By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
After all, the Damnations' first and last album, Half Mad Moon, was released in 1998, and a new one has been finished (all that's left is the mastering) for a long while. Yet there is no release date in sight, because Sire Records (once so proud and mighty, home to Madonna and Talking Heads; now just one more cloud in an overcast sky) appears unwilling to let the band go, no matter how hard it begs for its liberation (Moses had an easier time getting the Jews out of Egypt). Monday night, during a break between sets at a dotcom party at, of all places, Stubb's barbecue joint, Damnations TX guitarist-songwriter Rob Bernard (a former Picket Line Coyote and a current member of Prescott Curlywolf) had mentioned that the band had hoped to hear something about the album's fate during SXSW, but no luck. They don't call it the festival of false hope for nothing. But even if the Damnations are freed from Seymour Stein's velvet shackles, the band will be reluctant--if not downright resistant--to link arms once more with any label, large or small. Even the true believers have lost faith--except for True Believer Alejandro Escovedo, who seems to pop up at every other gig during the long, lost weekend.
It's ironic, if not downright heartbreaking, that SXSW takes place in Austin, the hometown of so many talented musicians who now have barely a tangential relationship with The Biz. Kathy McCarty, the Glass Eye guitarist-singer-songwriter who last released an album (Dead Dog's Eyeball, featuring the songs of Daniel Johnston) seven years ago, has apparently gone into the Rock and Roll Witness Relocation Program. The only time she was seen during SXSW was Wednesday night, on the Austin Music Hall stage playing with a, ahem, supergroup called 86'ed, which featured the likes of Mike Hall (Wild Seeds), Escovedo, Steve Collier (Doctors' Mob), and other musicians who flowered (or deflowered) Austin's rock scene in the 1980s. When McCarty lit into Glass Eye's "Christine," cutting through the chitchat that renders the annual Austin Music Awards a cross between a homecoming bash and going-away party, it was hard not to choke back tears--of nostalgia, and of regret for a career stuck in the middle Byrne was talking about. After all, how does a musician succeed when she's never even given the chance to fail?
Or take Mark Rubin, whose Bad Livers are, for all intents and purposes, defunct. The multi-instrumentalist now manages Violins Etc. on North Lamar in Austin, selling instruments to others; his band is busted up (partner Danny Barnes now lives in the Pacific Northwest), leaving behind a legacy of remarkable music worshiped by the faithful handful. A few years ago, Rubin predicted that three out of every 10 musicians at that year's SXSW would be off the stage and out of the business sooner rather than later; "I had no idea it'd be four out of 10," he says, laughing. Now, he can be found at SXSW moderating a mental-health issues forum to a crowd of about 20, even though it's likely the most instructive and meaningful panel of the conference.
On Saturday afternoon, Rubin was sitting between Austin singer-songwriter Dale Watson, who spoke openly and eloquently of his many failed suicide attempts after the recent death of his fiancée, and University of North Texas' John Hipple, a psychotherapist who consults with performing artists ranging from a 17-year-old musician with performance anxiety to couples with marital troubles. Watson, who pulled himself out of his post-traumatic depression by going into therapy, referred to himself as a "guinea pig of this profession we call music"; he sipped a can of Dr Pepper but admitted to still taking the occasional drink. Hipple provided a thick handout, Taking Care of Yourself Personally & Professionally, that came with chapters titled "Staying Sane: Knowing Yourself" and "The Business of Making Music."
"Musicians need to get over those years of being the unappreciated genius," Rubin says later, after all the rock-and-roll tourists have finished their spring break. "All the musicians can do is their part, come up with something amazing, and if the business and the culture don't pick up on it, it's not the musicians' fault. I don't require the validation of strangers; it can't be about the money. But you can't be on that track and say you're making music for a living. I think, anyway."
Maybe it's just easy to be cynical when you see hundreds of people lined up in the frigid dampness to hear The Cult or the Black Crowes, whose appearances at SXSW prove only that any dinosaur can be dug up and foisted off as "hip" to a crowd that really ought to know better. The Cult's appearance, at a party for Revolver magazine (and there were more people at Stubb's for the party than actually read the magazine), was one of those performances so mundane and mediocre people tended to praise it with an Ike Turner backhand: "Well, that wasn't half bad." No, it was entirely awful, from Ian Astbury's look (he was clad in an outfit from the Fire Island REI outlet) to the fact the band insisted on performing songs other than "She Sells Sanctuary," which they got around to about the time the light drizzle turned to a steady downpour of God's anguished tears. Little wonder the SXSW organizers were furious with Revolver for booking a band not invited to play the formal fest; there's no truth to the rumor that people are already lining up around Stubb's for Revolver's 2002 bash featuring Warrant and the Hoodoo Gurus.