Please Kill Me

The sounds, the sweat, the stink, of SXSW 2004

Same was true of the "How's Your News?" crew, a group of handicapped adults who have become semi-famous through their participation in Arthur Bradford's cult-hit documentary of the same name. Bradford, a Brooklyn author who worked at a Massachusetts camp for the disabled, took five mentally and physically disabled adults on a U.S. tour in which they asked strangers on the street, "How's your news?" The nonsense question acted as a kind of litmus test for the way individuals dealt with the handicapped. The film was a festival favorite in 2002, but the Saturday-night musical concert opening for the Polyphonic Spree was something else entirely--a bold and unpredictable move that could have ended in disaster, especially considering how unprepared the hipster audience was. "I think this is a bunch of retarded people," complained the unbelieving kid beside me. But after Susan Harrington, who suffers from a visual and mental disability, waxed wonderment about the Grand Canyon ("How grand is this canyon? So deep, so wide.") and Ronnie Simonson, who has cerebral palsy, sang about his favorite celebrity (inexplicably, Chad Everett from the TV series Medical Center), the "How's Your News?" team had 1,200 new fans screaming and singing along to their theme song, "Hey, How's Your News?" The kid beside me marveled, "These guys are incredible!" And fun. And happy. And that's so nice.

'Cause you know what? SXSW can be a drag. The lines, the hangovers, the sheer excess. Some shows were straight-up terrible: Pretty Girls Make Graves were chronically off-key; thrash metal outfit The Bronx were chronically not-my-thing. But after a few days, even good bands started to bleed together. I heard a lot of acts I might enjoy some other time--Preston School of Industry, the Von Bondies, The Killers--but to be honest, they kind of bored me in the context of the festival. It is a live event, after all. If you're not yet famous, baby, you'd better put on a goddamn good show. Then again, there were plenty of famous people who didn't have to worry about all that: Little Richard, Camper Van Beethoven, Big Star, Robyn Hitchcock, Cake. Joan Jett still loved rock and roll, and everyone still loved the B-52's. Hell, even Hollywood actresses got in on the action--witness packed solo shows by French actress Julie Delpy and Minnie Driver, who is signed to Pete Yorn's Trampoline Records and whose Saturday showcase one friend dismissed with a two-word description: "Holiday Inn."

But you have to be careful with those marquee acts. You might stand in line for ages only to discover that Mission of Burma never should have gotten back together. Or you might find yourself stuffed among strangers and waiting more than 30 minutes for Los Lobos--as if there's anything new to say about them--while some drunk dude yells at the poor belabored sound guys, "You suck!" And when Los Lobos finally arrives, and the old white guys in the audience break into that embarrassing, off-tempo male wiggle, you might think, "What the hell am I doing here?" and high-tail it over to Emo's, where the Gamblers are screaming and pegging the crowd with snack packages.

Clockwise, from top left: The Killers, Will Johnson, British Sea Power, the Von Bondies
Lindsay Graham; John Anderson, bottom right
Clockwise, from top left: The Killers, Will Johnson, British Sea Power, the Von Bondies
A two-word description of Minnie Driver's set? "Holiday Inn."
John Anderson
A two-word description of Minnie Driver's set? "Holiday Inn."

Thank God.

Slave to Fashion
Trends of the festival

I Heart the '80s: Sweatbands are back, my friends. So are miniskirts over leggings, neon pumps and anything hot pink. While '80s relics like Joan Jett enjoyed headlining gigs, new bands like British Sea Power, stellastarr* and The Killers borrowed heavily from that decade. And there was no dearth of wink-wink '80s band names either--The Jessica Fletchers, The Pee Wee Fist, Say Anything and the Yuppie Pricks, a band of snot-nosed richies with songs hailing '80s greed and excess.

I Hate the Bushies: Guys walked around with "Impeach" painted across their chests. The band Weapons of Mass Belief screamed about all of us being terrorists. Patty Griffin and Kris Kristofferson garnered huge applause with their protest songs. There was even a showcase dedicated to railing against our president: "Rock Against Bush," a packed event featuring punk bands Alkaline Trio and NOFX along with comedian David Cross, whose set included goofs on Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A."

Pretty Punny: The worst puns, and by that we mean the best ones--John Wilkes Booze, Blanche Dividian and Black Cock. That's not a pun, but isn't it funny?

And the Best Band Name Goes to: Volcano, I'm Still Excited!!!

Overheard

"Have you ever seen so many goddamn cell phones in your life?" --Will Johnson at an afternoon show

"Put your barbecue in your pocket and finish your beers. Are you ready to rock?" --Hives lead singer Pelle Almqvist at the Spin party

"It's like they're saying, 'I have a little boy to rape, and he's got the sweetest, tightest ass, but I'm not going to marry him because that would be wrong.'" --David Cross, on the Catholic Church covering up its sex scandal while opposing gay marriage"Hey, look! It's Joe Perry!" --smart-aleck to a gullible crowd at the Driskill bar"I know nobody does this besides Justin Timberlake, but pretend I'm him." --pianist Jamie Cullum, leading the crowd in a round of singing"Thank you, Austin. I mean, Dallas." --Sparrows guitarist Ward Williams talking to the (mostly local) crowd at the Summer Break showcase"I think we raised the bar for rock shows. Not us, personally, 'cause Chris shit his pants during the set." --Bowling for Soup's Jaret Reddick at the band's free show

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