Bang to Hype

At SXSW, it's all about the buzz, not the Buzz Band

But no one attends South by Southwest's music fest to be lectured to or to learn; that's the province of its kid-sister film festival, held just before the rock-and-roll zombies head to town. (You can tell the film fest's over when the Hugo Boss leather jackets and Prada shoes give way to torn tees and Doc Martens.) They come instead to catch what Robertson called "the music fever"; they drive to Texas to play short showcases, to listen to bands from Japan and Sweden and Germany, to bask in the buzz and perhaps sneak away with a fistful of discs from bands heretofore unknown outside Aliceville, Alabama, or Dayton, Ohio, or Vienna, Austria. They come to discover the secrets and speak the secret language ("They're like Neu crossed with Wilco if they were fronted by Brian Eno or Neil Finn"), to one-up each other ("Dude, I just saw the best Japanese stoner-rock-free-jazz-Kraut-rock-hip-hop band, like, ever!") and make sure they don't miss The Best Band to Ever Play South by Southwest (that would have been Pleasant Grove...or the Eels...or the Gaza Strippers...or...). Like Robertson said, it's about finding that one thing that turns a flirtation into an obsession; on the drive back from Austin, I realized I'd found mine, Dan Bryk.

Unlike Bryk, Norah Jones--Dallas-raised, New York City-based--came to Austin the possessor of the mighty buzz; Rolling Stoneand Entertainment Weeklyhad already proclaimed her one to watch in 2002, and her Blue Note debut, Come Away With Me, has been the top-selling album at Austin's beloved Waterloo Records for the last two weeks. Her trip to Austin wasn't to be wasted: During the span of three days, she performed a handful of times--an exhausting pace, one likely to reduce the buzz to a withering blur. She played a Blue Note party at Stubb's, a Friday-afternoon gig at a Starbucks across the street from the University of Texas campus, a Saturday-afternoon in-store at Waterloo, an in-studio at KGSR-FM and her Thursday-night showcase at The Clay Pit. She even gigged in the Four Seasons bar at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday--where "she knocked my dick in the dirt," said one wary Texas journalist, his face cracked in half by a giant grin. Her Clay Pit gig was a major miscalculation on the part of SXSW organizers: Not only do you not put a hot artist in a small room, thus stranding dozens of irate badge-wearers out in the humid night, but it's also kind of, well, offensive to stick the offspring of Ravi Shankar in an Indian restaurant.

But the keybs-playing-soft-singing Jones, backed only by guitar and bass, weathered the chattering of attendees who preferred to listen to their own droning voices. Bless her, she possesses the kind of voice, the kind of soul, that cuts through the static and chitchat of the disinterested and disaffected for whom she's just another Next Big Thing fresh off the RIAA assembly line. (Robbie Robertson showed up, sat down and visited with passers-by; after the Austin American-Statesman's Michael Corcoran wrote about how Robertson was among the talkers, Robertson sent a nasty e-mail insisting quite the contrary.) During one song, the crowd suddenly, and finally, became still and quiet--as though the audience was standing in the eye of the hurricane. They applauded the single "Don't Know Why" as though it were a hit, an old friend, and from then on you could hear--no, feel--the reason why she's burdened by expectation from label and listener alike.

Eels front man Mark "E" Everett gets his freak on during the band's DreamWorks showcase.
Nancy Newberry
Eels front man Mark "E" Everett gets his freak on during the band's DreamWorks showcase.
You couldn't mask how boring Clinic was during its SXSW set.
Nancy Newberry
You couldn't mask how boring Clinic was during its SXSW set.

Maybe the most amazing thing about Jones is how sweet and naïve she sounds, like a newborn unfettered by the bullshit. She provides a small dose of purity amid the sweat and slime of a business that's taken people like her and made licensing properties out of them. She's contagious, this carrier of the music fever: At her Starbucks gig the next day, people were streaming out with copies of Come Away With Me, for which they happily paid full price. Appropriately, she ended that afternoon's gig with a cover of The Band's "Bessie Smith," which she would have performed the night before had Robertson not attended. "Too nervous," she said later, though she need not have worried: We hear Robertson invited Jones to a dinner, and that she turned him down, graciously.

The biggest problem, if one can call it that, with South by Southwest is one of plentitude: To catch one potentially good band, you run the risk of missing a dozen great ones at any given moment. The thousands who rushed to hear Clinic left feeling misled; same for those eager to catch a ride with Starsailor. (Look, one's the new Radiohead; the other's the new Coldplay--which adds up to the new Radioplay, leaving you feeling as if you've just caught a Headcold. Mopey motherfuckers.) Drive-By Truckers, who packed 'em in at Antone's on Thursday night, sound like they oughta be playing monster-truck rallies with Confederate flags behind them; they proved you can't be any good if you're just a band singing about another band (Lynyrd Skynyrd, in this case, whose moribund echoes still managed to drown out the Truckers' stale Southern-fried rock). Lo-Fidelity All-Stars, at La Zona Rosa, banged out something that sounded like dance music (for those without legs, perhaps); Loudermilk's grunge-rock had passed its expiration date; the much-loved OK GO were just OK (rock critics, who still confuse irony with talent, just adoredtheir note-for-bloat version of "Jessie's Girl"); while Elbow made passable background music for any room you just happen not to be in.

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