SXSW Diaries

A thousand bands + a dozen parties + one cigarette lighter = average South By Southwest

You can go home again, but chances are you'll get lost, turned around, embarrassed that such simple directions can result in an hour-long marathon of wrong choices and missed streets and an overbearing amount of cursing. You can go home again, but home, more often than not, will not be there anymore. It will be a shadow of its former self, much like the now-defunct Electric Lounge's one-time-only return as the Gallery Lombardi Lounge. It will have simply vanished, like the late Liberty Lunch, whose new incarnation is a pile of dirt surrounded by bulldozers and chain-link fences and various construction-site paraphernalia.

So it went at this year's South By Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, where everything felt just a little (and, occasionally, a lot) off. I lived in Austin for almost four years, and loved it just as much every year since I've moved away, but it's clear now that I only love the idea of Austin, the memory of a place that stopped existing four years ago. Now, Austin's history feels as if it began yesterday, so perhaps it's the perfect setting for SXSW, which is finally reaching the impersonal point it's been striving for all these years. The whole fiesta feels as if it was assembled on a studio backlot, ready to be torn down at a moment's notice. It doesn't live anymore, merely existing to give everyone in the music industry a vacation, a bit of drunken fun on the company dime.

That, really, is all South By Southwest is anymore, people going through the motions of finishing a paint-by-numbers portrait of the so-called "Live Music Capital of the World." It's not about getting signed or seeing bands or making those oh-so-important connections or anything like that, though -- if memory serves -- it may have been at some point. The festival's only connection to that time comes in tiny snippets of conversation, none of them weighty in either form or content. This, for example, is the kind of exchange you'll overhear, take part in even, during South By Southwest.

Patti Smith's Friday-night gig at Waterloo Park was "transcendent"? Sure, maybe 20 years ago.
John Anderson
Patti Smith's Friday-night gig at Waterloo Park was "transcendent"? Sure, maybe 20 years ago.

Anonymous Label Representative: "What kind of music does your band play?"

Random Band Manager, very rehearsed: "Post-millennial urban dreamscape."

ALR, staring blankly: "Uh..."

Me, butting in, eyebrows raised questioningly: "Metal?"

RBM, silently threatening a beatdown: "Um" -- pause for effect -- "no."

Aside from that, the whole production has devolved to the point where music is but a soundtrack, music to do something/anything else by. Austin has become a place where overt gawking is accepted, almost encouraged, where you get sucked into the agreed-upon pattern of watching people's chests when they walk by. It makes every hotel lobby, every restaurant, every everything look like the world's biggest meat market, as everyone is checking out everyone else's badges, trying to see whether the name on the front is one they should remember, one they should hit up for free drinks and free records.

It's all a scam, a dodge, bait-and-switch tactics at the highest level. You want to see Elliott Smith? Fine, but you'll have to wade through DreamWorks Records' sketchy supporting acts -- The KGB, Cupcakes, and Creeper Lagoon -- first. Tenacious D? OK, but first, you need to see and hear the most spiritless set Sebadoh could have attempted. (By the way, shouldn't a band that's been very up-front about its search for a new record deal bring out its A material? Just checking.)

Fortunately, Smith's show, accompanied by a backing band featuring his former Heatmiser bandmate and current Quasi frontman Sam Coomes, was worth spending the previous three hours keeping entertained with activities such as seeing how motionless I could stand, pretending to be Bullwinkle (from Rocky and... fame), and speaking only using air quotes, among others. (Maybe you had to be there.) The usually dour Smith even cracked a smile and held it for a few seconds, which was possibly more incredible than any song he played at La Zona Rosa on Friday night, though almost every one he did perform more than justified the huge crowd and $35 walk-up ticket price.

Yet Smith's much-hyped show, while good, was no once-in-a-lifetime performance, the kind of thing people will talk about for years, like Bobby Patterson jumping onstage with Golden Smog in 1996. There was no kick-yourself-if-you-missed-it show this year, no Tom Waits, no Johnny Cash, no nothing. And please, don't say Patti Smith's gig at Waterloo Park on Friday night was the aforementioned can't-miss show, because her entire career is based on the strength of one overrated cover song and far too much posturing. She's over, has been over for years -- end of story. Don't need to hear one more rambling, woman-on-the-verge, Jesus-died-for-somebody's-sins, where's-my-medication? version of "Gloria" to tell me that. Life's too short, and that song is way too fucking long. Of course, try telling that to all the bearded rock critics espousing Smith's countless virtues before and after the show.

Strange thing about this year's fest was that the showcases at night -- heretofore known as the point of South By Southwest, or one of them at least -- seemed secondary to the afternoon parties, many of them unofficial, non-SXSW ventures. But beyond being prime opportunities to eat barbecue and potato salad in almost heroic amounts and double-fist bourbon-and-Cokes, these afternoon get-togethers (almost exclusively hosted by Web-based companies of various stripes) were where the best music could be heard. With the glut of afternoon action, you get the feeling that, at some point in the not-so-distant future, the entirety of South By Southwest will happen before lunch, allowing the complete cast of characters to settle down for a full night's rest after a tiring day of activities. Kind of like day camp, only without time for arts and crafts.

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