See By Be Seen

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

Then there was Joseph Arthur, who delivered one of the festival's best performances on Friday afternoon at Club DeVille at a party for Interview magazine. Playing to a crowd getting legless off the free and plentiful Midori margaritas, Arthur and his folk-art guitar and his two-man backing band gave them something to stay slightly sober for, sounding like Nick Drake if he grew up with a sampler and, you know, not paralyzed by depression. The Austin American-Statesman's Chris Riemenschneider dismissed the songs off Arthur's Come to Where I'm Fromas being among the "variety of pale imitators" that followed Radiohead's OK Computer. Riemenschneider is wrong. That said, it wasn't exactly party music.

But maybe the somber mood of Arthur's set was the perfect match for SXSW this year. Last year, both SXSW and Austin itself were flush with cash and flash from various Internet companies. There were so many startup.coms competing for afternoon parties/showcases, there wasn't enough time in each day. Everyone was trying to top each other. And the city was going out of its way to accommodate the whims of the dot-community, even going so far as evicting Liberty Lunch from city-owned property and taking a wrecking ball to the SXSW fixture so a computer company could start building its dream office on the site.

This year, the shell of a building Intel will never finish kept watch over downtown Austin, the short answer to the who/when/where/what/why of the bottom dropping out. And as it turns out, Liberty Lunch didn't actually have to be torn down, since the company that had it bulldozed is in the midst of downsizing. Still, the entire city appeared to be in the middle of remodeling, with roads and buildings and entire city blocks in various stages of construction. Austin looks and feels like a city stuck between trying to stay relatively small and becoming, well, Dallas. Guess which side is winning.

Mike Watt and Ron Asheton were the stars of the show at Emo's on Thursday, even though it was J. Mascis' band.
John Anderson
Mike Watt and Ron Asheton were the stars of the show at Emo's on Thursday, even though it was J. Mascis' band.
The New Pornographers played one of the best sets all week/month/ year, with or without Ray Davies.
John Anderson
The New Pornographers played one of the best sets all week/month/ year, with or without Ray Davies.

Austin is a chain that still believes it's a mom-and-pop store. This is how much the city has changed: The listening party Capitol Records hosted for Radiohead's new album (Amnesiac, due June 5) happened at Plush. The club, until the last year or so, was a punk dive that catered mainly to drag queens. Now, it's one of those brushed-steel joints where you don't necessarily have to sweep teeth and needles and godknowswhatelse off the floor at the end of the night. The kind of place where a roomful of people can stand, not talking to anyone, not really drinking anymore, not even moving much, just listening.

There was plenty to listen to: Amnesiac, the follow-up to the much reviled/revered Kid A, is the answer to the question, "What happened to ________? [choose one: a) the guitars b) their sense of humor c) Thom Yorke's voice d) all of the above] In short, it's what Kid A could/should have been, experimental without being exclusionary, a Rock Band tinkering with that term instead of destroying it completely. The six songs Capitol played--"Packt Like Sardines in a Can," "Pyramid Song," "You and Whose Army," "I Might Be Wrong," "Dollars and Cents," and "Life in a Glass House"--came with melodies and guitars and words you could hear without searching through electronic debris. However, if you're still looking for another "Creep" out of Radiohead, why are you even listening to that band anymore? Really. No. Seriously.

If more traditional Radiohead fare is what you're after, you'd be better served listening to Coldplay, who was rumored to be the "special guest" at Stubb's on Thursday night, after a lineup that included Ozomatli, Black Eyed Peas, and Jurassic 5. Macy Gray was also mentioned as the surprise headliner. So was DJ Spooky. So was Eminem. So were a ton of bands. As it turned out, the guest was Mix Master Mike, who cut up records while Jurassic 5 and Black Eyed Peas sat on the stage and watched, nodding along, giving respect to one of the best DJs around.

If you just said that Mix Master Mike didn't exactly live up to "special guest" billing, especially since he was already scheduled to play somewhere else during SXSW, well, you are, of course, right. Didn't matter, though. He went over a lot better than Coldplay would have. Gray might've had a shot, but no one could have followed the J5/BEP party, especially not four low-key Brits. (Former Creation Records boss Alan McGee has called Coldplay "bedwetter rock," which isn't right, but still.) Put it this way: If Coldplay had played after Jurassic 5 and Black Eyed Peas, the crowd would have disappeared quicker than lottery winnings in a trailer park.

Which is about how long Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne stayed at La Zona Rosa on Friday night, after finding out that he'd missed what he'd come for. Showing up a few minutes after Davies took the stage with The New Pornographers, because it took him "about three hours to park," Coyne then stalked off, annoyed. (He turned up the next night to catch Japan's 00100 at Emo's, who might've been the best band there. Or maybe not, depending on whom you asked and/or your tolerance level for the Boredoms.)

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