From March 17 to 21, they came from all over the country--all over the world--to piss and moan. The complaints reverberated so loudly that, at times, you could barely hear the music. To refer to the mood at this year's annual South by Southwest Music Conference as grim is an understatement; Jewish funerals are more uplifting. No punk-rock band from Japan, no matter how loud it played, could drown out the sound of the music industry collapsing around itself, crushing anyone who stood beneath its awning.
The business, we kept being reminded during the conference, is on its last legs, terrified of mergers and the Internet, struggling to remake itself before the bottom line falls out. Soon enough, there will be one record label left, and it will be operated by The Seagram Company's Web site, which will charge $45 for every MP3 you download--though you will get a free 6-ounce bottle of Captain Morgan Original Spiced Rum with every purchase. Any casual record-buyer who thinks he or she isn't going to be affected by the business of music is horribly wrong.
Three words said it all: Right Said Fred.
Three thousand other bands wanted to play SXSW--hoping, no doubt, to be signed by a major label on Saturday and dropped on Sunday--and conference honchos chose to give a showcase slot to the leather pants responsible for "I'm Too Sexy." Actually, it probably wasn't even SXSW organizers who gave the band a showcase. More likely it was one of the conference's interns. Several times during the weekend, you could overhear a SXSW volunteer proudly proclaiming that he/she got his/her friend a gig. Who says SXSW's gotten too big, too cynical, too ridiculous? Uh, everybody. Dallas' own Commercials, complaining three weeks ago about not making the SXSW cut, ought to consider themselves lucky. Guilt by association, and all that.
For 13 years, music bizzers have been schlepping down to Austin for four days of rhythm and schmooze, arriving on Wednesday full of high hopes of hearing The Next Buzz Band and leaving on Sunday with expense-account receipts and a hangover. Oh, some bands come away from Austin with deals--but does anyone really remember the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies or Veruca Salt? Better to admit it now and move on: South by Southwest is just music-biz speak for spring break.
Despite ex-Austinite Lucinda Williams' 90-minute keynote address at the Austin Convention Center, which was more singing than talking (and thank God), it's easy to be cynical about the music business when days are spent attending panels with names like "Wall Street and the Music Industry: Like Oil and Water?" or "What's Ahead for Retail?" or "How Do You Get That A&R Job?" and nights are spent trolling the streets for just one...good...band to make it all seem worthwhile. It got to the point on Friday night that hearing hoary ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer "Kick Out the Jams" one more damned time provided a little sad salvation. At least it, well, rocked--even if those jams could use a little trimming. He'll be playing that song till he dies...I mean the same version he started on Saturday night at Emo's. Last I checked, he was still on stage Monday afternoon, trying to find the last note. He'll never find it. It's in 1969.
SXSW began in 1987 as a rather modest affair, housed in the Marriott and contained in a couple dozen clubs around town. It was low-key: For years, the biggest star to play the conference was Mojo Nixon. Thirteen years later, Mojo's husky and anonymous, walking through the trade show in the convention center like a trucker looking for directions. No one's fooling anyone anymore. In 1999, it's all about the big-name showcases, the signed bands, the special-secret-super-wow surprise guests: Jeff Beck, L7 (uh...), Built to Spill (three gigs during the conference), Guided By Voices, Cibo Matto, the Flaming Lips, and Tom Waits.
Now, it's all about the private (hahaha) parties during the afternoon, the gratis booze-and-barbecue shindigs at the Broken Spoke or the Green Mesquite, where alternacountry bands drone in the background and audience members don't even pretend to pay attention. This year, David Byrne was billed as the headliner at the Raygun magazine party at the Lucky Lounge and merely stood on a stage and played CDs--all of which he's released on his Luaka Bop label. Watching the former Talking Heads frontman hit play is like...like...you know, there's really nothing more boring.
It's easy to get cynical about SXSW when there's so much good music around, and the only people there to hear it are the faithful handful who listen with their ears and hearts, not someone else's checkbook. Kathy McCarty, ex of Austin's Glass Eye and still among the finest singer-songwriter-guitarists in Texas, played a heartbreakingly perfect set Friday night on the patio of the Buffalo Club. She overcame the whump-bump-bum of the disco booming across the alley and the racket bleeding out from inside the venue and delivered acoustic pop songs so wry, fragile, and sweet, they melted as soon as they hit the air.
Yet McCarty has not released a record in five years, since her album of Daniel Johnston covers called Dead Dog's Eyeball. She can't afford to do it on her own and has yet even to talk in the abstract with a single label willing to risk a few bucks on a woman who deserves to be heard by more than the 100 locals who showed up to pay their respects. "I'm gonna rip through my set in case there's anyone out there who has money bags with dollar signs on them and wants to throw them up here and go, 'Oh, you are a genius,'" McCarty said, smiling like she didn't care...only, like, she did. One label exec had promised to show up. He, of course, did not.
The theory that great rock and roll can't be made while the sun's up was destroyed the following afternoon, when Los Angeles' BellRays played on Saturday to about 30 people at the Electric Lounge. Imagine, if you can, Tina Turner fronting the Stooges (Michael Corcoran of the Austin American-Statesman called it "Etta James fronting the MC5"--take your pick, and you should). What could have been an unholy gimmick (black Hawaiian woman sharing a stage with a Steven Tyler-lookalike guitarist, a bespectacled bassist, and an Asian drummer) was an unholy godsend, soul-punk-a-roll played so loud, it could blow any cynicism out of hardened arteries.
And to think, this band has been playing in L.A. for three years, released an album last year (Let it Blast, available by e-mailing email@example.com), and received absolutely no press in its hometown. You know it's gotta be good when a handful of rock critics actually track down the band after the set and fork over $10 each for a copy of the disc. The last record Michael Corcoran bought before that was Cheap Trick's Live at Budokan.
But it figures that one of the conference's highlights was the one only 1,200 people could attend: Tom Waits' concert at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday night. That morning, hundreds of SXSW badge-holders showed up at the convention center to pick up their tickets. Even more regular folk went to the theater to try to buy the couple hundred tickets set aside (at $40 a pop) for paying customers. As a result, a Waits ticket became a hot commodity, the golden ticket that gained one admission into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. Two hours before Waits took the stage at midnight, the line to get into the theater wrapped around the entire block. Scalpers were asking for, and getting, hundreds of dollars for tickets in the upper balcony.
Waits, bless him, never once told the crowd he had a new record coming out (his first in six years, Mule Variations, due April 27). Instead, he was the consummate entertainer, a stand-up comic masquerading as a performance artist pretending to be a lounge lizard or Bertolt Brecht; he's a mass of small tics and grand gestures, a grimace looking for a smile. Waits dressed in black denim and a Desolation Row fedora, and when God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, he probably sounded like Waits--throat full of bourbon and boom. He was indecipherable only at the beginning of the set; could have sworn he sang, "Goobah no oogra more braagh rain noorroooha."
He played a best-and-rest-of set list that featured a handful of new songs (including the sinuous "Filipino Box Spring Hog" and the wrenching "House Where Nobody Lives") and old faves ("Jockey Full of Bourbon," "Downtown Train," "Heartattack and Vine," and "Temptation"). He told jokes: "I haven't been here in 20 years, but not a day's gone by that I haven't thought of you--individually and collectively." He strapped on a guitar and performed with his band, played by himself at the piano, clutched the microphone stand like a palsied loon. He explained that his wife and collaborator Kathleen Brennan says he has two kinds of songs: "grand weepers and grim reapers." And he even stopped playing one song a few notes into it to sort of apologize for the fact that "it's the beginning of 300 of my songs." It was the kind of show that makes you forget there's anyone else in the audience, save for that pain in the ass behind you singing along with "16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six."
And sometimes, nothing in the world beats Tom Waits singing about "lookin' for the heart of Saturday night." Especially on Saturday night at South by Southwest, while the rest of the town's just looking for one song to call their own.
Guided by Willie
As South by Southwest creeps ever further from its original focus--uh, music, right?--it's increasingly difficult to make sense of it all, or even care to. By now, especially after Seagram's dug a mass grave for hundreds of music-industry staffers, the annual conference is less a showcase for bands than a job fair; face it, the only people who get signed at South by Southwest anymore are A&R reps or publicists. People are actually irritated when bands take the stage because it interrupts their conversations about their cell phones. Fittingly, perhaps the best performance to take place in Austin during South by Southwest had nothing to do with it at all.
Sure, more than a few audience members at Willie Nelson's special Austin City Limits taping on Thursday evening were in town for the convention, but even they seemed to lose themselves in the moment, watching Nelson plow through a handful of new songs (off his recently recorded instrumental album with fiddle player Johnny Gimble), some old ones, and even more off of last year's Daniel Lanois-produced Teatro. Just watching Nelson walk from backstage in his usual fashion-victim garb and gray pigtails packed more excitement than any other gig in town.
The show itself didn't hold many surprises--Leon Russell's cameo caught about three people off guard--but Nelson was still able to astonish more than any other man his age apart from Hugh Hefner, each song revealing a little more about a man who seemed incapable of harboring any secrets at this point in his life and career.
Nelson's Austin City Limits appearance--celebrating the show's 25th anniversary--stripped away Lanois' layers, as Nelson and his longtime backing band (featuring his sister Bobbie on piano and the incredible Gimble on fiddle and mandolin) played the songs the way they were meant to be played, finding the pulse that Teatro's production so carefully snuffed out. It was like listening to a bootleg of Elvis Costello playing some of his more questionable solo stuff with a reformed Attractions, and realizing that those songs were quite good--amazing, really--after all.
Of course, he also played the hits, because a Willie Nelson concert without "Always on My Mind," "Whiskey River," and "On the Road Again" would have been like a Bruce Springsteen gig that didn't include The Boss saying something very earnestly about something very important. At least half of the set list, in fact, was made up of the same songs Nelson performed on the very first episode of Austin City Limits, and--based on a show of hands--almost half of the audience was on hand to hear them then too, including his mother. She was seated in the center of the room and was almost as riveting as her son. Watching her watching him, it became one of those rare shows during South by Southwest that lets you forget where you were for a little while. Maybe because you weren't really there.
Judging by the frustrated looks on the faces of the four members of Athens, Georgia's Macha--including Dallas expats Josh and Mischo McKay--they probably wished they'd never come to Austin at all, or at least not without their own soundman. The band's set at Atomic Cafe on Friday night was plagued from the beginning by sound problems. But what can you really expect when your stage setup includes a xylophone, dulcimer, and whatever strange stringed instrument Josh McKay was playing when the set began? I can guarantee you it was the first time the guy running sound at the club had been asked to put some more dulcimer in the monitor.
The band ended up unplugging at least three microphones, the last of which drummer Mischo McKay disgustedly disabled halfway through the band's final song. (If you've never seen someone bitch-slap an inanimate object, then you're missing out.) For much of the set, feedback threatened to eclipse the music, playing along with the band but never keeping time or staying in tune. Still, the band soldiered on, looking--and sounding--more than a little like a Peace Corps talent show, four skinny white guys in thrift-store clothes playing esoteric instruments like it was open-mike night in Bangladesh. Except for Mischo McKay, the members of the band--including former New Bohemian Wes Martin and Kai Reidl--switched instruments after and during every song, culminating when Martin played everything onstage he could get his hands on, including the bass hijacked from around Reidl's neck.
Even though the instruments were the stuff of college term papers, the music was not; it was as much of a rock show as the sets by Varnaline and Jets to Brazil that bracketed it. It was like the inverse of the Bedhead principle, as Macha played fairly straight-ahead rock songs on nontraditional instruments. And, sound problems notwithstanding, it worked, especially the band's time-stopping version of "The Buddha Nature" from its self-titled debut released late last year. But if you thought they were having a good time, you probably didn't notice Mischo McKay dismantling his drum kit a full minute before the last song ended.
On the other hand, Guided By Voices' free show on Saturday night at Waterloo Park--in front of more than 10,000 onlookers--was nothing but fun, just the kind of big rock spectacle frontman Robert Pollard has often striven for yet just as frequently fallen short of. Even a little girl surely not a minute more than 4 years old sitting on her daddy's shoulders was singing along, swirling to the beat like some future hippie chick. Sticking to the band's more recent catalog, the concert was as close to the arena as indie-rock is likely to get, a foot-on-the-monitor, Bics-in-the-air, we-love-you-too light and sound extravaganza that was as good as GBV's previous performances at SXSW were bad.
More than anything, the concert was proof of just how much Pollard has turned the band into a solo project since founding member Tobin Sprout split for his own career a few years back. Playing songs off Pollard's albums and GBV's last few discs--including Pollard's recently self-released Kid Marine and GBV's currently shelved Human Amusement (At Hourly Rates)--the band sounded like the weirder version of Cheap Trick Pollard always intended it to be, all big guitar hooks and swing-the-microphone bravado. Live, at least, he's finally accomplished it, thanks in no small part to his new backing band, which includes former Breeders drummer Jim Macpherson. (The group even paid tribute to Macpherson's old band with a cover of the Breeders' "Shocker in Gloomtown.")
Almost more than anyone else at SXSW, Guided By Voices came to Austin looking for a deal, after Matador Records and Capitol both refused to release the band's new Ric Ocasek-produced disc. It's a shame for all three parties, because Human Amusement is the first GBV album that is fully realized, and it wouldn't sound too bad on the radio either. The last noise that could be heard at Saturday night's show was Matador and Capitol taking turns kicking each other in the ass.
Seattle's Fastbacks came to Austin looking for some love and affection from label execs as well, but then again, they always do. The Fastbacks are the convention's lovable losers, the band most likely to...go home empty-handed. But it's not for lack of trying. As always, the band staged a blazing show late Saturday night that probably sold a few T-shirts and several CDs and got the band no further than it was before it came down.
Judging by guitarist Kurt Bloch's rather inexplicable stage presence, all the years at SXSW without any payoff have taken their toll on the band. For the bulk of the set, he was running back and forth across the stage, only occasionally with his guitar strapped on his shoulder. Or attempting Pete Townshend scissor kicks, which couldn't have come off more girly if he was wearing a skirt. Or finger-tapping his way through Eddie Van Halen guitar solos that were neither accomplished nor pertinent to any song the band played. Or annoying and frightening the audience with his rambling between-song patter, delivered in a voice that sounded like he was about to start crying or shooting.
Bloch's routine was the act of a man who doesn't have anything left to lose and not much left to gain. After so many years together, the Fastbacks are like a teenage orphan whom no one will ever adopt because everyone wants babies. The band still has its Sony Japan contract in place, but all that means is that the group is big in Japan, and who isn't? In Austin, being big in Japan only matters if you're talking about cell phones. Of course, at South by Southwest, you usually are.
...and you will know them, period
Best to hit Austin during SXSW with low expectations. That way, when you're faced with the onslaught of frustration and disappointment--promising bands playing unattended sets, bad bands playing worse sets--you don't let it get to you, this "launching pad" for "worthy" "unsigned" "bands." It's hard to say what's worse: trying to find a decent band that really belongs at the conference, trying to buck up when you see a crap band with a contract and a huge audience, or trying to find a restaurant that serves its fare without the live accompaniment of some burned-out Texas blues act. Hummus and Stevie Ray covers don't mix.
Ah, but we don't go to SXSW to eat or be quiet, do we? Though if someone told me that the essence of the weekend could be captured in some pretentious VIP after-hours party where the featured trip-hop band (7% Solution) had all the chops of a toothless dog, I'd have much rather sat at home in Dallas with a frozen pizza.
Granted, it's old news that SXSW morphed from its origins as a platform for new bands into some slick and engorged industry-types schmoozefest. Now finding the good stuff is a little game people play, everyone asking "What did you see last night?" and trying to one-up each other on the obscurity or hype quotient. How grotesque that only the badge-wearers got into Built to Spill at La Zona Rosa on Thursday night--all the label and publicity and press hacks, many of whom wouldn't know Doug Martsch if he lit their Dunhill cigarette. There were a hell of a lot of bona fide musicians standing in the line outside, ones who can hum every tune off Perfect From Now On, fingering their useless wrist bands. They would have to hear about Built to Spill the next day, from some obnoxious A&R guy who was too drunk to remember much anyway.
That's the common scenario. Did you see Man...or Astroman? or Sparklehorse? Surely if your taste is worth the price of your hotel room, you saw at least one of those, right? And why weren't you at Tom Waits? Are you retarded? (Perhaps...or maybe just slow on the scoop about how to land tickets. Or averse to mile-long lines.) You gotta laugh along with the bands that are expected to carry the weekend; most of them are happily squared away on their trusty indie labels and have nothing to lose. And if you have any kind of heart, you gotta feel sorry for the countless acts that came in from God Knows Where, still romanticizing the festival as some route to a label home.
But, hell, if you don't go in with any expectations, it's a fun farce. And if you're tenacious, you're bound to unearth the buried gem or two. There aren't enough of these, but when they're this good, they're enough to sustain you through the long weekend, enough to make you remember why you came. No, not the big shows--you walk into those expecting too much to begin with. These are the smaller shows that you stumble into based on a single recommendation, or a gut instinct, or a few intriguing chords wafting out onto the street.
Objects that hit this writer, at close range, during a 30-minute set by Austin's ...and you will know us by the trail of dead:
1. Chunks of ice mixed with beer spat
2. A Flying V guitar
3. A very sweaty 140-pound drummer, who, upon destroying his drum kit, lost control of his limbs and flailed off stage
And I wasn't even up front. I was standing behind two security guards to the left of the stage, near neatly stacked equipment. At one point, a female audience member, much bigger than I, leaned up and shouted in my ear, "Thanks for protecting me!" Protect? Hell, I didn't even know she was back there. I was just trying to hide behind Guard Number Two.
Here it was, only nine on Friday night, and these four Austin boys were going at it like it was 2 a.m. in Detroit. In 1974, or maybe 2034. Thing is, despite the danger quotient, there wasn't a mean or snarling mood attached to any of it. It was pure, burning adrenaline that propelled this set--the kind of numb youthful impulse that drives kids to spin in circles until they fall down and puke, or to talk way too loud because they can't monitor their volume. Sure, the guitarist might hurl his second broken-stringed instrument at the crowd (which politely returned it to the stage even after several such absent-minded assaults), and yeah, the drummer may push his kick drum right into the amp stacks before crawling on the floor, grabbing the now-broken pedal and throwing it toward the bass player with matter-of-fact abandon.
And maybe the band's dark sonic throttle held the promise of violence. But not once did the band members look angry, or verbally insult the audience, or for that matter seem at all aware that the onlookers were real people instead of plaster walls. Like small kids, ...and you will know us by the trail of dead aren't that interested in people, unless you count their dressing in all black (including jet-dyed hair, Izods, and socks) and posturing a bit as a nod toward professionalism. The band seemed very interested, however, in reaching a state of seizure therapy, in letting their bodies and minds rip through appropriateness toward something far more hypnotic. Their potential for rock-star pretension was constantly drowned in blank-faced guilelessness. The stage may be destroyed in the process, the audience bruised and wet, but at least the four performers would get a hell of a creative workout.
And through the chaos, the songs held together. Swirling, chortling screeches and booms threatened to shatter into incoherent shards, yet never did. These were real songs, glued together with powerful pop hooks and sophisticated arrangements and even provocative lyrics (or so the words sounded, given the dual frontmen's sincerity). It seemed as though the songs were fueled by body spasms the way a perpetual-movement watch depends on the jerking arm of its owner. Plenty of minor-key clamor would, on occasion, evaporate into surprisingly poetic instrumental musings. Only, the nap wouldn't last, or it would just barely cover someone's half-assed tuning break before lashing out again. And how any band can finish a tune with all members falling to their knees or tumbling off stage--a given when straps are broken, eyes are closed, and a drum stool is lost--is miraculous, a symptom of some collective trance. The band never spoke to the audience. They charged from song to song with mission-like determination. After all, the kid wants to spin till he pukes.
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Not punk, not Big Guitar, not completely serious but then again maybe too earnest, ...and you will know us by the trail of dead could be the young cousins of the bratty, explosive Stooges, though art-school black and borderline art-rock leanings, the members would likely take more kindly to Birthday Party comparisons. In 1997, trail of dead was on the now-defunct Trance Syndicate label, alongside the far more sedate sounds of Bedhead. A shell-shocked Austin was listening. But once the label folded last year, it seemed the band was coasting with its engine dropped on the gravel behind it--destined to slow to an unremarkable halt.
Not so. Co-frontmen-guitarists Jason Reece and Conrad Keely--they switch off on the drums--show no sign of calming down or growing up. Though the Buffalo Club was far from packed (and what SXSW venue is at 9 p.m.?), the swarm of fascinated journalists and musicians at the stage bespoke a rejuvenated buzz, and the band gripped every minute of it with a reckless air of entitlement. This was the kind of debacle that would make the hundreds of other SXSW indie-rock acts look tired, shabby, uninventive. Refreshing is too weak a definition for trail of dead--try unnerving, in an affable, expensive sort of way. (How much, oh lordy, how much to replace and repair all that equipment?) And while nothing's confirmed, the newest rumor has it that Touch and Go is sniffing at their threshold.
As the quartet wound to a close, another band loading in for its upcoming set looked on in bewilderment and dread. The whole stage was soaking wet, the monitors askew, the audience joyous and confounded. ...and you will know us by the trail of dead pounded out the few last notes, threw down what was left of their instruments, and bounded off stage--exhausted and expressionless--past that waiting band. How do you follow that? The lull was tangible, and it was only 9:30.