SXSW Diaries

Patti Smith's Friday-night gig at Waterloo Park was "transcendent"? Sure, maybe 20 years ago.
John Anderson

You can go home again, but chances are you'll get lost, turned around, embarrassed that such simple directions can result in an hour-long marathon of wrong choices and missed streets and an overbearing amount of cursing. You can go home again, but home, more often than not, will not be there anymore. It will be a shadow of its former self, much like the now-defunct Electric Lounge's one-time-only return as the Gallery Lombardi Lounge. It will have simply vanished, like the late Liberty Lunch, whose new incarnation is a pile of dirt surrounded by bulldozers and chain-link fences and various construction-site paraphernalia.

So it went at this year's South By Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, where everything felt just a little (and, occasionally, a lot) off. I lived in Austin for almost four years, and loved it just as much every year since I've moved away, but it's clear now that I only love the idea of Austin, the memory of a place that stopped existing four years ago. Now, Austin's history feels as if it began yesterday, so perhaps it's the perfect setting for SXSW, which is finally reaching the impersonal point it's been striving for all these years. The whole fiesta feels as if it was assembled on a studio backlot, ready to be torn down at a moment's notice. It doesn't live anymore, merely existing to give everyone in the music industry a vacation, a bit of drunken fun on the company dime.

That, really, is all South By Southwest is anymore, people going through the motions of finishing a paint-by-numbers portrait of the so-called "Live Music Capital of the World." It's not about getting signed or seeing bands or making those oh-so-important connections or anything like that, though -- if memory serves -- it may have been at some point. The festival's only connection to that time comes in tiny snippets of conversation, none of them weighty in either form or content. This, for example, is the kind of exchange you'll overhear, take part in even, during South By Southwest.

Anonymous Label Representative: "What kind of music does your band play?"

Random Band Manager, very rehearsed: "Post-millennial urban dreamscape."

ALR, staring blankly: "Uh..."

Me, butting in, eyebrows raised questioningly: "Metal?"

RBM, silently threatening a beatdown: "Um" -- pause for effect -- "no."

Aside from that, the whole production has devolved to the point where music is but a soundtrack, music to do something/anything else by. Austin has become a place where overt gawking is accepted, almost encouraged, where you get sucked into the agreed-upon pattern of watching people's chests when they walk by. It makes every hotel lobby, every restaurant, every everything look like the world's biggest meat market, as everyone is checking out everyone else's badges, trying to see whether the name on the front is one they should remember, one they should hit up for free drinks and free records.

It's all a scam, a dodge, bait-and-switch tactics at the highest level. You want to see Elliott Smith? Fine, but you'll have to wade through DreamWorks Records' sketchy supporting acts -- The KGB, Cupcakes, and Creeper Lagoon -- first. Tenacious D? OK, but first, you need to see and hear the most spiritless set Sebadoh could have attempted. (By the way, shouldn't a band that's been very up-front about its search for a new record deal bring out its A material? Just checking.)

Fortunately, Smith's show, accompanied by a backing band featuring his former Heatmiser bandmate and current Quasi frontman Sam Coomes, was worth spending the previous three hours keeping entertained with activities such as seeing how motionless I could stand, pretending to be Bullwinkle (from Rocky and... fame), and speaking only using air quotes, among others. (Maybe you had to be there.) The usually dour Smith even cracked a smile and held it for a few seconds, which was possibly more incredible than any song he played at La Zona Rosa on Friday night, though almost every one he did perform more than justified the huge crowd and $35 walk-up ticket price.

Yet Smith's much-hyped show, while good, was no once-in-a-lifetime performance, the kind of thing people will talk about for years, like Bobby Patterson jumping onstage with Golden Smog in 1996. There was no kick-yourself-if-you-missed-it show this year, no Tom Waits, no Johnny Cash, no nothing. And please, don't say Patti Smith's gig at Waterloo Park on Friday night was the aforementioned can't-miss show, because her entire career is based on the strength of one overrated cover song and far too much posturing. She's over, has been over for years -- end of story. Don't need to hear one more rambling, woman-on-the-verge, Jesus-died-for-somebody's-sins, where's-my-medication? version of "Gloria" to tell me that. Life's too short, and that song is way too fucking long. Of course, try telling that to all the bearded rock critics espousing Smith's countless virtues before and after the show.  

Strange thing about this year's fest was that the showcases at night -- heretofore known as the point of South By Southwest, or one of them at least -- seemed secondary to the afternoon parties, many of them unofficial, non-SXSW ventures. But beyond being prime opportunities to eat barbecue and potato salad in almost heroic amounts and double-fist bourbon-and-Cokes, these afternoon get-togethers (almost exclusively hosted by Web-based companies of various stripes) were where the best music could be heard. With the glut of afternoon action, you get the feeling that, at some point in the not-so-distant future, the entirety of South By Southwest will happen before lunch, allowing the complete cast of characters to settle down for a full night's rest after a tiring day of activities. Kind of like day camp, only without time for arts and crafts.

And maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing. Case in point: Guided By Voices' Saturday-evening appearance at Millennium Hall on behalf of Revolver magazine, the band's only gig in Austin during the festival, a fact frontman Bob Pollard was more than happy to point out every few minutes. It was one of the most pure rock shows of the festival (but not of the festival, mind you), a happy collision of loud guitars and strong liquor. Likewise, Beulah's blast of '60s new-wave was short -- six songs or so -- but it made parking at Fat Tuesday's for a few hours (at a shindig hosted by worth the wait. You could have stayed in your hotel at night and not missed a thing.

Even the in-store performances outpaced the rest of the fest this year, especially, and as always, the ones at the venerable Waterloo Records. More than anywhere else, that is where you had a chance to see something special. When Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider took the stage at Waterloo on Thursday afternoon -- with his bushy beard, retreating hairline, and flip-flops,he looked like either a Pet Sounds-era Mike Love or an amalgam of every coffeehouse hero -- you couldn't help wondering whether the next nine words out of his mouth would be, "This next song is called 'Puff the Magic Dragon.'" But, of course, they weren't, and it wasn't. Schneider played a handful of songs off the band's forthcoming album The Discovery of a World Inside the Moone, and at least in their whispered-sung, beat-up acoustic form, it sounds as if Schneider has moved past his Beach Boys-Beatles fixation and put one thong-clad foot into new territory.

Which is exactly where At The Drive-In is standing, or rather, jumping. South By Southwest has more than enough reasons to bereave the music biz, and far too few to believe in the music itself. But At the Drive-In is reason enough to believe in it all. The band is what punk rock, rock and roll, whatever, should be about -- period. If you don't look closely when At the Drive-In is onstage, you'd swear it was Mr. Kotter's Sweathogs ripping up a high school talent show. Bodies and instruments and puffy 'fros are flying everywhere. It's like going to see the first punk rock show ever every single time they play, like you've never heard guitars that can't be turned down or slowed down, and lyrics that can't be sung as much as screamed. You can only hope that the group's new album, Relationship of Command -- due out in July on DEN Records, featuring production by Ross Robinson and a duet with Iggy Pop -- gets some of that sweat in the grooves.

But the band's show probably won't be my lasting impression of the festival this year. Likely, my strongest memory of South By Southwest won't be any of the shows I saw, any of the parties I attended, any of the free CDs I scored, any of the famous or semi-famous people I saw (ever-present mascot Janeane Garofalo and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, among others), or the repeated hangovers I staved off by guzzling Sprite out of the hotel mini-bar. The one thing I will take from this year's festival came courtesy of Spin magazine, and for once, it wasn't its annual SXSW closing party, which, by all accounts, didn't even approach the level of your average high school kegger. No, it will be the free cigarette lighter/bottle opener that Spin dropped in all badge-wearers' swag bag, a startling synthesis of form and function. I may forget everything else -- and most it, I've already forgotten -- but I'll remember at least one aspect of South By Southwest.  

Sure, I didn't especially need to open any bottles during my brief stay in Austin, but the point is, I could have, if need be. At one point, having left my beloved lighter in my hotel room, I seriously freaked out. How could I have been so careless? What if it wasn't, in fact, in room 1006 of the Driskill Hotel, and rather, lying on the street somewhere? What kind of person was I? But now, said lighter/bottle opener is safely pocketed, ensuring that my memory of this year's SXSW will last as long as it does. Say, another few weeks.

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