WASHINGTON — It borrows its name from Hitchcock’s “North By Northwest” (1959), in which Cary Grant scaled Mount Rushmore’s presidential faces.
But it was a sitting president who kicked off South by Southwest over the weekend, the annual festival that has become a cultural touchstone in Austin, Texas since its inception back in 1987.
President Barack Obama delivered the keynote address Saturday to kick off the festival’s interactive segment (March 11-15). Affectionately dubbed “Spring Break for Nerds,” it featured five days of panels with the bright minds behind cutting-edge websites, video games and startup companies.
“We are at a moment in history where technology, globalization, our economy is changing so fast. This gathering, South By Southwest, brings together people who are at the cutting edge of those changes. Those changes offer us enormous opportunities,” President Obama told the crowd.
Meanwhile, the film segment of the festival (March 11-19) opened with Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”) screening his latest flick “Everybody Wants Some.” It continues with the likes of Jean-Marc Vallee’s “Demolition,” John Lee’s “Pee Wee’s Big Holiday,” Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special,” Seth Rogen’s “Preacher” and Irene Taylor Brodsky’s “Beware the Slenderman.”
If you doubt the festival’s power to launch film careers, look no further than this year’s Oscar winner for Best Actress, Brie Larson in “Room.” It was South By Southwest that catapulted Larson with the sensational indie gem “Short Term 12” (2013), which won Best Narrative Feature in 2013.
“South By (Southwest)’s growth mirrors Austin’s growth, (which) mirrors my own growth. I think it’s all kind of intertwined. I think so many Austin people would feel that way, so I’m really proud of what they’ve accomplished,” Linklater said on the red carpet at this year’s event.
Starting Tuesday, get ready for the slice that started it all back in the 1980s, the world-renowned music segment (March 15-20), which has launched countless artists over the years.
WTOP’s music expert Marcus Moore — a regular contributor to Pitchfork magazine — is down in Austin for the rest of the week, soaking up the tunes and hitting as many concerts as possible.
“You just kind of go down and fall into stuff. If you see a venue playing music, just walk in, because a lot of that stuff is free. … Literally, every indie musician is down there … You never know who you will see. There will be a lot of D.C. folks down there, folks from L.A. and New York, so I’m just gonna go down and see the next big band, to see if there’s someone else I should be covering,” Moore says.
Which local artists are on his festival calendar?
“There’s an artist named Visto who I’ve been covering for a while now. He does electronic dance music and hip hop. … He stays out in Laurel, Maryland. … (Also) a producer from my hometown, Landover, Maryland, Kev Brown, he’s going down and doing a few showcases. Busta Rhymes is a huge fan. … Asheru is another great one, who actually did the theme song for ‘Boondocks.’ … Kokayi is going down, just a bunch of folks I cover locally who I’ve grown to know over the years,” Moore says.
On a slightly more famous level, Moore is excited to see rapper Anderson Paak.
“In early January, he released a really excellent album called ‘Malibu.’ Thankfully, I reviewed it for Pitchfork and we gave it Best New Music. We gave it an 8.6 out of 10. I think it should have gotten a 9 or a 9.5. It was that good. I’m really looking forward to seeing him. He was on Dr. Dre’s recent album; he was on six of 16 songs, and he’s a newcomer,” Moore raves.
“I’m also looking forward to this R&B trio from L.A. called KING. … They were supposed to come out with a full-length album in 2014. … It finally came out in early February 2016, and again, thankfully reviewed it for Pitchfork, and now they’re playing the Pitchfork Day Party. … Those two are the top ones where I can’t wait. I’m gonna meet them, hang out with them and then see them perform.”
In this way, South By Southwest is a must-hit for musicians and the critics who cover them.
“South By Southwest is huge for the music community because, in theory, that’s where bands go to get discovered. Every music journalist, every taste maker, ever DJ, you name it, is there. And hopefully, there are journalists there who are looking to break out the next artist. South By is huge especially for bands who have been bubbling under the surface,” Moore says.
“The Kanyes, the Drakes and all of them, they’re good, they don’t need any more coverage. What about the next wave of artists? And that’s where South By Southwest comes into play.”
Listen to my full preview chat with Marcus and follow his liveblog of tweets below: