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South by Southwest '97: Will guitars give up the ghost? Yes and no, but mostly no

If you live in Austin, it's easy to grow weary of that town's annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference: Downtown becomes impassable, restaurants and clubs are clogged, and the myriad ways in which the shindig makes clear the differences between those with wristbands (for common folk and other peons who nonetheless shelled out $50 for access) and those with laminate credentials (for insiders and others who bask in music-biz coolness) can sometimes be most off-putting. Small wonder many citizens take the week of SXSW, stock up on videotapes, alcohol, and/or drugs, and embark on a kind of mini-hibernation.

Truth be told, though, once on the inside there's a palpable buzz that runs through the belly of the beast, born out of common cause and direction--not to mention the abdication of everyday worry and responsibility in the interest of having a little fun on the company tab--that make most of the hassles bearable and even a bit stimulating, like camping out for concert tickets. From earnest but unschooled beginnings over a decade ago, SXSW has grown into a slick, self-sharpening machine with its own golf tournament.

Apparently heeding complaints that last year's showcase--heavy with names like George Clinton, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed--was paying more attention to big names than new music, SXSW '97 turned away a bit from the bright lights and focused more on smaller acts. Although the four-day event covered all the more-or-less immediate trends, there was still a sense of maintenance, of things being held over from before, including the underrepresentation of Dallas bands, a long-standing tradition. Although crunching numbers is one of the hardest things to do on the Monday after SXSW, a cursory review of the bands playing reveal somewhere around 250 Austin bands versus approximately a dozen from Big D, a ratio that doesn't seem quite right.

Of course, based on the performance of the area bands that made the conference, it was hard to push for, say, the inclusion of 50 more Dallas bands. Often stiff or hesitant, few local acts put on shows that grabbed you this year, and Dallas will probably suffer for it at SXSW '98.

Fashion victims
SXSW is its own little world, like the Kalahari Desert but louder and with more barbecue. Like the bushmen of the Kalahari, the denizens of SXSW have a custom of costume that might seem strange to the outsider, a thought that occurs as a guy with a soul patch extending at least two inches below his chin pushes past, his bad blond dye job held up with a couple plastic barrettes. Another guy leaning over the silverware tray in a barbecue joint has so many hoops and rings descending from his face that he looks like someone parked a '49 Buick on his neck. A love for Beck-ian Wal-Mart cheese is pronounced, and T-shirts for '70s bands like REO Speedwagon are popular, along with porkpie-derived hats.

Throughout this year's conference galloped the apotheosis of this aesthetic, a particularly silly gentleman with a giant cigar in his mouth who wore his long, flowing ponytail pulled through the hole in the back of his baseball cap and sported ridiculous silver old-lady reading glasses, the kind whose tips curve upwards cat's-eye style and are secured around the neck with a beaded chain. Although only one card is necessary for admission to evening shows, a whole deck of laminates shook and rattled on his chest. The basis of his language seemed to be words like "Baby!" and "Whoa!" and when he showed up at one venue he immediately went into a hyperactive dance, effectively interfering with the views of several tables. This is exactly the sort of thing that can be regarded with amusement or clinical interest if you happen to be attending SXSW courtesy of your employer, but which might just set someone who paid $50 for a wristband off on what journalists often call a "rampage." Just when you thought he'd plumbed the depths of foolishness, the cellular phone comes out and he proceeds to yell into it, punctuating his no-doubt-learned discourse with howls and whoops as he bounces about emitting foul puffs of smoke.

SXSW officially began at 7 p.m. with the Austin Music Awards, presented by SXSW organizer the Austin Chronicle at the cavernous but acoustically friendly Austin Music Hall at Nueces and Third Street in the city's westside warehouse district. Though any such local back-slapping must be tedious to foreigners, the ceremony moved at a rapid pace, and the between-awards performers were a who's who of Austin stars--the lounge-y 8 1/2 Souvenirs; border-rock ensemble the Texas Tornadoes, featuring Doug Sahm and joined by Roy Head on one number; the Sexton Brothers Sextet; and Lou Ann Barton with Jimmie Vaughan.

The apex of the evening was Jimmie Dale Gilmore's faithful interpretations of a few country folk tunes by Townes Van Zandt during a midshow tribute to the recently deceased songwriter. Gilmore was accompanied by Barton, Joe Ely, Will Sexton, Townes' son J.T., and others. The awards program was emceed by KKUT jazz show host Paul Ray, a lanky fellow with stringy hair and a shrill voice given to hyperbole. That awardees the Killer Bees "have conquered the world" was just one of his magnificent overstatements.

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