The unusual suspects

In 10 years of the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin--the annual gathering of music-bizzers that has become the largest such confab of its kind, drawing well over 5,000 registrants and more than 600 bands--there have been plenty of great concerts and a myriad of impressive showcases and panels by artists both legendary and anonymous. Some of those have led to successful deals with record labels, some have resulted in suicide pacts with record companies. Most often, though, the magic disappears into the night and heads for the next town, where the only time anyone mentions a "buzz" is after three beers on an empty stomach.

This year, March 13-17, there was plenty of magic to go around, especially for those who head to Austin understanding they will find their greatest pleasures between the cracks--a great song here or there, a dramatic performance among so many typical bands, or the way a singer bends a note for only a few seconds. The music business prides itself on cynicism, but there are a few people every now and then who keep the faith--a few who practice enchantment, who can levitate themselves right off the stage and take the audience with them.

Those who witnessed the Golden Smog concert at the Austin Music Hall last Thursday night can testify to this: They saw magic made that night, so much so that they learned how to saw the woman in half and pull rabbits out of hats. It was magic, all right--a downright resurrection, the living awakening the dead.

The Smog's set was dazzling from start to finish: With four frontmen and guitarists--Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Jayhawk Gary Louris, Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy, and Run Westy Run's Kraig Johnson--dueling it out, sharing vocals and trading instruments and propping one another up on their guitar-strap shoulders, there are few bands that have the potential to overpower like the Smog. As the band proved in front of 3,000-plus people at the Music Hall, Golden Smog can make beautiful music (as evidenced by a cover of Rosanne Cash's "Seven Year Ache"), burn the house down (Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding"), and build it up again (their own "Yesterday Cried").

But as the clock slowly ticked toward 2 in the morning, when the showcases begin to blur into one another and the after-hours party invitations burn holes in the conferencegoers' back pockets, Golden Smog reached into thin air and turned a great rock and roll concert into the stuff of magic. With a few gracious words and nervous gestures, Jeff Tweedy sent exhaustion home in a taxi and awakened a crowd...and, quite possibly, a career.

"I have a pretty amazing treat," he told a crowd that has become jaded enough to dismiss such a promise. "We're going to bring out for you now the man who wrote this song. Please welcome Bobby Patterson."

A smattering of applause. A shout from the bar. A restless shuffle.
To the 3,000 or so in the audience, the name Bobby Patterson meant nothing when Tweedy mentioned it, and they reacted with the appropriate disinterest. Who did he say? Bobby who? They did not know of Patterson's long career as a singer and songwriter in the 1960s and '70s, that he wrote "How Do You Spell Love?" (covered by the Fabulous Thunderbirds) and "She Don't Have to See You," which Golden Smog remade for the recently released debut Down by the Old Mainstream on the Rykodisc label. Patterson, one of Dallas' truest musical heroes yesterday or tomorrow, is only one of many great but forgotten performers, but in Jeff Tweedy, Gary Louris, and the rest of Golden Smog he found young champions who gave him a second chance on a very special night.

"I'm shaking, man," Tweedy said on stage, half to the audience and half to himself. "This is great." He introduced Patterson again, and the crowd applauded with a little more enthusiasm. Patterson waited a minute or two before emerging from the wings. Just a few months ago, Patterson sat in a Deep Ellum Vietnamese restaurant saying that he wanted to make a comeback--not in the little clubs, mind you, but the bigger venues, places that hold a couple hundred people. He never expected this, making his comeback to thousands.

When he finally stepped onto the stage, all red and black leather and swagger, he did not resemble the man who had been away from the stage for almost 20 years. He was the professional, the consummate showman sharing the stage with white rock musicians half his age. He and Tweedy traded lines like kids swapping baseball cards, singing "She Don't Have to See You" like they had written it and performed it this way for years--though they had never once rehearsed their duet. Patterson was in rare form that night, bantering with the band ("Hey, Gary, how many times have you come home late at night?") and rejuvenating the audience. People who did not know Patterson until that night said afterwards they had tears in their eyes, so moved were they by his performance and his voice--a voice that makes women scream and makes men jealous, a voice that gets everyone wet somewhere along the way.  

At a place where musicians come to find fame, Patterson had come to reclaim his share of a spotlight that had dimmed for him a long time ago, when he quit performing to sell other people's records. He proved his voice was still as strong and as sweet as it was 24 years ago, when he originally released "She Don't Have to See You," and by the time he got through singing with Tweedy, Patterson made his case. Real talent--the kind that comes from the heart, that is not prefabricated by A&R men in recording studios or shuffled on and off SXSW showcase stages every 45 minutes for four nights--never disappears, even when the lights go out.

When Patterson and Tweedy wrapped up their duet, grabbing each other in an ecstatic embrace and grinning like two men who had pulled off a bank heist worth millions, the crowd applauded wildly. "Somebody give that man a lot of money to make more records," Tweedy shouted over the din. "Sign that man," Louris added, and for the rest of the performance--one that featured a powerful rendition of Neil Young's "Powderfinger," an exclamation point at the end of the sentence--they would continue to thank Bobby Patterson, who was not around to hear the applause or the thank-yous: Patterson went directly from the stage out into the night, forced to head back to Dallas because of an appointment early the next morning.

He was not around to hear the kind words being shared about him backstage, where MTV's Tabitha Soren was hanging out with the Smog until the wee-small hours of the morning. Patterson was a star in absentia: Other musicians backstage asked where he came from, Rykodisc execs spoke of potential interest, and the band continued to speak of the magic moment. Days afterward, they could still be heard promising to keep in touch with Patterson and assist him in any way they knew how.

They had already done so much, and Patterson knew it. "When things happen spontaneously, that's when the best things happen," he said the following day by phone from Dallas. "The vibe was just right, so it came off just right. It was magic."

Patterson's few minutes on a stage will forever stand out as a highlight of SXSW, but how can it not? It epitomizes all the conference once stood for, and it proves that even the hardest hearts bleed once in a while. The music business is indeed a business foremost, run by accountants and publicists and promoters who often forget that anything times zero is still zero, but the music comes first for a reason at SXSW. Sometimes it's loud enough, passionate enough, and strong enough to stand on its own--away from the power lunches at the Four Seasons, away from the panels of disgruntled and self-loathing critics and musicians and producers, away from the trade show where this year's hottest item was the free Herbal Ecstasy and the accompanying Herbal Mushrooms.

For four or so days out of the year, Austin becomes the center of the musical world where record-label folks and independent publicists and rock critics and unknown musicians and long-lost heroes descend to discuss how sausage is made. They engulf the city, piling into the Mexican restaurants and barbecue joints and fancy hotels until the entire city looks like the Lollapalooza backstage party, right down to the greasy hangers-on. SXSW is the only convention in the world where people wear their name tags like badges of pride even when in public, away from the convention center. Insurance salesmen have more humility and dignity.

This year marked the 10th anniversary of SXSW, and it is indeed no longer the small-time regional music showcase it was when it began. Now, rock and roll's elite clamor to attend, be they strutting on an outdoor stage or speaking on some panel about the record they wish they made but didn't have the talent to start. Such is the stuff of which So by Sowhat (as the few disgruntled locals call it, which is not nearly as good as SXSWSUX) is made each year, a chance for the industry to join and reflect on what has been so we can all get down to the business of deciding what's next, so you--the listening audience--will be grateful and compliant come release date.  

It was appropriate, actually, that this 10th year of SXSW was the year of the veteran, featuring the likes of Lou Reed (who was not part of the conference, but whose Wednesday-night show at the Austin Music Hall was a glorious and appropriate shot from the starter's pistol), Iggy Pop, Randy Newman, former Replacement Tommy Stinson, a reunited and rejuvenated Plimsouls, Mekon frontman Jon Langford, George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, and the Lubbock-or-leave-it crowd of Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore (and, oh yes, Bobby Patterson). There were few of the so-called buzz bands at the conference, only a handful of unsigned bands (among the hundreds) that packed the nightclubs with the name-badge-wearing elite and sent hordes of unwashed wristband-wearing locals into the streets, where they found out why they call it a wristband in the first place--because the only band you see is the one on your wrist, heh heh.

It is the great irony that at a conference dedicated to the discussion of music, Randy Newman drew about 200 people to hear him speak about his craft even as four times that many showed up to hear Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic discuss the First Amendment and how to, like, rock the vote (apparently no one told him he's just the bass player).

On Thursday morning, Novoselic opened the conference like a hangover, droning on and on about the necessity of galvanizing and politicizing the rock audience to protect us from the right-wing movement; he discussed the apathy of the American voters, he preached the sins of ignorance, he demanded freedom under the Constitution. "Who would have thought the music industry would be called upon to protect the First Amendment?" he wondered. Dressed oh-so-respectably in a black suit and white shirt, Novoselic pressed the right buttons only to find the remote didn't work, and he bored the crowd silly: "You can't sell boredom to the bored"--words from his own mouth.

Later that same afternoon, Randy Newman gave a "celebrity interview" in the same ballroom, yet the room was sparsely attended. Ostensibly the event was to promote his new interactive/enhanced Microsoft-created CD-ROM Faust, but instead it offered a glimpse into the mind of the songwriter--one of the greatest American songwriters, the George Gershwin of the late 20th century. "This is a disgrace," said one audience member as she scanned the vacant room.

Had SXSW organizers been thinking with their hearts instead of their dicks, they would have ditched the bass player and gotten Newman to deliver the keynote address. He, after all, embodies so much of what SXSW is supposed to be about: He has done his best work in anonymity, crafting elegance for a small audience that demands quality and passion and heart above all else. He has often sold out (doing the soundtracks for Toy Story, which is up for two Oscars this year, and selling his "I Love to See You Smile" to Colgate), but never once stepped so low as to get mud on his penny loafers.

"I always had a whiff of the hack about me," he told the small but attentive audience. "I always tried to write songs millions of people would like. I wanted to write, 'I love you just the way you are,' but then I always add, 'I love you just the way you are, you stupid bitch.' I'm so self-destructive. I was always trying to get people to like me, but until rap I was writing the roughest stuff imaginable--the worst language, the most raw stuff. The stuff I do is so fuckin' offensive. The Disney people and Microsoft can't be checkin' out my past."

He gave insight, he opened up, he revealed a sense of how difficult is the life of the songwriter who ships gold only to be returned copper. He told the audience he is unhappy with the amount of work he has turned out in 27 years--that 11 albums is hardly a substantial legacy. "Elton John has made that many records in one month," he said with vague affection. Even more to the point, he sat at a baby grand and played a little: "Davy the Fat Boy," "Rednecks," and snippets of other things here and there, a show-and-tell for those who cared about such things. His performances were simple and beautiful even when the words were harsh and sharp, and he was astonishing--at the conference, then later that night in front of another packed Austin Music Hall crowd.

"I lowered my standards years ago," Newman explained during the afternoon. "I can't help it if I'm shitty. It's OK to be stupid as long as you're trying." They should put that on next year's South by Southwest tote bags.  

This is how you know you're at the right showcase performance during South by Southwest: Rolling Stone's David Fricke is there, the leather-jacket-clad Joey Ramone-look-alike taking notes and doing the palsied white-rock-critic shuffle-dance that inflicts so many members of this so-called profession. This is how you know you're at the wrong showcase during SXSW: There's no free beer, and you're standing next to someone from The Dallas Morning News doing the same dance.

By that standard, Slobberbone's Saturday-night showcase at the Split Rail--a former industrial-metal-disco-etc. venue that's now honky and tonky enough for Yankees--was a certified hit, all Fricke and no frack.

Slobberbone, playing just a couple of hours before the Old 97's and Jon Langford's Waco Brothers packed the venue completely, was astonishing that night, fierce and sharp enough to drill a hole through 10 feet of steel. Slobberbone played louder and harder than ever before, almost like a punk version of the band with the subtleties sacrificed for raw power. Frontman Brent Best, long hair stuck to his sweaty face and a harmonica around his neck, looked like a lunatic folkie on a metal rampage, and the band followed his lead.

South by Southwest is like a guy who's afraid to commit to one woman because no matter how good he's got it, he's always sure there's someone better around the corner--someone better-looking, who has a better voice, and who can bring in the bigger paycheck. Thousands of badge-wearing men and women scamper from showcase to showcase performance each night during SXSW, never content with the band they're hearing at that moment. People listen at SXSW, but they often do not hear (which is a blessing at a Fred Schneider concert, the sorry mother).

At Slobberbone--and at Cowboys and Indians on Friday night, at Randy Newman and Iggy Pop at the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars on Thursday, at the Fugees and Tommy Stinson's Perfect and Butch Hancock on Saturday--a few people heard and danced and understood. They stopped looking over their shoulders to see if anyone cool had walked into the room--well, cooler than the person they were talking to at the time, anyway--and stopped handing out cards long enough to let the music fill up the room and drown them underneath the current. Slobberbone was the best band at SXSW that night...well, at that minute, anyway, because no one thought for a second they should be anywhere else.

This is how South by Southwest ends: At 3 a.m. Sunday, Gary Louris and Golden Smog-Jayhawks bassist Marc Perlman are still talking about Bobby Patterson, how they're gonna get him a deal and not forget him. They're exhausted after doing an in-store performance and another at the conference trade show that day, and they're trying to find more free booze at the Spin magazine after-hours party in the Hyatt's Presidential Suite. They're reduced to drinking warm Beefeater gin from plastic cups, proof that the backstage pass doesn't work in real life.

The room is jammed with hundreds of people filing into the bathroom where only a few beers are being kept on ice. Musicians of all sorts are playing near the front, and it doesn't sound half bad--either that, or everything starts sounding good after 12 hours of drinking. Revered British pop-rock-folk songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, formerly of Soft Boys and critical acclaim, is holding court during this party because he is rock and roll's resident wise guy and a favorite around these parts during SXSW--and because he's a great awful drunk.

Hitchcock, who is by now slurring his words in an elegant way only Brits can manage, is introduced to Louris, who says hello and that the two men have met before. "We were on the same plane last year," Louris explains. "You were wearing a white suit and reading a book," he goes on, hoping to spark something behind those dull eyes. "I'm Gary Louris, from the Jayhawks."

Hitchcock pulls back, twists his face into a grimace. "Jerry Lewis? Your name is Jerry Lewis?" Free beer for everyone.

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