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.

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.
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.
The Rock*A*Teens were one of dozens of bands that would say this year's lineup was just fine, thankyouverymuch.
John Anderson
The Rock*A*Teens were one of dozens of bands that would say this year's lineup was just fine, thankyouverymuch.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

Coyne had every reason to be mad, even if it had more to do with Davies than The New Pornographers. (Go buy Mass Romantic. Now.) Singer-guitarist Carl Newman couldn't figure out what, exactly, SXSW keynote speaker Davies was doing onstage with his band. Aside from, obviously, singing "Starstruck," off The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. "How fucked up is that?" Newman asked after the show. "Really, how fucked up is that?"

(Of course, Newman seemed to be confused about a lot of things. Like, for instance, why anyone was a fan of his erstwhile band Zumpano ("Uh, thanks?"), or just where in the hell the rest room was at Waterloo Brewing Company. "No, man, I already tried there," he said, stumbling off, exasperated.)

Davies took the stage again at Superdrag's gig at Buffalo Billiards on Saturday, apparently deciding to sing with any band that ever had the word "Kinks" mentioned in a review. (Though not, as was hoped, at The Deathray Davies' show at The Drink on Wednesday.) Of course, an appearance by Davies wasn't enough to ensure that the crowd his name brought in would stick around. That's what happens when you book a horrible band (say, Brassy) after a good one (The New Pornographers).

Brassy, if you're wondering, combines EMF with Bikini Kill with Young MC with Le Tigre with the Beastie Boys with The Fact That Jon Spencer Is Muffin (Yes, Muffin) Spencer's Brother. So, yeah, bad. The group might as well rename themselves Fire, because La Zona Rosa cleared as soon as people realized what was in the room. If nothing else, Brassy is proof that free badges at SXSW are not, in fact, free. Actually, there is something else: It is who you know. End of story.

Why else would Brassy be invited to play the annual Spin party, along with Idlewild and The BellRays? "Soaking in the exclusivity," was how one person put it, it being the festival-closing Spindig. "Drinking and smoking where I used to pay my water bill," is another, referring to one of the one-night-only Arch's former incarnations. The Spin party was so exclusive (haha) they wouldn't let people out of the party. Even newly hirsute Hollywood Actor Luke Wilson couldn't get the rent-a-cop to crack the door and let him out.

But why would you want to leave a place where you could spark up with all of those writers from Spin and Rolling Stone you see on those MTV specials? Or have Ryan Adams light your cigarette? Or drink so much that a party sponsored by Jim-freakin'-Beam runs out of free booze? Or kick it with Hanson's manager or maybe even Isaac or Taylor Hanson, who was an object of lust by pretty much everyone there, who apparently were so gone that Taylor Hanson just looked pretty one way or the other? With his red-faced tipsiness and filter-tipped cigars, Taylor Hanson looked as if he'd crashed the party on his way home from a high school kegger. All that was missing was a bottle of Boone's Farm. And at that point in the night/morning, no one would have given him any guff for drinking a little Strawberry Hill.

"I wonder who puts these things together for Spin," an Austin writer asked at one point. "It's gotta be someone national."

"Why?"

"Because this is where the day-labor camp is." Pause. "Who from Austin would think this is a good place for this?"

Driving home, sitting in traffic in the too-big-for-its-city-limits town, you'd think he was talking about SXSW itself. Maybe he was.

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