The beast that consumes Austin also gives back

By Lynne Margolis

(May/June 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 3)

Having long ago morphed from an 800-pound gorilla to King Kong and Godzilla combined, South By Southwest, the beast that takes over Austin every March, featured 2,286 officially showcasing acts this year — and an untold number of extracurricular artists. Oh, and it only took 26 years, but Bruce Springsteen showed up.

The day after making a surprise appearance at the Austin Music Awards and performing with Alejandro Escovedo and Joe Ely, the Boss delivered a one-for-the-ages keynote speech that touched on every facet of rock history, as well as the love and hope and sex and dreams of teenagers, young adults and even mature rock stars. (For the first time, even non-registrants got to experience the keynote, which was broadcast live and streamed online by NPR; also published the transcript.)

That night, Springsteen and an expanded E Street Band thrilled fans with an out-of-the-ballpark ACL Live at the Moody Theater show, complete with crowd-surfing, that even seen-it-all critics talked about for days afterward. His onstage guests again included Escovedo and Ely, plus Tom Morello, Jimmy Cliff, the Low Anthem, members of Arcade Fire and the Animals’ Eric Burdon, whom he learned was in town after confessing during his speech that every song he’s ever written — “everything I’ve done for the past 40 years, including all the new ones” — was lifted directly from the Animals. (Burdon also appeared at Lone Star Music’s Saxon Pub showcase, though just as a listener.)

Gary Clark Jr. (Photo by Lynne Margolis)

Gary Clark Jr. (Photo by Lynne Margolis)

Megawatt stars showed up all over Austin, including onstage at three free-to-the-public Auditorium Shores shows (the Shins, Counting Crows and the Cult each headlined). Among the biggest buzz acts were Alabama Shakes and Austin’s own Gary Clark Jr. R.E.M.’s Mike Mills and Peter Buck showed up on several stages, including a Big Star tribute and Escovedo’s annual Sunday-night Continental Club show, where the Patti Smith Group’s Lenny Kaye also performed.

In a further blurring of the lines between SXSW’s music, film and interactive segments (interactive now being the largest, with 24,569 registrants to music’s 18,988 and film’s 16,490), the conference trade show was merged into one four-day event, with a separate Music Gear Expo, ScreenBurn Arcade gaming exhibit and Style X fashion showcase in addition to the Flatstock poster show. Napster co-founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker were among many high-wattage interviewees; so were Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson.

Although SXSW, with its unholy traffic jams and hordes of over-indulgent spring-break partiers, now taxes Austinites’ patience to near-breaking, detractors should be relieved to know it pumped $168 million into Austin’s economy in 2011, according to an analysis by Greyhill Advisors (2012 figures are not yet available). Results of a city-commissioned study released at the start of SXSW revealed the area’s creative sector, including gaming, film, music, and visual and other arts, contributed $4.35 billion to the local economy in 2010.

That kind of cash may not make sitting in gridlocked traffic any more pleasant, but it sure can fill up a lot of tip jars.