Maverick 57This year is the 20th anniversary of SXSW in Austin, Texas and for the second year running, I won’t be going. Am I bovvered? Not really, to be honest. The moment I started seeing frizzed-haired L.A. Rock stars in thick black shades spilling out of their Presidential limos on 6th Street, I had a feeling the game was up. ‘South By’ has changed. The buzz is there but the love has gone.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Austin is great. Considering it’s the Capital of the Lone Star State and the heart of Bush country, it’s a surprisingly liberal and attractive city …a blue island in the red (neck) sea. It has a University campus that’s bigger than Banbury, housing more than 55,000 students from all over the world, so it’s genuinely cosmopolitan. The food is fabulous, with the flavours of spices from across the Mexican border, only three hundred miles away. It’s got Waterloo Records, one of the best record shops on the planet. Spring is beautiful, particularly up by the Lakes. And Austin truly is the live music capitol of the world.

There are more venues per square inch in Austin than anywhere I’ve ever been to, showcasing musical styles from right across the board…Rap at the front bar, Western Swing next door, Country out the back. 6th Street is a cacophony of sound. Which band to see or not to see becomes a mental satellite navigation audio system overload.

The role-call of local musicians is simply awesome…Joe Ely, the Boxcar Preachers, Shawn Colvin, Slaid Cleaves, Chris Duarte, the Gourds, Chris Wall, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Trish Murphy, Kelly Willis, Bruce and Charlie Robison, Dale Watson, Reckless Kelly, Sunny Sweeney, Idgy Vaughn, Asleep At The Wheel, the Derailers, Abra Moore, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Eliza Gilkyson, Bob Schneider, Robert Earl Keen…I could go on. It’s a list that could probably fill the rest of this page, even without adding past masters such as Townes Van Zandt, Doug Sahm and Stevie Ray Vaughan, a musical heritage that SXSW was established to help celebrate and promote.

The vibrancy of the Austin music scene can be traced back to the early days of the city’s history (from Mexican, German and colonial origins) and a tolerance to many different musical styles survives. But the classic problem facing Austin musicians is their geographical location…being isolated from the rest of the world. Nashville grew as a music city largely because of its position and accessibility. Austin, however, is in the middle of the Southern end of a State of America that’s just absolutely huge. Texas is so big…it’s bigger than France! It’s quite possible for a musician to make a successful living there without ever having to cross the State line, but for people with wider horizons, the location has been a frustration…getting heard has been a problem. SXSW was therefore set up as a way to reach out to the rest of the world.

To quote the Festival web site…‘National interest in SXSW was immediate. For years, music businesses on both coasts had been intrigued by what was going on in Austin. The cosmic cowboy, blues, punk and other scenes had already proven that Austin was a receptive place for bands to be creative. With SXSW, music industry executives gained a good excuse to visit. International interest began the second year due to many Austin and American bands find their first success in Europe. Conversely, there was a lot of interest from SXSW registrants in the international bands who came to perform. The music event has grown from 700 people in 1987 to nearly 10,000 people’.

Ah…and there’s the rub. For me, SXSW has become too big, too corporate.

When I first visited in 1999, there was a loose, celebratory feel to the Festival. People were real friendly, y’all. It really did seem to be about the music. Now, it’s much more to about the music business…big record companies flying in cool bands to play showcases in front of cool people flown in to see cool bands. There always was some of that of course, but now it’s just got too much. I suppose there must have been a decision-making process…whether to let it get so big, or whether to try and contain it a little to retain some of the original ethos. Whatever happened, they’ve got the balance wrong. Not that I’m completely blameless. Maybe, if Mark Lamarr and I hadn’t kept going on about what a great time we were having…

Anyway, this year I’m going north, to NXNE, Canada’s more organic equivalent festival. NXNE takes place in Toronto from 7-10 June, with 450 bands playing 30 different venues through the 4 days and nights. I’m the keynote speaker this year and will be broadcasting two programmes live from the Festival on Radio 2. We also plan to commandeer a venue to do a ‘Bob Harris Presents’ evening, with some of my favourite Canadian artists playing live. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I’m looking forward to it all.

If you’re planning to go to SXSW this year, get yourself off the beaten track…to the Broken Spoke on Saturday, the home of western swing, and to see Dale Watson at Ginny’s Little Longhorn on the Sunday to bet on the chicken shit bingo. Otherwise, be prepared to queue, even if you’ve paid several hundred dollars for a laminate that says you don’t have to (queues outside the venue make the band look cool!).

Alternatively, you could visit anytime that isn’t SXSW. You’ll get a true taste of a wonderful city and you’ll hear some of the greatest music in the world, played by some of the world’s greatest musicians. By then, most of them should be back in town.

Nu-folk, nu-acoustic, singer/songwriter. It doesn’t matter what you call it…this is music that means something. The future’s bright. The future’s nu-folk!

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