"South by Southwest is a little like Fantasy Island. It's a place where dreams come true."
The lead singer-guitarist utters those words like a child, his voice so high it could touch the stars. He performs for a packed house, a few hundred early-morning revelers who've seen Saturday turn into Sunday and still haven't had enough free beer and glad-handing over the course of four days. They want more, more, more, so they pack into the Naked Grape--a rather average club in downtown Austin, its bar bigger than its stage even here in the so-called Live Music Capital of the World. They show up even though it's 2:30 a.m. and the city's slowly shutting down, arriving just in time for the performance by this young band so happy to be playing rock and roll's annual four-day insurance convention, South by Southwest--where dreams come true, like the man said, but only for a lucky few.
The man standing on stage is none other than Old 97's frontman Rhett Miller, who was, a very long time ago, a kid struggling to make a living making music. He was once like most of the 800 bands that come to Austin every year to peddle their wares on stages and street corners--desperate, anonymous. Only after he started singing his pop with a twang did Miller's dreams come true: Last year, Elektra Records released the Old 97's' major-label debut, Too Far to Care, and though it was greeted by the world with a shrug, selling only 16,000 copies since its release, the 97's have still been invited to perform on this night for Spin magazine's invite-only closing-night fete, where it's free beer and cigars and rock for everyone.
And here's where the dream becomes reality--tangible, concrete. A handful of songs into their set, Miller welcomes to the stage a man who paid his dues long before labels started picking up the check. The band's special guest--X's John Doe--was defining and destroying rock and roll while Miller was still wearing St. Mark's gray-and-whites.
Doe steps onto the Naked Grape stage wearing a blue-and-white plaid shirt, a crooked grin, and two decades of history, and suddenly, Rhett Miller shrinks about two feet. It's not Miller's fault; Doe is a presence, and Miller is only a performer--the difference being, what Miller communicates with an eyes-wide-shut holler, Doe gets across with a groan. Doe performs three songs with the Old 97's, and it's indeed a rare SXSW highlight: The 97's are like a socket full of juice, and Doe's a 1,000-watt bulb illuminating the room, the grin never leaving his face. The crowd, filled with cynical expense-account insiders who'd rather buy a drink than a record, is thrilled, hypnotized, born again hopeful. Rock and roll can do that to you sometimes, even when played by guys who don't have to worry about covering this month's rent.
But for every dream come true, there are hundreds of others that fail to materialize; just ask the Pushbacks or Buck Diaz or Pearly Gates or the New Rob Robbies or hundreds of other bands who came to Austin without a deal and left without any gas money. Once upon a time, 12 years ago to be exact, South by Southwest was an intimate music conference created by the Austin Chronicle with the intention of exposing regional bands to national tastemakers; back then, the biggest star in town during the conference was Mojo Nixon, who used to show up all over Austin bumming rides. Even as late as 1991, the largest crowds were found at Poi Dog Pondering and Bad Mutha Goose. Talk about the bad old days.
Now, SXSW is built around major-label attractions, the bands who don't need deals: This year alone, Soul Asylum, Sonic Youth, Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Bragg, Joe Ely, Imani Coppola, Propellerheads, Vic Chesnutt, the Old 97's, and dozens of other major-label artists filled the schedule of performers scattered around Austin's clubs. They came to preview new material for the hundreds of journalists who can provide thousands of column inches of free publicity; they came to do interviews; they came for the credibility. You knew the jig was up this year when Kathy Mattea, the '90s Anne Murray and the antithesis of the SXSW performer, opened for the always wonderful Robyn Hitchcock on Thursday night and offered this assessment: "I was looking at the schedule, and I noticed I'm playing the same schedule as Sluts for Hire." Someone pointed out she was also playing with Nashville Pussy, but it seemed a little obvious.
Sonic Youth kicked off SXSW's official opening night (Thursday) by debuting, er, songs from their forthcoming Geffen album A Thousand Leaves. Only at SXSW would there be a line wrapped around a club to see these New Yawk noise-rockers: Thousands of badge-wearing industry types and wristband-wearing locals packed themselves into La Zona Rosa for a punishing, joyless set of feedback and furor. "I'll bet most of the people in here never even paid for a Sonic Youth record," said one audience member, looking away from the stage to avoid the blinding green light shining in the crowd's eyes. If Sonic Youth were a band of 22-year-olds from Denton instead of 40-plus-year-olds from Manhattan, there would have been eight people in the crowd who would have booed the band off the stage and beat them to death with their out-of-tune instruments. Hell, after Sonic Youth, Mattea's set of NashVegas pop seemed almost comforting: Despite what you might have heard, chord changes are a good thing.
In 1994, would-be producer Kim Fowley, the man who claims to have created Joan Jett and the Runaways, came to South by Southwest with three little kids trailing behind him. Fowley, the kind of guy who could only be a legend in L.A. (and even then, only in his own house), at the time was trying to get anyone with a record-company credit card to listen to his latest find, these little moppets with the last name of...what was it? Oh, yeah. Hanson. Which only goes to show you how today's novelty bullshit might turn out to be tomorrow's one-hit wonder: For proof, all you needed to hear was Imani Coppola's dance music played on fiddle Thursday at Stubb's, where her career faded faster than the echoes. What's the sound of 100 audience members standing still?
The real star of Thursday night was Eszter Balint, who, until that moment, was best known as the star of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise--which is, actually, a fitting description for her brand of hypnotic pop. Balint, who's recording now in Austin, performed for a small, early-night crowd that included Janet Billig--the woman who once managed Nirvana and now handles Courtney Love's business. It must have been the place to be.
Speaking of the Woman Formerly Known as Mrs. Cobain, it was shocking to realize how much Love has stolen from Come frontwoman Thalia Zedek, whose performance Friday night was an absolutely thrilling, revelatory experience. With the word Electric blazing behind her in red neon--after all, the show was at the Electric Lounge--Zedek spat out words like broken glass and gravel and played guitar as though the strings were barbed wire; listening to Come was like being trapped beneath a runaway train. Not for nothing did someone yell out during the show: "Finally, a good band!"
An hour after the show, the buzz was still there--lasting just as long as it took for Alex Gifford and Will White, better known as the English dance duo Propellerheads, two British electronic wizards, to set up their turntables and keyboards and drum kit. At long last, nonbelievers, here's a dance-floor band that can play the big halls: This English duo filled every space of La Zona Rosa with beats so big and heavy, they sat on your chest and left you breathless. Rock is dead, long live rock.
But not Molly Ivins--yes, the Molly Ivins--who actually had the audacity to get on a stage on the University of Texas campus and sing with a band that included Jimmy LaFave, who knows music when he plays it, unlike Ivins. Her next book ought to be titled Molly Ivins Sings Worse than You. Dreams do come true, but for the rest of us, they turn into nightmares. The Gourds, joined by former Dallasite and Wilco member Max Johnston, washed the taste out of our mouths an hour later at the Hole in the Wall across the street; it was a hometown crowd for the hometown heroes, who played "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" and "Sweet Home Austin, Texas" until the beer ran out and the lights came on. (The Gourds play Club Dada this Friday night, and they're never to be missed.)
But when the music business' spring break-spring training came to an end, the buzz of tomorrow's great band seemed to fade too quickly. On Friday night, those who had come to Austin representing Warner Bros. Records discovered--some, during the middle of bands' sets--that dozens of their colleagues had been laid off hours earlier. It was a stark reminder of the music industry's financial troubles during a conference meant to celebrate its alleged indestructibility. "I feel so guilty," said one Warner's publicist. "I'm out running up an expense-account tab while my friends are getting fired." Here was more sad proof that even in Austin during SXSW, the business often isn't about music at all.
We all guessed that the half-orphaned boy might grow up and sell out. We had a suspicion he'd enter the glow of the pop-culture spotlight through the door of privilege--how could he not with parents like his? And we also guessed that he, like other spawns of celebrity, could turn out to be far less compelling than Mom or Dad.
But we were only guessing. So hundreds of us descended on Liberty Lunch on Saturday night to see whether Sean Lennon could deliver. The dubious and the optimistic packed the cavernous space that is Liberty Lunch, and when the junior Lennon-Ono walked onto the stage for his big-venue debut, a Les Paul strapped to his lean 23-year-old frame, every eye in the house turned his way. Relentless industry schmoozers stopped schmoozing. Drunk rock fans went sober. Journalists dropped their cigarettes underfoot and moved in closer. Raw curiosity washed through the room like a flash flood. Damn it, man! That's John Lennon and Yoko Ono's kid. Can he play?
Well, yes. Mostly, anyway, and he may be onto something pretty solid. He was flanked by the members of Cibo Matto--the pair of Japanese house-music darlings he's collaborated with for the last year or so--and his still-new set was grounded in progressive urban sounds: sampling and looping, melodic effects-layering, and lilting Euro-pop. Then he tossed in slight references to the R&B that his dear ol' dad found so inspiring. The results: lightly engaging, well-crafted songs with some intriguing techno hooks and familiar harmonies. (Some would call this harmony "Beatles-esque." The term is moot; what multi-voiced band since the Fab Four doesn't employ this?) A cleverness, if not an untapped sophistication, weaved through the arrangements (an interesting counter to the plodding, unfocused guitar pop his older half-brother put out a dozen years ago). In fact, the young Lennon has managed to pull off what he obviously enjoys while sidestepping the expected and ignoring the pressure of trying to pioneer anything. Granted, the lyrics belie his neophyte status: "I'm stepping into my spaceship/I'm on my way home now." There's still some kid in him.
But he carries himself like a pro. Cracking jokes between songs, he was eager but relaxed. He smiled a lot. He looked just like John Lennon...no, Yoko...no, John. With his horn-rimmed glasses, bleach-tipped scruffy black hair, and stooped shoulders, he came off like a guy whose Manhattan upbringing never wound him too tightly--an articulate jokester as interested in the scoop on the next warehouse party as he is in the contents of the White Album or the influence of early Fluxus art. By the third song, the audience was thoroughly smitten.
A bit later he introduced the one cover of the set, the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows," and while he half-apologized to those who wouldn't "get it," he respectfully dedicated the song to the recently deceased Carl Wilson. Embellished with less techno texture than the other tunes, this rendition's strength was in the simple grace of Lennon's vocal harmonies blending with his bassist's--no ugly, flat bellowing here. The members of the audience who knew about the mutual admiration between Brian Wilson and John Lennon looked on happily. Oh, this is cool. John would've dug this. And even without the historic context, it was cool. Not presumptuous or precious or obtuse. Just thoughtful and pretty.
As the set and his test rolled toward a close, the normally distracted industry audience continued to watch the boy like mesmerized children looking in on a baby chimp exhibit at a zoo. So what was the actual attraction? The music was sometimes better than decent, promising though never mind-blowing, and not nearly as powerful as the set that Austin's own Sixteen Deluxe had played on the same stage 30 minutes earlier. Did the younger Lennon inherit his dad's charisma? Or was the audience giving Sean that power because of the mystique of his circumstance? His father was shot to death when the boy was five years old. He was raised by his mother in the most stimulating, culture-dense city on the planet. He was born into the cult of celebrity, and won't escape it. But young Sean has a chunk of the patrilineal, and perhaps matrilineal, gift built right into his system. His performance on Saturday night showed a slice of it, and the audience felt it.
To his credit, he's taken some wise steps on this path to rock stardom. He's kept his profile low and stuck by the New York musicians he befriended early; his solo record, Into the Sun, is due out soon on the Beastie Boys' Grand Royal label; he chose an opening slot on a stage at SXSW as the place to try out his live-show chops. But he'll never make an appearance without his parents' legacy hung heavy round his neck, making his own trek all the more precarious. Boy, you're gonna carry that weight a long time. So far, so good.
Shoving room only
Standing in the middle of the tiny stage at Maggie Mae's, Stereophonics drummer Stuart Cable let loose a stream of garbled Welsh insults that ended with the unmistakable phrase "fuckin' wanker." Singer-guitarist Kelly Jones simply shrugged and said, "Blame him," pointing at the nearby stage manager. As the audience looked at one another in confusion, the band was shooed off the stage, and the vilified stage manager meekly offered, "We have to keep a schedule." That's how one of the best--and most frustrating--shows at South by Southwest ended.
About an hour earlier, the city fire marshal had interrupted the proceedings by demanding that at least 100 people exit the club. Naturally, not that many people were keen on leaving, but that didn't matter to the security team working the club, a group of beefy, slow-witted goons who practically began ejecting unwilling members. As the stage manager continually begged people to leave, Maggie Mae's Gestapo shoved and berated the audience until a sufficient number had been evacuated, some 30 minutes after the band's announced start time.
The band took the stage as though nothing had happened (Limeys) and showed the club personnel why so few were willing to leave. Creating a rock sound that has less to do with bands of the past (although they do give a strong nod to the Kinks), Stereophonics are one of the best new bands to come out of the U.K. since the heyday of Britpop in 1995. All the right elements were there: the anthemic chorus of "A Thousand Trees," the hold-your-lighter-in-the-air balladry of "Traffic," the sly humor of "Too Many Sandwiches." For 20 minutes, Stereophonics transformed the erstwhile frat bar into Wembley Arena. And then they had the plug pulled.
Of course, it should also be noted that the band only needed 20 minutes to squeeze in all of its radio singles, even though the show was unexpectedly cut short, but read nothing into that: Stereophonics proved it is every bit as good as the hype surrounding it. Sounding like Oasis if Noel Gallagher grew up idolizing the Davies brothers instead of Lennon and McCartney, Stereophonics have an arena-ready sound that could make them the band that alternarock radio has been looking for ever since Oasis stopped selling records.
Mister Mojo's rising
The venue is called Mojo's, and it's a bit off the beaten track from the Sixth Street epicenter of South by Southwest. A quick survey of the crowd reveals that there are almost no little white badges in attendance--which means no industry moguls or journalists hoping to be the first to spot new talent. Camika Spencer (aka Emotion Brown), a 26-year-old African-American Dallasite, steps up to the microphone, right beside her partner Gno, who might be mistaken for a linebacker in overalls. When the duo get going, traces of hip-hop collide with samples from Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Parliament-Funkadelic. But there's not a single guitar, drum, or even a DJ on stage. And though the crowd is certainly groovin', the drink of choice is not Shiner Bock, but cappuccino and latte.
Welcome to the forgotten stepchild of SXSW--spoken word poetry. Few people are even aware that SXSW has included spoken word in its repertoire for the past four years, and far fewer are willing to miss out on the glamour of bright lights and loud music to sit in a quiet cafe and listen to the ravings of a guy who claims to be a junkie "hooked on phonics." But then, perhaps they don't realize what they're missing.
In this time of confusion and stagnation in the music scene, when the industry isn't sure whether 12-year-old pop stars or 50-year-old bouzouki masters are going to be all the rage, the spoken-word showcase did manage to register more than a mere blip on the radar. Robert Smith, the man credited with conceiving the slam tradition in Chicago 20 years ago, even performed this year, as did the impromptu jazz-poetry ensemble Albuquerque Poetry Experiment.
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The spoken-word star--which is the oxymoron it sounds like--was hometown hero Wammo, the Austin spoken-word artist who landed a deal with Mercury's new spoken-word division Mouth Almighty Records, based largely on his performance at SXSW last year. But Wammo's Fat Headed Stranger didn't quite cause the stampede at record stores Mercury had hoped for, so needless to say, there were no parallel-parked white limos outside Mojo's during Wammo's Friday-night gig. And the Saturday-afternoon barbecue held at the apartment complex swimming pool of SXSW poetry emcee Genevieve Van Cleve was hardly the posh kind of open-bar schmoozefest going on over at the Four Seasons hotel. Catering--a pot of vegetarian chili and a bag of barbecue-flavored Lays potato chips--was provided by her mom. And cocktails, a 12-pack of Schlitz, were supplied by the poets.
"Poetry is absolutely an afterthought at SXSW," says Cleve, a 27-year-old former oil and gas lobbyist from Pflugerville. Although the performers were selected by Mike Henry, who also books the Electric Lounge acts, Cleve says she is the "cruise director" for SXSW poetry, which draws entrants from all over the nation. "It keeps getting bigger every year," she says. "And SXSW has been good enough to let poetry take its place organically."
Still, when it was all over, no one had walked away with a fat contract for a multi-album deal with Virgin, which signed Jeff Liles (cottonmouth, texas) last year. There were just a few vague propositions for publishing in literary magazines (mostly for free) and a lot of anticipation about the National Slam Championships, to be held in Austin come August. But at one point, the audience was asked to stand up and hug the person next to them. Cleve asked: "I bet you don't get that kinda thing at a big, fancy rock show, do you?"