- Posted on Mar 21st 2011 1:30PM by Joshua Ostroff
Getty Images (2) | Joseph Llanes for AOL | WireImage
After the tight squeeze of Great Recession downsizing, the fest's 25th anniversary surged back in size, with performances spilling out all over the city, from every bar, parking lot, back alley and rooftop. It was hard to walk a block downtown without bumping into a New Orleans brass band, sidewalk rap battle, indie rock icon or a Snoop Dogg parking lot tribute to Nate Dogg, who passed away on the festival's first night.
SXSW has always positioned itself as a place to discover new music -- and in 2011 it maintained its rep as a place where hype becomes buzz, be it anthemic Brit rockers the Vaccines, Toronto electro-goth trio Austra and glam-popper Diamond Rings, southern-fried piano rockers J-Roddy Walston and the Business, the Michael Cera-assisted Mister Heavenly, or hotly tipped indie-rappers Odd Future.
But it's now more about rediscovering a love of music, period.
The numerous newbies were joined by the likes of '80s icons Duran Duran, the Bangles and OMD (with an assist from Moby), leading ladies Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris, aging soul shouter Charles Bradley and keynote speaker and Bob Geldof, who dazzled with his own stellar set.
Then there was post-millennial rock stars like TV on the Radio (at AOL's official SXSW showcase) and the Strokes (at the outdoor Auditorium Shores park) returning to Texas to introduce their respective new albums and deliver fireworks, both metaphorical and, in the latter's case, literally as 20,000 music fans watched Julian Casablancas and co. close with 'Last Night' as explosives lit up the sky.
Queens of the Stone Age took a different approach, performing their self-titled debut from start to finish while Bright Eyes played from across Conor Oberst's back catalogue at Spinner's secret Pop-Up Show in a local Austin wedding hall. (Our other Pop Up shows saw the Dodos and the Vaccines both rocking out at church.)
Superstars turned up en masse this year, too, from Kanye West bringing Jay-Z out for a "surprise" gig in a former power plant to the Foo Fighters bringing their stadium-sized show to the backyard amphitheater at Stubb's Bar-B-Q.
Austin during SXSW is a magical land where Diddy shows up unannounced to introduce unsigned rap sensation Lil B as Ke$ha watches on from the VIP section, where Canadian dance-rock duo Death From Above 1979's secret reunion can spark a micro-riot and where 73-year-old rockabilly queen can reminisce about dating Elvis and recording with Jack White, who himself can pop-up beside his mobile record store to bust out a Buddy Holly cover.
The entire city turned itself out with tens upon tens of thousands crowding the closed off streets, wall-to-wall people dancing, texting, queuing and drinking (much of it documented by Toronto's Small Sins in our SXSW Road Report series). Hipsters and hippies, ravers and rappers, legends and upstarts, spring breakers and teenage punks, and fans and critics all teemed throughout the town and belied the unhealthiness of the music industry.
Darkness still raged outside the city walls -- reactors melting in Japan, bombs raining on Libya -- and there were a few snafus inside, like a camera crane collapsing on people at OMD, the Screeching Weasel scuffle and police tasering and pepper spraying riotous drunks at the DFA1979 show.
But to look back at the epic week that was is to be gobsmacked by the giddy coming together of so many disparate people to hear so many disparate sounds. Less money changing hands doesn't mean the industry is dead -- just different, maybe even better -- and SXSW's 25th birthday party was an powerful reminder that music matters to the masses, now more than ever.