While nothing yields success more than success, this year's South-by-Southwest (SXSW) will probably be remembered more for resembling Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras rather than the world-class music conference that annually attracts industry insiders from across the globe. At times, it seemed spectacle outweighed substance as sensationalistic headlines at the event sometimes gained more attention than the actual music. Now a veritable marriage between the counter-culture and corporate America, with over 2200 live acts including 30 from the New Orleans/Baton Rouge area alone one can only hope that all of the unneeded negative press generated this year will have a trickle-down effect for the scores of dedicated musicians who spent their hard-earned money on a dream to move their careers forward at what is arguably now the most highly-anticipated music extravaganza on the globe.
If there were two themes that embodied the New Orleans/Baton Rouge music scene at this year's SXSW, they would be "down and dirty," as well as "No prophet is welcome in his hometown." These two separate anthems seemed to resonate with many New Orleans music acts either because they embody the harsh nature of the Crescent City streets itself, or simply because many local acts now find themselves having to consistently tour to find success with audiences outside of the region.
These ideas were no more evident and discussed on the business side during a highlight of the conference which was a multi-generational panel moderated by music critic extraordinaire John Swenson entitled "The Bartholomew Family: Three Generations of New Orleans Hitmaking." A fixture of the New Orleans music scene since the 1950s, patriarch Dave Bartholomew originally cut his teeth recording with Fats Domino for Imperial Records. Most recently, son Don B. ushered in the first wave of New Orleans hip hop working with Mystikal, Lil Wayne and the late Soulja Slim. As Don B's two sons Blake and Don now attempt to get their shine on in the region's well-known rap scene, the legacy continues today.
In terms of actual performance, both of these concepts certainly also seemed to be the case with electro-clash outfit Sexparty, who apparently has a bigger following in Boston than in their New Orleans stomping grounds. White Boy rap in the vein of Grand Buffet crossed with a degenerate version of Justin Bieber (who ironically performed at SXSW this year during a surprise show), Sexparty is a 3-piece that performs with GirlTalk tracks and a physical demeanor that looks like it was crafted during hard time in a Marlin Gusman jail cell. The irony of being white boy rappers in the "Biebs" vein is not lost on the band themselves, whose Internet-era nickname (#FFFFFF) is an HTML source code for "Super White." Along with a "hype girl" by the name of Good Time Sam, the duo kicked off the festivities in Austin and kept the audience moving throughout their set.
Boyfriend is the nom de plume of a UCLA graduate who resides in Nola and works with the artists from Sexparty. In exchange for music video production that Boyfriend provided, Sexparty recently produced 11 tracks of hers for her upcoming album that will be coming out this Spring. On a mild but slightly chilling evening, Boyfriend had one of those magical nights on a big stage that many SXSW artists only dream of. Starting out with a tepid-but-curious audience of around 10 people, by the end of the evening she had over 100 people dancing in unison having won over her indifferent audience with lyrics that would make Luke Campbell from Two Live Crew and Blowfly blush because of its X-rated content. Highlights of this evening included theatrics whereby Boyfriend began the set dressed as a school marm. By the end of the performance, she was scantily clad as though she was a Burlesque dancer for Fleur de Tease. When an artist can get an indifferent audience dancing like this, expect to see them playing major music festivals in the next calendar year.
If Big Freedia is the reigning queen of the sissy rap scene, its princess Katey Red brought a full-blown house party to SXSW in the guise of an official Nola Bounce showcase atop Avenue on Congress Rooftop. In addition to the non-stop party, what was impressive about this endeavor was the fact that "Katey" brought 15 artists from the Crescent City. One of the stars of the showcase was Killy Keys, a Caucasian dancer/rapper originally from Slidell who chopped it up with the slew of rappers from New Orleans proper.
Officially vacating the indie rock ghetto, Royal Teeth played to a completely packed house at the Chevy Courtyard @ Cedar Street demonstrating why they are at the tipping point of being a band with a national following. Whether one of their songs is heard on GM's Buick commercial or their forthcoming performance on "American Idol," it remains to be seen whether the band will completely "sell in" to use the expression coined by Lady Gaga, who received much derision from music critics including Jon Pareles from the New York Times due to her sponsorship deal with Doritos during South-by.
Speaking of Weezy, in a surprise move Lil Wayne (AKA "Dwayne Michael Carter, Jr.") made an appearance during the business component of the conference, being interviewed by former editor-in-chief of hip-hop authority XXL Magazine and Rap Radar impresario Elliott Wilson, making it immediately clear why the controversial rapper has advocates like Princeton University professor Dr. Cornell West and fans like iconic fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld: he's an articulate interviewee who is a consummate professional.
It was refreshing to hear Wilson push the New Orleans native to answer questions about his derogatory lyrics toward women, and Carter took it on the chin like a man citing creative license stating that his music is simply music that reflects his artistic expression. Carter also discussed the 2010 jail sentence he served on Riker's Island in New York after he pleaded guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon going so far as to say that his manager and fellow McMain School alum Cortez Bryant was interested in getting the jail memoirs published. Negatives aside, the most brilliant thing gleaned from Mr. Carter was his competitive nature regarding the music industry. For him, "the game" is essentially a full-contact sport for which he has no illusions. Comparing his personal life to off-court demeanor, he asserts his on-court behavior toward the music industry is fierce and one-upping his opponents was like "dunking" on them.
The surprise gem for this SXSW were rockers Moon Honey from Baton Rouge who performed with an unaffected INTENSITY. Working in a veritable vacuum being in "Red Stick" 60 miles away from the Crescent City, the band's sound can best be described as "backwoods Goth." While the band's biggest insecurity might be being isolated away from the celebrated New Orleans music scene mecca, it is this writer's opinion that being disconnected from New Orleans is what is creating their uniqueness and whatever they're doing up there in woods they should keep doing it because it's working! Only after speaking to the band was it discovered that they are a major buzz band with write-ups in the New York Times, Baton Rouge Advocate, and NPR.
In all, it was clearly impossible to see every New Orleans/Baton Rouge act simply because of the sheer volume of performances. The gigantic crowds on the street were also difficult to navigate and unfortunately too many people were there for the party and not the music itself which is something SXSW needs to address. At one point during her set directly following the New Orleans collective Tysson (playing 2014's JazzFest and VoodooFest) fronted by John Michael Rouchell featuring double-drummers Alvin Ford, Jr. and Joe Dyson, New York City singer/songwriter Jilette Johnson thanked her audience stating, "I'm grateful to you for being here with me and I'm so glad we're not out there with that mass of people."
While the music conference is an incredible economic boon for the city, the collateral damage was felt this year when an intoxicated driver plowed through a police barricade killing three people and injuring over a dozen more. While it would be absurd to blame SXSW for this tragedy, festival organizers may want to somewhat consider partially returning to their roots when the music conference was a springboard for many music acts to move onto the next level and not a haven for already established stars. As New Orleans frontman Ben Glover for the delta psychedelic music band Bipolaroid now sees it, after playing an official South-by-Southwest showcase for Get Hip Records, having the music conference's official stamp of approval almost doesn't matter anymore. Despite playing in front of a full-house at their venue, this New Orleans-based band resembling Bardo Pond and Brian Jonestown Massacre band believes the SXSW imprimatur does not guarantee success because acts can book their own shows during the timeframe and having the SXSW brand on your showcase does not mean your group will breakthrough. While being invited to play an official showcase is in and of itself an accomplishment that cannot be scoffed at whether your showcase is attended by thousands or simply one person who is moved by your music, what seems certain is that SXSW will continue to have a permanent impact on the international music landscape.