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South by Southwest

Every year in March, around 30 000 people descend upon the city of Austin – that bastion of cool in the sea that is the state of Texas. The mega-event brings together music, film and tech enthusiasts, and it’s been known to launch careers of bands like the Grammy-nominated Alabama Shakes, and kick off buzz for movies like the critically-acclaimed indie Short Term 12 (a must-see if you haven’t yet). It’s biggest impact is within the tech world, where Southby (as it’s affectionately known) has been the launching pad for Twitter and Foursquare. Disturbingly, this year’s event was marred by a car crash in which a drunken performer who was speeding away from police, rammed his car into a crowd outside one of the venues, killing 2 people and injuring dozens. It left a sombre mood over what is usually a festival occasion for celebrating new ideas. But, in the spirit of that celebration, the 5 trends  that stuck out most for me from this year’s event…

Your next favourite chef may not be a person…

IBM created a lot of buzz for its food truck that was giving out samples to show off Watson, the computing system best known for winning Jeopardy three years ago. It’s able to create food items no human chef could think up. Kenyan Brussels sprouts with sweet potato puree, ginger and almonds, anyone? How about a creamy Czech pork belly moussaka with peas, parsley root, cottage cheese and dill? With Watson, you input a region, a main ingredient or two and a type of food, such as soup or pie, and it analyzes thousands of recipes and matches chemical flavor compounds that are most likely to surprise people and also taste good. IBM says Watson is not meant to replace chefs, but it does show what cognitive computing is capable of. Like organizing my cupboard, perhaps?

* Hey Mr DJ, no need to put a record on…

A new start-up, called Lightwave, has created technology that pretty much makes asking for song requests unnecessary – because the DJ will be able to ‘feel’ what you want to hear. A-Trak played a party held inside a giant plastic igloo, where about 150 people wore special bracelets that measured their movement, body temperature and excitement level. The DJ had an iPad in front of him that showed the crowd’s excitement in real-time, and he could adjust it according to the dancers’ mood. Waitresses also served bottles of water when temperatures started rising too much from all the dancing. Lightwave believes the technology is useful not just for bands at concerts, but also for movies, sporting events and political rallies.

Make space in your wallet for Bitcoin…

An ATM installed on the floor of the SXSW Trade Show that allowed people to buy bitcoins using cash, together with the various panels dedicated to the subject, show just seriously we should be taking the headline-making currency, which was launched in 2008. Pundits like the fact that the virtual currency is a network that lets people transfer ownership, and is an alternative to buying services and products online via a public ledger. More bitcoin ATMs are due to be installed in Asia and Europe, and even rapper Nas, whose friend venture capitalist Ben Horowitz has invested about $50 million in Bitcoin-related start-ups, is a fan.

* You may finally be able to keep some secrets…

Security and privacy online were major themes at Southby this year, what with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and ex-CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden both beaming into virtual conversations. Both called for the public to be more conscious of the information shared online, and, elsewhere at the fest, Tor, the free software that prevents people from learning your location or browsing habits, was lauded. As was an app called Secret launched a month ago. It lets people share their deepest and darkest thoughts with the people they know, without their names attached. So kinda like Facebook, without the faces.

Get used to seeing everyone wearing glasses…

And not just the cool hipster kind. All throughout Austin, people could be spotted wearing Google Glass, giving rise to Instagram hashtags of the word ‘Glassholes’. The term entered the popular lexicon to ridicule early adopters of the technology that allows you to record things and surf the web through a glass panel you wear over your eyes. But, as pretentious as the wearers may seem, experts seem to agree that we are only at the beginning of the technology acceptance cycle, and there is much more to come from the potential Google Glass has to offer. Given the number of sessions devoted to it at Southby, it won’t be long before we’re all dealing with laws about where one can and can’t wear the glasses.

Somewhere along the time and space continuum, it became March 2014 already. So here we are, on the eve of another SXSW adventure. For that really is the only way to describe the next 10 days of tech, film and music events. This year’s line-up spans the serious – virtual discussions with Edward Snowden and Julian Assange about the issues of privacy and freedom of information – to the super fun – Bill Cosby performing to a room of 300 people (try getting into that venue!) and Lena Dunham talking about how one creates an Emmy-nominated  hit TV show that’s spawned many an Internet essay.

This will be my 3rd time covering the event – all 3 of the portions:  Interactive, Film and Music. I’ll be looking to see and do as much as my enthusiasm will allow (which, as many know, is a lot). There are highlights I’ve already put down in a schedule, but I also have taken heed of the golden rule of SXSW (and any good festival, really) to be ready to go with the flow too.

Some of the highlights I’m looking forward to include seeing Austin Kleon, author of one of my favourite books on being creative, Steal Like an Artist, who’ll be talking about his new one, Show Your Work, hearing Robert Duvall talk about his long and fruitful career, seeing an extended Q-and-A with Wes Anderson following a screening of his latest film The Grand Budapest Hotel, trying to get into that Bill Cosby show, experiencing Damon Albarn‘s first solo album, Everyday Robots, in concert, trying to track down as many of the bands on the NPR Austin 100 list, and, and, and…I’ve barely scratched the surface.  There really is so much to factor in – including the spontaneity that usually goes along with a SXSW adventure. You can bet I’ll do my best – with a breakfast taco or two along the way!

For the second year in a row, I’m at South by Southwest, or as it’s commonly referred to by those who head to Austin every year, “South By.” I like to think I’m prepared for the onslaught of music, film and interactive knowledge that will be spread during these next few days, but I know better. Last year was fantastic, but it was tiring and exhausting too – all that mental stimulation can be overwhelming.

But then I remember that I heard Bruce Springsteen talk about his childhood steeped in music, saw Jay-Z perform Empire State of Mind at Austin City Limit and listened to Al Gore converse with Sean Parker about the future of social media’s impact on society. There were so many other magical moments of interaction that have me hooked on this annual shindig. So, here I am, back for all that and more.

Day One was spent familiarizing myself with all the important details that help make a festival run smoother – ie where one can find the nearest source of decent coffee and, for a more acceptable time of day, the best dispenser of sweet tea vodka.

Highlight from Day One was heading to the Paramount Theatre for the premiere of The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, starring Steve Carrell, Jim Carrey and Olivia Wilde. It was a fun way to start the film part of the fest at one of my favourite venues here in Austin.

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And then today, listening to the infectiously-enthusiastic Danny Boyle was inspiring, even for those non-filmmakers of us who were in the audience. The Oscar-winning director, who originally set out to be a priest, didn’t make his first feature Shallow Graveuntil he was 38. It was so interesting to hear how he goes about directing actors and working with music collaborators, particularly Rick Smith, one half of Underworld (who can resist getting lost in Born Trippy?). Rick has worked with Danny again now on his new movie, Trance, and we got to see a sneak preview of it. And it looks like another Boyle-inspired thrill ride!

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The highlight of this SXSW Festival was announced a few months ago, and it’s the reason I’ve been looking forward to coming to Austin for the event: Bruce Springsteen’s keynote address. It was everything I hoped for and more. The line to get into it was snaking around the convention center 2 hours before he was due to speak, but it was well-worth getting into the auditorium earlier, especially since there was a tribute to the influential singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie who died in the 60s, highlighting the incredible power of his lasting legacy.

From Austin’s own Eliza Gilkyson to Jimmy LaFave and Spanish heart-throb Juanes (who sang at Mandela Day in New York in 2009), the set was a beautiful and moving testament to the man whose music is archived in the Library of Congress and the whole auditorium sang along to This Land is Your Land. Truly amazing. It was only fitting that the Guthrie tribute took place before Springsteen spoke – the singer was deeply influenced by the folk musician.

When Springsteen took to the stage, he was self-deprecating, humorous and sincere. Surprisingly, I also found him to look younger than I thought he would. He had the crowd spell-bound, listening to the evolution of his music career – how it all began and the way the various influences shaped and shifted him. And, grabbing a guitar from off stage, Springsteen illustrated the highlights along the way.

Pic: SXSW/Brian Brazer

I tried to tweet as much as I could because it truly was something worth sharing. Springsteen started by saying that when he first picked up a guitar there were only 10 years of rock history to draw on and that it was amazing to see what was happening in Austin now. He proceeded to list all the various genres and sub-genres (like black death metal) that are on display here now. It had the audience in stitches!

Some of my favourite quotes from Springsteen on his influences:

– on Elvis: “Inspired by the passion in Elvis’ pants, I wrapped my 6 year old fingers around my 1st guitar.”

– on Roy Orbison: “The coolest uncool guy you’d ever seen…sticking his knife deep into the belly of your teenage fears.”

– on Phil Spector: “If Roy Orbison was opera, Phil Spector was symphonies. He taught me sound, sound, sound is its own language.

– on The Beatles: “Looking at their album cover was like seeing the silent gods of Olympus; they were so cool. They had me thinking I’m never going to get there.”

– on The Animals: “They struck me deep as the first class-conscious album I’d ever heard.”

– on his admiration for R&B: “I went from being in awe of Sex Pistols punk to Motown soul music – adult music, sung by adults, not teenagers.”

– on James Brown: “Underrated, even still today.”

– on Bob Dylan: “He gave us the words to understand our hearts; he is the father of my musical country.”

– on country music: “The working man’s blues; full of the small+big things that allow you to put one foot in front of another.”

– on Woody Guthrie: I wanted an answer to Hank Williams’ question: why does my bucket have a hole in it…and I found Woody Guthrie, the ghost in the machine, and his fatalism was tempered with practical idealism.”

And then, The Boss’ words of wisdom for new artists – and the rest of us too:

New bands, learn how to bring it live and then do it night after night. Your audience will remember you. That was my meal ticket…

Rumble young musicians, rumble.

Open your ears, and open your hearts.

Don’t take yourself too seriously and take yourself as seriously as death itself. Don’t worry. Worry your ass off. Have iron-clad confidence, but doubt. It keeps you awake and alert. Believe you are the baddest ass in town and, you suck. It keeps you honest. Be able to keep two have the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your heart and head at all times…if it doesn’t drive you crazy it will make you strong. And stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive.

And when you walk on stage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it’s all we have. Then remember that it’s only rock & roll.

If you’re a fan, you’ll want to watch this in its entirety: