo, but present at the panel discussion, is Ian Rogers, CEO of Beats Music.
Frequently, in attempt to hear one act, you would wind up hearing somebody you never expected and wouldn't have given a thought about otherwise. Showing up to hear Neil Young, for instance, I stumbled into a session featuring Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talking about the need for the development of cultural opportunities in urban planning for big cities. I could get a couple articles just on the part of that discussion I heard, but I was so stunned (not to mention sleep deprived) that I didn't turn my recorder on and lost a good bit of the conversation.
The biggest and best surprise of that type at the festival a performance by Austin Samba drummers and dancers at the Mexican American Cultural Center at the far end of Rainey Street. I had arrived early to hear the Mexican Institute of Sound. Just as I walked in, the dancers in their costumes were lining up and within minutes the drumming started.
The Austin Samba School is the largest samba club in the U.S., counting over 40 drummers and 60 dancers in its membership. The performers cleared the audience from the large area in front of the stage and went right on, the audience getting involved, for a full 45 minutes as the sun set, the stage lights came on and the full moon rose over Austin.
It wasn't the most expert dancing, but it was passionate and authentic. Samba is often described as sexy, but its really has a lot more to do with power and muscle. For a musician like myself, the Brazilian rhythms in the drumming were worth more than the price of admission (free, by the way, but I would have paid). But the dancers, particularly the white-gowned queen seen above, gave the performance a sense of physicality and joyous, almost religious ritual.
Corny, hilarious, awkward, beautiful, totally delightful -- bottom line: I couldn't have asked for a better show right then.
James Williamson is both the former and current guitarist from the proto-punk '70s legend The Stooges, featuring Iggy Pop. At one of the weirder panel discussions, he traced the origins of that band and his midlife career as a computer executive for Sony (SNE) in Silicon Valley. Along with Williamson on that panel was the always entertaining Buzz Osborne of the equally influential and legendary proto-grunge (and still performing) act, The Melvins, who seemed to have been invited just to spice up the story-telling with a few jokes.
The Stooges struggled to develop and keep an audience for their entire initial performance career. With followings in the big urban centers, they still couldn't connect with a mass market, either on radio or on live tours. The band broke up after a particularly bad encounter with a group of bikers in Detroit left them demoralized.
Williamson did studio work and tried his hand at producing and working as a recording engineer. But within a few years he left had music, giving away his guitar, to enter the nascent personal computer industry. He was fascinated by the technology and surprised he could make a living doing something he loved.
Thirty-five years later he took early retirement, keeping a relationship with Sony as a consultant, asked for his guitar back and rejoined The Stooges for a reunion tour that launched before 40,000 people in Brazil.
"It's the perfect retirement plan," Buzz quipped. He also observed that Williamson and the band were probably playing for more people in Brazil than they ever played for total in the original incarnation of The Stooges.
Among the funnier stories from the original Stooges: Williamson had a pair of leather thigh-high boots made that wouldn't allow him to bend his knees. He had to be shipped to the venue laying down on his back and stood upright by his bandmates in order to play the gig.
In the photo above, Williamson was playing a few riffs and familiar progressions from Stooges songs and showed how they had their origins in more familiar nursery rhymes and popular songs. Discovering years later that Shake Appeal from the band's album Raw Power was based on the Lone Ranger theme was "like going to an analyst for five years and having him tell you you love your mother," Williamson said. "I know I love my mother! I love the Lone Ranger."
In a sad irony, Scott Asheton, the drummer and one of the founding members of The Stooges, died Saturday, March 15, the day after I saw the Williamson panel at SXSW. The cause was reported as a heart attack.
Of course, the lowest point of the festival for everyone was also the biggest headline -- the tragedy on Red River Street. Two people killed at the scene as a driver tried to elude a police check point by driving the wrong way down a one-way street, then breaking through barricades to plow for two blocks through a crowd of pedestrians outside the Mohawk. A third person died of injuries later and 22 others were treated for injuries. The headline above says it all.
I was on my way to try to get into the Mohawk to hear Tyler the Creator, who was scheduled to go on at 1 p.m. By the time I arrived, three blocks of Red River on either side of the club were alive with emergency vehicles, flashing lights and uniformed police.
The driver was charged with capital murder and aggravated assault.
The festival goers did their best to simultaneously grieve and shake off the tragedy. But it stayed in the headlines and remained a shadow over every conversation for the rest of the week.
-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park and New York City.