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Greetings from SXSW

Posted in: Christianity,Fandom,General,Musical Performance by Tom Beaudoin on March 16, 2012

Hello to R&T readers from South by Southwest, the well-known “indie” music (and film, and technology, fashion, comedy, and art) festival in Austin, Texas. I am here for four days of the “music” part, although there is still plenty of the rest on offer. There are well over 2000 bands playing from early afternoon until the early morning hours, a startling amount of whom are in the first stages of their careers. There are also some more established groups, and a major act here and there. You can see the list of bands here. Dave Nantais, a Rock and Theology contributor, went a few years ago, and wrote about it here.

Here is what the scene is like: thousands of fans, musicians, support crews, industry people, and press mob downtown Austin, while on every block there are bands playing in bars, on sidewalks, under tents, in churches — anywhere you can fit a few amps and find an outlet (unless you have an acoustic set, in which case your options are even greater). Here is who you see: a fairly diverse crowd of many colors, ages, and musical preferences. Most of all, it seems, there are just a ton of people who love music and who know a lot about their favorite artists, and who delight in throwing themselves into a human rock and roll stew for a few days with others who share those passions. The preponderance of tattoos and piercings and the live-and-let-live rock and roll mentality remind me of Woodstock ’94, but the urban setting makes a big difference. People are sleeping in hotels, not in tents outside, and so it’s more like going to a bunch of concerts in a row with thousands of highly affiliated music fans than actually hunkering down together in the fields in a rockish cohabitation.

Two brief observations: First, despite announcements of its demise, rock music, from melodic to hard rock to metal, is far from dead. I was surprised at the number of up-and-coming bands that are bringing rock into the present. All you had to do was walk down the main drag (6th Street) yesterday and you would have heard hip hop, blues, and at least half of the bands playing loud, riff-driven rock, from pop metal to blues rock to grunge to death metal. That’s why the demise-of-rock stories are almost always only about the major labels and their commercial sales, and almost never about the independent scene. Second, explicit or barely concealed talk about and images of religion are frequent. I heard snippets of conversation about which artists are Christians now and which are not; I saw numerous religious references in the sizeable print/poster exhibit in the Convention Center, especially Christian ones (with common themes being Jesus, crucifixion, God, hatred of God, atheism, priests/cardinals/popes); most of all, I saw what looked like thousands of people giving an everyday surrender to the power of music and musical cultures in their lives, surely something of theological interest to those of us with such sensitivities. Oh, and third observation: as man of us have written about, you can’t have this diffusely spiritual/religious (including anti-religious) atmosphere without a fair amount of overt and covert sexuality or everyday erotics. What’s on many posters, how people dress, how they adorn themselves, how musicians performs, how crowds interact — we learn again from a festival like this that eros and spirit are somehow from the same root.

Here is what I didn’t see, and what I did see. First, here is what I wanted to attend but missed yesterday: