Super Size Me: The Reality of SXSW 2013

Posted March 15, 2013 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Despite being too big for its indie britches, SXSW marches on as the ultimate opener to festival season

Let’s get the big news out of the way.

Prince is heading to SXSW.

Now the bad news.

You’re probably not going to see him, unless you got that platinum badge or you play this silly lottery to get in.

The South By Southwest (SXSW) Festival, held in Austin, Texas, is no longer the grassroots discovery festival it once was. Now, it attracts all the major superstars, all the big shots, and all the money-hungry big labels that a super-sized music festival should. Just to give you an idea of how serious the lineup is this year, Green Day will be performing to an enthusiastic crowd of fans eager to see Billie Joe Armstrong return to the stage after his 2012 rehab stint. Add Justin Timberlake, Kendrick Lamar, Jim JamesNick Cave, Vampire Weekend, Dave Grohl’s Sound City Players, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Leonard Cohen, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings and the burgeoning Alt-J to the 2013 line-up.

And now the press is complaining about large crowds, high prices and everything else.

Dallas Morning News critic Mario Tarradell missed his place at Dave Grohl’s keynote speech due to the SXSW’s crowds and – by his own omission – the failure to bring along the sacred all-access badge. “It gets me into official SXSW events, of which Grohl’s speech is definitely one of them,” he wrote. “There’s no getting passed the SXSW police without it. They check for it with keen eyes.”

Even the stars are complaining.

“Of the three times we’ve been to SXSW, this has been the most intensive,” Sara Quin, told Rolling Stone. The synth-driven indie pop duo, who released Heartthrob earlier this year, are performing six times at this year’s SXSW.

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis performing at SXSW 2013.

PA problems even plagued the Macklemore & Ryan Lewis showcase. The popular rap duo, known for the No. 1 hit song “Thrift Shop,” were marred with additional problems throughout the set when it took over ten minutes to restore sound to good conditions. “That was, like, the worst concert I’ve ever been to in my life,” one participant told Rolling Stone.

But let’s be real. SXSW is one super-hyped fantasy event. Kendrick Lamar headlined the Spotify SXSW show, but it was rapper Schoolboy Q that walked away with the loudest buzz when he took a sassy swipe at Kanye West’s jet set decision-making: “Rappers shouldn’t be onstage with models.” Apparently this was more than just a jab at his baby mama Kim Kardashian, it was also an uppercut  at his on-stage appearances at Victoria’s Secret fashion shows in the past.

On Wednesday, Tegan and Sara joined Paramore at the Warner Sound stage for a night of infectious punk rock power.

Lots of music documentaries made their visual presentations at the film portion of SXSW. Keynote speaker Dave Grohl is showing off his labour of love, Sound City: Real to Reel, which celebrates the infamous L.A. studio that birthed legacy albums like Foreigner’s Double Vision, Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Fleetwood Mac’s self-titled album. It’s the Foo Fighter’s first foray into the world of movie directing and features appearances from Stevie Nicks, Rick Springfield, Lindsey Buckingham, Butch Vig and Rick Rubin.

Other films are also making their way to the SXSW stage. The Greg Camalier-directed Muscle Shoals wowed many music lovers and critics at the Paramount Theater, with The Express-News declaring  it was the “perfect start” to SXSW Music. The feature tells the often untold story of the North Alabama studio (FAME Studios) that created the landmark soundtracks for Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Percy Sledge. Like Memphis’s Stax Records, FAME was also an important birthplace for racial harmony within the music industry. “We were color blind,” FAME owner Rick Hall says in the film.

Good news for the ‘Muscle Shoals’ doc: entrepreneur Mark Cuban, co-owner of Magnolia Pictures, decided to pick up the film for nationwide distribution and may make its way into select theaters. It’s also slated to air on PBS’s Independent Lens in the near future.

The tumultuous life of New Orleans jazz man James Booker is even the subject of Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker. “Booker’s problem was that he shot himself in the foot so many times, and it comes out in the film,” says Don Williams, who owns Booker’s life rights and publishing. “That doesn’t discount the fact he was a genius at the keyboard. He deserves to be acknowledged for what he did.”

Film director Morgan Neville worked on the Booker film and will be showcasing another film of his: the highly-talked about doc Twenty Feet From Stardom. The film explores the legacy of background singers and the shadows they often linger in. Some of the film’s subjects are prominently well-known to the ear (Patti Austin, Darlene Love) and some haven’t earned their just due (Lisa Fischer, Lynn Mabry, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton). The Sundance film favorite is making major noise at SXSW and will be making its share of rounds on the film circuit throughout much of the summer.

Music critic and author Nelson George is also showing off his Kickstarter-sponsored documentary about funk. George told his Facebook followers that Finding the Funk is still in development and has not been tweaked in post-production. “The film is still a work-in-progress,” he says, “but its not far from being complete. There will be more screenings in the near future as we refine it.”

Despite not being near complete, it warrants the attention of the proudest funkateers. The film, narrated by ?uestlove, focuses on Sly Stone, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Shelia E. and Slave’s Steve Arrington. Sorry, no Prince sighting here. For that, you have to play the lottery and hope that you’re one of the “beautiful ones.”




Stay tuned for our special coverage of the best 2013 music docs.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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