See By Be Seen

At the annual South by Southwest music festival, it's the singer, not the song

This year, for whatever reason, things seemed more possible at South by Southwest, also/better known as the music industry's annual paid vacation. Something/anything/everything sounded reasonable, no matter who said it or how unlikely it probably was or even how bad it would be if it actually happened. Problem was, even when something did happen at SXSW, no one really wanted to see it. They just wanted to say they did.

Example: On Saturday night, as the festival drew to a close, the Red House Painters took the stage at Emo's to play their first show together in five years. Not only that, but they were going to play songs off Old Ramon, their forthcoming album for Sub Pop Records that has been held up for one reason or another since 1998. Just before the Painters played, two audience members enthusiastically discussed the band's various exploits, tossing around words and phrases such as "brilliant" and "life-changing" and debating just how amazing the show was going to be.

Then the band took the stage and, led by singer-guitarist Mark Kozelek, softly made its way through songs off Old Ramon and 1996's Songs For a Blue Guitar. And the two Red House Painters fans by the bar stood with their backs to the band, loudly carrying on a conversation that had moved on to Fear's Lee Ving, of all things and among other things. Were the Red House Painters "brilliant" or "life-changing" that night? Guess it doesn't matter.

Ray Davies, the Kinks frontman now gone solo, delivered a self-deprecating keynote address, then stuck around to hear and even play with some of the young hopefuls at SXSW.
AP/Wide World
Ray Davies, the Kinks frontman now gone solo, delivered a self-deprecating keynote address, then stuck around to hear and even play with some of the young hopefuls at SXSW.
Arlo had rock if you wanted it, and if you came out early enough to get it.
John Anderson
Arlo had rock if you wanted it, and if you came out early enough to get it.

After all, nothing really matters except possibility. The possibility to stay up late drinking and talking with Buddy Holly's widow, Maria Elena Holly, who was in town to discuss her late husband's legacy. The possibility of calling a phone number and having Ray Davies answer. The possibility of drinking four days in a row and not getting either sick or a hangover. (Two tricks: Don't drink for an hour after a heavy meal, and down two glasses of tap water before bed. Also: Be Irish.) Even though the festival was bigger than ever this year, and even though Austin is literally bursting at the seams--"live music capital of the world?" Try plywood capital of the world, thanks to all those makeshift walkways--those are the possibilities that keep bringing us back.

Anything sounded possible, maybe because everything was, at least, explainable. Coldplay is going to play at Revolver magazine's get-together on Saturday instead of The Cult. (Coldplay, or a couple of members of the band, were in town.) Iggy Pop is supposed to show up at the J. Mascis gig, since Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and Minutemen bassist Mike Watt will already be there. (Hey, why not?) Macy Gray is headlining at Stubb's, after Jurassic 5 finishes its set. (Well, they're both on Interscope Records.) No, wait, Eminem is. (Same goes.) Davies is playing tonight with Yo La Tengo. OK, well, he's definitely-maybe gonna be at La Zona Rosa to sing with The New Pornographers. (They're kinda Kinks, right? And he's already in town.) And maybe the next night with Superdrag. (Whatever.) No, I swear.

No matter that none of that actually happened, save for Davies taking the stage to do one Kinks tune each with The New Pornographers and Superdrag. The point is, this year--more than any other in recent memory--every rumor was taken as absolute fact, because frankly, everyone was looking for that one event that would make SXSW special this year. The main reason? The schedule didn't really do it on its own--though try telling that to anyone who saw Japancakes or the Blake Babies or the Rock*A*Teens or Centro-matic or Alejandro Escovedo or The Shins or Chris Mills or about a dozen other bands. Everyone was looking for something to see and/or hear that would make the trip to Austin worth it.

Here's how light the festival was on superstars this year: Nikki Sixx--or as he obviously goes by these days, Fuckin' Nikki Sixx, Man--showed up anywhere and everywhere, and people were still sort of awed by him. Sort of, meaning they maybe kinda wanted to do a shot with him or something, not try to find out where or even if he might be playing. He was there scarfing down skewered chicken at a party where The Adventure Club host Josh Venable was spinning records, then standing next to me on the outdoor balcony during The Cult's performance at Revolver magazine's non-SXSW-sanctioned par-tay at Stubb's. He was sharing a cab with a colleague, then being ushered in the private back entrance to Emo's. FNSM was everywhere, spreading his I-don't-really-shower-because-I-mean-look-at-my-hair-dude scent like pollen. (Hint: It smells like a healthy mix of talcum powder and sweat.)

Fuckin' Nikki Sixx, Man.

Maybe people who were looking for something special were looking in the wrong place. There was plenty of good stuff out there that didn't need a special guest or a gimmick or even a famous fan in the audience. While everyone at the back of Stubb's was craning their necks, trying to get a glimpse of who was up next after Jurassic 5, everyone down front and on the stage knew that there ain't no party like a J5 party. While half the audience at The New Pornographers show on Friday at La Zona Rosa was waiting for Davies to show, the band (which features Zumpano's Carl Newman and Neko Case) gave them every reason to forget, skipping through a stunning set of tunes off 2000's Mass Romantic. And Arlo thrilled the fans that turned out early on Saturday at Emo's, turning the lo-fi pop songs on Up High in the Night (its just-released debut for Sub Pop) into hi-fi rock anthems.

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