If you live in Austin, it's easy to grow weary of that town's annual South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference: Downtown becomes impassable, restaurants and clubs are clogged, and the myriad ways in which the shindig makes clear the differences between those with wristbands (for common folk and other peons who nonetheless shelled out $50 for access) and those with laminate credentials (for insiders and others who bask in music-biz coolness) can sometimes be most off-putting. Small wonder many citizens take the week of SXSW, stock up on videotapes, alcohol, and/or drugs, and embark on a kind of mini-hibernation.
Truth be told, though, once on the inside there's a palpable buzz that runs through the belly of the beast, born out of common cause and direction--not to mention the abdication of everyday worry and responsibility in the interest of having a little fun on the company tab--that make most of the hassles bearable and even a bit stimulating, like camping out for concert tickets. From earnest but unschooled beginnings over a decade ago, SXSW has grown into a slick, self-sharpening machine with its own golf tournament.
Apparently heeding complaints that last year's showcase--heavy with names like George Clinton, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed--was paying more attention to big names than new music, SXSW '97 turned away a bit from the bright lights and focused more on smaller acts. Although the four-day event covered all the more-or-less immediate trends, there was still a sense of maintenance, of things being held over from before, including the underrepresentation of Dallas bands, a long-standing tradition. Although crunching numbers is one of the hardest things to do on the Monday after SXSW, a cursory review of the bands playing reveal somewhere around 250 Austin bands versus approximately a dozen from Big D, a ratio that doesn't seem quite right.
Of course, based on the performance of the area bands that made the conference, it was hard to push for, say, the inclusion of 50 more Dallas bands. Often stiff or hesitant, few local acts put on shows that grabbed you this year, and Dallas will probably suffer for it at SXSW '98.
SXSW is its own little world, like the Kalahari Desert but louder and with more barbecue. Like the bushmen of the Kalahari, the denizens of SXSW have a custom of costume that might seem strange to the outsider, a thought that occurs as a guy with a soul patch extending at least two inches below his chin pushes past, his bad blond dye job held up with a couple plastic barrettes. Another guy leaning over the silverware tray in a barbecue joint has so many hoops and rings descending from his face that he looks like someone parked a '49 Buick on his neck. A love for Beck-ian Wal-Mart cheese is pronounced, and T-shirts for '70s bands like REO Speedwagon are popular, along with porkpie-derived hats.
Throughout this year's conference galloped the apotheosis of this aesthetic, a particularly silly gentleman with a giant cigar in his mouth who wore his long, flowing ponytail pulled through the hole in the back of his baseball cap and sported ridiculous silver old-lady reading glasses, the kind whose tips curve upwards cat's-eye style and are secured around the neck with a beaded chain. Although only one card is necessary for admission to evening shows, a whole deck of laminates shook and rattled on his chest. The basis of his language seemed to be words like "Baby!" and "Whoa!" and when he showed up at one venue he immediately went into a hyperactive dance, effectively interfering with the views of several tables. This is exactly the sort of thing that can be regarded with amusement or clinical interest if you happen to be attending SXSW courtesy of your employer, but which might just set someone who paid $50 for a wristband off on what journalists often call a "rampage." Just when you thought he'd plumbed the depths of foolishness, the cellular phone comes out and he proceeds to yell into it, punctuating his no-doubt-learned discourse with howls and whoops as he bounces about emitting foul puffs of smoke.
SXSW officially began at 7 p.m. with the Austin Music Awards, presented by SXSW organizer the Austin Chronicle at the cavernous but acoustically friendly Austin Music Hall at Nueces and Third Street in the city's westside warehouse district. Though any such local back-slapping must be tedious to foreigners, the ceremony moved at a rapid pace, and the between-awards performers were a who's who of Austin stars--the lounge-y 8 1/2 Souvenirs; border-rock ensemble the Texas Tornadoes, featuring Doug Sahm and joined by Roy Head on one number; the Sexton Brothers Sextet; and Lou Ann Barton with Jimmie Vaughan.
The apex of the evening was Jimmie Dale Gilmore's faithful interpretations of a few country folk tunes by Townes Van Zandt during a midshow tribute to the recently deceased songwriter. Gilmore was accompanied by Barton, Joe Ely, Will Sexton, Townes' son J.T., and others. The awards program was emceed by KKUT jazz show host Paul Ray, a lanky fellow with stringy hair and a shrill voice given to hyperbole. That awardees the Killer Bees "have conquered the world" was just one of his magnificent overstatements.
Inescapable Butthole Surfers Reference 76-5678-000-6742 came when drummer King Coffey dedicated the best single and best video awards for "Pepper" to his dog, then cautioned canine owners: "Take good care of them, because before you know it, they die."
Musically speaking, the sole Dallasites of the evening, the Mullens, were not worth the price of the cab to their showcase at Flamingo Cantina. Though a Chronicle pick, the loud, fast, and noisy trio--whose singer is a poor conglomerate copy of Chris Robinson, Joey Ramone, and Mick Jagger--was repetitious, homogenous, monotonous, and repetitious.
On a somewhat happier note, if Galaxie 500 were alive today (and very, very pissed off about something), they might sound a bit like Seattle's Bali Girls at the Flamingo Cantina--a three-piece outfit (no keyboards, real drummer) who manage to come off tough without falling into the grunge cliche. Opening for them was Austin's own Fuckemos 97--who had accepted their Austin Music Award for best metal/industrial with a gracious "Fuck you and your stupid band"--who without a doubt took the prize for the "we could really give a shit about your record deal" competition.
Things got off to a bad start when the lead singer drop-kicked his malfunctioning keyboard and an over-zealous audience member sprayed the guitarist in the face with a beer, provoking a kick to the face and finally a jump offstage to beat the crap out of the guy. Right when things began going smoothly (if you can call singing drunken garble about pedophilia "smoothly"), the band then broke into a fight among themselves over song lyrics. "God dammit! I wrote the fuckin' song, I know how it goes!"
"Ah, fuck it," the singer finally conceded. "We'll be here next week anyway."
Carl Perkins slurred his way through a cliche-ridden keynote address this morning that included a performance of "I've Got a Friend in Jesus" and, of course, "Blue Suede Shoes." "Winners never quit, and quitters never win," he concluded--apparently serious. Perhaps sleeping in would have been wise.
This year's traditional SXSW Thursday-morning A&R panel--"Reasons You Might Not Get Signed"--probably should have been called "Reasons Why You Don't Want to Get Signed." The panelists--including such big shots as Sony Music Senior Vice President Peter Asher and Columbia Senior Vice President of A&R Tim Devine--repeated stock platitudes about the pitfalls of corporate involvement in art and encouraged musicians to produce their own records and take advantage of the D.I.Y. marketing potential of the Internet. Tony Bennett received high praise--for his wisdom, amiability, and supercoolness--from those who attended his Celebrity Interview at 3:15 p.m.
As the afternoon winds down, the priority becomes finding the cool parties, and the Four Seasons Hotel--at the intersection of Congress Avenue and the Colorado River--is the place to be. The hotel's Congressional Suite--crammed to its terrace rail with Dallas music scene power brokers, major label A&R reps, and celebrities, sipping cocktails and puffing cigars--sported a fine view of the orange sunset illuminating the Colorado River below. Next big things the Tomorrowpeople--which includes members of Brutal Juice and ex-Toadies guitarist Darryl Herbert (on bass)--performed subdued versions of three of their melodic rock songs during a classy soiree hosted by Dallas label Last Beat.
Thursday is when things acquire momentum and identity. During the day people wander in and out of panels and hotel lobbies or try to resolve last-minute problems, and at night the streets take on a definite Mardi Gras air as a parade of people follows the SXSW mantra: schmooze, booze, cruise.
One man in a suit hands out leaflets, mumbling "repent, repent, repent," while across the street a guy the approximate shape and color of a cannonball rants at the empty air. A circle of skatepunks boldly sit athwart a busy sidewalk, daring you to walk through them while overhead a police helicopter buzzes, balanced on the beam of its searchlight like a dragonfly. Parking is a matter of luck, and the streets are clogged with traffic; this is the week that taxi drivers look forward to all year, traditionally (and thoughtfully) scheduled for the week of spring break, formerly a dead stretch. A man talks earnestly to his companion, saying over and over "I hate this, I really hate this"; each time she giggles and says "Really? I love it."
Over at Stubbs, the Grand Street Cryers--one of Dallas' buzzier acts--seem tired and a bit nervous when they hit the straight-outta-Starplex stage, plopped down like a spacecraft in the backyard beer garden. The band--dressed all in black a la Johnny Cash--look a bit incongruous in the laid-back, limestone-and-longneck setting. Still, playing to a moderately enthusiastic audience (including a mom 'n' pop contingency seated proudly on folding chairs), the band gradually thaws the crowd. Though there's nothing particularly new in their girl-breaks-up-with-boy-who-then-considers-suicide-but-decides-there-are-too-many-beers-in-the-world alterna-pop, the shimmering melodies are consistently on the money, commingling pleasantly with the smoke from Stubbs' kitchen. As the band blows through tune after tune from their new Steady on the Shaky Ground CD, the sheer number of good songs the band has becomes impressive, and viewing the finale through the perforated vent-holes of the Port-o-Potty lends a blurry, impressionistic feel to the whole affair.
Further west along 6th Street, it's world music a-go-go. Czech band Sto Zvirat is pumping out manic, ska-influenced rock that would make Lene Lovich proud at the Ruta Maya Coffee House, the saxman's instrument carrying a large bouquet of flowers in its bell. It's a warm, muggy night, and Ruta Maya is sweltering; the air smells like people. An enormous, battered bus sits out front, with people and large clay statues hanging out on the roof and drinking beer. The bus--full of the rock-circus runaways in Idiot Flesh and Rube Waddell, from San Francisco--looks like one of those built for city use and seems ill-suited for transcontinental travel.
"No problems so far," one of the Idiot Flesh troupe says. His hair is dyed and worn up in surprised ponytails, Pippi Longstocking style; his beard is neatly trimmed down the middle of his face: one half hairy, the other clean. "The only thing that's given us trouble is this tire," he says, showing off a black donut bungeed to the bus roof that looks like it's been worked over by a chimp with a belt sander. A short jaunt further west, and it's Brave Combo amid the swirling, dancing crowd at La Zona Rosa, where actors Forest Whitaker and Sandra Bullock are spotted, suffering the drunken overtures of fans. Whitaker in particular has attracted a Charles Manson look-alike who blathers dialogue from Platoon at the bewildered actor. It's too bad that the members of the Grand Street Cryers couldn't have made it over for the show and learned from Carl Finch how to willfully ignite a crowd through performance.
Back downtown is the Driskill Hotel's Crystal Ballroom, an ornate, marble floor-and-chandelier drawing room where Denton's Slobberbone is playing, turning the room into a strident, screeching, smelly charnel pit where industry folk smash against one another like the cattle in a rail car. The band, playing at ear-melting volume, just barely manages to impart a certain pagan energy into their sloppily played set, sounding as though the MC5 had somehow materialized in Steve Earle's liver and crawled out his butt.
The Old 97's pay the most attention to their roots, but even so--as front man Rhett Miller careens around the Stubbs stage like a drunk getting off a Tilt-a-Whirl--the band's true pop inclinations are obvious. Theirs is an energetic set, giddy in youthful exuberance and that "boy's regular" haircut look, and they saturate the night with slick hooks and a winning mix of old and new material. All those record labels who waved NASA-sized advances at the band were right; there's really no reason the Old 97's won't be huge. Still, for all their gig experience over the past few years, to watch their aw-shucks modesty as they try out "this is another new song off the new album" phraseology is a bit cutesy--like seeing a six-year-old boy put on his dad's cowboy boots and clomp around the kitchen. Nevertheless, it is pretty cool when Exene Cervenkova comes out to join the youngsters on 97's staple "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes" and "Four-Leaf Clover," her song with them off their upcoming album.
Meanwhile, Dallas-L.A. experimental spoken-word project cottonmouth, texas enraptured a mostly seated full Club DeVille on Red River at midnight. Jeff Liles overenunciated his naked poetry about strippers, fast food, and his epilepsy and fidgeted within his backward-draped leather jacket. "I'm Frank Marino," he said. "And this is Mahogany Rush." His actual musical accompanists were guitarist Kenny Withrow of the Slip with Edie Brickell, Course of Empire drummer Michael Jerome, bass player Dave Monsey of Junky Southern and other Dallas bands, and ex-Slip keyboard player Zac Baird. Road manager Steve Shein distributed free three-song CDs previewing cottonmouth's upcoming Virgin/ UGround debut, anti-social butterfly. "Trust me," Liles said at set's end. "We're all on drugs." Be that as it may, cottonmouth certainly was transporting if somewhat tentative.
Trend, thy name is electronica
The first local clue as to the ascendancy of electronic music was the graphic for this year's conference--featuring not a guitar, but a DJ turntable set. Two years ago, such an ad would've amounted to heresy in a Texas music festival in Austin, home of Stevie Ray Vaughan and a place that prides itself on being the "live music capital of the world." But the folks who run SXSW aren't stupid. To deny the surge of new music that is preparing to flood the commercial market would've left them looking like Casey Casem at a Nirvana concert, nudging some kid and asking, "Why do all those people keep falling off the stage?"
The second clue was the mile-or-so line outside the Electric Lounge Thursday night to see what was undoubtedly the best and most hyped show of the whole shebang--Berlin's Atari Teenage Riot. Bypassing a Disneylandish queue of teenagers impatiently twiddling their $50 SXSW wristbands, you could pull the ol' "stand by the front door and pretend you're with somebody" trick and enter just in time to catch Scottish opening act Bis (recently signed to the Beastie Boys' label, Grand Royal, which fared quite well during the conference), and who for a moment appeared as though they were going to steal ATR's thunder.
Imagine The Proclaimers or Blur with one foot in ska, backed by a drum machine and a keyboardist/vocalist with the charm and fashion sense of Bjork, and you've reached a close approximation of Bis, pure Brit-pop at its best--the likes of which has previously fallen flat on its face in America. But Beastie Boy-turned-record mogul Mike D seems to have a good handle on where music's going. After all, he's also the man who signed Atari Teenage Riot, which is a name you'll likely be hearing a lot of over the next year or so.
Not that hardcore techno is anything new. Years before Prodigy, we had Consolidated and Thrill Kill Kult (and even Sigue Sigue Sputnik before that). But the hype behind Atari Teenage Riot comes from both the sheer power of their live performances and the fact that they are more or less the apocalypse of music. Loaded with Speed Metal loops, jungle beats, a mind-blowing array of samples and left-wing Henry Rollins-style lyrics, these guys hit you right in the face with warp-speed songs like "Delete Yourself" and "Hunting for Nazis," and with nary a guitar or drum to be seen.
When it was all over, L.A.'s Sukia took the Lounge's outdoor stage. Anyone who knows this band is probably either an industry insider or an obsessive Beck fan; Beck has long hailed Sukia as one of his favorite new bands, showing a very good sense of humor: Music industry reps stood scratching their heads to this brand of trailer-park techno, played haphazardly on Wal-Mart-purchased $50 Casio keyboards.
The star factor reached critical mass during today's early-afternoon seminar--"Well, How Did I Get Here? Artists Discuss Their Creative Development"--at the Austin Convention Center. Swamp Dogg, Jerry Harrison, Robin Holcomb, Margo Timmons, Jimmy Webb, Peter Wolf, and Art Alexakis played excerpts of their material and recounted their advancements from unknowns to relative superstars.
After a sober and optimistic beginning, the 2:30 p.m. discussion, "Can (Or Should) the Music Industry Do Anything About Drug Abuse?" self-destructed when Mercury A&R executive Jim Fouratt hopped out of the audience and accused the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences of glamorizing recovering addicts and manipulating the media for its own ends (following congressional attention on drugs in the entertainment industry, NARAS of late has taken a public stance of concern about addiction in the music biz).
Siding with Fouratt, visibly perturbed Rock & Roll Confidential editor Dave Marsh accused panelist Nancy Sobel of NARAS of filibustering, then stormed out of the room when moderator Michael Greene of the MusiCares Foundation squelched him. Missing the point entirely, a bubbly Sobel later asked a confessional addict to announce the name of his band.
At another panel was the third and final clue that 1997 will be remembered as the year that techno (or "Electronic Music," as it's now called in the gazillion "Death of Rock" articles plaguing the land) broke was a discussion panel titled "The New Wave of Electronica." The panel--consisting of (among others) Moby, DJ Josh Wink, and Amy Finnerty, programming manager for MTV's new techno show, AMP--discussed the imminent permeation of electronic music to a standing-room only gathering of baffled music reps and journalists who are having as much trouble discerning Orbital from Underworld as Ed Sullivan had discerning the Beatles from the Monkees.
Understandably, coming from people who've been in the scene for years (and taken a lot of flack for it), the panel's unstated reaction was, "Well, that's too fuckin' bad."
L.A. alt-station KROQ's dance music programmer, Jason Bentley, summed it up nicely by saying, "Last year, we held a conference on electronic music [at SXSW] and less than 25 people came. I'm happy to see that's changed...Electronic music is the most innovative music of our time."
Later, Dallas' own Bobgoblin played a set at the Atomic Cafe that should've made any Dallasite proud--and any Austinite ashamed that more Dallas bands weren't represented at the conference. The SXSW crowd gave a rousing reception to Bobgoblin's Devo straight-outta-hell (no keyboards, real drummer) performance, belting out songs from their debut release on MCA, Twelve-Point Master Plan, as well as some new, unrecorded material.
Although the unplugged set by Art Alexakis of Everclear seemed like it would be worth the wait till 10:30, the nervy bugginess of the creepy pop-eyed songwriter was off-puttingly contagious in such claustrophobic, non-smoking quarters.
Mesquite folk singer Meredith Louise Miller and her Dallas sidemen--Junky Southern stringsmith Reed Easterwood and bass player Dave Monsey (who also played with cottonmouth, texas Thursday night) and ex-Tripping Daisy drummer Bryan Wakeland of Pluto (aka Nick Brisco)--put on a tastefully accomplished show. Miller was in fine form and voice, and seemed oblivious to the fact that she was performing in some type of musical Bermuda Triangle: Bob Popular's Upstairs, a tiny, smoke-filled room filled with a disconcerting number of men who look like Sam Kinison. Weirder still is the endless succession of guys forcing their way into the club carrying guitar cases; the room seems to swallow them up, as though they've been transported to some other dimension. In any case--and despite much chit-chat, mainly among assembled Dallasites--Miller wove her magic, spinning off clever, catchy songs with the allure of a cute librarian turned adult film queen.
Mesquite's grungy-melodic Comet was alternately dreamy, droning, spacey, and poppy inside the Electric Lounge while charismatic acoustic guitar maniac Hamell on Trial, a.k.a. Ed Hamell--a one-time Austinite and Electric Lounge house performer who recently returned to New York--instigated a collective frenzy outdoors there till well after 2. The subsequent listening party for Hamell's upcoming sophomore release on Mercury was equally frantic until the complimentary breakfast tacos were devoured, leaving only a few well-oiled survivors staring down bowls of Froot Loops and milk.
All the talk about electronic this or techno that is not to say the guitar is headed the way of the dinosaur, by any means. There was still plenty of fresh and exciting guitar rock to be had. Still, it wasn't uncommon to see Jack Daniel's drinkin', Fender-lovin' tough guys run over to the corner of the stage and bang-out a weird solo on a Moog synthesizer. One such act, L.A.'s Lutefisk, simultaneously rocked the boots off the crowd at the Electric Lounge and periodically resorted to a synthesizer that featured the all-too-appropriate bumper sticker with the slogan "Keyboarding is not a crime."
On the Brazos Street stage the day before, the Supersuckers did their part in reaffirming that guitar rock is not dead, at least not yet. The Suckers played to one of the largest assembled crowds of SXSW (OK, so maybe it was because it was outside and free), but the Sub Pop grunge band's new foray into country music hit home with the Austin crowd and added a new and pleasant dimension to their music. Likewise, Champaign, Illinois' Poster Children, from the Pixies-Toadies family tree, did a fine job Saturday afternoon of showing the world that good songwriting is more important than staying abreast of the latest trends.
The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne--a guy who puts the trends way back in his rearview mirror--brought his parking lot experiment to the covered parking at 7th and Brazos. Although things initially looked grim for the implementation of Coyne's concept--40 cars with tape decks, each playing a different part of an electronic symphony--he managed to overcome the logistical hassles brought about by hundreds of spectators and actually produced something moving and eerie. As broad sheets of violin-like sound slid across the air between a concrete floor and ceiling, a gasping female voice in the throes of passion seemed to chase itself about the space. To have the source of sound be so huge--the separation of its component parts far greater than anything a stereo system could deliver--was like being a cockroach in a speaker blasting Dark Side of the Moon, and truly impressive.
Later that day--after a taxi ride with a garrulous cabbie and his two Pomeranians that was nothing if not different--Mark Eitzel was engaged in conversation at the bar outside the Texas Union Ballroom shortly before his acoustic set. It's surprising at how endearingly goofy he is; after all, Eitzel's the master behind the American Music Club, the San Francisco group which carved out a supreme and hauntingly lovely slice of moroseness which renders Morrissey's efforts rather puny.
"I'm so nervous!" Eitzel said of his impending set. He giggles like a schoolgirl at the mention of "Confidential Agent," a song held up from AMC's Everclear, as a favorite. "I can't believe you like that song," he says. "Me and you are the only ones on earth that like it."
Once onstage--playing both by himself and with members of Giant Sand--he's all business, pouring out his ache like gin from a shaker. To hear his alcohol-marinated songs of loss and love is almost painful, particularly on a new tune he's written for his sister, who--judging from Eitzel's tortured performance--is either dying of some horrible disease or was, perhaps, born the Elephant Girl. Still, he lightens up a bit between songs, describing that his "woe-is-me" songs are a result of his recessive chin. He might be sad, but, by God, he does Sad better than anyone currently working the mine.
The next cabbie we encountered--along with several other hopeful parties--offered his services to whoever could cough up $25 first. Unfortunately for him, two other cabs appeared seconds later, leaving him with nothing but a biologically impossible suggestion. The Boston-based band Vertical Horizon--lately signed to Dallas' Rhythmic Records and Robinson/Wood Management team--enjoyed a set at Steamboat Springs that started off as though it was Simon & Garfunkel who'd gone electric at Forest Hills instead of Dylan. Despite the band's chops and pleasant structures, however, you couldn't help but notice that their internal metronome has apparently been fused in place during a meltdown at the Hootie/Connells factory. Fortunately--just before a sizzling end-of-show jam and to the delight of the multitudes of frat children singing along like a Shiner-sponsored glee club--a new song called "Far From the Sun" pulled Vertical Horizon out of the doldrums.
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Back at Stubbs, any doubt that Minnesota's splintered Jayhawks could still crank out the goods after the departure of Mark Olson was quickly dispelled during a night-closing set. The performance--the first by the revamped lineup, headed up by remaining singer/guitarist Gary Louris--was the proverbial sorcerer's moment which, lore has it, takes place at every SXSW. Not only was the band able to pull off old material--including spine-shivering renditions of "I'd Run Away," "Two Hearts," and "Real Light"--songs off the upcoming CD made you wish the April release date of their new album would get here sooner. Their astonishing set was an appropriately theatrical closing moment.
At some point, however, it all becomes a blur. Who did you see? Where? What did they sound like? What was that...band...um...that played...that...song?
Ahhh, to hell with it. To be perfectly honest (and we always are), the type of art called music is like a suicidal teenager in a family of four children: It gets all the attention and takes itself entirely too seriously. Such festivals, throwdowns, and shindigs--be they about film or music or anything else--are more about a social ego trip ("I've gotta press badge and you don't") and m-o-n-e-y than anything else. The best time had all week was at an after-hours rave--with the possible exception of fooling some Four Seasons staff into thinking certain people enjoyed guest status and all hand-and-foot privileges thereof. Thank God someone--be it ravers, Beck, or Sukia--finally put the fun back in music and took the guitar down off the altar, where it never really belonged in the first place.
Street Beat welcomes all e-mail tips, criticisms, and all your other communications at Matt_Weitz@dallas-observer.com.