You’ll usually find R.E.M. playing arenas and esteemed concert halls. But this week, the rock hall of famers were among the acts trying to catch a break and artists looking to build their audience at the sprawling South by Southwest music festival. The multiplatinum rockers played Stubbs BBQ shortly after midnight Wednesday before an energetic crowd of a couple thousand, marking the first time they’ve played the annual extravaganza in their nearly three-decade career. But it’s hardly a downgrade: Playing a showcase at SXSW has often been a way for a veteran act to make a big splash with a new project, or re-establish themselves in the spotlight, especially if it has dimmed in recent years.
“That is something that has become over the years what the whole thing is about,” said music journalist Alan Light, who’s participated in SXSW for years (though he opted to stay home this year).
“It is interesting and I guess a bit ironic that this festival that was really initially about sort of the discovery of new music and really supporting and creating a platform for unsigned and for underexposed bands, because of the kind of audience it gathered, suddenly became a place where Robert Plant or Pete Townshend or the Cult were playing to sort of get their credentials re-established,” he added.
Besides R.E.M., whose new CD “Accelerate” is out April 1, the festival also kicked off Wednesday with a performance from Van Morrison (who has a CD “Keep it Simple” due out April 1 as well). Daryl Hall from Hall & Oates, Alejandro Escovedo and the Ponderosa Stomp, which is a revue designed to give much-deserved recognition to unheralded and sometimes obscure music veterans, are also among the countless acts scheduled to perform at SXSW, which ends Sunday.
Ira Padnos, the curator of Ponderosa Stomp, first brought the revue to SXSW two years ago.
“It’s a very good fit. It’s enabled performers to definitely get back out there and get gigs and remind people they are still alive,” Padnos said. “For instance, as soon as Barbara Lynn got off the stage last year, she was offered a gig … it’s allowed people to know that these guys are still vital and out there, and it’s helped to revitalize a career.”
One of the more memorable examples of how a SXSW performance breathed new life into a languishing artist was Ike Turner. Though a rock legend, he was known more as the disgraced ex-husband of Tina Turner and hadn’t had an album in over two decades. But his performance at SXSW, which Light still recalls as “pretty amazing to see,” reminded audiences of his rich musical legacy and helped build excitement as his album was released in 2001.
While established acts performed alongside fledgling artists and bands during SXSW’s 22-year existence, the festival’s reputation was built on fresh faces who used the festival as a launching pad, whether to secure a record deal or broaden their audience with buzzworthy performances.
But veteran artists and bands have found that SXSW can provide an invaluable boost as well, given the audience of music journalists, record executives, radio programmers and other key industry insiders.
“R.E.M. actually is looking to reconnect with the critics and tastemakers who are there,” said Blender magazine Editor-in-Chief Joe Levy. “It’s the equivalent of going to a superstore. You don’t have to tour the country and connect with all these critics … All you need to do is show up in Austin.”
It’s also a way to underscore musical credibility, Light said.
“It’s a very insider audience, a very sophisticated audience, so to take the risk of putting yourself out there in an up-close setting in front of an audience … (and) showing that you’re in fighting shape,” he said. “This is to demonstrate that they can really go out and win over real music people.”
This is Daryl Hall’s first year at SXSW, but he doesn’t see the opportunity as an attempt to win over anyone – he’s seeking to connect with younger acts as he looks to build up his Internet show “Live from Daryl’s House,” which features him jamming with newer acts such as KT Tunstall.
“I thought it as a perfect way for me to get to a large number of new bands, and have the opportunity to interact with a number of people,” said Hall, who’s performing at the event. “I’m really looking for a new experience.”
Still, he is also looking to get attention for the show, which broadcasts on his Web site monthly.
Another veteran performing at this year’s festival is Escovedo, but while he does have a new album due out in June, he’s not performing simply to promote it – the Austin resident has played the festival regularly since its inception.
Though he notes the growth in profile of veterans, he said there’s “always been a great mixture of both. … There is something for everybody.”