South by Southwest not stunted by growth


March 17, 2006


AUSTIN -- As it celebrates its 20th anniversary, the South by Southwest Music Conference -- the music industry's version of the Sundance and Cannes film festivals combined -- is experiencing its biggest year ever, with more than 10,000 artists, journalists and industry insiders and 1,300 musical acts descending on this Texas capital.

Plenty of people are grousing that SXSW has finally grown too big. But I started hearing that complaint when I first attended the festival in 1992.

Then as now, the people who whine about the size of the festival tend to be the ones waiting on line to see the most-hyped acts -- topping this year's list: the Arctic Monkeys -- instead of sampling any of the thousands of immensely talented but yet-to-be-discovered unknowns.

Four nights of showcase gigs started Wednesday at 50 venues throughout the city, while the conference itself kicked off in earnest at 10:30 a.m. Thursday with keynote speaker Neil Young, the legendary maverick who has been phenomenally successful while stubbornly maintaining his individualism and independence -- just like SXSW itself.

Young echoed Bob Dylan when he said he has no idea how he writes his best songs, they just arrive.

"I try not to think about it; the more you think about it, the worse you get. Coming up on the essence of creativity is like approaching a caged animal and trying not to scare it -- if I get too close, this thing is going to run away from me."

The keynote was set up as a joint interview, with journalist Jaan Uhelszki questioning Young and filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who directed the recent concert movie "Heart of Gold." But the overflowing crowd -- the largest I've seen at any of the dozen SXSW keynotes I've covered -- clearly were most enthusiastic about hearing from Young and Young alone.

The singer and songwriter was at his frankest and most passionate while musing upon the critical drubbing he received during his "Greendale" tour, when he was attacked for concentrating on that 2003 concept album and ignoring his most famous hits.

"When I read in USA Today that I was ripping off the audience because I wasn't doing the songs I was expected to do, I felt, 'Great, I'm on to something,' " Young said with a wry smile.

Whenever a promoter calls to suggest that he do a "Neil Young's Greatest Hits Tour," the artist said he hangs up. "I only feel validated and like I can do old songs because I'm still moving forward."

Young hinted at where he'll be going next, after the quiet beauty of last year's "Prairie Wind," when he said he's been yearning for the "transcendence through noise" provided by Crazy Horse. "But if I played like Crazy Horse every tour, I'd be dead," he cracked.