Signs and Wonders: Tragedy hits SXSW

by Warren Cole Smith
Posted 3/13/14, 10:20 am

Alcohol and steel. A suspected drunk driver plowed into a crowd early Thursday morning, killing two people and injuring 23 who were leaving a South by Southwest music venue. The driver crashed through barricades set up so SXSW revelers could walk the streets. Among the injured, five remain in critical condition, according to Austin police. The driver was attempting to evade police when the crash occurred, just after midnight. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said the motorist—whose identity he did not initially release—also struck a cab before crashing, jumping out of his car, and trying to run. Police shocked him with a stun gun and took him into custody. He faces two counts of capital murder and 23 counts of aggravated assault with a vehicle. The crash stunned and subdued festival-goers, which, as SXSW is now moving toward its climax, number in the tens of thousands. Given the amount of alcohol and obvious public drunkenness at SXSW, it’s remarkable such tragedies do not happen more often. One irony of the event: Because SXSW also features digital media, it’s a very connected crowd, and word spread fast on Sixth Street, where most of the music venues are located. Many festival-goers got real time updates on the tragedy via social media. Another irony: Because thousands of media gather here for the event, the Austin Police Department held a well-attended news conference at 2:30 a.m. to discuss the event. Acevedo said, “I just thank God. This could have been a lot worse.”

Cinema veritas. Before the drunk driving tragedy, it was a full day at SXSW. Though the festival handed out film awards on Tuesday night, screenings continue. One was for the documentary Beginning With The End, about a group of high schoolers who take an elective class that has them caring for dying people in a nearby hospice. It’s a very moving film, though I was a bit frustrated that it did not talk more about religion and eternal things. Its underlying philosophy seemed to be a sentimental “circle of life” ideal: one life ends, but another goes on. Even with this deficiency, the film unblinkingly and authentically portrays what happens in the lives of these teenagers as they confront death, and it has a lot to say about friendship, community, and love.

Strangely sweet. Another surprise was Johnny Winter: Down and Dirty. It may strain credulity to call a movie about a heroin-addicted blues guitarist a redemptive story, but in the hands of director Greg Olliver, it very nearly was. As the movie’s press package says, Winter “partied with the Rolling Stones and John Belushi, dated Janis Joplin, and jammed with Jimi Hendrix.” All that hard living had real and tragic consequences. Winter ended up an addict, primarily on methadone, for 30 years. The drugs cost him his musical edge, most of his money, and almost his life. The real heroes of the movie are Winter’s wife Susan, who stuck with him for more than 40 turbulent years, and his guitar player and manager, Paul Nelson, who weaned Winter from drugs and helped him slowly piece back together his health and his career. The movie features too much profanity to be called family-friendly, but in the end it is strangely sweet and moving. When Winter, director Greg Olliver, and Paul Nelson took the stage for a Q&A after the screening I attended, they got a standing ovation.

Murphey plays Austin. The musical highlight of the day for me came when Michael Martin Murphey played a late-night showcase at the historic and elegant Driskill Hotel. Murphey, who turns 69 on Friday, helped put the Austin music scene on the map in the late 60s and early 70s, so it was good and proper that he perform at South by Southwest. He did not disappoint his old fans and no doubt made some new ones with first-rate performances of his hits, including “Wildfire” and “Carolina in the Pines.”  He also played two songs—“Geronimo’s Cadillac,” and “Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir”—that helped define the Austin sound and ethos. He proved he’s still got both his vocal chops and his songwriting edge by highlighting his new album, Red River Drifter, which has camped near the top of Billboard’s bluegrass charts for the past few months. Murphey’s band featured 19-year-old multi-instrumentalist Shaun Richardson, whose lightning fast fingers have made him something of a YouTube phenomenon since he was a kid. “We’re probably the only band playing South by Southwest that has a lead singer who is 50 years older than the lead guitar player,” Murphey said.  

Warren Cole Smith

Warren is president of MinistryWatch and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

Read more from this writer