At the end of the beginning, "Little Danny" Lanois got it right. After all his beat-down poetry, after his self-congratulatory accolades, after a welcoming speech in which he kept referring to himself in the third person, the producer of U2 and Peter Gabriel and Bob Dylan hit it square in the grinning face. "There's a lot of optimism in the air," Lanois said at the end of the keynote address that opened the 17th South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, which began March 12 and ended Sunday. Some of us smelled something different--apprehension, fear or maybe just the musician sitting in front of us--but Lanois, who lives in higher and more rarefied altitudes than the rest of us, has a different perspective. You can afford to be optimistic when expensive people hire you to make expensive records.
That SXSW's organizers chose Lanois as their keynote speaker was of no surprise; they like the Big Name, the Superstar Draw to bless their event, and Lanois did just that in the sort of rambling, indulgent fashion that befits a man who makes guitar wallpaper for himself when not producing men richer than everyone in the Austin Convention Center combined. He said nothing and said it for 45 minutes, insisting at one point he was going to "beeline" it out of the auditorium lest anyone give him a tape and ask him for help. Lanois did provide one of the fest's musical high points, when Richie Havens joined him at the Austin Music Hall on Thursday night for a furious performance of the Woodstock Generation anthem "Freedom," but it was hardly an apologia for kissing his own ass repeatedly that very morning. (Everything old is older again, when you get down to it.)
Lanois' remarks gave SXSW perfect context: It was a conference in denial, which is easily done when 500-plus bands--from across the country and around the world--crank up in one place and drown out the bad news and ill tidings. The usual litany of ailments that threaten to decimate the entire body--from piracy and declining sales to media consolidation and government inquiries--were spoken of in small whispers. You could hardly hear them on Sixth Street and just beyond, where bands started to play early in the morning (one, at 8 a.m. in the Four Seasons bar) and wrapped up, on some nights, in the wee small hours before the sun came up. (As Thursday night became Friday and then some, the Sugar Hill Gang were a-hip-a-hoppin' at an East Austin after-hours shindig thrown by the owners of Stubb's Barbecue; it was early morning of the living dead.)
There was no unifying theme this year, no single strand that looked more like a rope from which the music business could hang itself. This year, there was no Hilary Rosen to kick around; she's now the former president of the Recording Industry Association of America, and someone else will have to blame everyone but the labels for the industry's plentiful woes. There was no Courtney Love to pick apart; there's no one left with whom she can feud. And there was no Norah Jones to suck up to, though crits and bizzers were chasing down the Next New Thing night after night, insisting always they'd just heard the greatest thing since...well, Norah Jones.
The outrage and disgust and suspense of 2002 had given way to the ennui and exhaustion and hangover of 2003; the torrent of anger unleashed last March had dissipated into a fine mist of anxiety. Even the panels meant to generate heat--say, the Activism and Protest circle jerk--were cool to the touch. It didn't help that this year, the label- and media-sponsored parties seemed to begin earlier than ever before; you could get your free drunk on well before noon, meaning you could go to SXSW and have legit reason never to step inside the convention center. Fuck it, right? Might as well party like it's 1991. Like Chicago Tribune music critic and Activism and Protest panel moderator Greg Kot said late Saturday afternoon, standing in a convention center that looked like a ghost town, "There might not even be a music industry next year."
It would have been far better had SXSW chosen for its keynote speaker the ubiquitous Jenny Toomey, the unlikely revolutionary whose Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Freedom of Music Coalition has become the record-buying, radio-listening public's best and loudest voice in the debate over government deregulation of all things media. Toomey, whose bright red hair makes her look like a flaming matchstick held over a short fuse, has spent the last year testifying about the evils of deregulation before Congress and the Federal Communications Commission; her organization has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on studies that prove the damage done when companies like San Antonio-based Clear Channel, which owns more than 1,200 radio stations nationwide, seize control of the public's airwaves. If rock and roll has a future, it will be Toomey and others like her who extend their hands to keep it from tumbling down the cliff. "But I bring 30 people into a room," she said when told she should have been the keynote speaker, implying she doesn't draw like Lanois. Never has a revolutionary been so modest; then again, this is a revolutionary whose new album is filled with nothing but torch songs, not Molotov cocktails.
Another good keynote candidate would have been Jonathan Adelstein, one of five FCC commissioners and one of two Democrats--and the only man at SXSW who had any real power, who could effect any substantive change. "Give him some love," Toomey had said the previous day of the guy who will try to stop FCC chairman and son-of-Colin Michael Powell from allowing fewer companies, including TV networks and newspapers, to own more media outlets. He was introduced as "a member of the cavalry riding to the rescue," the man who was going to stanch the bleeding that began with the 1996 Telecommunications Act that uncorked the limits on how many radio stations a single company could own. (Before '96, Clear Channel had but 40 outlets; now, multiply that figure by 30.)
As Adelstein reminded, after the act was passed, more than 2,100 of the United States' 11,000 radio stations changed hands "and many were sold to former competitors." Seems the Supreme Court's "uninhibited marketplace of ideas" is destined to become a mini-mall run by a couple of billionaires. No matter how noble Adelstein's intentions--and coming to SXSW to check out bands and solicit opinions from Regular Folk is pretty damned noble--he's still the eunuch in the whorehouse, as one colleague pointed out during the session; Powell will likely get his way.
"The game isn't over in consolidation," Adelstein said, by way of soothing the nerves of the couple dozen SXSW-goers who showed up for his Saturday-afternoon session to ask questions and state their grievances. And, indeed, the FCC is asking for comments from the public about the deregulation issue, which Powell wants decided by June of this year; so far, the commission has received some 15,000. "But 285 million people are affected by it," Adelstein said, and recent studies indicate more than 70 percent of the American public have never even heard of deregulation, which will lead to what Adelstein called the inevitable "loss of voices and viewpoints."
Look only at the fallout from Natalie Maines' remark last week from a London stage, when she said she was "ashamed" to be from the same state as President Bush--a subject of much discussion during SXSW, especially during Friday afternoon's Activism and Protest panel. Immediately, Dixie Chicks songs were pulled from radio stations across the country, first by KJ97 in San Antonio--a Clear Channel station, in that corporation's hometown. On March 12, Maines issued a statement on dixiechicks.com in which she explained that Bush is "ignoring the opinions of many in the U.S." and that her "comments were made in frustration"; two days later, she had backed off entirely. "My remark was disrespectful," she wrote, which didn't stop hundreds from destroying thousands of Chicks CDs in Louisiana on Monday. "I love my country," she added in case anyone doubted her--especially, oh, Clear Channel's CEO and founder Lowry Mays, a good friend of George W. Bush's.
"September 11 set non-president Bush up so well for this," said R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, who sat alongside Toomey, X's John Doe, Woodstock vestige Wavy Gravy and the MC5's John Sinclair on the activism panel. "To protest has been unseemly, like stomping on the graves of the dead." So instead, Darryl Worley's flag-wavin', ass-kickin' "Have You Forgotten" rockets up the country singles charts, while pop protesters--among them the Beastie Boys, Billy Bragg, Ani DiFranco, Chumbawamba and John Mellencamp--have been forced to give away their offerings on their Web sites. "Between Infinity and Clear Channel," Mills muttered, "I don't even know how you'd get a protest song on the radio."
"When people are apolitical in moments like this, the politics seem more highlighted and more potent," Toomey insisted, ever the optimist. "There are always political songs, even when people are asking, 'Where are the political songs?'... But the Internet can't fix everything. It's a gathering place, but we own the airwaves."
Save for the Saturday-afternoon anti-war protest that began on the Capitol steps and proceeded south on Congress Avenue, there was little talk about what's likely to come in days; hell, half the people marching Saturday were just SXSW attendees trying to get from one party to the next. Ted Leo, the Billy Bragg (or Joe Jackson?) of New Jersey, had "No War" on his guitar in shiny duct tape, but it was unreadable from 20 feet away. Then again, you ain't gonna find many pro-war folks at a music festival where former Dallas Cowboy and current NORML honcho Mark Stepnoski is scheduled to be the guest of honor at the High Times party. You dropped a bong on me, baby.
What makes SXSW special, all these years later, is that for a few days in March, you can be around people who speak the same secret language. They're excited when they see Steve Wynn, ex of the Dream Syndicate, standing in a club; not only that, but they'll start debating his band work and solo stuff, trying to decide if it's better to be "important" or "good." And not only that, but they'll have a story about Wynn, like the time a friend loaned him a guitar before a gig and a place to crash after. It's a place where every other band sounds like the end of a Neil Young song. It's a place people still get excited about Liz Phair, the Meg Ryan of rock who manages to make old songs sound like demos. It's a place where the Trachtenburg Family Slide Show Players, with its little-girl drummer keeping the beat in someone else's back pocket, generate buzz. It's a place where power-pop bands get the Knack and keep it. It's a place where 50-year-old men dress like 34-year-old men dress like 17-year-olds in vintage shirts just off the rack from Urban Outfitters. It's a place where Billy Bob Thornton, the Lenny Nimoy of his generation, can't bullshit the audience, which walked out on him quicker than the Jews from Egypt. And it's a place where comebacks are possible, if not always likely. Ask the Jungle Brothers or Concrete Blonde or Presidents of the United States of America or the Yardbirds, all of whom generated as much interest as a checking account.
Still, the oldies delivered: Blur, playing to a packed house at La Zona Rosa on Thursday night, is now in its Sandinista! phase; Damon Albarn even introduced one song as a Clash homage, and he wasn't starting a "White Riot." (As evidenced by the awkward movement of the crowd, it's dance music for people who don't go dancing--or leave the house--too often.) And the band's moved so far past its past that "Girls & Boys" now sounds like it was recorded in 1984, not '94. Mark Gardener, touring in support of a new Ride best-of, played the trade show at the convention center, and even acoustic he never once gazed at his shoes. It was an impossible place to perform--smack in the middle of the Blender magazine booth and the Miller Lite kiosk manned by two chicks in half-tees--and it had the vibe of a talent-show tryout; still, Gardener passed the audition.
Joe Jackson, who pretty much closed out the fest Saturday night at the Music Hall, proved how fine the line between oldies act and upstart newcomer. Backed by old mates ditched after they went beat crazy in 1980, Jackson played the standards ("Is She Really Going Out With Him," "Fools in Love," etc.), but more fulfilling were the new songs off the just-released Volume 4; Jackson's been reborn in middle age playing alongside men he's known since he was a kid. (Too bad the cavernous joint was damned near empty; seems the rocknoscenti were smokin' up Supergrass at Stubb's.) The same goes for Camper Van Beethoven, who sounds better now than the first go-round--reunited 'cause it sounds so good.
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The best SXSW moments are the surprises, the unknown commodities who've sold themselves by the weekend's end: KaitO, fronted by two chicks made out of Elastica and a guitarist who looks like a young Richard Thompson and plays like a young Jimmy Page; the Shazam, Tennessee titans of power pop who sound like Cheap Trick and the Who and know it; Petty Booka, two women from Japan who play ukulele and cover Gomez; and the Venue, Swedes who think they're all Ray Davies and it's still 1964. Don't see a Norah Jones busting out of this year's fest, but if there was one band there worth making the Big Leap, it's England's Grand Drive, who've been together since 1997, have released three critically adored albums and three EPs in the U.K., have gotten considerable airplay at home on BBC and XFM and are only now getting any kind of U.S. distribution on a BMG subsidiary. (Private Music will release a best-of compilation next month.) "We're considered U.K. Americana, whatever that means," says singer-guitarist Danny Wilson, whose brother Julian plays keys in a band that sounds like Fred Neil Finn (and only five of you will get that, sorry). Oughta crossover like Kevin Garnett, but just try finding the radio station that plays beautiful pop with an EastEnder's western twang.
SXSW has become a place where labels launch new bands and shill new product, but still the hopefuls come seeking elusive deals; there was Jack Lee, once a legendary Nerve and a Paul Young hitmaker, passing out two-song samplers in front of the convention center, grinning at the grunt work. But no one came farther looking for more than Abbos Qosimov, who brought from Uzbekistan a small version of his eponymous big band in search of U.S. representation and, yeah, even a recording contract.
Abbos, which comes with two guys blowing Louis Armstrong notes out of karnay (a copper horn that looks like a tall lamp), wasn't on the SXSW schedule because it never turned in its registration paperwork; there had been a visa problem even after the Uzbekistan Ministry of Culture had requested the band's appearance. When it showed up, organizers were stunned and scrambled to find showcases; by week's end, Abbos had done three, including one at an after-hours party, where pretty young girls moved and grooved to the sound of the JB Horns fronted by Lester Chambers on a Middle Eastern kick. (You can hear them at www.uzonline.com/abbos.)
Qosimov looks like a café au lait Larry Fishburne, and donned in white and golden robes and a skull cap, he was more the Rock Star than anyone else at SXSW. (Most bands look like they're fronted by guys who sold pot in high school or the girls who used to date them.) He was the sudden hit of SXSW, doing interviews for CNN on the convention center rooftop and beating hell out of four doiras (tambourine-like instruments) with his bandaged fingertips anytime someone asked. At 2 o'clock Sunday morning, as the band finished its gig in the black-box theater at the Hideout on Sixth Street and Congress, the audience of 100 cheered, stomped its feet against the wooden floor and stood for minutes that seemed like hours. Though he speaks no English, outside of a "thank you" or "jazz music," Qosimov needed no translator to understand what that meant.