When the electronica revolution hit Austin, Texas' South By Southwest festival four years ago, it was hard to picture how anonymous DJ culture was going to coexist with four nights of indie rock, Americana and roots music.
But now, even though the electronica invasion has faded somewhat from public consciousness, you're almost as likely to see a rapper or button-pushing mixer during the fest as you are a standup bass player or string-tie-wearin' Tex-Mex combo.
When the 14th annual music gathering kicks off Wednesday, it will have the usual wide variety of acts 1,000 total. But as far as creative director Brent Grulke is concerned, at this point beats and boots are just business as usual in this music Mecca.
"The interaction between electronic music and hip-hop now represents a really significant part of the festival in a way that was virtually nonexistent a few years ago," said Grulke, who has been involved with the festival every year of its existence.
Part music-industry confab, part band showcase and all about schmoozing, SXSW is the kind of place where you can see ya'llternative singer/songwriter Sally Timms playing just a few doors down from ghetto tech star DJ Assault.
Its 8,000-plus registered attendees will descend on the college town and state capital to stumble from venue to venue, drink beer, eat barbecue and check out panels on such topics as, "How Do You Publicize a Mike Watt in a Britney Spears World?" "It's not just the numbers [of hip-hop groups] involved," Grulke said. "We now have very established talent that performs, we have two of our largest venues, Stubb's and the Austin Music Hall, with entire nights dedicated to hip-hop this year." Among the big names on tap for this year are twangy singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams, who will debut some of the material from her upcoming album, Broken Butterflies, (due in the spring) and the Black Crowes, in town to preview songs from their upcoming album, Lions (May 8).
Also performing are hip-hoppers Jurassic 5, the Liks and Black Eyed Peas; local rockers Fastball; experimental turntablist DJ Spooky; and a rare show from ex-Tina Turner hubby Ike Turner with his Ike Turner Revue.
Psychedelic popster Robyn Hitchcock will head up a reunited version of his late-'70s psych-pop band the Soft Boys, and Juliana Hatfield will take the stage for a reunion with her mid-'80s Boston pop rock group the Blake Babies.
Other acts performing on more than 40 stages include bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs, Los Angeles rock 'n' soul act the Bellrays, arty poppers the New Pornographers, Japanese pop punkers Ex-Girl, Canadian live house band the New Deal, turntablists X-ecutioners, world beat star Thomas Mapfumo, Latin all-star band Los Super Seven and Los Angeles punk rockers Texas Terri & the Stiff Ones.
Grulke said the festival also will feature one of the biggest slates to date of world music acts. Joining such international rock bands as Aterciopelados (Colombia), Coccoon Pit (Japan), the Gift (Portugal) and Yao (China) will be more than 70 other acts spanning the globe, including Moroccan reggae group Sawt el Atlas, world beat singer Henri Dikongue (Cameroon), Hungary's DJ Pozsi and hip-hoppers Pepe Deluxe (Finland).
SXSW's star-making mythos has been overstated in the past, but it is a good opportunity for bands to get in front of what is arguably one of the biggest concentrations of U.S. music media. No pressure, right? Just imagine if it was among your first-ever U.S. performances. That's the case for English hip-hop/punk group Brassy, who will have played just five shows in this country before unleashing their Digital-Hardcore-meets-Luscious-Jackson sound on the media elite Friday night.
"I don't know anything about it," said lead singer/guitarist Muffin Spencer, 32, an expat American who said she left the U.S. 14 years ago because she thought British bands were more interesting. "We met with our former publishing company and there was a little old man there who said it [SXSW] is a place to go and get smashed on tequila, which sounds fine." Spencer, younger sister of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion leader Jon Spencer, said she thinks the festival will be a good chance for critics who might have missed the recent U.S. release of the band's full-length debut, Got It Made, to check out their energetic live show. The 17-track album features such break-beat pop as "Work It Out" and the band's electro-punk anthem "No Competition." Grulke said one thing that won't be as prominent in the festival's sprawling trade-show area this year is the proliferation of dot-com booths that sprung up like weeds last year. "A lot of those companies that didn't know what their business agendas were are gone," Grulke said.