It's close to midnight in downtown Austin, and America's biggest street party is just starting to swing. A compact university town with a reputation as an oasis of bohemian hippie values in an otherwise solidly conservative state, Austin may be the capital of Texas, but it's not the good-old-boy Texas that voted for George W Bush. The city's arty, liberal, hedonistic melting-pot spirit has even spawned its own unofficial civic motto: Keep Austin Weird.
Every March, Austin somehow manages to rustle up around 80 official venues and dozens more unofficial stages for the annual South by Southwest music conference. Bars, restaurants, basements, rooftops, car parks, gardens, vacant lots, tumbledown shacks - every potential performance space is pressed into service. Amazingly, most are crammed within the dozen or so blocks clustered around the main downtown drag of Sixth Street, which is closed to traffic during the festival.
From rock superstars to street-corner strummers, rappers to blues singers, live music blasts from every direction within a mile of the city centre. The festival's youthful, multicultural audience also becomes part of the carnival tapestry. For most of last week, Sixth Street was thronged with buskers, hustlers, beggars, pranksters, breakdancers and exhibitionists of every hue. A few beaming souls held up signs offering "free hugs", and many took up the offer.
There was political street theatre too, including a rowdy demonstration against the notoriously harsh Texan death penalty laws, and a "million musician march" against war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fairness, the latter only attracted around 200 people, but was still incongruously cheerful as it snaked through town like a New Orleans jazz funeral. In Austin, even political protest comes with its own feel-good musical soundtrack.
Founded in 1987, SXSW has evolved into America's premier gathering of musicians and music industry professionals. From a start-up figure of 700, the music conference now attracts around 12,000 registered attendees. Similar numbers also sign up to the festival's parallel film and interactive strands, which overlap the same 10-day period. The Austin Business Journal recently estimated the event's worth to the local economy at around $110 million (Dh404m).
A professional pass to SXSW costs around $1,000, with travel expenses on top. But Jonathan Poneman, the Sub Pop label founder who discovered Nirvana, insists that this annual spring ritual is well worth the expense. "The purposes are social, artistic and business," Poneman says. "As a social function it's fun, but there are business aspects too. A lot of the people we work with, both nationally and internationally, attend this festival. And it gives us an opportunity, of course, to see and hear new artists - albeit not necessarily in the best circumstances because there are so many artists and there are obviously time restrictions."
Scattered among the thousand-plus shows in Austin last week were legends and household names including Smokey Robinson, Courtney Love, Motörhead, Muse, Macy Gray and Stone Temple Pilots. But a significant minority were more obscure, Austin-based artists. According to Toni Connell of the local rock group the Black Leather Banshees, the city attracts musicians from all over the country because of its reputation as the "live music capital of America". The Banshees were invited to play SXSW last week, for the second year in a row. As payment, they were offered the standard choice between a flat fee of $250, or sharing a badge for entry to the rest of the festival.
But being local is no guarantee of preferential treatment, Connell insists. "They don't give priority to Austin bands," he explains. "It's a big deal because 10,000 bands applied this year and only 1,100 got selected. But Austin bands see it almost as a kind of challenge to prove ourselves to a worldwide audience: we'll show you how music is done. You definitely get more dynamic performances when people are hungrier, whereas established bands that come into town, like Stone Temple Pilots, they've got nothing to prove."
In one sense, SXSW applies a commendably egalitarian spirit to a notoriously egocentric and status-driven business. Almost every artist gets a similar one-hour slot, right across the schedule from noon to 2am, with most playing two or three times during the week. Million-record-selling legends play alongside cool hopefuls and unsigned nobodies, ensuring there is little of the superstar caste system that defines more conventional rock festivals.
Many of the artists at SXSW play for minimal fees or even for free, treating the festival as a massive promotional opportunity. And while every performer is guaranteed an audience, none can rely on it staying long. Competition is fierce because the next Kurt or Björk or Tupac may be awaiting discovery two doors away. The most revered elder statesmen passing through Texas last week was the soul-pop pioneer Smokey Robinson. Following his keynote conference interview, the 70-year-old Motown legend gave a gracious old-school performance at the city's palatial Music Hall. The 65-year-old Ray Davies of The Kinks also cranked out a surprisingly rowdy, rousing show in a converted car park on the edge of the city centre.
Another hero's welcome awaited Austin's own Roky Erickson, a 62-year-old cult icon who recently made a comeback after decades blighted by mental illness and drug problems. Backed by the local band Okkervil River, Erickson's voice was a ragged rasp but brimming with hard-won wisdom. The majority of younger acts at SXSW fell broadly into the indie-rock genre. At times, the whole of downtown Austin seemed to be ablaze with fuzzed-up guitars, retro-slacker clothes and ironic facial hair. But while this music may suit current industry marketing trends, too much of it soon became repetitive and interchangeable.
Far more interesting were artists from the more experimental, arty fringes of pop. Flying Lotus, the stage alias of the Los Angeles-based DJ Steven Ellison, played an electrifying brand of alien dance music full of twisted beats and vivid science-fiction noises. The hotly tipped Foxy Shazam, glam-slam oddballs from Ohio, also delivered an impressive jolt of theatrical showmanship in the grand tradition of Little Richard. Meanwhile, the wry Latvian duo Instrumenti dressed in panda costumes to play their quirky Europop, inaccurately described on their deluxe flyers as "ambient hardcore".
Although only a handful of artists with Middle Eastern backgrounds played at SXSW, the hip-hop collective Paranoids made a big impact with their high-energy Arab Summit show, which included bilingual Arabic-English raps. The LA-based Syrian-American MC Omar Offendum, aka Omar Chakaki, is just back in the US after playing in Beirut, Amman, Doha and Dubai. His partners in rhyme at his one-off Austin show were the Palestinian-American Nizar Wattad, who performs under the name Ragtop, and the Iraqi-Canadian Yassin Alsalman, aka The Narcicyst.
Chakaki is also a translator of Arabic literature, and argues that appreciation for poetry in the Arab world makes hip-hop a natural fit for Middle Eastern audiences. "Prior to any of us Arab kids making hip-hop, Islam already existed in the music," he says. "A lot of the African-American MCs who started hip-hop are Muslims: Rakim, Nas, Ice Cube, Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def. Growing up here, we could relate to hip-hop when we couldn't necessarily relate to the dominant culture. We could identify with that, being on the margins of society."
Also in attendance at the Paranoids show was the Beirut-based, Armenian-Iraqi filmmaker Jackson Allers, at SXSW to unveil his new documentary, Life From the BBC, which profiles the Palestinian hip-hop duo I-Voice, who live in Lebanon's Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp. Allers initially arranged to bring the young rappers over to perform at the festival, but the inevitable visa and immigration hurdles ultimately proved too complicated.
Films have become an increasingly important part of the SXSW brand, with a strong emphasis on music documentaries. The highlights from this year's programme were a reverential yet highly amusing big-screen portrait of the grizzled Motörhead frontman, and the beautifully shot David Byrne concert film Rise, Ride, Roar. But better than both was Taqwacore, the director Omar Majeed's fascinating and inspiring documentary about the Muslim punk subculture that has grown up around Michael Muhammad Knight's cult novel, The Taqwacores.
The headline-grabbing anticlimax of SXSW was the live comeback of Courtney Love with her reconstituted grunge band, Hole. Unveiling songs from her long-delayed new album, Nobody's Daughter, the 45-year-old punk diva played a pleasingly punchy afternoon show at the exclusive Spin magazine party on Friday. But later that night she arrived croaky, cranky and hoarse for her rammed-to-bursting public performance.
After an hour of ill-tempered banter and indifferent new songs, Love was seething with defensive rage as the sardine-packed crowd began to drift away. "Worst show of my life!" the troubled singer concluded before running through the audience and slumping onto the bar. Burly security men rushed to form a wall of muscle around her, but her comment seemed to be a pure drama queen tantrum, more farce than tragedy.
The real tragedy overshadowing this year's SXSW was the sudden death of Alex Chilton, the influential Memphis songwriter and record producer, who suffered a heart attack at his New Orleans home on the day the festival began. With cruel irony, the 59-year-old and his reformed cult band Big Star were due to play the festival's closing night in Austin on Saturday. Instead, the packed show became a bittersweet celebration in which a stellar gallery of guest vocalists, including Mike Mills of REM, took turns in belting out Chilton's heart-jangling country-rock songs.
Far from being sombre, the show felt like the boisterously joyful finale to a long week of around-the-clock Texan hospitality. For this first-time visitor, South by Southwest seemed less like a soulless industry function than a giant street party hosted by a mutually supportive community of artists. I left with warm memories and music ringing in my ears.