Conference for Cynics

SXSW offers up dreamchasers, diatribes and some darn good music, too

We'd been in Austin maybe an hour, been at the convention center for less than half that time, when we were approached by two young girls, out of their teens by a few seconds, if that. They looked like just another pair of volunteers, two more of the dozens of people who trade a few hours of unpaid labor for entry into the South by Southwest music festival. These are the only people at SXSW truly lacking cynicism, there for the music and nothing more. Well, maybe a little more, but not much. These girls, however, were not volunteers.

"Hi we're in a band are you in the music industry we're looking for a manager," one of them said brightly. We've added spaces between the words for clarity's sake, but we assure you, it was only one sentence. At best. More like one breathy, make-a-wish word.

"Sort of," we answered, and they stepped a little closer. Looking, if possible, even more hopeful. When we added that, sorry, we actually just write about music, we might as well have been holding an autopsy photo in front of us. Or stepped on their puppy. Two big sighs later they were gone, searching for someone in the music biz who could use a couple of girls who looked as though they cut out early from their jobs at Hot Topic to come down to the convention center. And there probably was someone who could use them, just not in the way they wanted. You don't see that many people coming to SXSW trying to make their dreams come true anymore, unless that dream happens to be picking up a canvas goody bag filled with marginal magazines, fliers for things you'll never see/do/use, earplugs and key chains. If that's what you want, then you, sir or madam, are set.

Maybe those girls would have been best served by hanging out at Courtney Love's rambling diatribe against the music industry on Saturday, which came off, more or less, as a very special episode of Family Ties where Jen Keaton's band gets screwed blue by the label suits. There was a point there somewhere, we think, but we kept tripping on all the names she dropped, so we never really noticed. You almost want the labels to bend to her will, just so she'll shut the fuck up for a sec. Or, failing that, maybe Love should just stop hanging around with famous people; then, at least, she might be able to--oh, we don't know--finish a story for a change.

Love never mentioned The Polyphonic Spree during her traffic accident, but she was pretty much the only person we saw who didn't mention them during the few days we were in Austin. Saw a joke in one of the papers during SXSW (after a day or so, the daily coverage by the Austin-American Statesman and the Austin Chronicle was indistinguishable) about the Spree. Something about that many white folks milling around in white robes making people uncomfortable. Funny, but not really true, since most everyone in Austin was more than comfortable with the Polyphonic gang. The 20-something-member band was all over town, opening for Robbie Robertson's keynote address on Thursday, playing later that night at Stubb's, at a yard party, in a moat, on a float, wherever. In a year without many must-see bands (except for Clinic, whose buzz sounded more like "zzzzzzz" live), the Spree were the closest thing to the stars of the conference, impressing all who saw them--and they certainly gave everyone enough chances. The New York Times' Jon Pareles was so taken with the group his coverage of the event revolved around Polyphonic's Stubb's gig, a "purposeful burst of optimism" flying in the face of sagging sales and depressed execs.

From where we were, The Polyphonic Spree weren't the only local stars at SXSW, even if they had the most audible reaction from those in attendance. Jim Testa, editor-publisher of Jersey Beat, stood next to us at The Rocket Summer's show at Melagio on Thursday, saying if it wasn't any good, we'd be held personally responsible. Turns out we're off the hook: Testa seemed impressed, calling Bryce Avary (who, well, is The Rocket Summer) "50 percent Ben Kweller, 50 percent [Bright Eyes'] Conor Oberst." Which is a good thing. Not exactly how we see and hear it, sure, but a good thing nonetheless. Avary acquitted himself nicely, concentrating on the new songs he's been locked away at home recording over the past several months rather than the ones on the disc he sold after he played. Later in the week, Avary sounded as optimistic as those two girls we ran into on Wednesday, ready for his career to begin, confident that this will all pay off soon. You only hope that he's closer to being right about the music business than Courtney Love is. Then again, we wouldn't trust her to make us a cheese sandwich.

Pleasant Grove's show may have been the best set we saw in Austin, and we heard various ways to describe it, ranging from The Beach Boys playing Velvet Underground songs (or vice versa, can't really remember) to...oh, does it really matter? They were great, and the songs were better, rock that rolled, country with a soul. We won't actually mention the name of the labels sniffing around Pleasant Grove after its Wednesday-night showcase at The Ritz, but we'll give you a hint: One of them is named after a Hank Williams song. Elsewhere, Centro-matic, The Deathray Davies and Chomsky packed them in (and outside of) the Iron Cactus on Thursday night, proving that Idol Records may not be the Sub Pop of the South, but it's closer than just about anything else, only lacking name recognition, not talent. The same could be said for most of the locals who made the trip down Interstate 35, but that may be starting to change. We hope it is anyway.

 
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